Cash in hand and F-150 parked outside, Stu Ackley approached Tom McKenzie, dripping with anticipation. "I'd like to have a four-link put on this truck," he requested.
Tom sauntered over to Stu's newly purchased prize, which had already been the recipient of some metallic surgery. Tom did a cursory review of the truck. From a fabricator's viewpoint, it wasn't a pretty sight. The MIG wire protruding randomly through the roof was just one of the suspect items he saw. Tom broke the news: "I can't put a four-link on for you. This truck isn't safe."
Undeterred, Stu prodded, "Well, what can you do with this truck?"
Tom's verdict? "I can probably save the doors."
Longtime Off-Road readers will recognize Tom's resume as a fabricator. At an early age, Tom began helping Larry Plank with race prep in the Plank Motorsports shop. At the time, Larry was one of desert racing's rising stars and known for his aggressive driving style. Plank Motorsports produced one of the very first four-link kits for the Ford Ranger, which was featured in our pages. Plank Motorsports also built a bright-yellow F-150 prerunner for Dane Cardone, which was featured in an Off-Road article called "Drool Factor 10," written and photographed by former editor Randall Jachmann. Tragically, Larry Plank died in 2000 when his ultralight aircraft stalled during a flight and fell out of the sky. After Larry's too-soon passing, Tom McKenzie chose to start his own shop, Suspension Innovation Motorsports, or SI. Fellow Plank employee Nestor Berardi also started a fab shop called Newline Products. Although they own separate shops, Tom and Nestor have agreed to share the technology and fabrication jigs they helped develop while working for Plank.
Many would have given up after hearing "I can probably save the doors," but Stu wasn't about to quit. Inspired by the Dane Cardone truck, now better known as Big Bird, Stu regrouped and asked Tom to do whatever he needed to build an F-150 prerunner. "Stu gave me the chance to build the truck of my dreams," Tom acknowledges. "I got to take my time and put all of my best ideas, materials, and techniques into this truck."
After a few years of full-time fab shop ownership, McKenzie decided to restructure his life around building truck after perfect truck. Perfect trucks don't take shape quickly, and perfect trucks don't fund bi-weekly paychecks. Laws, on the other hand, need constant enforcement, and those who do the enforcing definitely get bi-weekly paychecks in addition to benefits and retirement packages. Tom could see that having a steady job as a main source of income would free him up to pursue perfection, one truck at a time. As such, he entered the police academy. A few days a week, Tom hangs up his welding hood, dons a badge and gun, and puts in a full shift.