At a casual glance, you might easily mistake Roman Racela’s 2014 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited as the sort of thing that doesn’t see much action off road (we’ll spare you the tired mallcrawler cliché)—but you’d be wrong. Don’t let the loud wheels and graphics throw you off: Racela’s rig is far from being a spinoff or hybrid in Jeep form. His style of modification draws inspiration from his love for landscape photography. Allow us to explain.
Since Racela loves to spend time outdoors with a camera, he needed the right vehicle to help get him around parts where a car couldn’t do the job. He spotted a used Wrangler Rubicon with less than 8,000 miles on the clock, and he felt it was priced right enough for him to take it home. That’s when the modifying bug bit him—hard. Like many other Jeep enthusiasts, Racela started with the basics; but he soon found himself waist-deep in an unending Pandora’s box of mods—they don’t call it an “Unlimited” for nothing. It started innocently enough, with a mild four-inch lift, and a 17-inch wheel and 35-inch tire combo, which, sure enough, got him to all his favorite scenic locations. “But then I started seeing more and more cool things to add to the Jeep,” Racela says. “The build went out of control.”
“Camping, even if it’s only for a single night, is also highly rewarding, as you’ll be able to see some extremely unique landscapes during the day, while at night you can see the Milky Way with all sorts of objects zipping around the sky.”
The Dual-purpose Machine
Affectionately nicknamed “Silver Panda,” the Jeep’s primary function is to help take Racela to remote areas—such as the Eastern Sierra, Death Valley, Southern Utah and Northern Arizona—all so he can continue his landscape photography adventures. “Its off-road manner is surprisingly mild, refined and manageable,” Racela says. “All of this means it’s highly capable of getting me through some rugged terrain, in comfort, and back home safely to Orange County.”
The mods responsible for providing the Jeep’s awesome driveability include a BDS 6.5-inch long-arm suspension lift kit, with Fox 2.0 series shocks. Also adding to its off-road prowess are tires that make a huge difference: 40-inch Trail Grapplers from Nitto. Racela also admits that he loves seeing people “break necks at the sight of this ‘mallcrawler.’” The Jeep is an instantaneous conversation starter, he says, which is great for him because he loves being a brand ambassador and showing love for the companies that have supported the build. I handpicked all the parts and know everything there is to know about them,” he says.
As we mentioned before, balance is the key to making a build as challenging as this one a complete and total success. On one hand, it has to be more than capable while off-road, and on the other, it has to look good while doing it. The modifications need to flow and make sense without going over the top—the goal is a sort of vehicular feng shui, if you will.
The Fab Fours Metal Jacket front bumper has a tactical look to it—one that suits Racela’s sense of aesthetic. In conjunction with the rest of the Fab Fours body armor, it’s a subtle yet sinister look that we’re digging.
The winch-ready bumper houses a Warn ZEON 10-S winch, which is enhanced with Factor 55’s ProLink shackle mount. The ZEON 10-S is capable of pulling 10,000 pounds, and the ProLink provides a safe means of attaching a screw-pin shackle to existing winch cable and rope eyes. Bringing up the rear is a JK rear bumper with tire carrier, also by Fab Fours. Metalcloak Hardline aluminum fenders were added to the front and rear, to increase body protection and oversized wheel and tire clearance.
The Jeep isn’t decked out with LED lights all around: a 40-inch Vision X LED light bar sits up top on a KM Safari LED light bar mount, and a 20-inch unit was mounted to the Rugged Ridge Performance vented hood. Additional Vision X accent lighting helps light up the trails during nighttime excursions. To punch up the forward-facing lighting, Racela opted to swap out the stock headlamps for a pair of Vision X 3.0-inch Optimus Halo LED lights.
“Like many other Jeep enthusiasts, Racela started with the basics, but soon found himself waist-deep in an unending Pandora’s Box of mods. They don’t call it an ‘unlimited’ for nothing.”
In the rear, you’ll notice a subdued-looking pair of Spyder Auto LED taillights, which fit the look of the build well. To avoid looking like he’d be hauling off sofas or discarded mattresses to the landfill, Racela opted for a Kargo Master Safari Congo Pro rack, which also features the company’s JK Mod-Rak Stealth aluminum platform. “[This] looks so damn cool,” he says. “I haven’t used it for its true potential while overlanding, but I have used it as a shooting platform on several occasions. I love the sturdy construction, so I’m looking forward to hauling some gear with it on overlanding trips in the near future.”
Racela’s Jeep is powered by a standard Pentastar 3.6L V6 that is augmented by a Bully Dog GT Platinum Tuner. The unit allows him to tap into the engine to tune its horsepower, torque and throttle response gains, all with the tap of a screen. For a bit more tractional bite, he opted to re-gear the Silver Panda’s front and rear differentials with an Alloy USA 4.88-ratio ring and pinion kit.
What truly stands out on Racelas’ Jeep is the set of wheels: These are not the typical style of wheels that you’d see on more common off-road builds—but, then again, this isn’t your common off-road build. Racela wanted to go big and get a “WTF reaction from the people.” The custom-made wheels from DTF are 24 x 12-inch Off-Road Punisher 5S models, and perhaps are what gives this Jeep that “mallcrawler” vibe. Even if these wheels are not your cup of tea, you’ve got to admit that he succeeded in giving you the “WTF reaction” he was going for.
Let’s not forget that underneath those giant wheels are a set of R1 eLINE Series drilled and slotted brake rotors and pads, which help fight off brake fade, and reduce braking distance.
“Racela also admits that he loves seeing people “break necks at the sight of this ‘mallcrawler’,” that the Jeep is an instantaneous conversation-starter.”
As for all Jeep enthusiasts, the build is never quite finished. Racela’s future plans include increasing power with a supercharger kit, which will feature a custom lockable compartment in the trunk, in which he can safely store some of his rifles for when he decides to go out for a little target practice.
He adds, “I tried to find a good balance of making my Jeep off-road worthy, while maintaining show-stopping looks. I think I’ve accomplished that.”
Racela is fortunate enough to be able to take his Jeep out at least once or twice a month for a photography adventure. So what’s the longest trip he’s taken so far? Crisscrossing most of Death Valley by cruising up and down the Eastern Sierra and Highway 395. “I chased really good light for four days,” he says. “It was easily 1,200 miles to take some of the best scenic photography ever, and was another opportunity to pass through small, quaint towns; drive empty highways; discover lots of dirt trails and sweeping vistas.
What an awesome reminder of how fortunate I am to be living in a beautiful state like California!” One of his favorite stops so far in his Wrangler Rubicon is at the Death Valley National Park, which offers many adventures, if you simply drive from one scenic area to the next.
“Driving from Racetrack Playa to the Eureka Dunes is a bone-jarring experience,” he explains. “Camping, even if it’s only for a single night, is also highly rewarding, as you’ll be able to see some extremely unique landscapes during the day, while at night you can see the Milky Way with all sorts of objects zipping around the sky.”
With a slight grin, Racela jokes that his most memorable experience in his Jeep is what others might think as “TMI” (too much information). But he did share some insight to his runner-up: “In all seriousness, every experience with my Jeep is a memorable one… The locations I visit to photograph are special, and this thing helps me get there.”
“I chased really good light for four days,” he says. “It was easily 1,200 miles to take some of the best scenic photography ever, and was another opportunity to pass through small, quaint towns, drive empty highways, discover lots of dirt trails and sweeping vistas.”
“Each sunrise and sunset I’ve shot and witnessed are inspiring, and they give me a newfound appreciation for the wonder that is Mother Nature,” Racela continues. “I know, it sounds corny. But you might never understand it until you’ve experienced it yourself.”
To see some of Roman’s amazing landscape photography (and the occasional snippet of his Jeep), give him a follow on Instagram at @romanracela, and be sure to let him know that you found him through your friends at Tread!
2014 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited
ENGINE: Pentastar 3.6L V6, Bully Dog GT Platinum Tuner; Rugged Ridge Axle-Back Exhaust System
SUSPENSION: BDS 6.5-inch Long-arm Suspension Lift, with FOX 2.0 Series Shocks; JKS Manufacturing ACOS Spring Spacers; FOX ATS Steering Stablizer
DRIVETRAIN: ALLOY USA Ring and Pinion Kit (4.88 RATIO) and Cast-Steel Differential Cover; R1 eLINE Series Drilled/Slotted Brake Rotors and Pads
WHEELS & TIRES: DTF Off-road Punisher 24X12-inch wheels; NITTO TRAIL GRAPPLER 40X15.50X24-inch tires
ARMOR: FAB FOURS Full Metal Jacket Front Bumper; JK Rear Bumper with tire carrier; Rock Rails and Third Brake Light; METALCLOAK Hardline Aluminum Front/Rear fenders and inner Front/Rear fenders
LIGHTING: VISION X XPR 27M 40-INCH LIGHT BAR; XIL-LPX1540 20-inch Lightbar with Hood Bracket; 3.0-INCH OPTIMUS Halo LED lights (X2); LED Fog light kit (X2); FENDERWELL Accent Lighting (X4); VORTEX LED Headlights; SPYDER AUTO LED taillights
ACCESSORIES: WARN Winch Zeon 10S; FACTOR 55 Prolink and Hitchlink 2.0; RUGGED RIDGE Hood Catches, Hood Lift Kit, Performance Vented Hood, Non-locking Gas door cap, ULTIMATE Grab Handles, A-Pillar Switch Pod kit, floor mats; AVERY DENNISON Brushed Stainless Steel and brushed black vinyl wrap; KMS SAFARI JK Congo Pro Rack, KAT-WALK, Grab handles, Hinge steps, LED light mount bar and JK MOD-RAK Stealth Aluminum Cargo Platform; PAPAGO GOSAFE 520 Dash cam; Bolt Lock Hitch Receiver Lock; SMITTYBILT Arctic Fridge; PIONEER AVH 4200NEX Head unit; ROCKFORD T1650-S 6.5-inch 2-Way Component System, T1650 6.5-inch 2-Way Full Range Speakers, P3SD4-8 8-inch Punch P3S Shallow 4-Ohm DVC Subwoofer, P1000X5 1,000-Watt 5-Channel Amplifier
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the May-June print issue of Tread Magazine.