Story by Mercedes Lilienthal
Photos by Mercedes Lilienthal, Amber Turner, Mike Henderson, Dolly Hanna, Chris Goodman & Richard Giordano

Suzuki Samurai, the Unstoppable Warrior

A Suzuki Samurai Leads Amber Turner to a Passion for Off-Road and a Successful Career

Breaking into a new hobby or profession, especially when it’s out of the ordinary, can be a challenge. Sometimes you don’t know your life is changing until something or someone “reality checks” you and it switches your path forever. Amber Turner, a Suzuki Samurai owner, off-road-enthusiast-turned-welder, and King of the Hammers (KOH) racer, is familiar with life-altering changes. She’s forged a path toward career success via purchasing and working on her own 4×4.

Turner’s metamorphosis started when she bought her 1988 Suzuki Samurai in 2012 and started modifying it. “Buying my Samurai was hands-down the best $500 I’ve ever spent,” she says. “Initially it was just a dream of being a modest off-roader that snowballed into an extremely rewarding career and a fiery passion for four-wheeling and the outdoors.”

A big morning stretch at the overlook point on Rubicon Trail.

Outdoor Life and Solitude

Turner, an outdoor enthusiast, enjoys camping, hiking, boating, and off-roading. “Camping and off-roading go hand-in-hand; I prefer a secluded campsite in the wilderness over an established one. My dog, Raven, usually comes with me and we enjoy watching the wildlife, hiking to spots where I can’t drive, and taking a dip in the alpine lakes near where we live,” she exclaims. “In the summertime my husband and I enjoy taking our ski boat out on the lake with friends for fishing and floating. If I could, I’d be outside exploring every weekend.”

These activities have two things in common: outdoors and solitude. Learning to do those things by herself was a huge turning point. The first solo camping trip she took made her realize she could do it unassisted—it changed her whole agenda. She could trust herself enough to get out of any sticky situation, if needed. “That realization has opened opportunities to explore on my own and grow,” Turner exclaims.

Turner wasn’t afraid to use her hands or ask questions. Now, she and her Samurai go all over together. In addition to off-roading, recent rock crawling competitions, and her other favorite outdoor activities, her passion lies with welding and fabrication.

No matter what trail Jessi Combs was on, she was always smiling.

Turner’s Inspiration: Jessi Combs

“[Jessi Combs] was a huge inspiration to me since her days on the Xtreme 4×4 TV show; ultimately I credit her with my decision to choose a career in welding,” Turner says. “I remember watching her in an American Welding Society video in one of my first welding classes and thinking to myself: If Jessi can do it, so can I.”

Turner enrolled in her first welding class in community college to build a set of rock sliders for her Samurai. One project led to “taking every welding class that the school offered and then landing my first job at a real fabrication shop,” Turner shares. Her first position was at Bay Area Metal Fabrication in Benicia, California. She pushed a broom until “the boss let me stick metal together,” she says. “We primarily built off-road armor for Tacomas at that shop, and having a job in the off-road industry gave me a leg up in my racing career, too.” Five years and two jobs later, she can weld and build almost anything.

Dropping into the Backdoor obstacle while pre-running the KOH course. Unfortunately, the stock class bypassed that obstacle during the race.

Turner is pushing the limits like never before. She is a welder/fabricator living in Northern Nevada. “Outside of the shop, I’m known as the girl with the Samurai,” she says with a smile. “I’ve spent the last seven years building and wheeling my Suzuki Samurai on the hardest trails on the West Coast.” Everyone Turner wanted to go off-roading with had bigger rigs than she did, but she always tried her best to keep up. Consequently, she’s now leading trail rides through the Rubicon trail in that very same Suzuki Samurai.

King of the Hammers

One of Turner’s greatest achievements came when she outfitted her Samurai and competed in the 2020 KOH, the world’s toughest one-day off-road race.

“My skills in fabrication lent a huge hand to modifying my Samurai to meet strict Ultra4 tech rules for King of the Hammers last year,” Turner explains. “Jessi was again my inspiration for competing at this level; her untimely [death] is what spurred me to take on the world’s hardest one-day off-road race with my little car.”

Her Samurai changed little from what it was before to a KOH-ready race machine due to strict stock (4600) class rules. However, some items were upgraded to make her 4×4 ready for the grueling competition.

Turner built the rollcage for her dad’s 4Runner last year.

“A lot of KOH prep was general maintenance on the car and adding essential safety features in order to pass tech inspection,” Turner adds. She changed the C-pillars on the ’cage, added several gussets, and a firewall. She also replaced stock seats for a used set of racing buckets and upgraded to a 12-gallon race-safe fuel cell, which is mounted in the bed (the stock tank is 10 gallons). She also filled the rest of the bed with permanently mounted tools and spares for race day. Turner built the roof, half-doors, and tailgate out of 0.125 aluminum plate per Ultra4 standards.

Not many women compete at KOH, and as far as Turner knows no one had attempted KOH in a Suzuki Samurai. “I’ve always wheeled an underdog rig, and Jessi had always inspired me not to limit myself based on that—or anything else for that matter.” The first time Turner ever met Combs was right after Combs accepted the trophy for her 2014 win at KOH in Johnson Valley.

All smiles on her last wheeling trip through the Rubicon in 2019 before the Samurai would be put down for KOH prep.

Turner had attended KOH for five years before she started competing in it. She also knew multiple friends who’d raced it. She’s got a pretty good idea of what it takes to make it to the start line. “The draw of the world’s toughest off-road race was enough for me; if I could do this, I could do anything,” Turner declares. Although she didn’t finish the grueling race in 2020 due to “horribly bent leaf springs after the first lap,” she was a highlight to many fans and race organizers and plans to compete in 2021.

Don’t Let Anyone Ever Stop You

“As cliché as it may seem, I really love my job. I got into welding because of off-roading; I’ve had a very successful career so far. Building things from scratch, and learning different manufacturing processes to make things quicker and easier is something I totally geek out on.”

Turner didn’t let anyone ever stop her. If there was doubt, she’d find a way to prove them wrong. “My Samurai has tiny tires, an underpowered motor, and tiny axle shafts to boot. But, I know every single nut, bolt, and lock washer better than the back of my hand,” she states. “Every squeak and creak means I know what’s broken, and then how to fix it with nothing but duct tape and tie wire.”

Camping lakeside in Northern California prior to KOH when the Samurai was just Turner’s rock crawler and weekend warrior rig.

Since she’s been camping, hiking, and off-roading regularly, she’s gotten to know the ins and outs of her Samurai. “I’ve spent the last several years throwing it at every hard trail I could drive to and how every moving part responds to the abuse. Nothing scares me, and that’s exactly how I built it and wheel it.”

Turner’s Words of Advice

When asked what advice she’d give to women wanting to branch out to go off-roading, Turner says, “Don’t be afraid to use your hands. Learn everything you can and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Take it slow at first and find what you’re comfortable with, and then push that limit.” She also says to not stop pushing until you’ve gotten to where you want to be, then push harder—even if it’s baby steps every time you go out.

As for welding, Turner says don’t be afraid to get dirty. “It’ll all wash off when you’re done and you’ll even have something extraordinary to show for it.” She says there is no better feeling in the world to her than pointing to something to say, “I built that or I earned that.”

After crossing the finish line and entering the stage, Turner received a well-deserved beverage. After 117 miles and 10 hours, no one could slap the smile off her face.

Turner got into racing initially by volunteering. She says race companies like Ultra4 or VORRA can always use the extra set of hands and it’s a great way to understand the innerworkings of the organization and its races. “Working the course at KOH has afforded me immeasurable first- and secondhand experience with racing,” she exclaims. She’s made many good friends during those times.

Like everything else in her life, Turner takes trail stewardship a step further to make a “palpable difference.” Whether it’s pulling over to make sure a campfire is dead-out, picking up trash, or laying concrete to help make trails user-friendly, she tries her best to leave it better than when she found it.

Turner leaves the start/finish line on KOH race day.

In addition to trail maintenance and setting examples for others through treading lightly, she reminds us, “First and foremost, learn how to care for yourself and make the most of solitude.” Turner makes sure she takes the time to take off and camp. “Even if the day comes when I can’t drive anymore, I’ll still find my way to be by the campfire with my friends and family.” Turner continues to inspire others, just as she was inspired herself. As she continues her career in the off-road industry, she leads the way for many women to jump in, get more involved, and not be afraid to get hands-on.

Turner showing some Samurai flex during the 2018 Easter Jeep Safari event in Moab, Utah.

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