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Sled Pulling Dominance | Smokin’ Max

DW STAFF February 09, 2024 Chevrolet

2002 Chevrolet 2500HD

Some people plan and build their trucks over a period of years; other people just come out of the gate storming. John Esteves is of the latter group, and his truck, Smokin’ Max, has been a visible part of Northern California sled pulling for at least a decade.

John had always been into sled pulling, and his 2002 Chevrolet 2500HD quickly progressed past factory form and soon was turned into a street stormer/sled puller. John got his first transmission behind the big Duramax as early as 2003, so that should show how serious he’s been about performance right from the very beginning. The latest iteration of the Smokin’ Max is by far the most serious, as a SoCal Diesel-built 6.6L Duramax producing 1,500 horsepower at the flywheel was just dropped into the GM‘s engine bay in preparation for competing in the ultra tough 3.0-inch turbo class.

“With sled pulling, it all starts with horsepower.”

The engine that powers John’s 3.0-Class puller is a wild 6.6L Duramax that’s extremely stout. Built with ARP studs throughout, Carrillo rods, Mahle pistons, and half the SoCal Diesel catalog, it produced more than 1,500 horsepower on an engine dyno.
Trucks competing in the 3.0 Class can only have a 3-inch (76.2mm) turbocharger, so we were surprised to learn that John normally runs a 88mm S400-based charger, that’s been configured for 3.0 Class rules.
Exhaust exits the Duramax engine through a simple 4 to 6-inch hood stack, which makes the engine extremely loud during a pull, and provides a visual cue in case something goes awry mechanically.


With sled pulling, it all starts with horsepower, and plenty of it. John’s latest combination is based around a 6.6L Duramax block with a SoCal Diesel girdle, ARP main studs, and billet main caps. In addition to the bottom-end parts, the block was also O-ringed by SoCal Diesel for better head gasket sealing under high boost levels. For a rotating assembly, a Duramax crank swings a set of Carrillo connecting rods, dropped compression Mahle forged pistons, and a SoCal Diesel 9100-AF camshaft. Moving on up to the heads, John again stuck with his SoCal combination and went with Stage 2 heads that are ported, fitted with oversize valves, and beehive springs with titanium retainers.

Even with the big turbo, an air filter is still something John runs to keep any debris from entering the engine. A large universal K&N filter gets the job done.
With 72 psi of boost at full song, V-band style clamps are used wherever possible to minimize the chances of a blown or torn compressor discharge boot.


A lot of thought was needed when it came to the air and fuel systems, and here again, John only went with the best. The exhaust side starts with a set of ProFab up-pipes that feed a large frame S488-based turbo that has been necked down to compete in the 3.0 class. The turbo feeds a custom weight box-mounted air-to-water intercooler that his son John Jr. fabricated; exhaust exits through a 4-inch downpipe to a 6-inch hood stack. Fueling is equally impressive on John’s truck, with twin FASS 150-gph lift pumps sending fuel to a set of 12mm stroker CP3 pumps from Exergy Engineering. From there, the #2 diesel is sprayed through a set of 250% over injectors from Exergy and into the engine via tuning from SoCal Diesel. The end result of John’s engine efforts is impressive, as the Duramax made an even 1,500 horsepower on an engine dyno at 72 psi of boost and 1,600 degrees EGT.

“The end result of John’s engine efforts is impressive, as the Duramax made an even 1,500 horsepower on an engine dyno at 72 psi of boost and 1,600 degrees EGT.”

Many pullers have traction bars for the rear of the truck, but John added some up front as well to stiffen the frontend and help fight hopping. The chrome throughout the truck (especially noticeable in the suspension) was performed by Show Off Motorsports in Modesto, California.
A Full Throttle Suspension (FTS) lift kit raises the frontend enough to clear the largest and widest of tires. Although the lift is originally designed for 10 inches, John runs it at 6 inches for better geometry. With minimal breakage over a 10-year period, he must be doing something right.
Aggressive tires are usually best on loose West Coast tracks, so 325/60R18 Mickey Thompson Baja MTZs were mounted on 18×12-inch Weld Racing wheels to provide grip.


Just like the engine, the transmission in John’s truck has seen numerous upgrades and updates. The latest Allison 1000 is the work of Inglewood Transmissions, and it is filled with custom parts. A big turbo requires a loose converter to spool, so behind the engine is an Inglewood Transmissions 3,000 rpm stall converter that is connected to a group of upgraded input, intermediate, and output shafts. The valvebody and shifting strategy of the transmission is also Inglewood’s design, as is a custom clutch pack using Raybestos clutches with Koleene steels. For ultimate reliability, the C2 hub and P2 planetary have also been upgraded to much stronger units.

It’s hard to miss the Chevy emblem weight box, but what you might not know is that there’s an intercooler in there. The water to air unit was fabricated up with the help of John’s son, John Jr., and was mounted as far forward as possible for traction when hooked to the sled.
The rearend of the truck has been upgraded with a set of stock-sized chromoly axle shafts after a series of broken axles. The locker in the 3.73 rearend is so old that he doesn’t even remember whom he purchased it from.
Safety is of the utmost importance in a puller such as this, as a whipping driveshaft can cause a lot of damage. A full circular safety loop that’s attached to the rearend ensures minimal damage if a U-joint does break.


Surprisingly, some of the modifications to the axles and chassis that John and John Jr. made when they first started running Smokin’ Max can still be found on the truck. The same Full Throttle Suspension 10-inch lift jacks the truck up a lot higher than a normal puller but is only set to provide 6 inches of lift to keep the frontend geometry happy. The frontend is also reinforced with tie-rod sleeves and traction bars that were owner-built and have withstood the test of time. Recently, added power has given the rear axle fits, so upgraded chromoly axles were installed in the 3.73 gears to resist breakage.

The rear suspension uses a simple setup of re-arched leaf springs, Fox shocks, and homemade bump-stops to keep the Chevrolet planted to the track.
Dual rear wheels are the setup of choice for today’s serious pullers, and John’s no exception. Weld Racing wheels are again found on the rear of the truck, along with the Baja MTZ tires.

With John’s recent step up in power, he’s now looking at taking Smokin’ Max on the road, where he’ll face tougher competition farther out east. With such a recognizable and intimidating truck, we can’t wait to see how he does and wish him luck on his next decade of sled pulling.

“The latest Allison 1000 is the work of Inglewood Transmissions, and it is filled with custom parts.”

Roscoe’s Paint provided the awesome skull-infused artwork which makes the Smokin’ Max stand out in any crowd of pullers.


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