Nicole Pitell-Vaughan has earned the nickname “Chaos.” A woman with a seemingly endless source of energy, she is an accomplished off-road racer and motocross rider, recently taking fifth place at the prestigious Mint 400 and a second-place trophy at the Rallye Aicha des Gazelles in Morocco. Every weekend you’ll find her behind the wheel of her specially prepped “Morocco Taco” Toyota Tacoma, or with a leg thrown over a Honda CRF 250 motorcycle, catching air in rugged locales from the desert of Mexico to the mountains of Mammoth. Pitell-Vaughan is definitely living her best life, having turned her passion for off-road into a successful aftermarket supplier business, with several million dollars in sales and 10 full-time employees.
Pitell-Vaughan has a degree in Business Administration with an emphasis in Sports Marketing from Cal Poly Pomona. After learning all about independent front suspension in trucks from her then-friend-but-now-husband Matt Vaughan while helping him prep his race truck for the SCORE desert series, the two went into business together, opening Total Chaos Fabrication in 1998. The company manufactures beefier control arms and long travel suspension, mostly for Toyota trucks, but also for Chevrolet, Ford and Nissan.
I caught up with Chaos on the phone to chat about how she turns dirt into gold.
Q: What was your first car?
Pitell-Vaughan: I had a 1989 Toyota V6 standard-cab pickup when I was 16. I loved Toyotas since I was a freshman in high school because of Ivan “Ironman” Stewart. (Editor’s note: Ivan Stewart raced off-road for Toyota and is famous for winning the Baja 1000 desert race, having driven all 1,000 miles himself.) Ivan was the man! He could make his truck fly, and I totally thought I could do the same thing. I rolled it in, like, the first six days and had to drive it around all wrinkled for eight months before I could get it fixed.
What was your first automotive job, and how did you get it?
Pitell-Vaughan: My very first automotive job was as a cashier and DMV liaison at a Nissan dealership in Temecula, California. I went in to pick up some parts for Matt’s truck and just asked the general manager for a job. After two years, I moved to a Toyota dealership processing all their service orders. I learned the corporate and dealership side, I learned all about the parts and I learned the mechanics with Matt in the garage. These skills, plus my business degree, set the stage for Total Chaos.
Total Chaos fabricates their own designs. What is that process like?
Pitell-Vaughan: Our goal is to enhance travel and ride quality. We sometimes start by purchasing the specific part we are trying to improve in order to get initial measurements. We also get a truck on-site, usually from a private party.
When it comes to design, we don’t do anything on a computer. Ever. We design using a paper and pencil and then use cardboard templates to make sure our part will work with proper tolerances around all the existing parts on the truck, like brake lines, tie rods, and sway bars. We don’t change the factory steering geometry ever. We will add caster to the tires if we need to since it’s lost when you lift certain models. That helps balance steering effort, high-speed stability and front-end cornering effectiveness, but no, we don’t do anything on a computer.
Each step of the R&D process is documented, so we have finished goods photos for the website, part numbers, stock measurements and the measurements for the aftermarket Total Chaos part.
Once we have a new part installed on a test truck, we beat it in the dirt for 500 off-road miles before it becomes available to the public. It means we’re generally not first to market with our products, but we know our products can withstand hard-core off-road abuse.
What is the most tedious thing about your current job?
Pitell-Vaughan: Trying to abide by the California rules. I don’t like rules. Rules are made to be broken.
How does tech affect the future of your job?
Pitell-Vaughan: It makes it harder for the aftermarket to modify a vehicle. For example, when you put a long-travel kit on a truck, it amplifies the yaw sensor and causes the ABS to engage for no reason. We are always dealing with ABS integration in our parts. The advancement of electronics has its place, of course, but it’s nice to go back to the simple stuff. Analog buttons and dials… you know what I mean?
What automotive trend makes your blood boil?
Pitell-Vaughan: I try not to let anything drive me crazy, because I’m already there. However, I see a lot of aftermarket companies design their parts on a computer and not test them. There is a company in this industry that just built 50 sets of Chevrolet control arms. They never did a test fit, and it turned out they couldn’t get the wheel back on after installation. I just laugh, but that’s what is going on in this industry. Unless you’re in it, you don’t know about some of the shady R&D that’s happening. Everybody thinks they’re an engineer.
What is the one project you’ve always wanted to tackle professionally but have never been able to do?
Pitell-Vaughan: I’m living the dream, but I’d like to race the Dakar. I’d have to build a Toyota Hilux with four-wheel drive. Maybe the Morocco Taco could be converted. Man…you got my wheels spinning. I’m gonna make the Morocco Taco a Dakar truck.
If you weren’t working in the automotive industry, what would you be doing?
Pitell-Vaughan: I’d be working in motocross. The other half of my heart is completely passionate about it. I love two wheels. I love being in the desert. I love travel and solitude. I just love being in the dirt.