Rocky Top Customz: Top of the Trail

Knoxville 4x4 shop offers everything it takes to off-road in style...

This article originally appeared int he December 2023 issue of THE SHOP magazine.

By Maura Keller

Located in Knoxville, Tennessee, Rocky Top Customz is a full-service off-road shop that provides everything needed to fully outfit rugged vehicles. Popular items include lift and leveling kits, wheel and tire packages, gear installations, bumpers and armor.

The shop also offers full custom fabrication and complete engine swaps, and even does its own in-house alignments. The showroom is stocked with a variety of lighting and related aftermarket truck and Jeep accessories, and includes a section dedicated to RC Rock Crawlers.

“Coming from a background as a union electrician by trade, the off-road side of life was always just a hobby that allowed me to express my creative side through bending tubes and building one-off projects for myself and my friends,” says Jason Willis, owner of Rocky Top Customz. “I never thought it would lead into a business, let alone one I have been doing for the better part of 25 years now.”

Willis’ first gained attention from his friends with a custom Suzuki Samurai build. When he appeared at the local off-road park, people were intrigued and asked questions.

“‘Why did you build this?’ ‘How did you do that?’ Through trial and error, I realized that I had a skill and could offer people a service that wasn’t available in the area,” Willis recalls. “And that is how Nobbies Off-Road, a little airplane hangar behind my house and my first shop in Joliet, Illinois, came to be.”

In 2015, after falling in love with a Tennessee transplant and former high school friend, Willis made what would be one of his life’s biggest decisions. He sold off everything he had, left his job and headed south.

Rocky Top showroom
The showroom is stocked with a variety of lighting and other aftermarket truck and Jeep accessories, and includes a section dedicated to RC Rock Crawlers. (Photo by Evan Patterson)

“With a few plans for work and a few job opportunities lined up, and after hanging out around the area for a bit, I could tell I was missing something. I also believed that Knoxville was missing something as well,” Willis says. “I knew a full-service off-road shop needed to happen, and I felt it was my calling to be able to provide that. Now that the idea was there, I just needed a name for it. ‘Nobbies’ was great back home (in Illinois), but it had its place, and it was time for something new.”

It wasn’t until Willis was sitting behind the goalposts at Neyland Stadium, listening to the University of Tennessee’s Pride Marching Band perform before a game, that inspiration for a new name struck.

“This one song, ‘Rocky Top,’ just stuck with me that day. Was it the song or the numerous times it was played throughout the game? Or was it with the passion that those fans sang with every time the band started? No one will know, but that name kept coming back to me,” Willis says. “Rocky Top. Rocky Top. Rocky Top. A quick search for Rocky Top Customz came up with no history, and that fall day is when the beginning of Rocky Top Customz started.”


In January 2016, Willis officially opened the doors to Rocky Top Customz in a 5,000-square-foot building in West Knoxville. It wasn’t long before business was booming.

“With the community’s help and an outpouring of love from our supporters, our once ‘large enough’ building was no longer large enough to house the needs of our everyday projects. In November 2019, we officially moved into what we hope to be our forever home, an 18,000-square-foot building with five lifts,” Willis says.

East Tennessee is a very hard-working area and, as Willis points out, Rocky Top Customz is in the business of rewarding that work ethic by creating vehicles that customers want and have earned.

“We pride ourselves on taking your vision and creating something you can be proud of for years to come,” Willis says. “If you need anything—a quick alignment after an install, a new set of wheels and tires, a full-blown lift kit with new gears, an engine swap, fully custom fabricated bumpers and lighting—we can serve you promptly and professionally. It’s not just about making a vehicle stand out in a parking lot, but building something that our customers can take their families in safely and securely to explore this beautiful country that not every tourist can see.”

RT shop Jeep
Popular items include lift and leveling kits, wheel and tire packages, gear installations, bumpers and armor. (Photo by Evan Patterson)

Recently, the team at Rocky Top Customz finished a 2018 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon. It was the first JLU the team had worked on, rebuilding it from the ground up with new axles, a long-arm coil-over suspension setup, hydraulic assist steering, 40-inch tires and bead-locks, and more.

“What was special about the build was that we finished it up on a Thursday evening, the customer came back for a final check on Friday, and then he loaded it on a trailer and went to wheel some of the hardest terrain (with us) in the Northeast at Rausch Creek and AOAA at an event called Krawl America,” Willis says. “The coolest part was having people ask him about the build, and him pointing over and telling them it was less than a week old and we were the ones who built it.”


Rocky Top Customz sees a vast array of customers walk through the doors, many looking for a lift kit and a quality set of wheels and tires.

“That’s not to say we haven’t lifted a Prius or a smart car, or lowered a truck to help an elderly couple get in and out of it better. If it is doable, or has been done, there is a good chance at some point in time we have done it,” Willis says.

The company currently has eight employees, including Willis. Three technicians perform installations and fabrication in the back, oftentimes aided by an alignment technician. Up front, a sales associate and a general manager handle sales, while a marketing director oversees the shop’s social media and videography needs.

When setting prices, Willis and his team analyze the local market to stay competitive while increasing the value of the experience to their customers. The goal is to stay competitive with online pricing, including pulling pricing directly from manufacturers’ websites when available.

“Being in Knoxville, what we have realized is that people like to see you. People like to talk to you. People want to interact,” Willis explains. “The best exposure we can get is getting out in the community, going to shows and events and showcasing our brand. We have a very unique skill set when it comes to jobs that we can do, and the best way to show that off is to do exactly that—show it off.”

RT fab
Rocky Top takes a customer’s vision and creates something they can be proud of for years to come. (Photo by Evan Patterson)

Social media has become a transformative platform for businesses over the past 10 years, including at Rocky Top Customz (rockytopcustomz.com). The main focus of its social media is to showcase the day-to-day life of what is coming in and going out of the shop.

As Willis explains, the company also utilizes social media for interacting with customers on a more personal level, as well as providing pricing and information.

“We capture our trips and events in a light that really draws the consumer in and makes them want to come back and see more,” Willis says.

The biggest challenge Rocky Top Customz runs into on a shop level is staffing.

“While we are a tightknit group of employees turned friends, we always love to see each other succeed. Selfishly, I want to keep everyone here, but I know that is only sometimes the case,” Willis says. “Seeing someone leave to better themselves, whether it is to start their own company doing something they’ve learned here, pursuing a new passion or even just spending time doing something else they love, is truly rewarding. But on the back end, our puzzle lost a key piece that needs to be replaced.”

Willis says the best part of his business is knowing that at the end of the day, the staff members who work at Rocky Top Customz get to build the life they want.

“Coming in on Monday mornings, hearing how they spent their weekends, whether it be wheeling at Windrock, a cookout with the family or even just having the time to sit and relax, is truly rewarding,” Willis says. “As with any business, we would love to continue to grow. Growth is key to all business, and we strive to continue to climb and grow.”

So, what’s next for a shop that’s on top of the trail?

“We can’t give away all of our secrets to what our future holds, so I guess you will just have to follow our journey along with us!”

Maura Keller is a freelance writer based in Minnesota. She can be reached at maurakeller@yahoo.com.

RT off-road
The shop often hits the trails with customers to test products, build a community and have fun. (Photo by Tom Patterson)

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