Photo © 2009 Mike's Race Photos, all rights reserved
I was wrapping up a family trip to New Jersey last week when Ford called to ask if I wanted to ride in the third seat of the Raptor R off-road race truck two days later in the Nevada desert. Faster than falling home prices in Vegas, the words “Hell yes!” tumbled from my mouth.
The Raptor R is a competition-modified version of the all-new 2010 Ford F-150 SVT Raptor that goes on sale this summer. The stock Raptor will arrive from the factory with a one-of-a-kind long-travel suspension specially engineered by Fox Racing, a leading designer and manufacturer of high-performance shock absorbers and racing suspensions. Its super-tough shocks are built to withstand the high-impact forces sent through the Raptor after sticking jumps. Yes, jumps.
It’s not quite race-ready, but it’s the most aggressive suspension you’ll find in any stock truck today, and it will let you repeatedly leap the truck in off-highway vehicle parks, like Anza-Borrego in Southern California, and drive home at the end of the day in one piece.
Ford Raptor R driver Rob MacCachren (left, wearing black shirt) has won more than 150 races, including a victory at the Baja 1000. MacCachren drove while I rode in back during the third lap of the Terrible's 250 at Primm. Veteran racer Steve Olliges and Monster Truck Jam driver Linsey Weenk drove laps one and two. Brian Lopez navigated.
For years, Mopar (Chrysler), Hummer (until recently) and Honda have sponsored pickups and SUVs in the Stock Mini and Stock Full-Size classes of off-road races like the famous Baja 1000 as a way to promote the capabilities of their trucks. Race trucks are reasonably close to what you can drive home from a dealership, except for their race-tuned powertrains and sophisticated long-travel suspensions, which are needed to soak up desert jumps and bumps.
Now Ford is getting in on the act in a big way, using desert racing to promote the F-150 Raptor. It’s also looking to prove how tough a truck it is by running the Raptor R in the Best in the Desert Racing Association’s 2009 race calendar.
“The Raptor R was developed to put Raptor development in the public eye,” said Patrick Hespen, Ford SVT’s spokesman. “Ford is testing the Raptor in the most extreme conditions to make sure the truck customers buy is the ultimate high-speed off-road truck.”
Foutz Motorsports upfitted the Raptor R for competitive off-roading. Although it meets requirements for the Stock Full Size classes in the SCORE Baja and Best in the Desert racing series, the Raptor R can't compete in those divisions until production Raptors become available later this year and hit certain sales volumes. Here you can see the extensive safety cage and race seats with five-point safety harnesses. Tools, like the red jack in the rear of the cab, occupy free floor space.
How extreme? That’s what I traveled to Nevada to find out first-hand early Saturday morning. I joined up with the Raptor R race team for the Terrible’s 250 at Primm in Primm, Nev.
The Terrible’s 250 starts and finishes at Terrible’s Primm Valley Casino Resorts, just north of the California/Nevada border. The Mojave Desert around this cluster of hotels and factory outlets is as barren and desolate as the wallets of the California shoppers and gamblers there who are too impatient to drive another 50 miles to Vegas, but it’s the perfect spot for an off-road race.
This year’s Terrible’s 250 consisted of three 70-mile-long figure-eight loops around rocky mountains and dry lakebeds.
The Raptor R competes in Class 8 in SCORE Baja and 8000 in the Best in the Desert. Most trucks in those classes don't share much with their production counterparts. The Raptor R, being mostly stock, has production-spec sheetmetal and uses the same frame as the Raptor F-150. The Raptor R's suspension mount points have been strengthened to accommodate a race-spec Fox Racing long-travel suspension that has almost 4-inches more travel than the Raptor F-150.
My seat was ideally perched in the rear of the Raptor R’s extended cab, in the middle, so I could see between the driver and navigator. Veteran off-road racers Steve Olliges and Rob MacCachren (a Baja 1000 winner) were on deck as co-drivers, along with Linsey Weenk, who thrashes the Built Ford Tough Blue Thunder truck in Monster Jam monster truck stadium events. Olliges, Weenk and MacCachren each raced the Raptor R one lap, while Brian Lopez and MaCachren (when he wasn’t driving) took turns navigating from the front passenger seat.
I rode in the Raptor R during the third and final lap. During the first lap, I chased the Raptor R between the second and main pits to grab pictures of it. While it ran the second lap, I got dressed in my racing gear.
At lap three, the Raptor R came roaring up to the main pit, trying to make up time from a driveshaft change between the first and second laps. An aftermarket driveshaft hadn’t performed as well as hoped, which is the point of all this racing – to test out components that might work on the Raptor some time in the future.
Race Mile 0 and the #8011 Raptor R jumps off the line side-by-side with the #8004 Chevy pickup to start 210 miles of off-road racing.
I was in a nomex suit, wearing a helmet and, ahem, a catheter; there’s no stopping for bathroom breaks when you’re racing in the desert. I drank about five bottles of cold water to keep cool and hydrated before it was my turn in the Raptor R. If I had to go, there were holes in the floor of the truck and a hose running down my leg. Gross? Yes, but that’s how we rolled.
The pit team moved with amazing speed around the big truck to refuel it and check for broken hardware not noticed by the driving team. Everyone knew their job. I figured out a way around the busy crew and jumped into my heavily bolstered MasterCraft race seat. It’s like sitting in a chair the height of a first grader’s seat that wraps around your hips, back and sides. The seat’s five-point racing harness takes practice to secure even if there’s no race rush or headgear in the way, but it’s frustratingly difficult when there’s a ticking clock and a race helmet that cuts your vision by half. It was all I could do to look down to make sure the seat’s five buckles – left hip, left chest, crotch, right chest, right hip – had hooked into place. I had to link two upper chest buckles together by touch alone. After getting clicked in, I connected an air hose to the helmet, which blew in cool, clean air -- the truck has no windshield -- and got jacked into the truck’s radio system. All this and I still had to make sure I hadn’t kinked my all-important catheter hose. MacCachren and Lopez had done this zillions of times before, so to them it was second nature. I’d only done this once before, in last year’s Baja 500, with Hummer. Before I knew it, we were off in the Raptor R. Total time: About two minutes after getting into the truck.
Race Mile 34.5 and the Raptor R enters a tough stretch of hard-packed rollers at the foot of the McCullough Mountains that went on for several hundred yards. MacCachren crossed the width of the field finding the lines that were the least brutal on the truck (and us inside) or making his own path to get through it as quick as possible.
Photo © 2009 Durka Durka Photo, all rights reserved
At the end of the first race mile we hit the open desert. The first eight miles or so consisted of deep rutted single-track trails lined in loose dirt that had been chewed up by more than a hundred racers before us over the previous two laps.
The Raptor R uses the same two-valve SOHC 6.2-liter V-8 that will be offered in the production Raptor this winter, but the Raptor R’s 6.2 has taller profile race-tuned cams that produce roughly 500 peak horsepower higher up the rev range. That’s approximately 100 hp more than the production Raptor.
The Raptor R’s 6.2-liter V-8 reverberated in my ears and organs as MacCachren guided the truck like it was on rails -- which it mostly was, given the ruts were so deep and sandy. There were frequent turns and lots of opportunities to get a feel for how the Raptor R would handle and respond to desert bumps.
If the rollers at Race Mile 34.5 were bad, Race Mile 44's were downright despicable. This picture was taken from my Blackberry. Has anyone twittered from an off-road race truck before -- during the race?
Having ridden shotgun in the production Raptor, the Raptor R is best described as handling like the Raptor, but better – like the difference between regular TV and high-definition. Both let you watch a game, but hi-def lets you experience it. A regular four-wheel-drive pickup in comparison would rank as AM/FM radio.
The Raptor R also uses Fox Racing Shox for its running gear, but they’re beefier shocks with external bypass valves for fine-grained, custom tuning and better cooling capacity versus the smaller, but still massive, dampers on the production Raptor, which use maintenance-free internal bypass valving. The Raptor R’s front coilovers have 15 inches of travel, versus 11.2 inches of travel in the Raptor and 8.5 inches in a regular F-150. The Raptor R’s rear shocks have 16 inches of travel, versus 13.5 inches in the Raptor and the regular F-150.
We hooked around the south side of the Lucy Gray Mountains and moved from dirt trails to running in a dry wash around Mile 7 of the race. The loose sand was much coarser than the dirt, and I could feel the truck’s rear yaw left as MacCachren constantly applied throttle to keep it from bogging down in the silt and the 35-inch BFG tires struggled for grip.
About Race Mile 65: Jump! Photo © 2009 Durka Durka Photo, all rights reserved
We continued to work our way north along the bottom edge of the mountains, slowly gaining altitude, and drove back into loose dirt trails in the middle of a Joshua tree grove at about Mile 11. One of the Joshua trees had been taken out completely by a racer earlier in the day. Both had lost that fight.
The back side of the Lucy Gray Mountains are about 700 feet higher than the side facing Terrible’s casinos. At Mile 17, we barreled up and over Beer Bottle Pass and down onto a utility service road where huge high-voltage transmission towers cut the gap to bring electricity to Vegas’ hungry lights. Bless the power workers who built those towers, because the single-track service road had mountain walls on one side and a sheer cliff on the other. MacCachren threaded the Raptor R expertly through hairpin turns for the next mile as we shed altitude, then maneuvered through a boulder field at the foot of the mountains.
Miles 19 to 25 took us around the north side of the Lucy Gray Mountains, where we hit spurts of well-worn trails and nasty hard-packed rollers that seemed to gain and lose a foot of height every 3 feet of forward distance. The constant pounding took its toll on the shocks, as even they seemed to lose some damping capability from high friction loads that boosted shock temperatures without relief for hundreds of yards. Still, there were no maintenance issues with the truck, and we quickly shot past Pit 1 at Mile 30.
There were two designated pits on the course for optional maintenance stops. The Raptor R blew past Pit 2 doing about 60 mph on the flat dirt road. Piece of cake.
At Mile 35, we hit another patch of hard-packed rollers about 25 yards across and about 500 yards long that wrapped around the foot of the McCullough Mountains. Talk about brutal. MacCachren followed some lines that were slightly less rutted than others (which is like saying AIG’s credit default swaps were slightly less toxic than Lehman Brothers’) but in some cases he simply carved a brand-new path where the trail was too chewed up to pass over without getting pounded or slowing down to prevent the suspension from bottoming out from all our speed. There was one hit where I was tossed hard enough that, despite the race harness, I saw stars.
We got a brief respite from the desert’s cruelty on Miles 38 to 40, where we hit pavement. It was like flying through a hurricane and finding the eye of a storm. Of course, it also meant MacCachren could put the pedal to the floor. I’m sure we easily hit 90 mph through that stretch before hitting the northernmost point of the race at the far southern edge of Las Vegas Boulevard. After a sharp left back into the desert on a fire road quality trail, we were soon passing Pit 2 at Mile 43, at the foot of Sheep Mountain.
Mile 44 was more hard-packed rollers at least 50 yards across and 500 to 700 yards long. By then it was automatic to stow my cell phone (oh yeah, I was Twittering and taking pics with my Blackberry) and hang on until it was over.
At Race Mile 59 we entered Roach Lake where the Raptor R traveled as fast across its bone dry surface as experimental aircraft had during takeoffs and landings some sixty years ago.
More than halfway through the race, the constant roar of the 6.2-liter V-8 was a non-stop Raptor R rock concert in my ears.
Miles 47 to 55 were a mix of deep rutted trails and some fire roads before we jumped over a patch of pavement that seemed to have lost much of the dirt ramp that could have eased our crossing. We barely felt the impact as we hit the 4-inch vertical lip of asphalt.
We entered Roach dry lake around Mile 59. In the 1940s, Northrop used to test experimental military aircraft on Roach’s flat sandy bed when Edwards Air Force Base in California was too wet from seasonal rains. I’m pretty sure the crossing of the Raptor R and other trucks in the Terrible’s 250 would have blown the minds of any of the old test pilots had they been around to witness the variety of highly sprung four-wheelers passing over it at more than 80 mph. We exited Roach Lake at Mile 61.
The Raptor R finished the race in second place, out of four trucks in its class. Some time was lost replacing an aftermarket driveshaft Ford was testing under the Terrible's 250's grueling conditions. Linsey Weenk raced the Raptor R for the first time on Lap 2.
The last five miles of the race were like a funhouse. We finished with the roughest stuff yet, entering a series of technical challenges that included sharp hairpins and steeply banked turns, deep fields of loose dirt that spit huge brown rooster tails behind the Raptor R and 3-foot-high dirt moguls that allowed us to catch some serious air. The Raptor’s shocks awesomely dampened every landing. It must have been killer to watch from a grandstand set near the course.
Finally, we crossed the finish at Mile 69 in second place, out of four trucks in its class. That might be disappointing to some, considering all the time and resources Ford is pouring into the Raptor R relative to many of the lesser-funded professional, semi-professional and amateur racers competing in the Terrible’s 250. But the Raptor competed in the BITD’s Modified Production Full-Size Pickups & V8 Sport Uility Vehicles class (Class 8000), analogous to Class 8 in SCORE Baja racing, and not the Stock Production Full-Size Pickups class (class 8100). The trucks it raced were much more modified, using setups like multi-link coilover rear suspensions instead of the Raptor R’s simpler leaf-sprung setup that can bind up and slow the truck down. But that’s the point. It’s all about proving how tough the stock Raptor will be.
My time in the Raptor R was over, but the waves of adrenalin just kept pouring over me. What a high it was to be even a small part of the race.
Maybe Ford will produce a limited run of Raptor R race trucks like they produced limited-run Ford SVT Mustang Cobra R track-ready cars back in 2000. Stay tuned!