Ford has a bit of a history with the desert. On any given day you can see modified Ford Rangers tackling the rocky terrain of the high desert or Ford engines dropped into a custom trophy truck vying for a spot on the Baja 1000 podium. With the myriad Ford engines and truck chassis out there competing in desert endurance races, it's not surprising that Ford offers contingency money in the Best in the Desert (BITD) off road racing series. What is surprising is that Ford is running a team itself.
Ford's newest Raptor, driven by veteran stock truck pilots Greg Foutz and Tim Casey and wearing the number 1201, races in the brand new Factory Stock class as part of BITD. As the only truck in the class running the grueling Mint 400 in Las Vegas last March, it achieved a podium finish but earlier fell 50 miles short of the finish line at the Parker 425 in Parker, Arizona, due to a faulty ground wire.
Yeah, I know what you're saying. "The only truck in its class, of course it wins!"
To that I point to the old motorsports adage, "In order to finish first you must first finish." The desert is a cruel mistress who doles out blown motors, snapped drivetrains and ground-up transmissions at will.
Ford recently asked me to spend some time in the third seat of the 2017 F-150 Raptor race truck, I grabbed my helmet and fire suit and headed down to southern Nevada for the Laughlin Desert Classic, presented by Best in the Desert.
This was a two-day "duel in the desert" in Laughlin, Nevada. The race was divided into hour and a half heats broken down by class. 1201 was out on course with air-cooled buggies, Jeeps and the popular spec trucks known as Trophy Lites.
While 1201 competes in the factory stock class, there are a few differences between it and the upcoming production Raptor. The race version's full cage encloses three racing seats with 5-point harnesses. At Ford's invitation, I would be occupying the third seat during the race.
The front and rear springs have been tweaked to handle the extra weight of the fuel cell and cage, and the 3-inch diameter Fox Racing Shox can be adjusted for each race. LED light bars, a Lowrance GPS and a digital dash and data logger make up the electronics payload on the race Raptor.
Ford remains mum on the 3.5-liter twin-turbo Ecoboost V6 engine's output, but we know it bests the outgoing 6.2-liter V8, rated at 411 horsepower and 434 pound-feet of torque. The aluminum-alloy body weighs 500 pounds less than the old model while there is more high-strength steel in the frame than the previous generation. The new 10-speed automatic transmission puts power to all four 17-inch beadlock wheels wrapped in the new BF Goodrich KO2 tires.
Buckling into the Raptor's third seat, wearing a Hans neck support device, I also attached a Parker pumper to my helmet, letting me breathe clean air amid all the anticipated dust of the race. Most desert race vehicles do away with the windshield, making an air pump necessary, but the closed cabin of the Raptor merely made it nice to have. One more quick click and my radio came to life, giving me communication with Foutz and his co-driver Bill Rante.
Waiting to start is always the hardest part in racing. A million things go through your mind as you're lined up in the grid, everything from "I have to go to the bathroom" to "I'm so uncomfortable" to "I hope I don't roll this thing." The Raptor, with air conditioning cranked and Pantera blasting over the satellite radio, proved a bit more comfortable than your typical race car.
We started three wide with a buggy on one side of us and a Trophy Lite on the other. From the start, the truck ran like butter, soaking up the rough terrain easily, the KO2 tires digging into the soft dirt and powering us through the bumpy hairpin turns. I never even had to hold on to anything, it was that smooth.
The slightly watered-down dirt produced little dust, but as we roared up on the rear of a buggy or two, their tires kicked up some mud. Not a problem for the stock Raptor, as not only did we have a windshield to protect us, the damn thing had working windshield wipers. Windshield wipers on a race truck! My mind was blown.
Foutz ran the tires at 28 psi, and while they stayed firmly attached to the beadlocks, we did suffer one flat. Fortunately, Foutz and Rante were able to change it in under five minutes with no help needed from the monkey in the third seat. I used the time to update my Twitter feed.
The Raptor's six driving modes optimize torque, throttle response and the transmission over a variety of terrain. Foutz kept the Raptor in Baja mode the entire time, locking out gears 5-10. While the Raptor can be shifted manually, and will hold the gears at high rpm until upshifted by the driver, Foutz chose to let the Raptor do its thing. On one high-speed stretch we easily reached 90 miles per hour and the truck had more to give, but the terrain made us slow down.
Our four 17-mile loops took about 24 minutes each, which works out to an average speed of 42.5 miles per hour. Our slowest section was the mile and a half or so of solid, deep whoops. The 2017 race Raptor has more suspension travel than the outgoing model, which was a very respectable 11.2 inches in the front and 12.1 inches in the rear, but that's still nowhere near your typical trophy truck, with up to three feet of suspension travel. As such, we had to just ride out the whoops and use the Raptor's powerful motor to make up the time on the faster sections of the course.
Some work still left to do
While waiting in grid to start, the race Raptor's start/stop function continually killed the truck's engine. Not a deal breaker but still not something you want to deal with as a driver when you're preparing to go up against some of the best teams in the desert. That's a feature of the stock Raptor, designed to save fuel for non-race drivers.
The ABS didn't function quite properly going into one particular right turn, pushing us to the top of the berm before Foutz could get the truck under control and back on track. Data from each race goes back to Ford HQ where engineers are still working to get the computer dialed in for maximum on- and off-road performance.
I am surprised Ford won't offer the production Raptor with the external bypass Fox Racing Shox. Being able to easily tune the suspension would be a big selling point for those of us who like to play in the dirt.
Compared with my usual race car, an air-cooled off-road buggy, I could hardly wrap my head around the Raptor's comfort. But getting dirty is part of the fun of off-road racing, and I left the Raptor just a little too clean. Still, nothing compares to driving up on the podium and taking home a trophy for a weekend well done.
The next race for No. 1201 is the tough-as-nails General Tire Vegas to Reno. At 640 total miles it is the longest off-road race in the United States. The two-day race starts on Friday, August 19th.
The Raptor has been uncontested since its debut in 2010, and I expect it to reign supreme when it comes available in the fall of this year. Other manufacturers have off-road performance trucks, the Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro comes to mind immediately, but it's smaller and not nearly as powerful as the Raptor. Nissan debuted a Warrior concept at the Detroit Auto Show this year, but it's just that: a concept. No word on if it will ever go into production.
For now, the Ford Raptor is the king of the desert.