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Ford Bronco R: Tested and bested by Baja

The Bronco R prototype's stock engine and drivetrain performed like champs, but the rest of the truck wasn't strong enough to beat Baja.

Baja is beautiful, certainly. But she can turn on you in a split second.

Dave Connors

The Baja 1000 has long been considered one of the toughest motorsports events in the world. The off-road race starts in Ensenada, Mexico, about 60 miles south of Tijuana. But while previous years have only been a run south to La Paz, this year teams circled back up to Ensenada, totaling 800 miles of racing.

You'll see everything competing in the Baja 1000, from million-dollar Trophy Trucks with 600-plus horsepower and three feet of suspension travel to the privateers in stock Volkswagen Bugs from the 1960s with, well, decidedly less. For this 52nd running of the Baja 1000, Ford trotted out the Bronco R, a racing prototype with the heart of the upcoming, production Bronco, upfitted with race-ready suspension components, wheels and tires. Ford's mission was merely to finish, and in turn give the stock engine, transmission and four-wheel-drive system the test of the century in these roughest of conditions. To that end, the Baja 1000 was a success. The production parts held up beautifully. The rest of the truck? Well, not so much. 

Racing in the Baja 1000 has multiple requirements. One must be a MacGyver of sorts, able to think outside the box and find solutions, all while being exhausted, dirty and hungry. Racers must be willing to take incredible risks with both their vehicles and their bodies, while support crews have the burden of keeping the cars and trucks going no matter what. Both elements of the team must trust each other in the face of adversity, approaching each other without blame and a willingness to be disappointed. 

This year the race was delayed 24 hours so sanctioning body Score could deal with course damage brought on by days of prerace rain. Baja is, on a good day, the toughest terrain out there. Add in mud and you've got yourself a quagmire described by one Class 1 co-driver as the "Mud Bog 1000."

The other entry in the Bronco's class was the SCG Baja Boot, a replica of the car that won the 1969 Baja 500 with drivers Bud Elkins and Guy Jones. Meanwhile, Ford won the 1969 Baja 1000 with Rod Hall and Larry Miner behind the wheel of a Bronco. Both were four-wheel drive vehicles and both won overall. To say that there would be some rivalry here would be an understatement. If it were me, I'd be in it to kick the Boot to the curb.

However, everything I saw on course confirmed Ford's racing mindset. The team had a remarkable seven drivers. Seven. For comparison, this year, two teams had drivers that drove the whole race, and many teams had two or maybe three drivers. Further, its 70-gallon fuel tank meant the Bronco R could go 315 miles or so before needing to refuel, yet the team stopped every 130 miles or so for a driver change. In a world where driver changes only happen at fuel stops, this is a remarkable waste of time if the goal is to win. If the goal is to finish, stopping often means the crew can check for potential problems early and a new driver ensures a fresh set of eyes.

If the goal was to test the stock powertrain, you're probably wondering what that engine is. Frankly, so am I. Ford has been silent except to say that the twin-turbo EcoBoost engine under the hood is "representative of what the production Bronco will offer." The obvious choice is the 3.5-liter high output EcoBoost V6 from the Raptor with 450 horsepower, though other folks are guessing the 2.7-liter EcoBoost with a more modest 375. Heck, I've even heard speculation of the 2.3-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder found in the midsize Ranger pickup with 270 hp, which, frankly, seems a little silly to me. Whatever it is, driver Jason Scherer told me he saw 100 mph on Laguna del Diablo dry lake bed, so it's not too shabby.

The Bronco R getting a wee bit of air.

Ford

The Bronco R's four-wheel-drive system was able to get it through the worst of the mud without too many problems. Driver Steve Olliges said, "When we needed four-wheel drive low a couple times, the Bronco R came out like magic. I was impressed with that. That was the best part for me was how well that four-low worked when I really needed the help." The drivers even yanked competitors out of the mud, including a Trophy Truck, most likely weighing in the range of 6,000 pounds or so. With four-wheel drive, the Bronco R was the only vehicle around that could do it.

But while the production parts did their job, the aftermarket racing components took a major hit. The first of the problems showed up the first night when Olliges had some skid plate damage. That in turn led to a damaged transmission fluid line for the third driver, Brad Lovell. The drive team was able to repair it, but by this time the Bronco R had lost time due to bottlenecks on course. At one point, the Ford chase crew, on loan from last year's Baja 1000 winner Cameron Steele, even came out to the course and winched out a stuck Trophy Truck just to get everyone moving again.

By race mile 495 the passenger-side lower control arm, spindle and CV joint had given up the ghost. Again, it was the Steele's Desert Assassins chase crew to the rescue, replacing what could be replaced and welding everything that couldn't. When the Bronco R took off two hours later with Rod Hall's granddaughter and experienced off-road racer Shelby Hall behind the wheel, it had a new CV and axle, new tie rods and uniballs with welded up A-arms and freshly bled brakes. Mind you, all that happened in about two hours in the middle of the course in the soft sand outside of San Felipe. Think of that the next time your dealer tells you it will be six hours for an oil change.

Fixing the suspension while in the dirt and on-course is all in a day's work for Baja 1000 chase crews.

Emme Hall/Roadshow

In the end, however, it was a simple fan that did the team in. The Bronco R's cooling system is a bit of a Frankenstein's monster, including an aftermarket radiator, fans from another system and a shroud that was never supposed to live in that rig in the first place. As the sun set on the second day of racing, Hall reported a high temperature of 260 degrees just outside of BF Goodrich Pit 5 at race mile 580. One fan had seized and the other wasn't working at full strength. The Bronco R was towed the last eight miles in to pits and the crew got to work. However, after 30 minutes or so, in the interest of safety, the decision was made to call it.

The next section would require a huge gain in elevation and while the team was able to get the fan to function, they feared it wouldn't be enough to get the Bronco R over the summit. Further, it's nearly impossible to get a chase truck up there and the team didn't want to send driver Curt LeDuc into the night in a rig that would undoubtedly overheat with no way to get to him. It was a tough decision to make, I'm sure, but the whole team, from the drivers and co-drivers to the chase crew, accepted it without pause. As they say, "That's racing."

The Bronco R made it back to Ensenada under its own power, albeit on the pavement. During the three-hour drive I got word that the Baja Boot was down nine miles from the finish with a cracked brake caliper and a seized front wheel. Two spent wrenches a few hammers later later, their chase crew got the wheel off and the car moving again. The team finished just under the 34-hour time limit wire at 33:59:13.947. Although they were our rivals for this race, I was glad to hear that they finished and I look forward to seeing what the Boot can do in the future.

A valiant effort was put out by Ford and the entire driving and chase team, but in the end, Baja claimed another win.

Emme Hall/Roadshow

Though Ford didn't take the checkered flag, it was able to get photos of the prototype on the podium and speak to the announcement made earlier, that Ford would be the official truck and SUV of Score through 2022.

I'm stoked that Ford got to debut the Bronco R prototype at such an iconic race, but I do wish I had seen more than just the Bronco's powertrain heart. Perhaps after the production Bronco debuts we'll have a full racing version, much like the Chevrolet Silverado that races in the 1200 Stock class in the Best in the Desert Series. Score's stock-full class mandates stock suspension and this is where it would get interesting. Even with the Bronco R's race-specific limbs, it was still slow going. Racing a stock Bronco and finishing in the time limit would require a clean race with no major problems. Now that is a proving ground.


Editors' note: Travel costs related to this story were covered by the manufacturer, which is common in the auto industry. The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's staff are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.