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Ford-powered Off-road Racing
Flying over the desert in a Ford-powered Trophy Truck.
If you've ever wondered what it's like to ride in a Trophy Truck in a desert race, imagine a rig powered by a NASCAR engine, with a ride as soft as a wet sponge and road conditions rougher than the back of an alligator.
To wrestle this wild reptile, first you climb through the window, clamp yourself in with a five-point harness, and cinch the chinstrap on a crash helmet with a Darth Vader breathing tube to keep out the choking dust. After you fire up the 780hp small-block and stomp on the go-pedal, you'd better hang on tight because blasting across the desert feels like a nonstop crash. It's all too loud, too hot, too fast--and too much fun. It's like riding a nuclear-powered roller coaster headed for critical mass. You launch off hilltops at freeway speeds, floating for an impossibly long moment while awaiting the inevitable landing on hard-packed sand.
Actually, jumping is the easy part. It's the 100-mph sprints, skipping like a stone over the rutted, gnarly terrain that are frightening and exhilarating at the same time. The ride is not unlike that of an offshore boat running at full throttle in the open ocean, jumping from one swell to the next. Only thing is, the sun-baked desert floor doesn't cushion the landing the way foaming seawater can.
Credit the relatively soft bounce to the sophisticated suspension design from Craig Stewart, son of Ivan "Ironman" Stewart, the legendary Baja racer. The underpinnings from Stewart's Race Works have nearly 3 feet of travel. (Note in the action photos the differ-ence between the suspension's full droop and the landings where the wheelwells swallow the tires.)
To endure the extreme punishment dished out in desert racing, Stewart installs stout, custom, billet-aluminum A-arms in the front and a four-link setup in the rear with super-long trailing arms. The rig rides on King 2.5- inch coilovers with King Kong 4-inch bypass tubes. The 39-inch knobbies are BFGoodrich's race-duty Project tires reinforced with inner liners and mounted on Kartech rims measuring 17x8 inches.
Originally, this F-150 Trophy Truck started life as a truggy--basically a bare tube-frame chassis with an aluminum body. But owner Wayne Lugo had bigger plans in mind for this platform. His pursuit of a Ford-powered Trophy Truck began during his childhood in a farming region of Southern California. "I grew up in the Imperial Valley, where off-road racing is big," he says. "I saw them racing in the dirt at Riverside Raceway, and knew then that I had to do this someday."
Lugo took his first steps with both Class 9 and 10 VW-powered dirt racers with 6 and 21 inches of travel, respectively. Run-ning off-road came naturally to him. "I spent my whole life driving up dirt roads," he says. "That gave me a good jumpstart, having crashed enough trucks as a kid."
Eventually, his professional success as a calf raiser for a dairy farm allowed him to afford the next level of off-road vehicle--a truggy that would form the foundation of his Trophy Truck. "I knew how good a Ford V-8 sounds, and had to move up," he says.
The truggy's engine was a special, race-duty aluminum 351 Windsor that runs about $34,000, punched out to 442 cubes by Leon Patton of Patton Racing Engines. This same naturally aspirated setup, with a 12:1 compression ratio, would later serve as the heart of Lugo's Trophy Truck. He says that Patton, who works on Bow-Tie blocks as well, feels Blue Oval engines "have the best pull" and prefers using them for extreme off-road applications.
In addition to an enlarged displacement (4.125 bore and stroke), Yates aluminum heads, billet-steel crank and rods, and a dry-sump oiling system, this Blue Oval blowtorch features a multiport electronic fuel injection MoTeC engine management system. The peak output registered on the dyno was 780 horses at 6,800 rpm, and 670 lb-ft of torque at 5,400 rpm. That blast-furnace of power runs through a race-prepped Turbo 400, three-speed automatic and a Chrisman 10.5-inch rearend with a 5.53:1 ratio. With such low gearing, top speed is limited to 143 mph at 7,200 rpm, but the upside is all that juicy torque on tap, essential for scrambling over hill and dale.
This drivetrain setup was gutsy enough for Lugo to do an Evel Knievel at the Laughlin Leap, where he took Second Place with a jump of 151 feet, just a few feet shy of the record.
Keeping Lugo's ultimate goal of owning a Trophy Truck in mind, chassis builder Craig Stewart made sure he could convert the proven truggy foundation to a Trophy Truck by having mounts in place to accept an F-150-shaped fiberglass body. "It's mostly cosmetic," Lugo points out. "We just add bumpers, a fiberglass body, and spares." The body is an '05 Ford F-150 extended-cab shortbed with flares to accommodate the oversized BFG tires. Wally World Color and Design applied the gold-flecked, crimson color scheme and graphics.
The initial investment is not the most costly aspect of building a Trophy Truck. The base price is about $300,000. "But it's all the spares that are the most expensive," Lugo admits. "It's such a survival sport. When you're running in the desert and break down, there's still time to repair and win." Camburg supplies many of the off-road performance parts, many of which are stowed right on the Trophy Truck for ready access in the event of a breakdown.
We experienced a small taste of that when the cockpit filled with oil fumes, bringing our high-speed run to a halt. We found out later a zip tie arced off the starter motor and melted an oil line, leaving a trail of spots for the support crew to follow. "We're glad those things happen," Lugo says. "That's why we test."
Of course, fixing a Trophy Truck in the middle of the desert while the clock is ticking requires some serious performance exper-tise. Banks Power is the primary sponsor for the No. 36 Lugo Racing Trophy Truck, and the company's Director of Technical Communications Peter Treydte serves as the crew chief, while technicians Dave Vermilion and Kevin Hannah act as tire changers and mechanics for the off-road team.
Banks' engineering staff contributed to the development of engine, navigation, and communication electronics as well. The MoTeC engine management helps the crew coordinate tuning and data acquisition parameters to keep the aluminum racing mill running at its highest potential and to monitor its vital signs for analysis. A Trophy Truck running in the open desert also needs some help finding its way, so Lugo's comes equipped with a Lowrance GPS and Kenwood radio equipment prepared by PCI radios.
Now that Lugo has his Trophy Truck sorted out, he's ready to climb the mountain--literally--on the Baja 1000, which he plans to enter next year. That grueling event also requires building an F-150 Pre-Runner, used for checking out the course a week beforehand, and evaluating rough sections as many as three or four times to find the best route. That rig has a few more creature comforts, but still is outfitted with a race engine, though it's set up for longer-term duty.
In the meantime, Lugo is headed for the Laughlin Leap again to see if he can improve his hang time. "We just need a bit more of a runway to get our speed up," he says. That, and maybe a flight suit as well.