Tom Ford straps into the world’s scariest nitrous-powered racing truck to tackle vertical cliffs and monster jumps. He returns broken. Very broken. Click through the gallery to read the full story.
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Extreme drive: Formula Off-Roader
Nothing else on Earth comes close. Like dragracing up a cliff. Massive power, minimal comfort
I’m screaming. Literally bellowing myself hoarse as a torrent of childish excitement and entirely adult fear overloads my system and comes flooding out through my lungs in one endless howl, punctuated only by clipped, high-velocity swear-words and the occasional ragged indrawn breath. I’ve just driven up a gigantic lava cliff in a truck, at the kind of speed that would make a drag-racer wince, with the truck in question spitting melon-sized lumps of rock and black sand from all four wheels in a rooster tail of very animate geology. There’s grit in my eyes, in my mouth, my throat, ears and surprisingly, my pants. Though Lord knows how it got down there.
Welcome to the world of Formula Off-Road, where the words ‘Motorsport is dangerous’ ring very true, and the thrills involved reflect the madness. The rules, of F-Off-Road (interesting semi-acronym that) are actually pretty simple. Vehicles attempt to drive a course that incorporates a series of gates. To complete the course, you must pass through the gates without touching them in the fastest time possible. The twist being that the ‘course’ usually involves giant, perpendicular cliff faces of black sand and ex-lava, and the cars are incredible 800bhp V8 buggies that literally dig their way up the cliffs, often running over vertical, shooting skywards and then crashing thousands of feet to the bottom. The trucks also cross water, skipping over the surface on their bucket tyres. If ever there was a need for YouTube, this is it.
Still, I’m here in Iceland to drive one of these behemoths, so it’s time for a little acclimatisation. Of which there isn’t much. The car I’m driving was once some sort of Jeep, which now sports a 600-800bhp (nobody is actually sure) Chevrolet V8, with a couple of hundred horses of nitrous if the going gets particularly vertical. Being a novice, I’m not allowed the nitrous, and to stop me ‘accidentally’ hooking it up, the bottle is removed. The gearbox is a drag-racing three-speed, of the kind that is exceptionally resistant to abuse rather than any good at seamless shifting. The axles are tree trunks, and the diffs are the size of basketballs, all mounted on the huge rubbery airbags that you see on the back of the biggest artics. Which essentially means that although these cars technically have suspension, it’s about as compliant as marble.
The tyres, by the way, are scooped rather than treaded, and have wonderfully descriptive names. The set-up I’m using today consists of ‘BiggerDiggers’ on the front, with ‘SuperScoopers’ out back. Tread shuffle not an option. To even move such ridiculous rubberwear from the wheel, the hydraulic pumps from a pair of forklift trucks take the place of power steering, and the rest is pretty basic; a fuel-cell - runs rarely last more than a few minutes - engine shut-off and basic dialset that monitors incipient motor detonation. There are other switches, but apparently I don’t need to know what they are.
A slight concern is that the seat used for this car won’t fit me, so they take it out and simply strap me to the metal floor with a five-pointrace harness. The V8 fires up on the button, settling into the kind of ragged, purposeful idle you get from the serious Pro-Street drag cars. And then we’re off. And it’s dead easy. The steering is absurdly light, the car quite capable of pottering under light throttle loads, with the turning circle of a taxi. The tyres produce a quite exceptional amount of grip - and as soon as you’ve got used to the noise and the incessant ingestion of an Icelandic slag heap (enough roughage to negate the need for my daily All-Bran), you gain confidence quickly.
Unfortunately, the Icelandic pit-crew think I’m being - in common parlance - a bit of a wimp. The Formula Off-Road national champion is installed next to me, and he encourages slightly larger throttle openings by the simple expedient of reaching over and holding my right leg down on the throttle. At which point the screaming starts.
A Formula Off-Road car doesn’t grip. It literally digs. It doesn’t squat under load in the normal sense, it actually tears holes in the surface. Capable of 0-62mph in roughly three seconds, on sand, and topping out at somewhere in excess of 100mph, running up the hill is like being strapped into a mortar that then gets fired into the sky. I literally can’t see what’s happening, but keep my foot in.
Turning is a slight issue; the hill is so steep that unless you accelerate away and down, the car will flip, so I just keep it nailed pretty much all the time, except when I crest a rise and jump, at which point there’s a blissful moment of silent cinematic airtime followed by the hardest hit in the backside I’ve ever experienced. After an hour and two re-fuels, I run out of gas, and the adrenalin crash commences. As does the fear of death - with no seat and unforgiving suspension, I managed to break something inside me and passed blood in my wee for a couple of days after. But it was worth it: as extreme drives go, I’m not sure anyone’s going to beat this for a while.
We say: nothing else on Earth comes close. Like drag-racing up a cliff. Massive power, minimal comfort.