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Trophy Trucks: the ultimate desert racers

  1. The distance between relieved laughter and utter ruin is exactly two inches. Two inches of steering lock on an unlimited class Trophy Truck, when driving at 110mph across 4ft bumps, is where you’ll find the margin between a celebratory beer with new friends… and a week in hospital having a portion of Nevadan desert surgically removed from your face. I know. Because I’ve just been within those two inches, and they don’t feel like a very broad margin when things are going wrong. And, in a Trophy Truck, when things start to come unglued, they spiral very quickly indeed. Having failed to crash by the smallest of micro-margins, a hiss of quiet static fills my helmet radio. The man sat next to me, BJ Baldwin, champion desert racer, breathes out. It sounds like he hasn’t done that for the past 30 seconds.

    “I have seen every end to that movie,” he intones, with the solemnity of a funeral preacher. “And it never turns out well.”

    Pictures: Justin Leighton

    This feature first appeared in Top Gear magazine

  2. Strange, because today began with childish joy. For years, I’ve watched Trophy Trucks lay waste to off-road racing events like the Baja 1000 and myriad other races, and I’ve always wanted to drive one. But I’d need to drive a proper unlimited truck, rather than one of the more benign formulae, because, if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing from the standpoint of the dangerously inexperienced. Equally obviously, if you’re going to learn a new skill, you might as well turn to the best.

    So, a few months ago, I contacted ‘Ballistic’ BJ Baldwin, four-time off-road racing champion, boss of hundreds of other dirt-based proceedings and partner to Robby Gordon in the 2008 Dakar (1st in class, 7th overall). He’s been off-road racing for 20 years, which means he’s probably pretty good. He’s also got one of the meanest Trophy Trucks in existence. Bonus.

    Fast-forward a few months, and we arrive at the Baldwin Motorsports facility in the Las Vegas suburbs. I’m fizzing with glee and trying to keep a straight face. Because dancing around like a dangerously caffeinated toddler when you’re supposed to be a professional is not cool. We meet BJ, and he’s one of those insanely laconic people who take everything in their stride, for whom ‘extreme’ is a tagline, rather than a definition. He’s also tall, sportsman-built, softly spoken and instantly likeable, in that weird way that beautifully crazy people sometimes are.

  3. The same goes for his crew. It’s not a huge operation, considering the amount of success, but the team behind BJ is obviously more familial than corporate, and there’s a genial, gentle vibe to the whole operation. Not slack, though. The crew strips bodywork from the truck we’ll be driving - nicknamed Fedor - with military precision, so that BJ can explain the physics of a Trophy Truck. There are quite a lot of physics.

    First point. A Trophy Truck unclothed is unlike any other competition car - both fantastically simple yet sitting at the apex of the form/function abacus, totals tallied. It shares a lot of cues with something like a pure Dakar racer, but built to a military-grade specification. Nuke-proof. The reasons being that the rules of the unlimited class are both simple and yet open to creative interpretation. The trucks must resemble a roadgoing counterpart, though only loosely.

  4. Underneath, they’re essentially a war-spec spaceframe, triangulated for strength rather than lightness, because they need to be able to take the kind of pounding that would shatter a normal vehicle. Bluntly, they appear impossibly heavy-handed when compared to the pared-back delicacy of most competition outfits. Fedor, for instance, weighs over 2,900kg - definitely on the porky side. A Kroyer 458ci (around 7.5 litres) naturally aspirated V8 sits in the front, but so far back in the chassis it’s almost mid-mounted. The class doesn’t allow for any sort of power adders, so no forced induction or nitrous oxide injection. But, even so, Fedor’s V8 runs to 800bhp with 690lb ft of torque.

    That sounds like a lot in a solely rear-wheel-drive truck (AWD is too complicated, vulnerable and restricts ultimate suspension travel), but a decent chunk of that power is sapped by the three-speed ‘experimental’ Kroyer racing automatic transmission based on a GM Turbo 400. This is mainly because the reinforcement needed to keep the thing running in race conditions means that it becomes a kind of giant torque-converted black hole for engine grunt. In the middle sit a driver and co-driver. There is no glass or Perspex in the windows, because windows in a Trophy Truck would have the life expectancy of a depressed mayfly. Behind the cabin is a 67-gallon fuel cell, and behind that sits a piggybacked pair of the giant spare wheels, positioned rearward for two purposes: accessibility and balancing the truck’s nose-heavy stance.

    Trucks could happily cope with much more power - BJ reckons way north of 1,200bhp would be perfectly practical, except for the fact that those kind of numbers consume fuel at a rate impossible to balance against the requirements of endurance racing. When you hear that BJ’s current engine only does 3.1mpg at race pace, you can imagine what something with more power would need to keep it fuelled. Oman, basically.

  5. But the power is nothing like the whole story, merely the first chapter. Because, more than anything else, these vehicles are defined by their suspension. Their ability to take thousands of tooth-rattling punches and still drive for 12 hours. The dampers themselves are faintly ridiculous, nearly four feet long, manufactured by a company appropriately called King Shocks. They feature remote reservoirs and easily tweaked compression and rebound. If you see a video of them moving across the ground, it’s like watching the proverbial swan - peaceful from the waist up, paddling like crazy underneath. The stats are formidable. The front wishbones can manage some 26 inches of independent travel, the rear three-link solid axle around 34. That’s an unholy amount of fast-reacting suspension swagger.

    It’s probably worth pointing out here that this information comes to you courtesy of autonomous note-taking, because essentially I wasn’t listening during the entire briefing. Too excited. And, eventually, after an eternity of careful preparation, we plonk Fedor and a chase truck onto a couple of trailers, and head out in the desert. To drive.

  6. This is more like it. A bare hour outside of Vegas is BJ’s test area, and the kind of scenery I’m more used to seeing Trophy Trucks batter their way across. A huge salt pan surrounded by tracks and trails wound through scrubby, sharp-looking desert and ground-hugging foliage sporting the kind of spikes usually found on medieval armour. The sun is 40-degree hot, but I’m the one who’s about to explode. Safety first, and it takes an age to get suited up, fix HANS devices and tighten belts. Hoses and lines are attached to my helmet - one for comms, one for piped, clean fresh air - and Fedor’s virtually unsilenced V8 fires up. It sounds like a drag car, guttural, phlegmy, fan-bloody-tastic. Hook first from the manual auto (there’s no clutch, but you still shift the gears yourself on a linear shifter) and pull away.

    Fedor, as it turns out, is surprisingly easy to drive. Initially. Build some speed on the flat, shift to second with a slur, and then third. We won’t see first again until we stop. The steering is eerily quick and totally numb, the enormous power assistance needed to stop drivers ending up with forearms like tree stumps with thumbs. Feet are clasped in little metal shoes that sit over the two pedals, there to stop your feet from bouncing on and off the controls when going fast over rough ground. BJ is talking to me, telling me to go faster, not to be afraid of the bumps. Only they aren’t bumps. They’re more like midget mountains. Obviously, not wanting to look like a wuss, I gun it.

    All hell breaks loose.

  7. The experience is like nothing else. Acceleration is forceful but not daft, and accompanied by the front rearing like a speedboat. Hit the brakes, and the bonnet points itself at the floor - literally at the floor. Tip into a corner, and the amount of drunken body roll makes it feel like the whole truck is about to pitch right over. The engine roars and spits, and you drive right over things that would have UK off-roading types breaking out the winches. Imagine, for instance, turning into a corner with the nose pointing at the deck and the rear two feet higher than the front. Then imagine a transition phase where the weight seesaws front to back by the same margin, and, as you accelerate, picks up the inside wheel. The truck then starts to drift, because you have 800bhp, RWD and a loose surface.

    So you’re on three wheels, tipped up and back and pointing at an endless cerulean sky, and drifting. Did I mention the bumps? You’re also doing this over bumps. Big ones. And rocks the size of melons. It’s like a computer game where the physics have been warped.

    For the first 15 minutes, you find yourself bearing down on the harness, crowding around your core and preparing to get hit. Cringing, basically. Because if you drove into a six-foot-deep drainage ditch at 90mph in a normal car, you’d expect to have a perfectly fused spine a moment later. But in a Trophy Truck, it doesn’t happen. The truck still takes hits, you still take hits, but you land as if falling into a particularly puffy crash mat. You just have to recalibrate what the vehicle is capable of before you can drive it properly, and, after about an hour, it becomes clear that this is a vehicle that requires a very special set of skills and experience to drive effectively. Neither of which I have.

  8. Still, BJ isn’t screaming or crying, so I soldier on for the next hour, building a bit of speed, running the car to the maximum across the salt, boinging over four-or five-foot-high sets of whoops (dusty bumps) and doing small jumps. The truck absorbs the abuse, revels in it. For once, there are no caveats, no disappointments. Trophy Trucks are The Law.

    It is at this point I get cocky, and things start to unravel. I’ve driven a section of whoops a couple of times now, and I have their measure. Hit them at 50-60mph, and Fedor follows the line of the ground, pitching and heaving, feeling slightly vomity. Hit them above 100mph, like BJ does, and the speed allows the truck to deploy all that suspension travel, clipping the tops of the bumps instead of drowning in them, pattering across the tops, cab level and suspension firing like pistons in an engine.

  9. BJ seems happy, and is making encouraging grunty noises. Though the radio seems to be cutting out, so he could well be telling me to slow down. I’m not sure. So I speed up. This is a mistake. The first 10 bumps go exactly according to plan, and I start to get a feeling for what it must be like when BJ drives these courses for long hours. Experience and confidence is the key - hit these things properly, use the truck’s ability, read the ground well ahead, and a Trophy Truck covers rough ground like nothing else. But it’s a false sense of security. I hit one very slightly off-camber bump, and Fedor moves - very slightly - to the left.

    Unthinkingly, and used to something conventional, I correct the incipient oversteer just as we hit the next bump. Which sends Fedor slightly further to the right. Within three bumps, I’m applying half a turn of lock per bump, the truck is slewing alarmingly, and we’re doing over a ton. We are, by all accounts, in the shit. I’ve never been in a situation like this, in a vehicle like this, on terrain like this. I’m not sure what to do.

    “Back off. You… can… back… off. Now.”

    The words are spoken with a strangely quiet, emergency calm, burnished with a burr of American accent, the unspoken “for goodness sake” hanging in the electronic ether between our comms-connected helmets. The blare of an all-but-unsilenced V8 changes pitch as I try to ease the throttle back out with as much delicacy as I can muster while jouncing across four-foot-high berms, and the monstrous, 110mph tankslapper I’ve just initiated peters out in an unwinding of the latent energy of the accident we were about to have. After all, if I’d gone much further sideways and clipped a bush or a rock with lock applied, disintegration would have ensued. We’re talking barrel rolls. In the multiple. And the roof doesn’t have suspension.

  10. After that little incident, we pause, and BJ finally gets into the driver’s seat and shows me what Fedor is capable of. Two things are immediately apparent. One, his body position is relaxed, confident, more aware of the vehicle’s limitations (or lack of them). Two, he’s looking hundreds of yards further away, head lifted, scanning endlessly for the upcoming terrain.

    “At race pace, the stuff you’re looking at within 100ft of the car has already happened,” explains BJ. “If you really want to go fast, you have to look way, way ahead, and already have a plan.”

  11. The next 40 minutes is vividly, splendidly deranged. We move across the desert at a preposterous pace, outrunning the chopper we’ve hired to take photos. I’ll just say that again - outrunning the helicopter. And we’re on terrain that makes the moon look like a bowling green. It’s a furious, glorious, insane blur. And it makes me want to race one. But, all too soon, we have to pack up and head back.

  12. I’m knackered from adrenaline hangover, and the fact that my body has sweated 5kg of mass into the race suit. I come away thinner, filled with respect for off-road racers and shocked at their skill. But, most of all, I come away with one strident, all-encompassing thought: I want another go. And I want it now.

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