Words and Photos by Dan Sanchez for PickupTrucks.com
Most of us can admit to the fact that we’ve all imagined ourselves driving a Ford F-150 SVT Raptor in a desert race, and sharing the podium with guys like Carl Renezeder or Kurt LeDuc. After all, with 11.5-inches of front suspension travel, Fox racing shocks, special transmission tuning and 35-inch tall BFG tires, the Raptor is designed to handle the rigors of high-speed off-roading right off the showroom floor.
While it would be great to trade paint with elite off-road racers, our colleague and experienced automotive journalist Sue Mead had a better idea. She wanted to take a 5.4-liter V-8 equipped SVT Raptor and participate in the annual Dakar Rally, taking place in January 2011 in South America.
Mead is well versed and experienced in off-road racing, and has participated in the Dakar race once before as a co-driver. In 2000, she took part in the race when it was held in Africa, along with veteran off-road racers Darren Skilton and Troy Johnson racing for Kia. If you recall, that race was stopped by a terrorist threat, and many of the racers, including Mead’s team were evacuated. Mead was also a support driver for Volkswagen in the 2009 Dakar Rally.
It’s been Mead’s wish to go back and compete in the Dakar and it seemed like the Raptor would make the perfect vehicle to take it on. Fortunately, Ford also thought it would be a great venue to show off the truck’s potential, so team Mead, Skilton and Johnson were given a 2010 pre-production Molten Orange Raptor by Ford for the race.
But just taking a Raptor off the street and putting it into the Dakar race isn’t realistic. It’s going to take lots of preparation and some modifications to get the truck race ready. Fortunately, Johnson is an experienced racer and fabricator; but more importantly, he’s the owner and instructor at the FabSchool located in Riverside, California. So he thought it would be great to have his students prep the truck with a complete roll-cage and other structural and suspension enhancements. In addition, it would also allow the team to get the truck done quickly with more manpower dedicated to the vehicle.
The students at the FabSchool have already torn apart the truck’s interior and cut away portions of the cab’s inner sheetmetal. This is done to tuck the tubing closer to the sides and roof of the cab, maximizing head and leg room while adding strength and increasing safety.
While it may sound sketchy, trusting the safety of your roll cage to students learning how to fabricate and weld, Johnson has full confidence in their work.
“I’ve been a fabricator for more than 25 years,” Johnson said. “I’ve worked with Walker Evans, Kurt DeLuc, Carl Renezeder and more. So we like to tell our students that you’re only as good as the people you work with.”
Johnson enjoys taking his experience and talents and training young students to fabricate using the techniques he’s acquired over many years of building professional race vehicles.
His efforts in are evident in the first portions of the Raptor’s roll cage, which were trial fitted into the interior, and fit perfectly along the contours of the roof and A-pillars. Taking a further look at some of the work around the classroom and shop, the chassis, cages and welds on some of the vehicles there, demonstrate the precision and talents students are being taught by experienced professionals who aren’t afraid to race what they build.
But it’s going to take more than a simple roll cage to prepare this street SVT Raptor to take on the harsh rigors of a race like the Dakar. So in addition to a full roll cage, the truck will also receive racing seats, a new fuel cell in the bed, safety equipment, sand ramps, a compressor and upgraded Fox Racing shocks.
“The factory 2.5-inch diameter Fox shocks are hefty,” Johnson said. “But they are [internal] bypass shocks that can develop problems during an aggressive and long race like the Dakar. We spoke with Fox racing and we’ve decided to use their three-inch diameter shocks that will perform better for the conditions that we’ll encounter during the race.”
The shop at the FabSchool has two CNC milling machines and all the fabrication tools necessary to start piecing the truck together in time for the event. Along with Mead, Skilton and Johnson, mechanics Dan Moore and James Fisher will be a part of the support team.
“You don’t realize how much logistics it takes to put a team and vehicle together,” Johnson said. “We are still looking for sponsors and there is a chance that we may get the Raptor all done, but it may remain sitting if we can’t get the sponsorship dollars needed to compete in the race.”
Johnson doesn’t have too much time to worry about that, however. He’s busy devoting much of his attention to getting the Raptor ready.
“We need to get the Raptor completed and on a cargo ship by the first week of November,” Mead said. “So that means it needs to be completed by the third or fourth week of October so we can do some testing prior to the race.”
PickupTrucks.com will be following the build and testing of the Dakar Raptor and showcase all of the upgrades and improvements necessary to get this truck ready for competition. In the meantime, team Mead, Skilton and Johnson continue to prepare for the long road ahead and look forward to the day they can roll the Raptor onto the starting line.