Dual-sport vehicles have been around a long time, since the '60s at least. At that time, dual-sport was something like a Meyers Manx, a VW-powered, street-legal off-roader that guys like Steve McQueen drove in Baja. Lately, the boundaries of the "dual-sport" moniker are expanding rapidly. There is still a big following for the Manx and cars like it, but for those who can afford it, the trend is toward bigger, heavier dual-purpose machines. These are incredibly athletic custom cars that can comfortably tour Baja, prerun a race, or chase a team, and with the right tires, blast up the tallest dunes anywhere. Like the Manx, these cars trace their heritage and performance characteristics back to off-road racing, where the state of the art has been advancing rapidly.
We checked in with John Cooley at Alumi Craft to get an update on what kinds of capabilities today's dual-sport cars offer. At Alumi Craft, it's easy to see how off-road racing spawned a chassis industry that transferred technology to sand machines and recreational applications. Cooley builds cars anywhere from husky sand machines to prerunners and custom setups not much different from a SCORE Class 1 racer. "If it wasn't for off-road racing, there is no way this industry could be as advanced as it is today," Cooley explained. "The first sand cars we built, eight or nine years ago, were using Volkswagen engines, bus transmissions, 1,200 to 1,500 pounds - that was what we built because that was what was out in the sand. They were mid-engine, lightweight sand cars. Then we started using V-6s, because the off-road race cars were using V-6s. And then in early 2000 and 2001, the Northstar V-8s and the LS-1 V-8s came out. And from there, I think off-road racing and the dual-sport industry kind of evolved together. The cars kind of evolved into bigger, more sophisticated cars than what they were back then. Nowadays, it's nothing to build a sand car with 1,000 hp, and if it weighs 3,000 pounds, it's not uncommon."
Today's dual-purpose machines are different because of the engines. More power dictates a better-braced chassis with a longer wheelbase, more suspension travel, and much more strength. The choice of powerplants available today is truly awesome. Cooley's customers may request "Anything from a supercharged LS-1 to a big-block, like a Donovan big-block motor, something like that. You can't take a motor like that and put it a small sand car like you can with a Volkswagen motor. It doesn't work that way. You have to build a car around your drivetrain. "That's essentially why we have four different chassis. If somebody came in here and wanted to put a Volkswagen motor in a big car, we'd say, 'This isn't the car for you. We have this other car.'
The dual-sport chassis and the prerunner chassis differ in a variety of ways. "You can see where it's bigger," Cooley explains. "It's wider, longer, the tubing is bigger, it's going to be around 3,000 pounds. It's just a bigger car. It has more wheel travel. Bigger rack-and-pinion, bigger spindles, bigger A-arms, bigger shocks or dual shocks, 30-gallon fuel cell, bigger radiator - everything is bigger." A good example of what Cooley is talking about can be seen in this year's ORBA (Off Road Business Association) sweepstakes car. Cooley and his team of 10 employees designed and assembled the car, which is a dual-purpose machine built on a heavier Cooley prerunner chassis. Designed around a 134-inch wheelbase, the 4130 chromoly tube chassis will weigh about 2,800 pounds. There is 21 inches of wheel travel, front and rear, to help handle power generated by a Redline performance Chevrolet LS-1 V-8, good for 430 hp with the reliability of a stock motor. The Mendeola Racing transmission is an S-4 four-speed. Fox Racing bypass coilover shocks, with Eibach springs, guarantee control and enable precise rebound and compression tuning. Pro Comp X Terrain 35x12.50s are mounted on light Walker Evans Racing 7x17-inch bead-lock wheels. Steering is handled via a Howe 2.5 power rack with Sweet control valve, designed to minimize steering effort and control bumpsteer, even with taller tires. To keep it all cool is a Ron Davis radiator with dual fans and heat exchanger for oil cooling. (The car can be seen at www.orba.biz.)
"For sand, obviously you need the paddle tires, for flotation. And some kind of a Razor Back sand tire for the front, so you can turn. Or the car pushes in the corners. When you get a four-seater that's 134 inches long, it doesn't turn on a dime. So you need the right tires," Cooley says. "Given that, you can do both. I have customers who prerun the Baja 1000 and the next week are at the sand dunes in exactly the same car."
As a general rule, dual-purpose machines are not too pretty to take into rough terrain. "If you have a sand car that's all polished, with metalflake paint and chrome and all that, you normally won't take the car out into the hard pack. A dual-purpose vehicle "could be the same car, but it's powdercoated. Now they're not afraid to take it out and beat it up," he explains.We asked Cooley, a SCORE racer himself, how he evaluates a dual-purpose car.
"First thing I look at in a chassis is the safety aspect for the occupants in the car - it has to be safe. Then I look at the workmanship, and how the car was constructed. Any car can work, but if the car goes over, and it's not safe for the driver and the passengers, then it doesn't matter what the car is. "And then I look at the way the suspension is set up, and how things have been mounted on the car. Where is the radiator positioned on the car? If a radiator hose blew off, would it spray the people in the back seat? All those little things you have to look into when you build a car.
Alumi Craft's style is based on performance, Cooley says. "We build cars for function first. We don't have a reputation for building sand cars with chrome, all glittered out. That's why the majority of our customers come from off-road racing. The off-road racers know they are getting a car that's going to work, and for the most part, the avid racer doesn't really care if his steering shaft is polished or not. He's a driver. And he wants to be safe. We stress the safety part of it in a big way. If you think about off-road racing, you're out there in a controlled environment in a closed course, with helmet and driving suit on. Now you take a sand car and you go out to Glamis - they don't have window nets, they don't have helmets, it's a free-for-all out there. You have no idea what's on the other side of the dune. So you really have to use your head when you go out to the sand dunes. Sometimes I feel safer racing."
Racing shaped his ideas about what he wanted in a recreational car, and that R&D process continues with every car he makes. "What you learn is how to make a car live," he said, "and the other half is how to make a car work. A lot of our customers race. If they have a race car, that means that they have to test the race car and get it to work better and better. We're always gaining knowledge through our customers. "We're pretty lucky to have customers we have. John Marking with Fox owns one of our cars, and he is the type of guy who will spend days and days and days to try to perfect how a car works. Beard Seats owns our cars; Redline Performance owns our cars. So with these people owning your cars, you can pretty much bet that those cars are going to be set up to the best of their potential. That has helped me tremendously when it comes to making the cars work."
The ORBA sweepstakes car represents a tangible commitment toward supporting off-road recreational opportunity. Cooley and the other sponsors agree on the need to raise money to give off-road enthusiasts a voice in Washington. "People need to know how important it is to support ORBA. It's so important for people to get involved in some way, even if it's just going out there and picking up trash. People need to do their part to do whatever it takes to keep the dunes open."