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Off Road Racing History: Ford’s Kicking Up Dust

Posted in Features on February 1, 2012 Comment (0)
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Off Road Racing History: Ford’s Kicking Up Dust
Photographers: Courtesy of Ford Motor Company

It was just over 110 years ago that Ford vehicles started showing up on race tracks, and back in those early days the tracks were in the dirt. It wasn’t really what we’d call off-road racing, but nonetheless, Ford has been on the race track and in the dirt since the early days of motorized vehicles.

Fast forward about half a century and you’ll find the maker competing off-road in vehicles you’d never dream of flogging. And things really get interesting once a group of guys got together and decided it would be a great idea to race point-to-point across long stretches of desert. Ford would use these competitive opportunities to show off the durability of their production vehicles and to learn from the poundings the vehicles took during grueling race conditions.

Over the years, Ford has raced everything from Pintos to motorhomes in the dirt, and has gotten involved in desert racing and short-course style competition. There have been many, many famous faces and championship drivers on the Ford team that has spanned decades of off-road racing. They’re still out in the dirt and today’s efforts show how Ford has never really stopped supporting off-road racing.

Spotlighting Fabulous Fords this month, OFF-ROAD recalls some of the great off-road moments and images in blue oval history.


Bill Stroppe and Associates dates back to the early 1950s when the organization prepped cars for the first Mexican Road Race. They would go on to dominate a number of races and then move onto the off-road racing scene with equal vigor. This photo was captured at a Mexican Road Race in 1953. Johnny Mantz (right) and Bill Stroppe (left) pose with their Lincoln.

Ford saw some more international success rallying in the East African Safari in Kenya in 1964. In this rally, a Ford Cortina GT would bring home the trophy in the hands of privateers Peter Hughes and Bill Young. This Cortina model was imported and distributed by Ford Motor Company and sold at English Ford Line dealers.

As the Whittaker Baja Team readies itself for the upcoming Mexican 1000, Bill Stroppe (left) and Parnelli Jones discuss strategy while poring over a detailed map of the race course. The now infamous “Big Oly” Ford Bronco would be entered as a two-wheel-drive entry in the 1971 race that covered 833 miles.

The team of Bill Stroppe and Parnelli Jones race their Bronco down the sandy peninsula during the 1970 Mexican 1000. With Stroppe as co-pilot and former Indy 500 winner Jones at the wheel, they would prove a formidable desert race duo competing in the modified class. During this time, Ford partnered with Stroppe and fielded a good number of race vehicles, including Pintos, Mustangs, F-100 pickups, and a 21-foot 4WD Condor motorhome equipped with refrigerator, toilet, beds, and shower.

We have to show you this clean, restored Bronco. This ’68 Ford started life as an engineering truck at Ford Motor Company. It was later turned over to the Stroppe crew, who modified and race prepped it for its debut in the 1969 Mexican 1000 race. Larry Minor and Rod Hall drove it to the overall win that year, making it the only 4WD vehicle to ever grab the title for fastest completion of the race. This one also completed the 2010 NORRA Mexican 1000 some 41 years after its debut race.

Jim Loomis and Bud Wright cross the sand in the 1971 Mexican 1000. Their four-wheel-drive Bronco competed in the stock class category. Carl Jackson and Jim Fricker also ran a Bronco in this class. Back in the day, the suspensions were a simple affair. Coil springs and leaf packs were common, and backed up with one or two hydraulic shocks per corner. Seats were much simpler, and the ride and performance was nothing compared to the long-travel suspensions of today.

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Manny Esquerra was a driver who won a good number of SCORE championships racing Ford Couriers and Rangers for about a decade, starting around 1980. He helped develop and popularize the Ranger and when Ford poured its resources into his off-road racing, they met with very successful results.

Ford continues to branch out and attract skilled talent to team with their vehicle line. Top-tier freestyle motocrosser turned off-road racer, Brian Deegan, recently signed onto the Ford team to support them in a Raptor in Pro 2 class short course racing in the Lucas Oil Off Road Series along with racing a Fiesta in Global RallyCross Championship events and at X Games.

In their ongoing efforts to develop on the race track and deliver proven performance to the buying public, Ford continues to test its latest technology under brutal off-road conditions. The race team completed the 2010 Baja 1000 in an EcoBoost engine equipped truck to further prove the dependability of the new powerplant. Ford used an engine that had already seen an equivalent decade of mileage wear, and afterwards tore apart the engine to see what they could learn from the stress testing. Data such as this is iteratively used to improve the trucks you and I get off the showroom floor.

The Rough Riders racing team was a five-year program that came from Ford and BFGoodrich in 1991. The team was comprised of some of the best drivers to ever compete in off-road racing and would cover a range of off-road racing classes with a factory-backed support team. Over its five-year or so history, the team would capture more than 20 championship awards and help Ford make its mark in desert racing.

Pictured here are Dan Smith, Dave Ashley, Rob MacCachren, Manny Esquerra, John Swift, Chuck Johnson, Paul Simon, and Dave Simon.

The Ford Raptor has captured the attention of dirt fans as Ford has worked to pack extra off-road performance into their venerable F-150. Ford raced a modified SVT Raptor in the 2008 Baja 1000 and finished third in the Class 8 division. Then, the team of Darren Skilton and Sue Mead would push through the 2011 Dakar Rally over a race course covering over nine thousand kilometers in 14 days to clench a first place finish in the Open Production Class. Over the two weeks, the team suffered only a few mechanical problems. While the race vehicle did have some suspension upgrades for the relentless terrain, much of the vehicle was production Raptor.

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