Think your sport is spendy and dangerous? Try this on for size: Cameron Steele is about to drop $20,000 in fuel to go racing—not for the season, but for a single event that lasts less than two days. His pre-race prep includes pre-running an 1,100-mile course through the mostly untamed Mexican desert a week before the green flag drops to find the ruts, holes, and cliffs that will try to swallow his $500,000, 6,000-pound Trophy Truck. Further complicating things are locals who aren’t always excited about having 120dB exhaust pipes and 40-inch tires roosting their front yards. They like to dig holes in the spots racers didn’t mark on their GPS maps, just to keep everyone on their toes. The total cost for bringing Cameron’s entire Desert Assassins Racing team to Mexico, competing in the Baja 1,000 with two unlimited-class Trophy Trucks, and getting everyone safely back on U.S. soil will exceed $100,000. If he wins, he’ll receive a massive trophy, a firm handshake from SCORE International (Score-International.com) CEO Sal Fish, and $5,000. How do you make a million dollars in desert racing? Start with $2 million-then try to find a few generous sponsors.
Why is an off-road truck in your magazine? Because HOT ROD has covered Baja racing since the beginning—45 years ago, right about the time you’re reading this—and hot rodders are by nature a very rebellious group, and rebellion usually irks The Man. What better vehicle is there on the planet to evade the authorities after you’ve irked them than one with 800 hp, 3 feet of suspension travel, and tires tall enough to crush a Yugo? This is as hot rod as it gets—a truck hand-fabricated to get from Point A to Point B faster than anything conceived by mankind, no matter what gets in its way. We’ve drooled over SCORE Trophy Trucks for a long time, but this was our first opportunity to get up-close and personal with one. Cameron not only let us disassemble his newest truck for a studio shoot, but he also jumped at the chance to find out how quick it could cover the 1,320 and how it stacked up against a new Boss 302 and an SVT Raptor on a road course. Why? Why not?
A half million smackers doesn’t go far when you’re building a race car designed to survive rolling over on its lid after hitting giant cacti, flipping end-over-end after biffing a jump, or merely crossing the finish line after 1,000-plus miles of wide-open-throttle racing. Aside from safety specs, there are zero rules in this class. Anything goes. Two-wheel drive, four-wheel drive, all-wheel-drive, big-block, small-block, EFI, two carbs, eight carbs, eight shocks—do whatever you need to match the driving style you believe will finish the race. Then hope your finishing time is faster than everyone else’s. There are two ways to get your Trophy Truck on the starting line at Baja: Build it yourself or call Geiser Bros., the shop that crafted half of the 28-truck starting grid at the last race.
Cameron’s Geiser-based truck looks like a Ford, err, a Chevy, uh—well it isn’t based on any production truck, and as in NASCAR, the brand is based on who is sponsoring it at the time. In this case, it’s Monster Energy, so the body is just a monster. The backbone is a round-tube chassis and rollcage built from 600 feet of 0.120-, 0.095-, and 0.065-inch thick 4130 chrome-moly tubing, which isn’t exactly light but necessary to keep the driver and co-driver safe no matter what the truck runs into. Weight savings comes from a fiberglass body that is likely to be ripped apart as soon as the race start, and through suspension mounts built from sheetmetal. The front control arms and rear lower link bars, which are massive in comparison to standard hot rod stuff, are formed from multiple pieces of sheetmetal that are TIG-welded together and pivot on humongous spherical bearings with high-misalignment spacers instead of bushings. The bearings offer more potential for angularity changes in the suspension, which translates into the most suspension travel of any vehicle on Earth. This is the key to soaking up three-foot-deep holes and bumps in the terrain at top speed. The other key to suspension Nirvana in the dirt is the finely tuned dampers. Like monster trucks, Trophy Trucks use coilovers and separate bypass dampers that dwarf passenger-car parts. The Fox Racing bypass shocks are externally adjustable for rebound and compression and are a staggering 4.3 inches in diameter. It takes the Geiser Bros. crew of 11 employees 2,000 man hours to build a truck like this, and Cameron owns the very first one the shop put together back in the mid-’90s. His newest truck No. 28 of the 36 the shop has fabricated for the lottery winners, coal-mine owners, and construction company tycoons that race the desert for fun, pride, ego, and the searing spike of adrenalin that comes from driving as fast as possible through a dirt storm.
“This is the worst-paying form of racing you can get involved with.” — Rick Geiser
Considering the weight involved, the distance Cameron must travel, and the terrain he’s covering, the 145-mph top speed is pretty awesome. Power for both trucks comes from Dougan’s Racing Engines big-inch, Chevy-based small-blocks. Truck No. 1 is carbureted because, “I don’t like seeing laptops plugged into race trucks in the middle of nowhere,” Steele says. Although he’s been successful in other classes throughout his long desert-racing career, Cameron has yet to win in his Trophy Truck. Perhaps that has something to do with why a high-tech EFI system is used on the new truck’s engine.
The 455ci engine shares almost nothing with a production Chevy. Only the main and rod bearings, the rear main seal, and the distributor gear retain the OEM dimensions. The block is a Brodix aluminum part and the heads are Chevy SB2 castings. The crankcase is filled with a Sonny Bryant crank, Oliver billet rods, and JE pistons, all custom parts with specs that Dougan’s owner, Ray Field, will not share. Same goes for the solid-roller camshaft. It seems Trophy Truck builders are as secretive as Pro Stock crew chiefs. We do know the heads have titanium Exceldine valves, T&D shaft-mount rockers, and that the induction is topped off with a ported Edelbrock intake and a Kinsler four-barrel throttle-body. A Williams pan and Dailey four-stage dry sump system keep Lucas Oil 20W50 synthetic oil cool and flowing. The 455 builds more than 780 hp and 680 lb-ft of torque and will race 1,000 miles while eating dirt without an oil change or valve-lash adjustment before it returns to the shop for a refresh. The teardown and rebuild includes new valvesprings, pistons, rings, and gaskets. After three races, the $3,000 crankshaft and $1,000 rods are replaced. The price tag for a new mill tops $40,000, and average fuel economy is between 2 and 2.5 miles per gallon while gulping VP C12 racing fuel.
Tuning is by Danzio Performance (DanzioPerformance.com) and engine management and datalogging happens via a Life Racing ECU with a Motec dash display. Danzio also tackled wiring the truck to military specs, which is a feat in itself because of the epic amperage demands of the 12 exterior lights, six electric fans, GPS systems, electric fuel pumps, and the fresh air ventilation system. It takes a custom 200-amp alternator to keep the truck functioning when all systems are go.
The transmission is a beefed-up version of the tried-and-true TH400. While it works great at the dragstrip, we are honestly surprised to see it used in Baja. Rancho Drivetrain Engineering (RanchoDrivetrain.com) is fairly secretive about what’s inside the stock GM case but we did get owner Tony Selva to admit to using billet drums, a custom split-stator torque converter, a high-flow pump, and a close-ratio planetary gearset with 1.95:1, 1.34:1, and 1.0:1 gearing. The shafts are now 300M material, and at some point the shop will have an aftermarket case made of unobtanium. The output shaft of this $19,000 torque multiplier is modified with a pulley to drive the alternator.
A single-piece driveshaft with 1350-series U-joints connects to a 74-inch-wide Currie Enterprises–fabricated sheetmetal housing with—get this—2.5-inch-diameter, gun-drilled, 36-spline Gearworks axleshafts. The housing features a special pinion support, shield, and retainer designed to flow a ton of oil to keep everything cool. The gear case is from Strange Engineering, and several 10-inch gearsets are available from 4.71:1 to 5.43:1 ratios. The actual ratio depends on the track, and, of course, that’s a secret, too. This is beyond heavy-duty stuff that you won’t find at the local parts house.
“In my opinion, there is no other form of racing that pushes parts to the limit more than this sport.” — Ray Field
Freiburger came up with the scheme to take Cameron’s truck out of its natural habitat to see how it would react and if we could learn anything about building a hot rod by staring at it and drooling for long periods of time. It’s difficult to comprehend just how insanely cool this thing is without a point of reference, so we brought two of them—a ’12 Ford Mustang Boss 302 and a ’12 Ford F-150 SVT Raptor. The plan was to compare the Baja racer to the 444hp track monster ’Stang and the 411hp wannabe Trophy Truck at the quarter-mile of Auto Club Famoso Raceway in Bakersfield, California, and at the road course of Willow Springs International Raceway in Rosamond, California. Cameron in the Trophy Truck probably could have passed both magazine guys driving the Boss at Willow Springs if he tried hard enough. He was only 5 seconds slower around the big, 2.5-mile course. At the dragstrip, the 6,000-pound truck hooked up hard and ran 13.20 at 103 mph. We only managed a 12.95 at 112 mph in the Boss, so the TT wasn’t far off. Sure, it has almost twice the horsepower of the Boss, but it carries an extra 2,000 pounds and spins 40-inch Yokohama tires that, with the wheels, weigh about 140 pounds each. For Pete’s sake, the axles weigh 22 pounds each, and the suspension wasn’t remotely dialed in for either track we were at.
What did we learn? It doesn’t matter what the surface is, Cameron can drive, and this truck can move out. Not only is it fast but it’s built better than most hot rods on the road or the track. The construction is overkill for 95 percent of what we do with our cars, but it’s still inspiring to see how the other side of the industry gets the job done. We build tubular control arms, they build ’em out of sheetmetal. How cool would it be to see someone do the same thing with a fenderless ride? It would surely be different and at the end of the day, that is what this ridiculous lifestyle is all about.
From the Mastercraft suspension seat (it really does have springs in it), Cameron can adjust the brake bias, reach a cordless impact gun for tire changes, and find the nearest cerveza on the Lowrance GPS—but sadly, he cannot listen to his favorite polka band because there’s no stereo. There is a satellite phone (cell service in Mexico sucks), an even bigger GPS for the co-driver to monitor, an Icon race radio for staying in contact with the pit crew, a Motec digital dash for keeping tabs on the engine, and 192 other switches that operate the lights and sirens.
Stuff To Know When Racing Baja
- Each Trophy Truck will consume 550 gallons of race fuel on race day, plus whatever is burned while pre-running the track at a slower pace.
- The 40-man crew will bring 30 tires for each truck.
- SCORE requires each vehicle to run its own $500 GPS tracking device.
- It costs $120 per day for food and lodging for each crew member.
- C12 goes for $14.50 per gallon in Mexico.
Ray Currie’s Tips for Welding Chrome-Moly
“Whenever we build a chrome- moly housing, we send the rear to the builder so that they can add all their brackets. Then we bring the rear back in-house, cut the tubes out of it, and reassemble it so that the tubes are perfectly straight. Chrome- moly moves every time you weld to it. It’s not nearly as critical when working with mild steel, but it does make for a better finished product. We do this as a courtesy for all of our customers.”
See the Video!
The crew of our HOT ROD Unlimited show caught all the absurd action of the Trophy Truck, Boss, and Raptor on the strip and road course. Go to YouTube.com/MotorTrend and search for “HOT ROD Unlimited Trophy Truck.”