2003 Dodge Ram Baja Racer - A Tangible Dream
How the average Joe can build a race truck and compete in the Baja 500
For most people, it's a fantasy experience, the unobtainable adrenaline rush reserved exclusively for the elite and super-wealthy to enjoy. Perhaps that was the allure that demanded my consideration, or maybe it was just the fact that it was the type of experience you just don't come across every day. Whatever it was, I jumped to my feet with excitement when I received the phone call from Kent Kroeker of T-Rex Engineering, insisting I be his co-driver in the 36th annual SCORE Baja 500. "Absolutely, count me in--as long as I can slide it past the Editor," I responded. My heartbeat quickened with the notion of navigating a race vehicle through the turbulent wilds that consume everything south of the border.
"What are we going to run in?" I asked eagerly, crossing my fingers in hopes that the words "trophy truck" would follow. Nope. "Stock Full," Kent replied. I paused for a moment, letting my shoulders settle, wondering if such a class even existed. But Kent insisted that the Stock Full class is one of the most competitive and challenging in all of the Southern California Off Road Enterprises (SCORE) racing circuit. Unsure, I checked the SCORE Web site (www.score-international.com) and confirmed it: Stock Full is a class for fullsize production vehicles.
It seemed wrong, though. I couldn't visualize a stock fullsize truck blasting through the desert in the wake of million-dollar Class 1 cars. How could a production vehicle stand a chance against unlimited horsepower and 4 feet of suspension travel? When I asked Kent this question, I learned what Baja racing is all about, and also that we'd soon be making some interesting modifications to the '03 Dodge Ram 2500 diesel truck we planned to race.
In Baja racing, the challenge is not against man, but rather against Baja itself. With ever-changing topography that ranges from pine forests to trackless deserts, the peninsula often stands triumphantly over inexperienced and over-zealous challengers. Kent stressed to me that especially in our class, it's more about wisdom than aggression, knowing precisely when to slow down, not indiscriminately holding the throttle wide open. Baja is too unforgiving for recklessness. Limited by our chassis stock suspension design, the T-Rex race truck would require both great care and some very specific modifications to survive the Baja 500. So follow along now as we explore what modifications we made to the Ram and as we make our pass into one of racing's most storied events.
Several changes were made under the hood to help increase durability and torque. For starters, the two OE batteries were replaced with the tried-and-true Optima blue-tops. A Banks Six Gun power tuner with the off-highway-use-only Speedloader was installed to help improve throttle response and low-end torque. A Banks Big Head turbo wastegate was added, along with a Piers turbo fan wheel, which helped the Banks High-Ram intake horn boost manifold pressure up to 35 psi. The exhaust system was done completely by Banks, utilizing that company's massive 4-inch replacement downpipe and stainless steel exhaust system.
To transmit the increased torque to the wheels, the stock clutch was upgraded with a South Bend clutch. The truck dynoed at 245 hp before the installation of the above mentioned items. Afterwards, the truck put out an impressive 360 hp at the rear wheels, all while never exceeding exhaust gas temperatures of 1250 degrees. That might not seem like all that much in Trophy Truck talk, but was plenty for racing in Baja with limited suspension travel.
First and foremost, entrants must abide by SCORE rules regarding safety. Specific guidelines exist governing rollcages and the way they are built. Kent enlisted the help of master trophy-truck builder and fabricator Nestor Berardi of Newline Products in Anaheim, California. Nestor and his crew spent 15 days TIG-welding an eight-point SCORE regulation rollcage out of 0.120-wall chrome-moly tubing. A true work of art, this cage preserved the truck's stock dashboard and headliner, and allowed the use of three Beard Ultra Pro suspension seats mounted in place of the stock seats. Crow Enterprises five-point racing harnesses were used to secure occupants, and custom Beard window nets were also added to meet SCORE safety regulations.
The bed of the truck features two spare tires/wheels, a custom 44-gallon ATL fuel cell and one spare rear driveshaft. Replacing the problematic OE fuel lift pump is a FASS fuel pump from Diesel Performance Products, which is also mounted inside the bed, out of harm's way. These pumps feature integrated filters, water separators and air strippers to aid in consistent fuel delivery.
The T-Rex race truck utilizes 18-inch Weld EVO wheels. These wheels are one-piece forged aluminum, and feature a 45mm offset. Designed by T-Rex Engineering specifically for the Dodge Ram, these forged wheels are superior in strength and provide ample clearance for the massive Dodge brake calipers. Mounted to the stout wheels are 35x12.50 Toyo Open Country MT tires. These tires provided great traction and excellent durability throughout the race. The truck's suspension was beefed up by T-Rex Engineering using its bolt-on suspension system consisting of coil springs, billet-aluminum shock mounts, massive Fox hydraulic dampers and Deaver progressive leaf packs.
Up front, and necessary for Baja racing, is a Desert Racing Concepts lightbar/bumper/skidplate to protect vital components from damage, as well as to provide a much-needed mounting point for the removable Baja Designs Carrera lighting setup. The system is a prewired bolt-on HID lighting system that produces 9,600 Lumens of blinding white light. It's designed to quickly mount during early evening pit stops. In Baja racing lighting systems are an area in which the pros never skimp. The increased distance afforded by the Carrera HID system allowed Kent to drive fast and still maintain a safety zone, without overdriving his lighting.
During the race, navigation was my job as we traveled along blinded by dust and glare. Newline Products installed a Lowrance GPS unit in the dash and provided beneficial data like danger indications, route guidance and waypoint navigation. During prerunning, we programmed many skull-and-crossbones symbols into the moving map to warn us of impending ruts, washouts, cliffs and optical illusions we wouldn't be able to see while racing in the dust. This tool was especially helpful when we hit paved sections because the SCORE rules required that no race vehicle exceed 60 mph on the paved public roads, or risk disqualification.
The GPS was the only accurate way to know ground speed. Equally important to racing in Baja is communication. With no helicopter support, this task was especially difficult for our team. Luckily, Rock On Motor Sports, a professional motorsports media and management company, provided T-Rex with an Icom 75-watt VHF radio for the race truck. The pit and chase crew used less powerful radios that reminded everyone that we were small fish in a big pond.