Riding right seat in the Bronco R in Baja shows the prototype truck's good and bad side
Professional racer Brad Lovell throttled the Bronco R out of the dirt parking lot at El Rancho Taqueria in Valle de la Trinidad, Baja California ahead of the SCORE Baja 1000. The synapses in my brain instantly lit a bank of grey-matter cylinders that were experiencing a rush of adrenaline. As the Bronco's turbo punched air through the Ford motor, an alluring and seductive exhaust note filled the soft desert air. It was the type of a serenade that's worshipped by those who are wired for racing.
This whistle stop village, situated in a broad valley with nearby access to some of the toughest off-road trails used in Baja racing, is home to approximately six dozen inhabitants. It is cherished by off-roaders and dirt racers for its Pemex fuel station and muy delicioso tacos.
Mead suits up before her ride in the Bronco R.Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company
A small corps of Ford Performance team members, along with a cadre of engineers from Geiser Brothers off-road racing had descended on the town with the mission of putting some on-and off-road miles on Ford's prototype truck.
Visible to the naked eye was a body designed to tease the looks of the upcoming street-legal Bronco, with cues that harkened to the original icon. It was punctuated by a color scheme and a "2069" badge that reflected Rod Hall's legendary 1969 Baja 1000 win in a Bronco; the number honored Hall and reflected the class the Bronco R would compete in the next day. The shell rode on top of a purpose-built, roll-caged race truck, with a stock motor, transmission, transfer case and front differential; the "race rear end" and other add-ons were not from the Ford stables.
Ford confirmed that the engine and transmission in the Bronco R are the same components that will be in the 2021 Ford Bronco.
Mead met up with the Bronco R race team in Valle de la Trinidad.Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company
Earlier in the week, the "R" had been experiencing issues with its added-on race bits. Its first high-speed pre-run earlier in "Valle de T" had illuminated the need for more time and testing. All involved knew those were a limited commodity but, as the long, mud-splattered hood was removed, tools were placed at-the-ready and a team of experts filled every available orifice the Bronco R has to fix its teething troubles.
Electrical wiring was replaced in an effort to remediate issues with fuses and the cooling system of the race vehicle that was developed in skunkworks only five months before-- and had only been driven approximately the same number of miles in testing as the grueling race was long.
As the Bronco R roared back to life, I donned a race suit, helmet, HANS device, and gloves, and slipped sideways through the webbed window. Lovell, one of the world's top racers and fabricators with multiple Baja 1000 wins sat in the driver's seat while I took my spot up front.
Tapped to be on Ford's seven-person Dream Team of notable off-road racers for the '19 Baja 1000, Lovell started our ride along Baja California's Rt.3, in the northwestern quadrant of this Mexican state. "The ride is really smooth," I hollered into the mic, as cactus, yucca, and desert scrub blurred along the roadside. Lovell picked up the pace. "It is smooth and handles really well," he responded.
The other seat in the cabin is a single back seat that is bolted in. During races, that seat is generally reserved for engineers and this ride along was no exception. Its occupant was Brian Novak, Ford Performance off-road racing supervisor. The reserved-but-amiable mechanical engineer has an impressive CV as a track racer and heads up Ford's Le Mans, NASCAR, and Virgin Australia Supercars Racing programs.
Mead hops into the Bronco R for her 100-mile ride.Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company
During the ride, his job was to monitor telemetry and, like a parent of a child with a cough and running a high fever, Novak was watchful and concerned. It was less than 24 hours before the green flag would wave at the start of the 2019 Baja 1000 in Ensenada and thousands of eyeballs in Mexico and around the world would be on the Bronco R.
I settled in for the ride in my side-hugging Recarco race saddle. Crisp air blew in through the open windshield and buffeted the world around me. Having raced 30,000 off-road miles around the globe over the last few decades, I felt instantly at home, although mesmerized by the Star-Wars-like bank of controls, gauges, digital readouts, and graphics.
As we turned onto a dirt track to run the truck along a section of race course with undulating terrain, snaking turns, and mud troughs, I noted that Lovell's hands stayed steady and quiet on the wheel. "You're right," said Lovell. "The steering is tight and a bit heavy, which works well."
Mead rides right side in the Bronco R.Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company
Lovell alternated between letting the intelligent transmission up-and down-shift on its own merit and using the paddles to motivate the truck, pointing out that both fulfilled their assigned function. Most impressive, to me was that the Bronco's Fox suspension seemed perfectly calibrated to allow the 'R' to float, when needed, and collect the reins for straight-line, steady and buttoned-up motoring, when required.
By the time we crested the mountain ridge that led into Ensenada, the lights of this seaside city, known as La Cenicienta del Pacifico (Cinderella of the Pacific), filled the night sky with a glistening yellow glow.
Nearly one hundred miles in, I was impressed with the Bronco R, but noted that the team spent the last 40 minutes of the drive frequently instructing me to push an override switch control, as an ominous red warning light illuminated the dark.
Mead's ride revealed the good and bad of the Bronco R's engineering and design.Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company
As we pulled it into the make-shift workshop behind the La Pinta hotel, where a team was waiting to apply fixes and address the overheating issues, I knew the next Bronco chapter is still in outline form, awaiting its instructions to become a true work of art.
This new race horse in the Ford stable had an extraordinarily qualified team of trainers, racers, and support staff. After that initial ride, I thought that the Bronco R had a good chance to complete the world's most arduous challenge over the dirt, sand, mud, mountains, dry lake beds, washes and boulders that make up the Baja 1000. I also thought: this is a colt that might need more time.
Baja 1000 Race Results
Following a 24-hour weather delay, 264 vehicles left the start line early Saturday morning with racers from 39 U.S. states and 22 countries.
After issues with a broken skid plate that wreaked havoc with some underbelly parts, a damaged front suspension, and overheating issues, the Ford pulled the plug at Race Mile 580, as the truck was on track to enter a remote and rigorous stage of the race, where it would have been nearly impossible to get support to the onboard crew.
From there, the Bronco R was able to be driven on paved roads to the finish line in Ensenada, where the team celebrated its efforts and Ford formally announced its sponsorship of SCORE racing for the next three years.
"The Ford production parts performed flawlessly; where we have an opportunity to improve is in the fabricated parts that allowed us to race in an event like the '1000 –to show the rugged capability of our trucks," said Novak. "We will be back."
When the course closed at 11:27:28 p.m. PT on Sunday, there were 145 official finishers for a 54.92 finishing percentage, especially good considering the difficulty of the race course.
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