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  • Event Coverage: A PowerStroke Ford Excursion Roars Through the Baja 1000

Event Coverage: A PowerStroke Ford Excursion Roars Through the Baja 1000

David Newhardt
Apr 1, 2002
It's early Thursday morning in November, and I'm heading south toward San Diego to meet with a group from SMD Motorsports. I hop into their vehicle and cross the border into Mexico, rolling on to Ensenada. A harbor town that regularly sees cruise ships disgorge dollar-waving tourists, it's been host to the Baja 1000 for 34 years. The day before the race starts is known as Contingency Day, when all the teams roll out to fill the waterfront streets with racing machinery for technical inspection.
Photo 2/20   |   01 Baja 1000 Ford Excursion Drivers Side
I hear it before I see it: The low grumble works its way into the bones, a low-frequency sound that reeks all business. Locals press together for a better look at these Baja entrants, almost to the point where toes end up under tires. But the sea of humanity parts for the huge black Excursion, mindful that a close encounter with its massive BFGoodrich rubber would only benefit a doctor. Tall, long, and strong, its 137-in. wheelbase casting a dense shadow, the SMD Motorsports Excursion wades into the dirt compound like a grizzly bear among pandas.
Photo 3/20   |   01 Baja 1000 Ford Excursion Engine
I meet the team and Steve Scaroni, a high-energy individual who's got a finger on every facet of the race. A helmet and driving suit are tossed into my hands, and I'm told where to find my ride to the resort we're using as a base of operations.
At the transporter in the hotel lot, I check out the Excursion, noting its suspension travel: 18 in. front, 16 in. rear. Fox Racing Shox look up to the task of softening the jolts that an 8300-lb vehicle will endure at racing speeds. A 7.3L PowerStroke Diesel fills the engine bay, but looks little different from stock. Engine modifications are primarily electronic, resulting in 500-hp and 850 lb-ft of torque. That should get us into trouble at a nice pace.
Photo 4/20   |   01 Baja 1000 Ford Excursion Interior
I sit around, staying out of the way until the crew meeting after dinner. Then it's time to lay in bed wondering what I've gotten myself into. All hands meet at the trailer at 6:30 the next morning under heavy overcast. I look like a walking mannequin in my band-box-fresh driving suit and gleaming helmet. I should roll around in the dirt to at least knock some of the newness from my appearance, but the team assures me I'll look like an old Baja hand by the second mile. Okay. The crew is then quietly confident. I'm just quiet.
Photo 5/20   |   01 Baja 1000 Ford Excursion Rear Divers Side In The Pit
It's 8 a.m. and time for me to climb into the sole racing seat that's bolted where the second row of seats normally goes. Scaroni and the navigator aren't wearing their helmets as we fire up the beast and head into downtown Ensenada. With 219 vehicles running, our class (stock full) stock, production full-size truck is at the back of the pack. It's going to take some time until we see the starting line. A green flag is given to one race vehicle every 30 seconds to provide a safety cushion around each entrant. Time to cinch down the five-point harness and check the fresh-air hose to the helmet and the intercom jack.
Photo 6/20   |   01 Baja 1000 Ford Excursion Front Grill
The flag whips. Scaroni slams the shifter into first and floors the throttle--the sounds swell dramatically. Nobody told me this thing roars! Four blocks on city streets, then a drop into the wash that runs through the town. Locals swarm over the sand, spreading apart enough to let the race vehicles pass single file. More adventurous youth reach out as if to touch the high-speed parade--at least until they see us coming.
Photo 7/20   |   01 Baja 1000 Ford Excursion Susspension
Predictions about the appearance of my driving suit have been borne out, as the lack of windows allows plenty of fresh air, and anything else, to flow into the Excursion. We catch a race buggy and swing around to pass. Locals are now sprinting like scared rabbits from what appears to be two racers with questionable directional control. Already we're catching air, the ride suddenly smoothing out, then the Ford lands like a big pillow.
Suddenly, it's the end of the wash. Dust from forward vehicles is blinding. We slide to a halt, nose high. We toss the gear lever into reverse, lurching backward. Now into first, the steering wheel is spun, nail the throttle, up and over. Head to the hills above town.
Photo 8/20   |   Wild Life
I've been in some rough geography in my time, but nothing's prepared me for the brutality of this terrain. The PowerStroke is bellowing ferociously, overlaid with the turbo whine. Rear tires claw up and over rocks, spewing dust and shards. Already the course is taking its toll as disabled entrants are squeezed off the track, hoods up or tires off. Scaroni points out a sharp curve where a GMC went over the edge last year. I crane my head to look, but all I see are tumbleweeds and cactus, about 100 feet down. We round the curve, and Scaroni slams on the brakes as a lethargic wild horse ambles across the trail. We miss its tail with inches to spare, then accelerate down the path.
As dust clouds intensify, we know we're closing in on another vehicle. When it looks like we may need to stop until the pall lifts or blows away, the navigator pushes the horn button and Steve punches the accelerator. Miraculously, the slower traffic appears through the murk inches from our bumper, lurches out of the way, and we steamroll on.
Photo 12/20   |   01 Baja 1000 Ford Excursion Front View
We come to the base of a hill where a dozen racers sit idle, waiting for the next vehicle to reach the ridge-top a mule would be loath to tackle. Quite a few entrants make an attempt, but get stuck halfway up. Scaroni charges the hill, cuts into the brush, foot to the floor, arms flying. We pass stuck vehicles as he turns back toward the trail, but sheer inertia carries us across the path and into the weeds on the other side. We slow, then high-center on a rock. Pile out of the truck, grab the high-lift jack, start pumping at the rear bumper--bang! The jack breaks. Quick! Get the air jack out. Put rocks under the tire. Now back it up. We're free!
Photo 13/20   |   01 Baja 1000 Ford Excursion Rear Divers Side
The panorama of Baja bounces by; the intercom crackles: "Flat tire!" We pull over enough to avoid the other racers. A cordless impact wrench is fitted with the socket. Steve uses it before the dust settles, as I direct traffic around us and mount the flat in the vehicle's rear.
Photo 14/20   |   01 Baja 1000 Ford Excursion Hood
The Tecate Highway soon appears. We take it about 10 miles down the mountain into the interior of the Baja peninsula, then off-road again--that is, until we find we have no brakes. Seems we've ripped a brake line. As the pedal bounces on the floor, we dodge the normal local traffic. Roads are open for business as usual, and a race vehicle might come around a corner at full chat, only to find a lumbering truck overflowing with chickens bound for the stew pot in the oncoming lane. Scaroni radios that we're pulling into the first pit we find, regardless of what team it belongs to. When we pull in, they dive under the truck and tell us we're missing a front-left-brake line. A new one is quickly installed, fluid is poured into the master cylinder, a rush bleed job, then down the hill.
Here's the pull off, back onto the dirt. Flatter now, open up the pace. Signage, checkpoint ahead. Stop long enough to mark our fender sticker, then on the loud pedal. Catching air on the moguls, passing quite a few other race vehicles. "Flat tire!" Pull over. I wrestle the good tire to the ground, lash the first flat to the frame, secure the second flat. Now we're out of spare tires. Out goes the call to the chase trucks. We arrange to meet them and swap a flat for a good spare. Thirty minutes later we have one on board and open space in front.
Photo 15/20   |   01 Baja 1000 Ford Excursion Rear
With dust plumes and other racers ahead, we reel into the closest until we're only feet from his rear. Side to side we jinx, horn blaring. Can't get by. We come along a faint trail that Steve remembers hooks up with the main road a few hundred yards ahead. A quick pull of the steering wheel: It's a game of chicken at the Y. Our bulk and speed prevail--until five minutes later, when another tire calls it a day.
Photo 16/20   |   01 Baja 1000 Ford Excursion Blown Wheel
There's nowhere to pull off; we have to keep rolling until we find a wide enough area. A mile later, we slow and stop. The tire's a shredded, smoking mess. In less than five minutes we're again rolling towards the first full pit stop and the relinquishing of my seat. A handful of miles later, we roar into our pit, the crew descending like locust. I unhook myself and crawl under the rollbar to fresh air. A mechanic enters from the other side, and in moments, the race truck is in gear and rolling. I watch the big Ford raise a cloud of dust in its wake as the sun settles toward the mountains. It's been five hours and 118 miles since we started. As the Excursion rumbles away from the pits, I wonder if I'll be getting in again.
Photo 17/20   |   01 Baja 1000 Sun Set
At 4:20 p.m., word comes over the radio that the Excursion got another flat and its steering box is broken. We send one of our chase trucks in case help is needed. The steering box is changed, but yet another flat tire has stopped the vehicle. Word comes down that the new steering box is acting strange and the engine will idle but won't rev. The problem is soon found to be a relay; the chase truck helps in repairs and drops off more new tires. The Excursion gets underway again.
Two hours later, the steering box is still squirrely. Another chase truck is dispatched to the Ford with parts for the box. If the rolling grizzly doesn't make it to the next checkpoint in time, the race is over. Finally, the radio reports that the bolts holding the steering box have sheared again. We're silent.
Photo 18/20   |   01 Baja 1000 Ford Excursion At Night
Scaroni limps the Excursion into our pit at 11:30 p.m., beaten but not down. The PowerStroke Diesel pulled like a locomotive from beginning to end. The SUV rolls onto the trailer for the ride home as the fog descends. This race is over.
Behind the PowerStroke Diesel
Introduced in 1994, the International-built PowerStroke Diesel is a Ford exclusive. It’s been the best-selling engine in the F-Series Super Duty class of trucks, gas or diesel, in each of the last six years. There must be a good reason.
Photo 19/20   |   01 Baja 1000 Ford Excursion Rear Passengers Side
When mated to an automatic transmission, a stock turbocharged 7.3L engine delivers 250 hp at 2600 rpm and 505 lb-ft of torque at only 1600. Bolt a manual gearbox to this 920-lb powerplant, and the output specifications get even better. Horsepower rises to 275 at the same rpm, and torque is bumped up to 520 lb-ft, again at 1600 rpm.
International uses its electro-hydraulic fuel system to meter out fuel precisely for increased mileage and reduced emissions. The PowerStroke Diesel uses a throttle-by-wire system to tie the entire induction into fuel management. The seat-of-the-pants result is smooth power.
Photo 20/20   |   01 Baja 1000 Ford Excursion Motor Mount
On this year’s SMD Motorsports PowerStroke Diesel Ford Excursion, the flexibility of the computers allowed International engineers to massage the engine into generating race levels of strength. Horsepower was eased up to 500, and the 850 lb-ft of torque kept the tires turning, regardless of surface. Internally, the engine was bone stock. During the race, the PowerStroke Diesel had zero problems in some of the world’s most brutal terrain.



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