The yard is bordered by small sheds and littered with pickups and trailers. An old tractor rests quietly in one corner. Then, in the predawn gloom, you notice the bright-red Hughes MD500 helicopter, the three gleaming Ford F-150 Raptor SuperCabs lined up next to it, and then a couple of hulking, oddly indistinct shapes -- black-bagged bad-boys standing high and wide: prototype Raptor SuperCrews, still under wraps. We're here at a secluded ranch in a quiet corner of the Sonoran Desert to join the Ford SVT engineering team for the last leg of a 1000-mile durability test, the final step before the Raptor SuperCrew is signed off for production.
This is no ordinary durability test: Basically, we're going desert racing.
Every inch of the Raptor SuperCrew's exterior is covered in heavy black plastic camouflage. The SVT guys have even built a false canopy over the bed to make it look like a full-size SUV. But there's no disguising the 10 inches or so of ground clearance and the 17-inch alloy wheels shod with meaty 315/70 BFGoodrich tires. Or the gleam of the long-travel Fox Racing Shox internal-bypass shocks in the wheelwells.
Inside are a rollcage and five-point harness safety belts. SVT vehicle dynamics engineer Matt Johnson slides behind the wheel. I climb into the passenger seat and check out the GPS navigation device in front of me. The 66-mile test loop has been programmed into the system, with yellow and red crosses marking the hazards according to their severity. My job -- apart from hanging on and not barfing into my full-face helmet -- is to make sure I call them out.
Just before 7.45 a.m., we strap in, helmet up, and Johnson twists the ignition key. He selects off-road mode, which alters the rate at which the throttle responds to gas pedal inputs and also recalibrates the ABS for loose surfaces. Johnson elects to keep the Raptor in two-wheel drive, but pulls out the button to lock the rear diff. Then he selects sport mode, which reprograms the stability control system to allow more freedom to slide the truck, and punches the gas.
The 6.2 growls and the big Raptor quickly gathers speed. Though fast and open, the road's narrow and stony, jinking left and right in places. Hungry-looking boulders dot the verges. Johnson's relaxed, but on it, deft gentle inputs on the steering wheel, eyes scanning the road ahead for hazards that may not have been there yesterday: "One of the things we had to learn is there is a randomness to the desert." I glance down at the readout on the GPS screen in front of me. We just touched 99 mph.