Mash the clutch, slam the gear shift, pressure the throttle plate to speeds well over 100 mph, throw the car sideways in the corners, and wipe the dust from your visor. This was the three-day recipe for our built V-6 Camry engine and Fortin five-speed tranny, with a dog-ring gear box, on a 922-mile-long desolate trail. Terrain ranged from graded forest service roads to boulder-littered single-track to soft sand, silt, and dry wash; sprinkle in hill climbs, mud holes, and radiator-deep water crossings. We weren't your family's Toyota--or on your typical desert highway.
It was Day Three of the '02 Nevada 1000, the longest point-to-point off-road race in the U.S. The Groff Motorsports Team was now simply steering for a finish, since the first two days of racing had already thinned the high-caliber pack of motorcycles, ATVs, cars, and trucks, and presented the Groff/Toyota/BFGoodrich team with a wide variety of time-gobbling and drama-filled challenges that included flat tires, loss of power steering, and lengthy stucks in the mashed-potato soup of Nevada's silt. Add in 108* heat, along with making repairs in a nomex-lined race suit. It was about as far away from IRL racing, where a tow truck, pit crew, and team manager were just around Turn One.
Brothers Robbie and Mike Groff, former Indy 500 drivers who've garnered over 300 race wins, including five U.S. National Championships, joined with desert veteran Marty Fiolka to campaign a highly-visible Class-I open-wheel unlimited race car for the '02 season. Sponsored for a four-event season by Toyota Motorsports, BFGoodrich Tires, Truck Trend, and a long list of associated partners, the two-seat race vehicle was built by Jimco and is powered by a 3.2L Toyota fuel-injected powerplant, based on a Camry production engine. The powerful rig runs on 114 octane Union 76 race fuel and boasts more than 2 ft of vertical wheel travel.
Midway through Day Three, as we approached Area 51, the top- secret military base and alleged alien territory, near Rachel, Nevada, the sky went brown and our world suddenly turned upside down.
"Are you okay?" Robbie Groff's voice punctuated the silence inside my helmet. "Yes, I'm fine," I responded, breathless from the shock. Still strapped into my five-point harness, but now lying on my side, with a view of rocks and dirt out the open windshield, I pressed the orange call button to communicate with team race manager Don Tebbe and veteran crew chief Barry Beachman. Just a half-mile before, I'd called in: "This is Race Car 1525 passing Mile Marker 712, gauges are good, and we're running clean." "10-4, Sue, we copy," returned Tebbe. "Keep up the good work, you two."
Abruptly, the wind shifted. On point to overtake a Class-III (short wheelbase, minimal modifications) racer, a bow wake of billowing dust filled our roll-cage cockpit. Groff rode the brakes hard, but as dry dirt filtered daylight back into the equation, the road dropped away from our racer, and the Baja T/A 35-in. tires struggled to keep us upright. Nearly 3000 lb of race car tumbled sideways down a rock-littered gully, rolling over one-and-a-half times before coming to a jolting halt.
Struggling to pull the belt release, I pushed in the radio control. "Don, Don...this is Sue...we've rolled, and we're on our side in a gully." I tried putting the brakes on my rapidly beating heart and locate oxygen for my lungs. "We're unhurt." Tebbe's calm voice read the drill. "Remove the fire extinguisher, get out of the vehicle, and report back on your condition."
An hour later, using the jack, spare tire, and rocks--along with the assistance of three other racers, who helped us drag, tug, and roll over the race car one-and-a-half more times--Robbie jumped behind the wheel and pushed the ignition switch, as I gathered tools and gear and loaded us up for another go. The Camry's V-6 roared to a start, and we headed out once again across the Nevada terrain to make a podium finish of one of the toughest off-road races on the planet.
The Best in the Desert
What is it? The Best in the Desert '02 Nevada 1000, the longest point-to-point race in the United States; a three-day format of roughly 300 miles a day, which starts and ends in Las Vegas: Day 1 is from Vegas to Ely; Day 2 from Ely to Tonopah; Day 3 from Tonopah back to Las Vegas.
Sponsors? The '02 Groff Motorsports campaign is also supported by an impressive list of associate corporate partners, including Union 76 race fuel, PIAA lighting systems, Bell Helmets, and Northridge Equipment Rentals, along with corporate partners Fox Racing Shox, Bosch for fuel-injection and spark plugs, Eibach for suspension springs, and MOMO safety equipment and seating systems. The car also features the latest in color Global Positioning Systems (GPS), courtesy of Lowrance and paint/graphics by Molly Designs.
What's next? The renowned SCORE Baja 1000.
The Ivan Stewart Edition
The Ivan Stewart Edition, a dressed-up version of the supercharged full-size pickup, is essentially a seven-piece polyurethane body kit in painted-to-match factory colors, along with a few technical enhancements. The body kit includes fender flares, full bumper cover, a grille surround with laser-cut mesh insert, mirror covers and signature edition Ivan Stewart graphics, floor mats, and interior badging.
Available in silver, black, and red ($2995), Toyota's new flagship truck is more than just a cosmetic upgrade. But for those not interested in the brand-name badging (or the entire package), these special components also are available separately.
Technical features include high-performance monotube shocks manufactured exclusively for TRD by Bilstein. In addition, rising-rate valving improves on-road handling and off-road ride, and the gas is charged to ensure fade resistance. Pressure-cast one-piece five-spoke 16-in. wheels include forged aluminum center cap with embossed TRD emblem, matched with BFGoodrich All Terrain T/A KO tires (265/70R16).--S.M.
Ely, Nevada. The crossroads of U.S. Highways 50, 93, and 6, is the jumping-off point for Great Basin National Park, Cave Lake State Park, and numerous BLM and U.S. Forest Service campgrounds scattered throughout the region.
Originally part of the Utah territory, Nevada's eastern border was tweaked one degree eastward in 1866, and, a year later, a gold strike at Treasure Hill on Mt. Hamilton brought in greater numbers to form. White Pine County, carved from the Lander County in 1869.
A well-preserved short-line railroad draws visitors from all over the world to ride the "queens of steam" and diesel engines.
The Silver State is a Mecca for 4x4 enthusiasts, as well.
Photographer Boyd Jaynes and I were slated to chase our Toyota-powered race team on Day Two of the Nevada 1000. This means we were scheduled to show up at race pit stops to see if extra help was needed. But there was a talented group of mechanics and other race-team supporters at-the-ready, and it was understood that Jaynes and I were going to explore the region and test the brand-new TRD Tundra supercharged V-8 and show up at a few pit stops. A tough job, we concluded, but, hey, someone had to do it. After all, we were in the Ivan Stewart Edition of the TRD Tundra, and we knew how fast "Iron Man" Stewart is when it comes to racing. We figured the truck would see us through--and we were right.
We were in the middle of a three-day off-road rally across wild west desert towns such Goldfield, Ely, and Tonopah, across sand and silt desert tracks and over the rock-littered and tree-forested mountains. (I was on assignment to perform the duties of codriver in the Class-I Groff Motorsports race car for days One and Three, while Jaynes was assigned to shoot the race.)
This legendary competition over the roughest terrain and scorching heat of the Silver State made the perfect staging place for Toyota to show off its most advanced racing-engine technologies--and for testing the limits of the most talented race-car drivers in the world.
Though no stranger to racing, Toyota put its speed program into high gear with the inception of TRD in 1995. Located in Costa Mesa and Tustin, California, TRD designs and builds Toyota racing engines in addition to building and marketing performance aftermarket parts for many Toyota vehicles. The group has grown from 50 people in early 1995 to more than 200 today, in part due to the explosive growth of motorsports and the performance aftermarket industry in the U.S.
One of TRD's biggest projects has been the supercharged 4.7L V-8 newly available on Tundra, Sequoia, 1998-2002 Land Cruiser, and Lexus LX 470 models. The supercharger will boost horsepower by 50 percent (maximum gain is 235 hp vs. 353 hp at 5200 rpm), torque by 50 percent (maximum gain of 239 lb-ft versus 359 lb-ft at 5200 rpm), low-end torque by 32 percent at 2800 rpm and pressure by as much as 7 psi. This year, Toyota expects to sell about 1500 trucks with the supercharger option, which is priced around $4000.
Like most TRD Sport Parts, the supercharger is a bolt-on system without welding or cutting for assembly on the motor. The charger pairs an Eaton M90 assembly with an exclusive, fine-tuned TRD Engine Management System for optimal power and efficiency over the complete rpm range.
Taking a short break from the action on the trails, Jaynes and I tested the roadworthiness and the backcountry mettle of the newest TRD offering. What did we learn? First, it's fast and fun to drive. It's on-road handling is superb, with power that'll send you across the Silver State--or wherever you want to go--well above the legal range, but with all the steering, braking, and suspension control to keep you on the highway. Next, it's a quiet and comfortable 2WD package designed for paved and graded dirt roads, not 4x4 challenge. And it's fast!
At the end of the day, Jaynes and I had managed to do it all. We visited tourist attractions, gold towns, and pit stops. As I slid into the cockpit of the race-prepared Toyota Motorsports Class I and adjusted my helmet and five-point harness, I realized that sometimes in life you can have it all!--S.M.