Flipping a toggle switch and depressing the starter button brought the grumpy V-6 to life, barking through open exhaust headers. The Trophy Truck's regular driver reminded me that I was about to set out in his one and only race truck for the 2002 season, and he'd be watching and listening to my laps. Darren Skilton, driver, and owner of Baja Motorsports, which built the trucks, was scheduled to race it in the San Felipe 250 less than two weeks later.
Easing the power on, I was struck by how low first gear was--good for only about 20 mph. Entering the desert course and standing on the gas for the first time, I heard and felt the rear wheels spin, sending a rooster tail of dirt and gravel over the landscape. Approaching the first section of rutted terrain, I had no idea what to expect. While I have more than sophomoric experience behind the wheel of race cars on racetracks, testing every manner of vehicle for Motor Trend and Truck Trend, and even a fair amount of off-roading, I suddenly realized this would be a brand-new, completely alien driving experience.
So, how fast can it go? How fast is too fast? How much can this suspension really absorb? While I was making my first lap of the three-mile course, I couldn't shake that old four-wheeling mantra echoing in my head: "As slow as possible, but as fast as necessary." Well, everything I'd learned about off-road driving was about to go out the safety-netted window. It turns out the Trophy Truck saying goes something like "As fast as possible, but as slow as necessary."
Wait a minute--I'm getting ahead of myself. I was behind the wheel of a handbuilt desert-racing truck campaigned by...Kia? That's right. You know the commercial with the cute and frugal couple camping out of their affordable Sportage SUV. Yes, that Kia. So what is it doing racing a desert truck? It turns out it's actually been racing a Sportage, quite successfully, for about four years (see sidebar). But this Trophy Truck, with its chromoly tubular frame, race-prepped 3.5L/350-hp mid-engine Kia V-6, and over 20 inches of suspension travel, is going to play in a completely different, no-holds-barred game. The pure-race Trophy Truck is an ambitious single-seat motorsport version of the recently revealed '03 Kia Sorento SUV.
Simply getting into the Trophy Truck is no easy task. The bottom edge of the window sill over which I had to climb was about armpit height. Skilton was thoughtful enough to lay the giant, 37x12.5-in. spare tire on its side for me to use as a step stool. Once hoisted inside, I was surrounded by a perfectly welded labyrinth of chromoly tubing, yet with the exception of the cage and some mammoth remote shock reservoirs, every other part of the truck lay well below my shoulders. Directly behind me was the motor; beneath, a 45-gal fuel cell; and ahead, no windscreen, but a small wind deflector atop the dashboard.