The driveway's hard to spot in the predawn gloom, just a gravel track off a dark desert highway, curling around behind some strategically planted trees. Our BMW M3 long-termer crunches into a small parking lot bordered by small sheds and littered with pickups and trailers. An old tractor rests quietly in one corner. Then we notice the bright-red Hughes MD500 helicopter. And the three gleaming Ford F-150 Raptor SuperCabs lined up next to it. And then we spot a couple of hulking, oddly indistinct shapes -- black-bagged bad-boys standing high and wide: prototype Raptor SuperCrews, still under wraps. This is where Ford's Baja-racer inspired F-150s learn how to fly.
We're here 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 promises to be no ordinary durability run: Basically, we're going desert racing.
Other than the fact it rolls on the 144.4-inch wheelbase common to Ford's other 5.5-foot bed crew cab F-150s, I can only guess what the Raptor SuperCrew actually looks like, because every inch of the 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 dampers in the wheelwells.
Inside, there's a slightly revised dash with a cool new feature I can't tell you about yet because it's part of the F-150's 2011 model-year tweaks. And there are a rollcage and five-point harness safety belts. SVT vehicle dynamics engineer Matt Johnson, who also worked on the chassis tune for the 2011 Shelby GT500 and races a spec-series Miata on the weekend, slides behind the wheel, helmet in hand and a HANS-type helmet restraint system on his shoulders. I climb into the passenger seat and check out the rally-style GPS navigation device in front of me. The 66-mile 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.