For the average human being, the word Raptor elicits visions of ferocious reptilian creatures that are fast on their feet, with voracious appetites and razor sharp claws and teeth. Mention Raptors to an automotive enthusiast, especially an off-roader, and their mind instantly conjures up scenes of a factory modified Ford F-150 4×4 pickup truck roaring across the terrain at high speed, leaving a column of dust trailing behind it.
To be more specific, the Ford Raptor, introduced in Fall of 2009 as a 2010 model, is a highly modified F-150 4×4 built by Ford’s SVT (Special Vehicles Team) and sold through Ford dealerships in that souped-up configuration. Since its debut, it has been the benchmark of performance for pickup trucks with its powerful V-8 engine, aggressive all-terrain tires, internal triple-bypass Fox Shocks dampers, skid plates nose-to-tail, and Hill Descent Control as standard equipment.
Ford brought forth a four-door SuperCrew model to supplement the two-door SuperCab choice offered to Raptor buyers the very next year. A grille-mounted camera that helped improve driver visibility when climbing over obstacles, as well as a Torsen limited-slip differential in the F-150s front axle, was included in 2012.
Beadlock-capable wheels that allowed drivers to air down the tires to extremely low pressures for better flotation over sand and increased grip on rocks without the worry of the tires peeling off the rims, and high-intensity-discharge (HID) headlights for improved nighttime visibility were added for the 2013 model year. SYNC with MyFord Touch was also available for increased connectivity that same year.
The 2014 SVT 4×4 Raptor is powered by a 6.2-liter V-8 engine that produces 411 horsepower and 434 lb-ft of torque, and is backed up by an electronically controlled six-speed automatic transmission with SelectShift mode that allows it to be manually shifted when desired. The four-wheel-drive system features shift-on-the-fly capability, the axle gears are 4.10s, and the rear axle carries an electronic-locking differential to augment the Torsen up front.
When it comes to off-road capabilities in a pickup, the Ford Raptor is hard to beat, and we were about to learn just that at the Ford Racing F-150 SVT Raptor Assault, or as they refer to it at Miller Motorsports Park (MMP) in Tooele, Utah, “the ultimate high-performance off-road driving experience.”
MMP opened in 2006 and is the handiwork of track designer Alan Wilson and Larry H. Miller (probably most famous prior to his involvement in motorsports as the owner of the Utah Jazz basketball franchise). Covering more than 500 acres, MMP contains North America’s longest road racing track, a short-course off-road track, moto-cross track and rock-crawling course.
The MMP facility will be host to a number of events, including the Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series, AMA Pro Motorcycle Road Racing, Lucas Oil Pro Motocross, Vintage GP, and NASCAR Pro Series West. It is also used for vehicle testing and development, as well as driver training, and a number of on-track schools.
Across the street from MMP is a 900-acre patch of wide-open desert terrain that combined with some classroom time, the 22-acre high-speed short course off-road track and the eight-acre rock-crawling course, make up the full Ford Racing F-150 Raptor Assault demonstration and learning experience.
We were there for the One-Day School, but there are three different experiences: the Raptor Assault Hot Lap, the Raptor Assault Experience, and the Raptor Assault One-Day School.
You are in the passenger seat for the Raptor Assault Hot Laps, and a professional driver provides you with a thrilling off-road ride as he demonstrates what the Ford Raptor can do during two hot laps through the short-course off-road track.
The Raptor Assault Experience gets you behind the wheel of a Ford Raptor. After a classroom exercise and orientation with the truck, you are belted in to drive the rock-crawling course and a section of the short-course off-road track. Then you swap seats with a professional driver for a hot lap on the short course.
For the full experience though, you really want to do the Raptor Assault One-Day School, and no you can’t use your own rig for the school. The full-day program starts in the classroom for a about an hour of instruction, safety and vehicle orientation. From there, students mount up and drive the Raptors (the MMP program currently uses 2012-model year Ford Raptors) on the Rock-Crawling Course and the Off-Road Short Course. There is a break for lunch after these first two driving exercises, and then everyone gets buckled-up again and heads out for the Off-Road Desert Course for high-speed driving instruction and practice.
The Rock-Crawling Course is a group of cemented and natural terrain fixtures that are built to replicate a number of rocky conditions, including boulder fields, ledges, rutted inclines, angled rock shelves and ravines. This section of the MMP Raptor School is used to teach and practice low-speed, technical driving skills. We were pleasantly surprised (and impressed) to find out that this 8-acre rock garden has been used for national championship-level rock-crawling events such as W.E. Rock (World Extreme Rock Crawling Championship) and Ultra4 Pro Racing Championship.
Short course off-road racing has been around for decades, popularized by the late Mickey Thompson and his Mickey Thompson Grand Prix series that filled venues such as the Los Angeles Coliseum during the 80s and early 90s. Today, it’s even more popular than ever, and the MMP Off-Road Short Course is a high-speed off-road race track that is approximately one mile long, with big jumps, woop-dee-doos, hairpin turns, broad sweeping banked corners, and fast straightaways. Its caliber has made it one of the stops on the Lucas Oil Off-Road Racing Series, which features the most exciting short course off-road races in the country at this time.
The Off-Road Desert Course is a collection of four tracks of dirt roads in a section of wild desert terrain located near MMP. There is a narrow winding section in an arroyo. There are also silt-laden tracks, hard-packed dirt roads, tight corners, and two more big jumps in the mix. It is fast, wild and dusty. And it was exactly what we were looking for.
The morning began with a classroom session to learn or refresh our skills in basic safety and off-road driving technique, as well familiarize us with the Ford Raptor and its features and abilities. We were issued racing helmets and neck collars for protection. The main instructor for our class was John Williams, who helped develop Raptor Assault for MMP.
Williams is a long-time Raptor owner, with a good deal of off-road driving experience. Aside from being lead instructor at the Raptor Assault program, he has built many off-road vehicles, has racing and rock-crawling experience, and is a designated trail spotter on challenging 4×4 trails in locations such as Moab, Utah during a number of events. Williams knows his way around off-road rigs, rocks and dirt roads.
One of the most important lessons we learned here and out on the rocks, that would also help later on the desert course, was left-foot braking. Using the left foot on the brake pedal to apply the brakes in varying pressures, while still maintaining throttle input (again, in varying amounts) with the right foot at the same time, is an excellent way to control the vehicle while creeping over rocks.
By using left-foot braking, the brakes can help you keep the vehicle from lurching over the back side of a rock too quickly and harshly as you slowly motor over it, allowing you to do so without slamming the undercarriage or other vital components against stone. It’s a technique that’s unfamiliar to most uninitiated off-road drivers, but a skill that warrants learning well.
Rock crawling is something most people probably won’t be doing in a fullsize pickup truck like a Ford Raptor, but the fact that the truck is so well equipped makes it capable of a good performance in this theater. A wider-than-normal stance (Raptors have a six-inch wider than stock wheelbase) and a suspension with better control than stock, is part of why it can comfortably handle sidehill inclines of up to 30 degrees.
This sidehill exercise was the first trial and it did not disappoint, as some students were less than happy to be hanging sideways on a steep rock slope for the very first time. But with coaching from the instructor team, and gentle and steady use of accelerator and brake, I was able to creep very slowly, and then stop and hang (as the 30-degree slope was clearly indicated on the Ford Raptor’s inclinometer) for a minute on the side of the small rock ledge.
Next on the rock-crawling course agenda was a hill climb and descent. This was another test of our vehicle control (on the way up), as well as a way to show the Ford Raptor’s Hill Descent feature (on the way down) and test our trust in this feature. The hill structure was steep and rutted to simulate crawling up an incline littered with boulders.
Again, left foot braking and fine-tuned control of the accelerator pedal was the trick to climbing ever so slowly up the slope to allow the tires to slowly inch their way up and over the tops, and more importantly, inch their way down off the back sides of the rocks and large ruts as the Ford Raptor moved up the incline. Any mistakes were accompanied by a loud banging sound coming from beneath the truck as its undercarriage sharply contacted rock or concrete.
Once perched atop the crest, I switched on the Hill Descent feature (which works by controlling engine speed). That allowed the vehicle to literally drive itself (as I kept the steering wheel straight) slowly and at a controlled rate of speed down the smooth backside of the ridge feature used for the climb and descent exercise. It’s truly a test of trust to not touch the brakes or gas pedal and allow the Ford Raptor to descend safely on its own.
Short But Sweet
The Off-Road Short Course was next and it was our first taste of speed in the Ford Raptors. Under the watchful eye and tutelage of our instructors, we were brought to a start line, and then in succession allowed, at greater and greater speeds to charge the largest jump on the short course and get some air! The feeling of being airborne in a 5,000-pound pickup truck is something I just never get enough of, especially when done correctly and the result is no broken parts.
Here we were reminded, as taught in the classroom, to get off the gas the moment the vehicle left the ground, and stay off the brake pedal and accelerator until the Ford Raptor had landed on all fours. To do otherwise risks breaking drivetrain components. Letting the vehicle land and run freely for a moment keeps the axles, gears, transmission and engine moving freely. Once full contact and traction had been regained, input to the brakes or accelerator could be re-initiated.
This was also our first chance to really feel the Ford Raptor’s suspension work under full impact. Having driven one many years ago, I was happy to note that my memory of its ability to soak up landings from a fully airborne jump were soft, yet firmly planted and in control, with just enough rebound to bring the truck’s body back to proper position without any wallowing or porpoising.
The rocks and the short course were fun, but we had all come to Raptor Assault to learn more about and practice our high-speed off-road piloting abilities. The short drive from the MMP facility to the staging area of the Off-Road Desert Course was filled with excitement that bordered on something like nervous anxiety. I could barely keep my right foot in check.
Our first task was to tackle a twisting, curving and banked dirt road that lined the bottom of the arroyo. Here again is where left foot braking came into play. The quickest way to get through the section was to drift the banked corners, which meant braking just enough to help kick out the tail end of the Ford Raptor, keeping the front wheels pointed at the exit, while giving it enough power to keep the rear driving wheels turning, biting and propelling the truck out of the corner. Once a student got the hang of it, the truck handled beautifully and a huge grin became a permanent fixture.
We moved on to a large 1-1/2 mile oval of silty dirt road for the next portion of the Raptor Assault. This was made up of long straight stretches, tight corners and short loops placed 100-yards or so before two gigantic jumps. A 50 mph speed limit was imposed to keep from damaging any equipment, as well for safety concerns.
After a slow-speed familiarization lap, we were turned loose. When you are moving at a high rate of speed on a long straight stretch of silty dirt road, with a 411 hp V-8 at your disposal, the feeling is breathtaking. I mean that literally, I almost forgot to breathe for the first half-mile or so. And it was amazing how quiet everything seemed to get when the Ford Raptor lifted off that first jump.
The roar of the engine pierced the silence once I buried my foot into the accelerator again after landing, and off I went headed for the next corner. The rest of my drive around that long oval was one of bursts of speed, interrupted by torque-powered churns through rutted silty corners, and then hard charges out into the straight-aways toward the next jump.
Would Off Road Xtreme do it again? Yes sir! Even though we have a good deal of experience driving off-road, there is always room for improvement, and this was good practice for anyone. For the novice, whether you own a Ford Raptor or not, the MMP Ford Racing F-150 SVT Raptor Assault is an excellent way to learn how to drive off-road in a powerful fullsize pickup truck through a number of terrain types, including rocks, tight corners, silt beds and twisting dirt roads. And flying through the air in a Ford Raptor isn’t bad, either!