How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Off-Road Trucks

(photo courtesy of Gibson performance)

Note to self: buy a cell phone.

Here in the desert, on a "road" full of dips and covered in rocks as big as your fist, the decidedly "on-road" vehicle I'm driving—a Mercury Tracer—could easily bounce and break, and nobody would ever find me. The nearest town, Lucerne Valley, is small enough and out-of-the-way enough that it doesn't even merit a McDonalds. Hell, most of the houses there look to be having moving-out sales. But we're past even that hint of civilization now. There's nothing but dirt and mountains ahead.

Flash back to last month. Thanks to some connections at the Long Beach Grand Prix, I was scheduled to experience the thrill of drift-car racing, riding in the passenger seat alongside driver Ryan Hampton. Due to my Neptune-sized noggin, lack of appropriate headwear and an unfortunate accident closing down the track, the ride was almost hilariously brief.

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So when the opportunity arose to ride in another fast, scary vehicle, alongside another professional driver coincidentally named Ryan, who could resist? This time, there was no way the track could be shut down, as Ryan Arciero is an off-road driver in a vehicle with the official moniker of No. 82 SCORE Nitto Tire Chevrolet Trophy Truck, soon to be seen competing in the Baja 500, which begins June 1. Advance requests were made for extra-large head protection, and my stomach was similarly kept empty to prevent travel-sickness-induced expulsions. The only sustenance in your humble writer's possession? A bottle of Pepsi Summer Mix, a disgusting new "tropical" cola that tastes like antacids.

When the desert road finally smooths out, a vast dry lakebed stretches out ahead. A group of black dots on one end must surely be the people to talk to about this whole deal.

And so they are. Third-generation racer Ryan Arciero, his "copilot" Benny Metcalf Jr., and a small crew are prepping the No. 82 for its function test, popping off all the decorative side panels until only the lean, mean skeletal version stands ready to race. They call this a truck, but it doesn't quite look like what you or I might consider such—it's more like a souped-up dune buggy on steroids and Red Bull. With the panels on, it is vaguely truck-shaped, but in bare-bones test mode, it could be a G.I. Joe vehicle.

It's 11:30 a.m., we're in the middle of a desert, and I didn't bring sunscreen. Stupid, stupid. No one else has any, either, and Metcalf sports a patch of slightly blistery skin that looks like the result of similar forgetfulness. Who knew? The weather isn't exactly constant right now. At least the crew has water and are kind enough to share. It's so dry out here that it's possible to drink several bottles and have none of it go to the bladder. I had been told by the publicists at Gibson Performance Exhaust that there were "only a few spots left" for ride-along opportunities, but there are no other press people here. Good. No long waits. The Gibson team (there to "make sure their exhaust system is giving Ryan's truck exactly what it needs!") arrive bearing sunscreen (awesome!) and Coors Light (how can anyone drink beer in the noonday desert sun? I'm hardcore, but no alcohol masochist).

It's a little disconcerting when Metcalf suddenly drops his pants, but fortunately he changes quickly into a full-body race suit. He and Arciero get into the truck, and the test is on. We eat their dust (okay, inhale is a better word than eat, but point is there was a huge cloud of it). For about 20 minutes, we periodically hear crackle on the CB radio that everything is fine.

They come back, pop the snazzy panels back on, and now it's my turn to drop trou and gear up. In an alarming bit of déjà vu, the first helmet I try on is too small. So is the second, despite it belonging to Metcalf, who claims his skull to be super-sized. There aren't any more. Can it be that fate and planning are conspiring to ruin yet another ride? Not quite. We pull out all the straps and wedge the second one on. It's not comfortable—my cheeks are now caving inward to fill the space between my jaws, so I have to keep my teeth clenched so as not to bite inner-cheek fat—but it's adequate, barely. I slide into the truck through the side "window" (hardly fair to call it that when there's no glass, just a removable net—but it certainly isn't a door). Get strapped in tight to keep from moving. A tube is plugged in to the back of my helmet.

Final instructions: Watch the panels in front of me. If red lights come on, tell Ryan. If numbers at the bottom go above 200, tell Ryan. The engine will be so loud that there are intercoms inside the helmet, to enable the telling of things to Ryan and for the folks back at their cars to broadcast really loud staticky instructions that hurt my ears.

Arciero offers some advice: "Try to just relax and go with it. If you get scared, and you tense up, it'll make things much worse for you. If you have any problems, let me know." Gotcha. But I have a secret weapon on the relaxation front—just prior to suiting up, I took a shot of children's Benadryl, which had a bubblegum flavor far tastier than Pepsi Summer Mix. A wonder drug if ever there were one, the big B has always helped me with panic attacks, allergies, insomnia and motion sickness (this statement not evaluated by the FDA).

But it's still scary as hell the first time we drop off a big bump. The helmet hurts a bit, too. I shut my eyes a time or two, as my seat vibrates like a massage chair on maximum setting, with the occasional big bump thrown in. I remember marketing director Alicia Seibert saying that her two minutes in a drift car were terrifying and eternal. The secret, however, is to do more than two minutes. Once the momentum is established, one can and does adapt quite quickly. Roller-coaster rides tend to be short, probably for the same reason—no time to acclimate. Though there's a semblance of a track to follow, this might as well be open desert. Periodically, a distance marker will show up, and Arciero passes by so closely you'd swear the truck would knock it down. It doesn't. This driver 's got the skills.

At 100 mph, with no side windows, the cross-breeze feels like someone is putting their hand on your helmet and trying to push it up against the side. On the hard turns, red lights go on and off on the panels. Frustratingly, every time I try to tell my driver, they go off again. It's like having an older brother who only kicks you when mom's not looking.

We ride up and down a hill three times, each time a little faster, each time allowing the publicists to take more photos. But something ain't right. We're losing fuel pressure. And then the engine stops completely, though when your starting speed is 90, there's plenty of distance to coast. So that's what the red lights meant.

At a complete standstill, Arciero takes his helmet off, and I gladly follow suit. The crew pull up alongside and try to figure out the problem. Bad fuel pump. Mechanic magic is worked, and we're able to drive the rest of the way, though sans helmets, so speed must be limited. Arciero takes it up to 60 when we hit the lakebed, and the cross-breeze is such that it's almost impossible to keep my eyes fully open. A good firsthand demonstration of why helmet visors are needed.

When I thank him for the ride, Arciero says, "Now imagine doing that for 20 straight hours!" Metcalf says he has lost up to 20 pounds in a race, which, he jokes, "is why I bulk up!"

It's time to do some bulking up of my own. That empty stomach is kicking in, and visions of cheeseburgers are beckoning.


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