First, let me just be clear that I know all racing is serious business, on- or off-road. But I just had my first experience riding shotgun on a short-track off-road course with Pro Lite Truck racer Casey Currie, and I think the only way to describe what it's like is with a quote from Shakespeare: "fuuuuuuck."
I've been on ride alongs in some very fast cars with very fast drivers, on road courses and tracks, and whipping between rallycross cones, and it's always been exhilarating. But I'm not sure I've ever been on anything so unashamedly bonkers as bouncing over a dirt short-track in a 2WD 500+HP tube-framed Pro Lite Truck.
Casey, who just placed third in this past week's race at Lake Elsinore, was nice enough to let me sit shotgun in his backup truck; a shockingly street legal but still entirely custom Pro Lite truck. It's front-mid engined, with the engine well behind the front axle and sharing a lot of space with the driver in the cabin. The radiator is right behind the seats, and the whole frame is a light, strong birdcage. There's about 12" of suspension travel for each wheel, along with a very robust suspension setup.
Casey's trucks have Jeep-style fiberglass bodies, even though Jeep is really only a sponsor of his R/C cars and "lifestyle" endeavors. I still think the Jeep front end is a good choice though, as the wide-eyed, very recognizable face really works well when watching the race. It's the only truck who's front end accurately convey's the total lunatic quality of this form of racing. It looks kind of like a bulldog on PCP as it roars into the air over the big dirt jumps.
I should have known going on a ride along in one of these would be different when the guy helping me to buckle in told me to hold on to the shoulder straps tightly. I've never been told that at a track.
The experience of riding on these motocross-derived tracks is about as close to a roller coaster as you'll want to get in a truck. Starting out, you're immediately confronted with what appears to be a giant wall of dirt. It looks a little like a cliff face, only the driver is flooring the throttle and heading for it as fast as possible. The way the 2WD truck clambers and climbs that filthy wall at speed is already pretty remarkable, but you soon forget all about that because the very next moment everything is strangely quiet and you're plummeting through the air.
Casey told me afterwards that the jumps are usually about 10-20 feet in the air, and about 100-120 feet long. That's a lot of flying for a truck to be doing. I was expecting the impacts to be much harsher than they were, but it says an awful lot about the sophisticated suspension setup that the landings were surprisingly soft. Sure, it was 3000+ pounds of angry race truck, but when it impacts the ground everything absorbs the shock and you end up with this strange rapid sinking feeling that lasts a few moments before the acceleration of the truck shoves you back in the seat.
Once the truck lands, the dirt takes revenge for you walking out on it at the top of the jump, and does its best to swallow you up and fling you into a wall. On the turns, Casey was grabbing a rear-bake-only lever to allow him to drift through the loose dirt of the turns getting himself set up for the next big straight and the next huge jump. Steering and brakes just don't work the same way in dirt as on a track. You can be full lock on the brakes and the truck will keep pushing forward.
Momentum and inertia can often have more influence than the driver's desire and the position of the wheel, and all of these factors must be considered by the driver.
While they're flying through the air. And getting pelted in the face with hundreds of hard, angry little clods of earth.
I just went around the track with him before the race started; things get exponentially crazier when there's 30 or so trucks flying around everywhere. And, if that's not enough, the track itself changes dramatically during the race itself, going from loose and slippery dirt to hard-packed dirt that's almost as hard and unforgiving as tarmac by the end of the race. Unless something happens to churn the dirt back up, which happens pretty much all the time.
How do you learn a track that changes so dramatically each lap?
Casey told me that lots of the fundamentals are the same as in any racing — you find your line, try and hit your apexes, always are thinking of what's coming ahead, all that. But there's so much unique to this sort of dirt-track racing. Like this — you can change the pitch of the truck in mid-air by stepping on the brakes!
You can get the nose of the truck pointed down when you want to by stopping the rear wheel spin, which can help you set up for your landing. if you come in already pointing too far down, you're pretty much boned and all you can do is hope you don't hit nose first like a lawn dart and flip.
The video I got from the hood of the truck doesn't really even begin to convey the feeling of going around that track. People talk a lot about the tricky elevation changes on, say, Big Willow, but I'm pretty sure none of them turn your car into a terrible little airplane for a few seconds of madness.
I've got a lot of respect for the filthy acrobats who drive these tracks. It's also easily one of the most exciting forms of racing to watch, since at any given moment there's four or so trucks aloft, there's showers of dirt seasoning your beer and novelty oversized turkey legs, and they deal with flipped-over buggies like we deal with a reluctant Pomeranian.
There's an awful lot of interesting, exciting stuff going on in this branch of motorsport, and it seems to be one that's not totally impossible to get into on a less-professional level —there are classes for VW 1600-powered buggies that won't break the bank, and offer a great way to get involved.
It's going fast, flying, and getting filthy. What's not to like?