Want to gain a different perspective on the world, and doing adventurous stuff in it? I, and most of the friends that I do that stuff with got our start by reading and watching Robert Young Pelton. The Canadian author, documentarian, and journalist has made a career out of visiting war zones without government or military support or authorization, and bringing back the real stories of what’s going on there.
IndefinitelyWild is a lifestyle column telling the story of adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there, and the people we meet along the way. Get the newsletter! And follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.See the Archive→
A couple years ago, I figured I’d email Pelton to ask if I could buy him a beer. He said yes, made sure I paid for the drinks, and now we’re buddies. When I want to get firsthand experience from someone who’s survived a plane crash, Pelton is my go-to source. He seems to find my photos and stories about dogs, girls, party camping, and crashing motorcycles entertaining.
So when Ford sent me dates for a loan of the new Raptor, it obviously made sense for the two of us to test it together over two days in the desert.
Pelton’s first job was cutting down trees for the Canadian Forest Service. Carving out the border between British Columbia, and the Yukon Territories wasn’t an easy job, and a lot of it was accomplished while bushwhacking through untraveled forests in Land Rovers. A few decades later, Pelton competed in the legendary Camel Trophy, an extended expedition through some of the world’s most difficult terrain, again in Land Rovers. These days, he keeps an old Land Cruiser at both his ranches—one outside San Diego and the other in Afghanistan. I’ll just go ahead and say he’s one of the more experienced off-road drivers in the world today.
Pelton would agree. From the time I threw him the keys to the Raptor in his driveway at 7 a.m. to the time we pulled back into it the next day at 4 p.m., he only let me drive when he wanted to get action shots. And while Pelton was behind the wheel, I got a rambling lecture on proper off-road driving techniques, as well as a criticism of the truck’s various flaws and merits. “A lot of bubbas are going to get killed by this truck,” was one of his more colorful conclusions. Let me explain what he means.
Launched in 2009, when I was the road-test editor at Jalopnik, the first-generation Ford Raptor broke new ground by offering drivers a showroom stock truck, complete with warranty, that was fitted with the necessary suspension to go high-speed desert racing. I first drove it through the desert in Anza-Borrego as the stunt pilot from Top Gun kept a photo helicopter hovering just a few yards off my hood. A few months later, the East Hampton Star published a front-cover exposé on poor kids from Brooklyn visiting Montauk to jump bright-orange pickup trucks off sand dunes. I nearly lost my job over that one.
That first-gen Raptor was a very capable truck, especially when Ford upgraded it with the much more powerful 6.2-liter V8, but customers couldn’t always understand the difference between a pickup that needed to be civilized, practical, and cost-efficient, as well as fast off-road, with purpose-built off-road race trucks. A lot of people bent frames trying to replicate the jump shots they saw in car magazines, and a few even totaled their trucks trying to get epic air.
But it was a huge sales success. Corporate had only cautiously signed off on a limited budget to develop what was then an unproven concept, but this second generation suffered no such cold feet. Ford’s Special Vehicle Team went so far as to fit this all-new Raptor with a unique frame—fully boxed, reinforced for strength, and shorter than the stock F-150 it’s based on for better off-road clearance. The team also fitted a twin-turbo V6 that shares its aluminum block with the $450,000 Ford GT supercar, the ten-speed transmission from the 202 mph Chevy Camaro ZL1, and an all-new triple-bypass suspension system developed by Fox Racing. They even developed a novel new transfer case that allows the Raptor to operate in both 4WD and AWD, something totally unique in the truck market and designed to boost its on-road prowess without sacrificing its off-road ability.
All vehicle performance claims are necessarily couched in caveats. You’ll go faster in a 40-year-old Boeing than in a brand-new Ferrari. But when it comes to off-road speed in a road-legal vehicle that you can purchase in a showroom, this new Raptor is head and shoulders faster than anything else ever made.
And that’s where the trouble begins.
To boost off-road stability, Ford added six inches to the Raptor’s track width over the F-150 it’s based on. The Raptor is also fitted with an off-road-tuned stability-control system designed to stop the truck from getting too out of control. But natural terrain remains unpredictable, of course. Where a paved road may throw you an unexpected corner or pothole, a desert wash might be smooth one second and deeply rutted the next. Terrain the Raptor can comfortably cross at 100 mph might instantly change to a surface that would send the truck cartwheeling if you hit it at anything above 50.
Pelton wanted to show me the Carrizo Impact Area, a section of the park that’s closed to the public, ostensibly for environmental reasons, but is instead, according to him, intended to keep visitors with sticky fingers away from its unexploded ordinance. “The Forbidden Zone,” as Pelton called it, used to be a bombing range, and some bubba had apparently had a bad day there when he tried to load a 500 Lbs bomb into the back of his truck
Because only four or five rangers are tasked with patrolling the park’s entire 600,000 acres, getting in and out of the zone undetected isn’t hard. Pelton just had me get out of the truck and pull back a section of wire fence while he drove through. This is typically where he camps when he visits—after dragging some limbs to hide the tracks into his hiding spot from nosy law-enforcement types. But this time, something else was going on. Climbing the big hill in the center of the zone, we found dozens of fresh tire tracks and hundreds of fresh footprints, most made with low-grade military tires and combat boots.
“La Migra,” explained Pelton. Anza-Borrego sits just north of the Mexican border, and coyotes regularly smuggle humans and drugs through its hidden desert washes on their way north. We figured the zone must currently be a hotbed of smuggler activity and law enforcement monitoring, so we decided to hightail it out before the sun set and they showed up for work.
Running eastward through one of those washes, Pelton was flirting with 100 mph when he slammed on the brakes. The long shadows reaching out in front of us were making the details hard to discern, but he’d spotted a rut running diagonally across the trail that could have upended the truck. We avoided it, but others running similar speeds may not have. “The Raptor gives you a lot of confidence,” says Pelton. “Nothing but training can give you ability.”
Therein lies the rub. The Raptor makes going fast off-road unprecedentedly easy, but it can’t bend the laws of physics. Yes, it’s extremely stable. Yes, it has more airbags and safety features than you can count. But rolling a truck at speed will always be rolling a truck at speed. At the very least, it’s going to ruin your weekend.
Chasing that off-road stability, Ford had to keep the Raptor relatively low. At just 11.5 inches, ground clearance is pretty limited. And even in this shortest SuperCab version, the wheelbase is still a very long 133 inches. That leads to the Raptor’s next problem.
Bouncing up Coyote Canyon the next morning, looking at the wildflowers, we passed a fleet of modified Jeep Wranglers. Their short wheelbases and cheaper suspension meant they were struggling to maintain a 15 mph pace on the rocky trail. This year’s heavy winter rains have spread boulders across once-clear paths. But on the open sections, we could easily go 35 mph or more. That is, until we hit some of those new rocks. Even creeping through a rock field at a walking pace, the Ford’s skid plates, huge aluminum control arms, and rock rails took a beating.
The Ford’s size also meant we had to skip some of Anza’s famously tight trails. Even in the passes we were able to squeeze through, we had to spend time moving rocks to accommodate the truck’s limited clearance. This is terrain that those Jeeps or our Land Rovers could easily have just driven over. The Raptor gets you into the tough stuff easily, and that causes the real trouble. There you are, getting your ass air-conditioned one second, and the next second you’ll be high centered on a chair-sized boulder.
“The Raptor won’t teach you fundamental off-road skills,” reckons Pelton. The incredibly plush suspension does too good a job at getting you over rough terrain without communicating how hard the truck is working. The electronic driver aids take the guesswork out of engaging the truck’s mechanical capability. The problem isn’t that the truck is so capable, it’s that the Raptor is so capable while asking so little of its driver. Across two solid days of off-roading, we didn’t even feel the need to air down the tires.
Heading out for the nearby sand dunes at the Ocotillo Wells OHV park, we looked for a place to capture what the Raptor’s famous for: a big jump photo. Those look impressive, but jumping a vehicle is more an exercise in planning and risk mitigation than it is high speed or having fun. Right in the middle of the park, we found an ideal setup: an abrupt little sand dune with a steep approach and a flat top, all made from soft sand. The angle would get the truck in the air, and the big, open area on the top would give us a soft, safe landing that’d be as easy on the suspension and frame as possible. Pelton relinquished the keys, clipped Wiley to his belt, and grabbed his Nikon. My instructions were to hit the dune at about 30 mph and avoid running over him or his Halliburton case full of lenses. I was mostly worried about my dog.
Below the dune, I lined up the truck perpendicular to its ridge, stepped on the gas, and held on tight. You know what to expect, but that momentary feeling of weightlessness is still exciting, even after all these years of screwing around with someone else’s vehicles. The damage? A bag of kibble exploded, sending dog food into every orifice of the interior. Pelton gave me the thumbs-up, kicked me out of the driver’s seat, and with a push of the terrain-mode button, we hit the paved road for home.
I’d urge you not to try this at home, but if you’re going to buy the new Raptor, this is exactly the kind of thing you’re buying it for. So instead, I’m just going to beg you to please get some off-road driver training before you decide to get it dirty. Convincing an insurance company that you cartwheeled your brand-new $62,000 truck on the way home from the shopping mall will be hard to do.
Racing through the desert in a Raptor, with a living legend in the driver’s seat, was undoubtedly a blast. But ultimately, both us were happy to get home to our much more humble 4x4s. “There’s off-roading and there’s off-roading,” explains Pelton. “The Raptor is as wide as my Land Rover is when it’s sideways, and it’s way too low to the ground.” Despite this truck’s speed, or maybe because of it, this truck struggles to be much more than a thrill ride.
But, man, is driving it a thrill.