Most right-minded people agree that the Ford Raptor is a sweet ride.
However, as much as I admire Fox Racing suspension components, flared fenders, and massive off-road tires, you’ve got to admit that the Raptor’s talents are on the esoteric side. Off-roading is a pretty niche hobby in the first place (despite what Land Rover and Jeep would have you believe), and the F-150 SVT Raptor is designed for a specific kind of off-roading-high-speed desert-running. And who really does that on a regular basis?
The U.S. Border Patrol, that’s who. Most of the U.S./Mexico border is an arbitrary line across the desert, and we haven’t gotten around to paving much of it. Which means that the people tasked with patrolling that border are basically professional off-roaders. They might see pavement in the morning when they leave the house and again when they head home, but in the interim they’re driving across dunes, hard-packed sand, and dry riverbeds — basically prerunning the Baja 1000, 365 days a year. These people need Raptors.
Unfortunately for them, they don’t have any. Yet. Without getting into the arcane details of government procurement procedures, it seems that there was some kind of a problem with the Raptor’s leather interior — the gub’mint couldn’t buy trucks with fancy cowskins inside, and Ford didn’t build Raptors any other way. They got the situation resolved, and a batch of Raptors are destined for the Border Patrol. But the Yuma County Sheriff’s Department is one step ahead.
Soon after the Raptor hit the street, Major Leon Wilmot of the Yuma County SD caught a look at it running Baja on TV. “I said, ‘We’ve got to get one of those,’ ” Wilmot recalls. So he wrassled up some Department of Homeland Security dollars through a program called Operation Stonegarden and made it happen. The Yuma sector of the U.S. Border Patrol has six more Raptors on the way, but at the moment, the Yuma sheriff has the only one, the baddest police truck north of San Luis Río Colorado.
Which is actually where I find myself at the moment, driving beside the longest fence you’ve ever seen, accompanied by Wilmot and a former narcotics officer named Jimmy. I’d contacted Wilmot a few weeks before to see if I could accompany the Yuma police Raptor on desert border patrol. In the interim, Arizona passed a mildly controversial immigration law that you may have heard about. So it’s an interesting time to be on border patrol in Arizona.
Now, on any mission that includes the possibility of shoot-outs and bandits, you’ve got to choose the proper equipment. To that end, I paid careful attention to my choice of vehicle. The only way I could keep up with a Raptor, I reasoned, was with another Raptor. So that’s what I’ve got-a 5.4-liter V-8 model in an orange-red hue that is approximately the color of a nuclear explosion. We won’t be sneaking up on anybody.
Truck cred established, I was still worried that the Yuma cops would perceive me as some kind of East Coast city slicker who wouldn’t know a rattlesnake from a bolo tie. So I bought a cowboy hat at a Yuma gas station (in Yuma, you can buy cowboy hats at gas stations), and I’ve got my aviator sunglasses, which Jimmy approvingly refers to as “cop shades.” Finally, knowing that my hairless upper lip won’t cut it out here, I’ve brought prosthetic assistance — an array of Mustache Party-brand fake mustaches. The Bandit model, in particular, nicely complements my cop shades and cowboy hat. I feel like I want to draw on someone, shoot the gun out of his hand, and then say, “I was justified.”
Too bad the paperwork I filled out back at the station explicitly prohibits civilians from packing weapons in police cars. So I don’t have a gun, although I did look into getting one — a local dealer boasts that it specializes in “politically incorrect black guns with extended magazines.” Damn straight. Yuma isn’t buying those new politically correct guns, with their recycled bamboo stocks and fair-trade ammo.
In any case, it appears that the Yuma police Raptor is all set when it comes to firepower. I’m in the passenger seat, and behind me is a vertical rack that holds a semiautomatic .223 rifle. Riding shotgun to the rifle: a shotgun. Perhaps more important than both, the truck’s radio system can summon the mighty ordnance of the U.S. government. Apache attack helicopter, anyone?
But in the Grand Theft Auto hijinks of the Mexican/American border, even an Apache might not save the day. “Before the fence went up,” Wilmot says, “there was a big problem with tractor theft. The farms go right down to the border, and the farmers leave their tractors out in the fields at night.” This led to problems, because what a tractor lacks in speed, it makes up for with a certain unstoppability. “We had an Apache fly down and get right in front of a stolen tractor that was heading for Mexico, but he wouldn’t stop. He was going to ram the helicopter, so they had to let him go.” Tractor chicken? Apparently, Mexican farm-equipment thieves take their cues from the iconic Kevin Bacon film Footloose.
Right now, we’re close to civilization. San Luis splits the border, with most of the town on the Mexican side — which is a problem, because the people on the south side of town are not huge fans of the Border Patrol. That’s why the trucks down here have some extra modifications.
“I want to show you a War Wagon,” Wilmot says as we cut down toward the Colorado River. Jimmy and photographer Brian Konoske follow in the civilian Raptor. Wind whips the dust in thick clouds, pasting everything with grit. Parked in the middle of this tableau is a Border Patrol Chevy Silverado 2500 with metal grates and mesh over the windshield and side glass.
“People throw things over the fence,” explains the major. “Like rocks.”
“And dirty diapers,” says Jimmy.
“And balloons filled with chicken blood,” adds the Border Patrol guy stationed here. The wind whips the sand into my eyes, nose, and ears. A portable light tower rests nearby, awaiting nightfall. It’s called the Nightbuster 4000. I imagine it’s probably a big step up from the Nightbuster 3000. Just the thing to spot those incoming chicken-blood balloons. Maybe later they can use it to look for Konoske’s hat, which the wind rips off his head and tosses straight into Mexico, providing a nice moment of levity for everyone.
As charming as San Luis is, we haven’t really seen the Raptor in action yet, so I’m itching to hit more rural terrain. We don’t have to go far. As we head east out of town, the fence on our right, the graded dirt road morphs into pure desert. There are tire tracks, but this isn’t what you’d call a road. Nonetheless, we fall into an easy 60-mph cruise. To our right, we can see traffic on Mexico’s Highway 2, just a couple hundred yards away. We’re keeping pace, even though we don’t have the benefit of a road. This is the Raptor in its element.
“With our other trucks, we’re tearing up shocks, suspension, skid plates,” Wilmot says. The Raptor, though, is designed precisely for this mission — high-speed desert recon. In fact, deputies take an off-road driving class where they learn how to take advantage of the Raptor’s off-road talents, preferably without destroying it. “We call this truck the career-ender,” Wilmot says. “You mess this thing up — your career’s over.”
We keep heading east, deep onto the Barry M. Goldwater Range. Wilmot’s map of the area points out that there are a few hazards for travelers around here. For one thing, the average high temperature in the summer is about 105 degrees. Also, un-exploded warheads litter the area (a photo on the map shows what looks like a small missile stuck in the side of a cactus). And there are abandoned mines, scant fresh water, and, of course, a colorful variety of on-the-go drug smugglers, human traffickers, and other ne’er-do-wells. Further, the map warns that, “If a road is impassable because of flooding, mud, moon dust, or a lawful closure, turn back.” That’s right, moon dust. Did I mention that the main thoroughfare through this terrain is a trail called El Camino Del Diablo, or The Highway of the Devil? Well, it is.
But we’re on no highway whatsoever when we come to the burnt-out hulk of a car sinking into a dune. Based on the shape of the roofline, I guess that it’s a Dodge Shadow, but what’s left of the engine indicates that it’s a Mazda. Probably an old 626. I ask the major how a car got out here. “Well, before there was a fence, people would just drive in from Mexico,” he says. And, if they were driving a Mazda 626 through the desert, apparently they would not get very far.
Believe it or not, cars still manage to get through the barrier. “They’ll park a car carrier on the other side of the fence and use it as a bridge to drive over the top,” Jimmy says. That strikes me as pretty ballsy, but it’s far from the only trick. “They’ll come out with a welder and cut a door into the fence, complete with hinges,” Wilmot says. “We’ve seen them remove a real Normandy barrier and replace it with a Styrofoam look-alike, so they can just move it aside whenever they want.”
Getting past the fence on foot is much more straightforward, but out here, the question becomes: then what? You’re miles and miles from anything. This area is so remote that there are actually safety beacons scattered around the range, intended for Mexicans who’ve decided that it’s better to get arrested than die of heatstroke. The beacons feature a big button that you push to alert the authorities, but even then a sign warns that it could be an hour before anyone shows up.
I suspect that the law would get there sooner than that, though. As we approach what is evidently a new area, a Border Patrol truck comes roaring toward us. “We must’ve tripped a sensor,” says Wilmot. I ask what kind of sensor we might’ve tripped. He doesn’t elaborate. When the Border Patrol officer pulls alongside, he gets out to scope the Raptor. “This thing’s a mule,” he says, gesturing to his Silverado. “It doesn’t have as much power as the 2006s we had.” I’m guessing that the older trucks had the discontinued 8.1-liter big-block, which put out 330 hp and, more important, 450 lb-ft of torque. The new 6.0-liter makes 360 hp but significantly less torque. Which must make a difference when you’re slogging through sand dunes all day with an air-conditioned jail stuck in the pickup bed.
Greetings concluded, we continue on our way, again at a high rate of speed. I’ve taken the wheel of our civilian Raptor (probably to Jimmy’s dismay, since he seemed to be enjoying it) and find myself amazed at the ease with which this thing soaks up flinch-worthy obstacles — you keep flinching, but then it just glides on its way. You start to feel invincible. And that’s always a bad way to feel, in the long run. Soon enough, I go too hot off a whoop and bottom out the skid plate with a vertebrae-rearranging crash. When you manage to bottom the suspension on a Raptor, you need to take a time-out to contemplate the law of gravity and how it applies to a 6000-pound truck, tricked-out suspension or not. We stop for a break, and Jimmy and the major hold court on the topic of cutting sign.
“Cutting sign” is the lingo for tracking footprints. It’s a big part of border patrol work. The Stonegarden Raptor has LED lights under the running boards that shine down at an angle, illuminating footprints in the sand. Of course, once you find some footprints, the truck also has a FLIR-Forward Looking Infrared-night-vision display built into the passenger-side sun visor. (“Yo, dawg, I pimped your Department of Homeland Security vehicle so it can see in the dark.”) The Border Patrol trucks routinely drag tires along the fence, smoothing out the sand so that any new footprints will be instantly noticeable. Cutting sign still sounds like an art, though. “When you first learn how to do it, the old-timers make you take off one of your boots,” Jimmy says. “Then they carve your initial in the heel, so you’ll know when you’re tracking yourself.”
Of course, every action has a counteraction. I say that I’d get some deer hooves and strap them to my feet. “People strap foam to their feet,” Wilmot says. “But you can still track them.” Jimmy tells a tale about a deputy who took off his boot and hopped from the fence off into the desert to prank the Border Patrol guys, who set off in pursuit of a one-legged illegal alien. That sounds sort of like an urban legend, but it’s still a funny image.
We continue, ever deeper into the desert. The scrub brush and dunes give way to low mountains, saguaro cacti, and a sprawl of blooming flowers. It’s quite beautiful. This would be a great place to go camping, except for the whole unexploded ordnance/bandits/heatstroke thing. We’re so far out now that the Border Patrol trucks we encounter are strictly diesel, because there’s nowhere to refuel. One Border Patrol Ford F-250 Power Stroke that rumbles past has remote-reservoir Fox Racing dampers on the front axle, but a Raptor it’s not. As it heads off over the washboard, I see the cab shaking like an unbalanced washing machine — which, according to the map, it’ll be doing for quite some time. We’re at least forty miles from the nearest road.
Out here, the fence has gaps, since it would’ve been impractical to build it over the craggy mountains. I walk to the end and peek around the corner, into Mexico. “I used to wonder why they bothered with a fence if you can walk around it,” Jimmy says. “But it keeps out vehicles. And it funnels the people on foot into certain spots, so they’re easy to track.”
Maybe it’s hard to avoid getting caught once you’re on U.S. soil, but the act of getting across seems pretty easy — back by the fields near the river, it’s about a one-minute swim. So I’m perplexed by stories of how Mexicans pay thousands of dollars — from $1000 to $3000, according to Wilmot — for smugglers to get them across. “They’re not paying to get into the U.S.,” Wilmot says. “Because the smugglers usually just bring them to the other side of the river, rob them, then leave them to get arrested. What they’re paying for is protection on the Mexican side, to cross in a particular guy’s territory.” Well, that doesn’t sound like a great deal. “OTMs pay even more,” he says. I ask what an OTM is. “‘Other Than Mexican.’ Chinese, South Americans, anyone else trying to get across the border.”
To my relief, we encounter NOTA, none of the above — at least, not as far as we know. All we saw down by the fence were Border Patrol trucks, but it turns out that the smugglers have a new trick: using cloned Border Patrol trucks to drive into the U.S. But for that ploy to work, their trucks would have to match the ones that the Border Patrol actually use. Which means that the agents in the Yuma sector probably aren’t the only ones waiting, impatiently, to get behind the wheel of the fastest truck in the desert.
The engine an SVT Truck Deserves
Even as they launched their new SVT Raptor last summer, Ford SVT engineers and product planners sheepishly conceded that the 5.4-liter V-8 under the Raptor’s enormous snout didn’t match the truck’s outrageous off-road capabilities. Unfortunately, the brand-new, 6.2-liter SOHC V-8 that Ford was developing for the F-series Super Duty wasn’t ready. Now it is, and the SVT guys have had a chance to massage it for Raptor duty. With more aggressive camshafts and fuel mapping and a free-flow exhaust, power increases from 385 to 411 hp, and torque gets bumped from 405 to 434 lb-ft-plenty of juice to contend with the Raptor’s 6006-pound curb weight and meaty off-road tires. By comparison, the 5.4-liter, which remains the base Raptor engine, gets by with 310 hp and 365 lb-ft. To make the Raptor 6.2 more livable on a daily basis, the engine’s firing order was selected to cut down on cabin drone. But don’t worry; the throaty V-8 sound track coming from the tailpipes is good enough to win a Grammy. The “six-two” is a $3000 option on top of the Raptor’s $38,995 base price, but this truck deserves nothing less.