They called them berserkers. Named for the Old Norse word “berserkir,” or “bear shirt,” these hatchets-for-hire terrorized first-millennium Iceland. After whipping themselves into a vein-popping rage, they would scythe furiously through their foes, apparently unable to feel fear or pain. True to their name, they rejected chain-mail armor in favor of fighting in bear skins.
Almost a thousand years have passed since the berserkers went extinct, but their spirit lives on. Nomex has replaced bear skins, but the fearlessness and aggression remain. Their new enemy? Gravity. Welcome to the world of Formula Offroad, where unhinged Icelanders attack otherworldly volcanic terrain — and scuba-worthy water — with homebuilt, 1,000-plus horsepower 4x4s in an all-out scrap for the national title.
I’m in Hella on the island’s south coast for the first round of the 2016 Formula Offroad season. To my left, a huge plain dusted with weary yellow grass leads to a distant, jagged horizon — a smashed chessboard of black volcanic peaks inlaid with a hardy snow pack. There isn’t a soul in sight. But to my right, a motorsports colony has sprung up in the wilderness, with trailers, tents, and thousands of fans gathered around a vast sunken basin of basalt 800 yards long and 150 wide, hemmed in by a river at one end. Its sides are, in places, closer to vertical than horizontal; stubborn outcrops guard the trench-like teeth. This beastly geological halfpipe forms the weekend’s racetrack.
We’re in tow with 25-year-old Snorri Thor Àrnason, Icelandic champion for the last three years and driver of Choirboy. Choirboy sings courtesy of a GM-sourced LS3 V-8 stroked from 6.2 to 7.0 liters by Nebraskan tuner BluePrint. It makes 625 horsepower on its own, but a nitrous kick activated at full throttle can boost it to 1,000. At 2,400 pounds, the car’s a lightweight for its kind, with a better power-to-weight ratio than a Bugatti Chiron.
Truck axles share the power equally front and rear, and each houses a locked differential for strong traction. Super-quick steering comes from a forklift, and six adjustable Fox shocks include a supplementary pair up front to help absorb the biggest impacts. Holding it all together is a custom tubular steel chassis wearing the skimpiest of gold-painted fiberglass bodywork that, like a string bikini, fails to contain the enormous Super Scooper tires — dragster-spec balloons with solid rubber paddles to better haul through power-sapping sand.
Indeed, step back and Choirboy looks every bit the sandpit-raiding R/C car of your youth. But then Àrnason fires it up, and this is clearly no toy. A deep, gravelly idle gives way to an ear-twinging, guttural bellow when he blips the throttle, a sound like the Predator with a case of catarrh and a badly stubbed toe.
Over the two-day competition, 12 stages comprise four track types each worth up to 350 points. Most are untimed technical stages that riff along the pit’s walls, with precipitous drops, crawling sideslips, and sheer, full-bore uphill charges. The farther you get, the more points you score. Deductions are made for clipping gates, stopping, and reversing. The timed stages are longer and more frenetic with the fastest man bagging 350 points and his rivals losing a point for each 0.1 second they lag. Water and mud tracks bring the lunacy to a close with their own unique brand of mayhem.
It’s like Wacky Races on steroids. One machine, lightly wearing a Land Rover body, is known as The Animal. The car, run by sheep farmer Bjarki Reynisson, has a 7.1-liter V-8 with nitrous.
The ground basalt of the pit’s walls, weathered to a rusty ochre at the surface, is fine and gives way easily. It’s hard enough gaining a foothold on the slopes — my heart rate doubles as I clamber up one, while others are simply unclimbable — so I’m not sure how you could drive up them. But with the spectators dug into the sand or perched on ledges like Jawas on Tatooine, the 22 cars line up above the pit for the start.
It’s like Wacky Races on steroids. One machine, lightly wearing a Land Rover body, is known as The Animal and its mechanics as The Veterinarians. The car, run by sheep farmer Bjarki Reynisson, has a 7.1-liter V-8 with nitrous, as does the Spiderman-liveried beast of flamboyant crowd-pleaser Thor Pálsson. Also in the nitrous V-8 camp is father-and-son team Svanur Tómasson and Aron Svansson, who will give you a ride in their orange cars, Insane and Zombie, if you have the constitution (and $750). Most others use turbocharged V-8s, but Gudni Grímsson’s flyweight Cube is powered by a 2.4-liter Honda Accord four-pot tuned to 700 horsepower with the help of both nitrous and turbocharging. Àrnason’s main threat is Ólafur Jónsson, the previous champion who will drive his No. 47 car immediately before Àrnason on each stage.
Grimsson edges off the cliff for the first technical stage. He staggers over the solid precipice then turns hard right for the first gate. But gravity spoils his line, dragging him sideways as though Cube is attached to an unseen winch on the valley floor. The sand’s rusty surface is pierced, and fresh, jet-black grains ooze from beneath his tires like crude oil. The front wheels dig in too deeply, and the car buries itself. It looks like curtains already, but a fit of gear-shuffling and steering wiggles sets Grimsson free, and Cube launches back up and over the crest, blow-off valve chattering furiously.
Then it’s time for another loop down and across the slope before a full-throttle assault on a sheer cliff face. He slams into it, and the front tires rebound and send the car vertical. It hangs in the air for a moment before rolling slowly backwards onto its roof, eventually finishing sunny side up in a cloud of steam with bits of bodywork strewn about. The crowd erupts. Grimsson’s run is Formula Offroad in a nutshell: skill, power, and high, unscripted drama with episodic bouts of disaster. It’s utterly intoxicating. I review my iPhone recording to find ample footage of my shoes: Like my jaw, my hand had dropped in awe.
Àrnason’s turn comes, and he creeps over the edge using barely any horsepower. He clambers over an outcrop, but as soon as all four wheels touch down, he puts on an armful of steering lock and stabs the throttle. The front tires dig in, and the rear pivots tidily around the gate. Àrnason takes aim at the first ascent and howls up and over the crest before powersliding left, firing a jet of stinging volcanic shards into onlooking faces, including mine.
He dips down the slope again, splits the gate, and turns back up to face the wall that set Grimsson tumbling. A burst of throttle also sends Àrnason’s front wheels skyward when they impact the cliff face, but he eases off just as the rear wheels follow suit, and the car pops sweetly onto the ledge, the trick suspension expertly cushioning the chassis against the rock face. Then the nitrous chimes in as he unleashes maximum thrust, and Choirboy hurls off the ledge and onto the flat, spitting a plume of dust across the conquered valley. In the 30 seconds Àrnason needed to maul the first stage, I can see why he’s the reigning champion — his whirling hands seek out traction in the dirt like a Piedmontese farmer’s dog finds truffles, and judicious use of Choirboy’s massive power reserve does the rest.
This all takes place to a classic rock soundtrack belted out by a giant mobile sound stack. It’s fantastic entertainment.
On the timed courses, Choirboy hits its stride with longer blasts of throttle that slingshot the car along the pit. Àrnason finishes one with a gorgeous uphill drift before leaping out of the ravine, leaving a legacy of billowing dust, combustive echoes, and whooping applause.
The same course brings the weekend’s biggest save. Alexander Steinarsson launches off the clifftop with too much speed and ends up facing the ground, his No. 91 car moving in the right direction but up on its nose, tipped just past vertical. Somehow he avoids a somersault and gets the rear axle down, then the car snaps to the right. He corrects and fires left just in time to make the first gate. The crowd goes bananas.
Àrnason’s championship form continues through the weekend, including a record-breaking haul of maximum points on day one. As Icelandic Motorsport Association president Tryggvi Thordarson (who literally wrote the rulebook) tells me, Àrnason has an incredible knack for the sport. There’s flair, too. He gives a celebratory, snarling pump of gas when crossing one finish line 10 feet above the ground.
Others are less accomplished but no less dramatic. With near-vertical ascents aplenty, cars roll every which way, and many drivers finish up dangling in their harnesses like sleeping bats. Some even flip over on near-flat sections as tires dig in during a frenzy of torque. Engines overheat, wheels come off, and a driveshaft gets spat out with such force that marshals spend 10 minutes prodding for it in the sand like a land mine. This all takes place to a classic rock soundtrack belted out by a giant mobile sound stack. It’s fantastic entertainment.
The champ is just ahead of Jónsson as they enter the final two stages, where Formula Offroad gets even more maniacal. First, the water stage, where drivers must fling their cars across — not through — a 220-yard stretch of river using maximum power to stay afloat like a skimming stone. The physics works, they tell me. And this is no babbling brook, as early runner Atli Ásgeirsson finds out when he fluffs his entry, trickles into the water, and finds his car totally submerged in seconds.
Jónsson’s technique for this lunatic challenge is spot-on. He lines up and nails the gas, the engine straining at full revs as he launches onto the river. It’s like the water has spontaneously frozen over as he rinks across the surface at almost 50 mph, juggling the wheel as the roaring rear tires flail wildly. He finds a small gravel island to grab a moment of traction that shoots him on across the final yards and back onto dry land. Àrnason takes a shorter approach, but leaves the shore in full attack mode. His pace is good, but both axles start to tramp violently as he skims the water, the engine wavering badly. The gravel patch can’t come soon enough, and Choirboy stabilizes for the last stretch. Àrnason lets go of the wheel to flap his arms in celebration. He makes it and all but secures victory.
The final stage is the mud course — a quagmire torn to sloppy shreds in a slapstick riot that sees the cars slurry-coated in moments. With the car and its driver both drenched in sludge, Àrnason does just enough to win the event with 3,608 points to Jónsson’s 3,579. It’s the perfect start to his title defense. He’s ecstatic, and as he crosses the finish line he goes, well … berserk.