Wild Ride: We Strap Into Honda’s Ridgeline Baja Race Truck

Off-road racing requires a different approach, even for Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi.

BARSTOW, California—Last November, it didn't take long for 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner and Honda driver Alexander Rossi to be front and center during a shocking moment shortly after the start of the world-famous SCORE Baja 1000 off-road race in Mexico.

Contesting his first-ever off-road event and heading south at speed in the Honda Ridgeline Baja race truck, Rossi and navigator Evan Weller blasted up and over a series of humps on the dirt trail. It was a straightforward portion of the route—until the spectators lining the path started to howl and wave their arms in the air in an attempt to get his attention; ludicrously, a civilian SUV had appeared on the road, heading north and straight toward the Ridgeline. Disaster appeared imminent.

Unable to see past the approaching jump, Rossi launched the Honda Off-Road Racing Team Ridgeline over it just as the SUV—for some reason driving on the wrong side of the road, no less—approached the hump's summit from the opposite direction. The Ridgeline took off and flew through the air, its right tires scraping the side of the SUV and tearing off the rogue vehicle's passenger-side mirror as it somehow passed by and cleared it.

Rossi never lifted and never looked back on the way to—with his co-drivers—a second-in-class finish in one of the world's most grueling rounds of motorsport. Almost a year later, during preparations for the 2019 Baja 1000 that begins in Ensenada on November 19 and concludes there on November 24, the NTT IndyCar Series star explained how he carried on unabated immediately after the heart-stopping moment.

"I never saw it," he said dryly in between runs while testing the Ridgeline ahead of the 1000 at the Stoddard Wells OHV Area near Barstow, California. "When I first heard about it, I thought it was a joke. Then I saw the video."

If we hadn't just ridden along with the seven-time IndyCar race winner inside the Ridgeline Baja, and even been allowed to drive it ourselves for a few brief minutes, the explanation might have made the experience of professional off-road racing seem like no big deal. But watch these types of trucks rip past you at speed, especially in excess of 100 mph, and you begin to think twice.

You think a third time once you're strapped into the cockpit, which forgoes element-shielding luxuries like a windshield. Even if you're an experienced road-racer—even one of Rossi's world-class caliber—driving in Baja-level competition is an eye-opener that requires your brain and backside to recompute much of what you know.

The updated 2019 Ridgeline Baja race truck features a lighter, stronger custom-built chassis—constructed by TSCO Racing—and is powered by a twin-turbo 3.5-liter V-6 from Honda Performance Development, known internally as the HR35TT. The engine is essentially a version of the same powerplant used in the Acura Team Penske IMSA DPi road-racing cars, but with different tuning. Point of note, it employs the same block and cylinder heads as found in various production Hondas, including the Ridgeline, Pilot, and Passport. The racing version, however, makes about 550 horsepower in this configuration. As with many competition engines, more power is certainly possible, but various race series' regulations cap the output at the 550 mark. Sequential, six-speed manual gearshifts come courtesy of a transmission made by Australian manufacturer Albins. If you look closely, you might notice the Baja truck's bodywork pulls some design elements from the street-legal Ridgeline. But that's where the similarities end.

Never mind the approximately $750,000 required to build the Ridgeline Baja, or the $30,000 to $50,000 in typical rebuilds it undergoes between races. The latter is understandable almost immediately once Rossi is up to speed, the Ridgeline alternating between flying through the air, crashing to Earth, taking on ruts and bumps, and effectively beating the OHV area into submission.

For the uninitiated, the amount of force a Baja truck endures as it bounces over unforgiving—and that's an understatement—terrain seems impossible. But the custom suspension, built by Fox and featuring custom Fox dampers and Eibach springs, is a special thing. With about 24 inches of travel up front and 34 inches in the rear, the Ridgeline soaks up impacts that would break a normal pickup truck in two—or three, or four. According to team principal, race-truck owner and driver Jeff Proctor, vertical g loads can be as high as 12, with 5 or 6 g's being common. To put this robustness in perspective, think about what it feels like when you hit a pothole at 45 mph in your street car; does your body shudder at the thought? That's not even an impact worth acknowledging in a Baja truck.

Inside the Ridgeline, however, you quickly realize you don't need to tense up in anticipation of those hits, even when riding along as Rossi sends the thing flying several feet into the air. There's so much strength and compliance engineered into the setup, landings you expect to shatter your spine are almost, dare we say, nonevents. The real trick is to force your body to relax, to untense; otherwise you'll hurt your neck and shoulders from sheer clenching force. It's actually easier to do this when you're the driver, because you have the steering wheel and at times the shift lever to hold onto, providing your body with support. But the navigator in the passenger seat?

"The nav seat is way more physical because the navigator has nothing to support their core," Proctor said. "You're being thrown around, trying to read a screen with telematics and course notes, it's a [hard-core] job. [It was even worse] when [they were working off of] paper and not computers."

From a pure driving standpoint, the biggest key to piloting any vehicle off-road quickly is to look a good 150 to 200 yards ahead. Keeping your eyes up is a top priority whenever you're driving and especially in a race car, but it's even more important in this setting. That's because a truck riding over loose surfaces naturally can't respond instantly like a sports car on tarmac can, let alone like an Indy car. In that sense, it's not unlike driving a fast boat through choppy water: plot your course wisely and in advance, captain. Rossi noted the truck's overall weight—approximately 5,200 pounds ready to race with 70 gallons of fuel in the tank—and braking took some getting used to, and they still aren't the most natural characteristics for a driver with his background. There's no charging into corners here, trying to be the latest of brakers. Rather, well-planned aggression is the key.

So is mental strength and endurance. In a race like the 799.1-mile, SCORE Desert World Championship season-ending Baja 1000, drivers don't usually want to stay behind the wheel for stints of more than three hours at a time. Even that can seem excessive.

"The toughest thing you need to do to go fast in off-road racing, outside of the mechanical aspects of the truck, [is maintaining] concerted focus for long periods of time," Proctor said. "That's the hardest thing to keep going at optimal levels. You get tired, you lose your fast-twitch [abilities], so you're automatically scrubbing 5 to 10 mph on average when you get tired. I've got out of the truck after several hours with the worst headache, just from focusing so hard for so long."

When the race begins in Ensenada next week, Proctor will again share the driver's seat with Rossi and Baja veteran Pat Dailey, with iron-man Weller riding shotgun for the entire affair; the plan calls for each driver to cover approximately one-third of the course. With any luck, this time around the only other trucks they'll whiz past as they seek to better last year's result and stand on the podium's top step will be those of their competitors.

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