Off-road race cars don’t quite feel how you’d expect them to feel.
They’re somehow at once softer and harder than you’d think. If you should find yourself in the passenger seat of a Class 5 Baja Bug, sat next to a driver who’s been asked to repeat a jump 4 or 5 times for the camera (like I was), you should count yourself lucky because you won’t lose your kidneys like a low-riding boxer. No, the pain comes from higher. Long, high-speed sections in which the car dances and strafes across the strand, finding grip at odd times means that a big heavy helmet will make your head feel like it’s about to pop off your shoulders at any moment. And yet desert racers like Darrell Clifton, an unassuming plumber from southern California, can handle this punishment for 6 to 8 hours at a time.
“My neck gets a little sore after a couple hours,” he offers, consolingly as he and the rest of world slip sideways. Fortunately, the HANS device I elected not to wear in the car acts as a sort of neck brace, twisting the Mojave Desert back onto the correct axis. So what keeps my kidneys in such good shape over jumps, but also allows this Class 5 Beetle to hit speeds of around 90 mph along the washboard surface and the low-grip silt that makes my neck so noodly?
“Suspension, suspension, suspension,” says Clifton. Although there are many Beetle-like vehicles racing around the desert at any given moment, Beetles like these are some of the fastest–though there are faster cars–and much as it pains me to say it, it’s because there’s very little in the way of OE equipment here. Of the many classes defined by Sanctioning Committee Off Road Events (SCORE) no fewer than 8 are VW-based. Everything from pretty-much stock Beetles to unlimited dune buggies that share about as much in common with a VW as I do can be raced officially, and Class 5 tends toward the latter part of the spectrum. Despite that, the cars do still have flat-four engines and Beetle bodies. This car’s body left Wolfsburg in 1968, but since then pretty much everything has changed. It’s a classic case of same hammer, new handle, new head. Now in his 50s, Clifton has owned this Beetle since he was 15 and knew immediately he wanted a Baja.
“I’ve been into racing since I was a kid,” says Clifton. “I was never into baseball or basketball, but I’ve always loved racing.” And he’s pretty indiscriminate about motorsports. Although he’s spent years working on this Beetle, he’s also into drag racing and is the proud owner of a 10-second Nova from ’72. Despite all of that, though, this Beetle wasn’t originally a racer, even though it’s been a Baja for years.
“We started buying a fiberglass kit and buying rims and tires and we turned it into a street Baja,” he says. “I used to drive it back and forth to school, but I always wanted it to be a full race car like it is now.” In 2005 Clifton finally had the wherewithal to put some real effort into getting it out onto the dirt, but as you might imagine desert racing is a pretty harsh form of motor racing, so reliability was an issue. “We were all mild steel with a stock floor pan and we kept breaking every race. So then in 2010, we decided to redo the whole chassis.”
Clifton took pretty much everything off the car at that point, but it’s a point of pride that the body shell (but for a few gashes) is still complete and original. To shore everything up, though, he had a friend at Source Prep Fabrication make a full tube chrome moly chassis. As it sits now, it has 2825 cc top fuel VW engine with a Porsche shroud and alternator on it, a four-speed transmission, 35-inch BF Goodrich tires, and, importantly, big King shocks that go right to the top of the roll cage. It also has tight bucket seats with a full race harness, and an air supply that’ll keep you cool in the desert heat, as well as radio coms that allow the driver and passenger to talk to each other or to, you know, rescue crews, and that list only scratches the surface of what’s gone into making this off-road ready.
The result is a compliant car that lands remarkably gently. Miraculously, though, it’s still capable of enormous speeds. I know that 90 mph sounds like a humble speed–something you might have even done today, but when you’re miles away from the nearest paved road, it really does feel like a million miles an hour. As I wrote last week, I’d been driving half that speed earlier in the day, and it had felt like I was really pushing the limit, and I’m a dumb kid who’ll put himself in harm’s way for, like, no good reason. All of a sudden, the ten-mile course that I had been driving turned from a collection of straights into a racetrack, which explains the Gs that tried to separate my brain box from the rest of my body. Dancing around on the washboards you feel like you’re out on the water in a really fast boat–another fine example of multiplication effect of speed off-road. The car seems to be in the air about as much as it’s on land. With the car hopping from tire to tire, too, it feels a bit like it’s galloping. None of which is good for the weak-necked among us.
Although Clifton admits that his neck, too, gets a little weary after a race, it’s important to remember that depending on how difficult the track is (the circuit is much more important than the distance here) a 250-mile race can last anywhere from 6 to 8 hours. And the human body isn’t even taking the worst of it, that’s the chassis’s lot, making construction difficult. “You make it as strong as you think you can and then you go out there and be nice to the car,” he explains, because driving too hard will break something. If that happens, the six weeks between races will be spent primarily trying to fix the car, rather than fettling to improve it (or spending time with family, or whatever normal people do).
So what keeps him coming back? “You get the dirt in your veins and you can’t stop,” he explains. “It’s exhausting. At the end of a race you’re tired and then the next day you’re like ‘when’s the next one?’”
For now, the passion seems to be paying off. Clifton and his team just got their first sponsors, GG Lighting, whose lights the Beetle will now wear down low (like fog, dirt can be blinding if illuminated from too high) and with podium finishes anything but a pipe-dream, the team looks all set to keep pumping dirt into their veins and working out their neck muscles.