Hits and Misses for the Ford Bronco R Prototype in the Baja 1000

December 16, 2019 by Sue Mead

Ford Motor Co. wanted to demonstrate the toughness of the upcoming 2021 Bronco SUV by testing a race-enhanced prototype of the new vehicle in the grueling 2019 Baja 1000.

When the dust settled and the thousands of pounds of mud were power-washed and peeled from the 264 vehicles that took the green flag for the race, 145 finished. The Ford Bronco R was not one.

Mud, breakdowns with the Bronco and other vehicles that blocked its path all conspired to assure the SUV would not finish within the race’s 33-hour time limit.

Trucks.com followed the Bronco R in a chase truck, noting where the vehicle met expectations and where it failed. While the prototype Bronco won’t be the vehicle consumers purchase when the SUV goes on sale next year, it contains many of the components of the production vehicle. That includes the stock powertrain and body-on-frame architecture. Here’s what worked and what didn’t.

WHAT WORKED

“The Ford production parts performed flawlessly,” said Brian Novak, Ford Performance off-road racing supervisor.

That included a stock turbo-charged Ford EcoBoost engine mated to an automatic transmission, backed by steering-wheel-mounted paddles. Limited to 105 mph in the prototype, this powertrain included a stock transfer case and a front differential from Ford.

(Photo: Sue Mead/Trucks.com)

The independent front suspension, with 14 inches of travel and a production-based five-link rear chassis design with up to 18 inches of travel, proved durable. Other parts that withstood the rocks, sand and mud included custom Fox shocks, 17-inch beadlock-capable aluminum wheels and 37-inch BFGoodrich tires.

Designers added a number of race upfits on the truck, not from the Ford parts bin. Those included the rear differential and race exhaust system. The Bronco also had a 70-gallon fuel tank that Novak said would allow the truck to travel up to 315 miles between refueling. That equaled fuel economy of 3 to 5 mpg, depending on speeds and conditions.

WHAT DIDN’T WORK

Time was not a friend to the Bronco R.

The build of the Bronco R prototype began as a skunkworks’ project in June with a team from Ford Performance, Geiser Bros Design and Development and Baja 1000 Trophy Truck champion Cameron Steele. The challenge for this triumvirate was to construct a race truck in five months that would honor the 50th anniversary of off-road racing legend Rod Hall’s win in a Bronco in the 1969 Baja 1000. It meant using swift decision-making to take the start on Nov. 22.

That was an ambitious time table. And it turned out that Ford needed more time and evaluation to meld the stock and aftermarket parts of the purpose-built, roll-caged race truck. During pre-race testing, it was clear that the Bronco’s race components needed adjustment. High-speed pre-runs pointed out the need to replace electrical wiring and to correct issues with the cooling system and fuses.

Fixes were made in dirt parking areas along the Mexican peninsula in Valle de la Trinidad, near sections of the Baja racecourse that the team was running, and under tents at a make-shift workshop set up near the race-course start at the La Pinta Hotel, in Ensenada. Ford had less than 1,000 miles of testing prior to the Bronco R’s  start of the 800.5-mile-long race.

(Photo: Ford)

The race truck drove well through the first two sections of the race. Worries began in the third leg as the Bronco and other vehicles became mired in thick gooey mud from recent rains. This created an early mishap where another a Trophy Truck toppled over on an uphill climb out of the Matomi Wash. It landed on the front driver’s side of the Bronco R. Although it didn’t cause damage, it pinned the Bronco, requiring a third vehicle to pull it upright.

The team also discovered skid plate damage that left underbelly components vulnerable to rocks and debris. This all ate up valuable time.

With Rod Hall’s granddaughter Shelby Hall behind the wheel for the leg starting at mile 450, the course ran over a rigorous, bone-shaking stretch of “whoops” and soft sand. A passenger-side lower control arm gave way, requiring a complex, on-the-trail repair.

“A combination of things led to the need for this trail fix — the vehicle’s setup and ride height was perhaps a bit low, plus rock strikes and the weight of mud and silt took a toll,” Novak said. Once the vehicle was underway again, the team regained hope for a finish.

But near mile 580, the Bronco R started to overheat. The temps were too high to continue. Once towed to the pit and put back to running order, Ford pulled the plug on the efforts to finish. Next up was a remote and rigorous stage of the race, where it would have been nearly impossible to get support to the truck.

“Where we have an opportunity to improve is in the fabricated parts that allowed us to race in an event like the 1000,” said Novak. “We will be back!”

THE MUD

Regarded as one of the most arduous off-road races in the world, this year’s Baja 1000 was particularly rigorous because of the rains.

Many Baja racers said they had never seen anything like the thick and gooey mud that encumbered many vehicles. It caused pile-ups of stuck race rigs, with some needing towing out of the muck.

(Photo: Ford)

“Pretty much everything that we saw pre-running was non-existent,” said racer Jayson Strachan. “All the lines that we had planned were gone, tore up. The desert itself was nothing like it was when we pre-ran.”

Built on a modified Ford T6 architecture model, Ford’s newest Bronco had a good chance to complete the race. It simply needed more time—and less mud.

“This wasn’t our usual development process, but it was the right process for this project,” said Paul Wraith, Bronco’s chief designer. “We found, created or adapted the right tool for the task at hand – a cool and exciting blend of old and new creative techniques. We stretched ourselves, but it was worth it – and great fun.”

Sue Mead May 17, 2019
Former champion off-road racer Rod Hall, now battling a degenerative disease, shares tips and tales from more than 50 years of adventure.

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