Never in the long and colorful history of off-road motorsports has there been a better time to go out and get dirty. While other major forms of racing in America continue (with the exception of NASCAR) to struggle for survival in the new millennium, in many ways the past several years represents the Golden Age of our sport. From the surge of interest in professional rockcrawling events to record Trophy-Truck fields at this year's Tecate SCORE Baja 1000, off-road racing is alive, well, and looking toward a bright future.
Off-road racing is a format of racing where various classes of specially modified vehicles (including cars, trucks, motorcycles, and buggies) compete in races through off-road environments.
North AmericaOff-road racing began in the early 20th century. An early racing sanctioning body in North America was the National Off-Road Racing Association (NORRA). The body was formed in 1967 by Ed Pearlman. The first event was a race across the Mexican desert. The event was first called the Mexican 1000, and it later became known as the Baja 1000. The event is now sanctioned by SCORE International.
In North America there are several other formats. There are races on a circuit of less than five miles (such as Crandon International Off-Road Raceway), which are sanctioned by CORR (or its predecessor SODA), and by World Series of Off Road Racing (WSORR). The races held by CORR and WSORR take place on short (1-½ mile or less) tracks incorporating left and right turns of various radaii, and jumps and sometimes washboard runs and gravel pits. Another format made popular by the Mickey Thompson Entertainment Group was called stadium racing, where offroad racing vehicles were used in a temporary offroad racetrack was constructed inside a stadium. The general idea of "offroad racing" can also extend to include hillclimbing or any other form of racing that does not occur on a specified, paved track. A simpler, shorter track format is popular at many county fairs, and is called Tough (or Tuff) Truck competition. These tracks are ordinarily much shorter, and usually, competitors make individual, timed runs.
As of 2009 there are two major organizations promoting short course off road racing. The TORC Series, owned and promoted by motocross superstar Rick Johnson, holds races from California to Wisconsin. The Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series focuses on promoting events on the west coast. Both series feature professional off road drivers and race teams. There are also several grassroots organizations, one of the longest lived is the Mid America Off Road Association that promotes short course off road racing in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.
A popular type of off-road racing is what is also known as desert racing or Baja-style racing. Most desert races are set up on government recreational land and have tracks that run anywhere from 25 to 50 miles. Various classes of vehicles run a different amount of laps depending on the size of the engine or the set up of the suspension system. Currently, there are several smaller organizations which are growing quite rapidly in this scene. One of the most popular is the Best in the Desert series, which is known for the Vegas to Reno race (the longest off-road race in the US with the 2009 Vegas to Reno race measuring 1000 miles). Also popular is the Mojave Off-Road Racing Enthusiast series. Started in 1997 as a small family oriented race series, it has grown to nearly 200 per race. MORE uses tracks set up on desert land in the Barstow and Lucerne Valley regions of the Mojave Desert in California. Mojave Desert Racing series has drawn many competitors from the now defunct CORR races.
In Europe, "off-road" refers to events such as autocross or rallycross, while desert races and rally-raids such as the Paris-Dakar, Master Rallye or European "bajas" are called Cross-Country Rallies. In Scandinavian countries, "off-road" racing can refer to a type of motorsport known as Extreme Off-Road, which involves driving extensively modified vehicles through a difficult course up an uphill terrain.
Mudding involves finding a large area of wet mud or clay and attempting to drive as far through it as possible without becoming stuck. The stock tires supplied with four by four vehicles are typically inadequate for this type of off-roading and Mud-terrain tires are required. Strongly attached recovery points are also recommended to enable the vehicle to be towed out if it becomes bogged down. Traction and momentum are important factors in success. This activity has a competitive form known as Mud bogging.
Rock crawling is a highly technical category of off-roading. Vehicles are typically modified with larger than stock tires, suspension components that allow greater axle articulation, and changes in the differential gear ratio in order to provide the ideal high torque/low speed operation for traversing obstacles. It is common for a rock crawler to have a "spotter -€" an assistant who will go on foot alongside of or in front of the vehicle to provide information to the driver on obstacles or areas of terrain that the driver may be unable to see. Rock Racing is very similar to rock crawling in the fact that the vehicles are driven over rocks, the difference is that there are no penalties for hitting cones, backing up or winching as is done in rock crawling. Rock racing also involves a degree of high-speed racing not seen in typical rock crawling.
Formula off-road is a high powered version of off-road competition. Vehicles are highly modified,, or specially built, using sand drag tires, long travel suspension components that allow jumps and rough handling and long axle articulation, and a secure roll cage for the driver. Formula off-road cars often use highly tuned V8's with superchargers or nitrous oxide injection systems. Formula off-road originated in Iceland in the 1980s and has since spread to the other Nordic countries. Competitions are often held in sand and gravel quarries where courses are laid out and often include going up near-€"vertical slopes. The vehicles utilize paddle-like treads on the tires.
In some countries off-road activities are strictly regulated, while others promote cross country off-road endurance events like the Dakar Rally, Baja 500 & 1000, Spanish Baja and the Russian Baja Northern Forest which are a test of navigation skills and machine durability. Off-road parks and motocross tracks also host a number of events and may be the only legal place to off-road in the area. Events include jamborees, rock crawling competitions, Mud Bog races, Top Truck Challenges and sand racing as well as many other events.
The Swamp Buggy is a vehicle used to traverse the vast, boggy swamps of the American South. An editorial in the Collier County News, a local Naples newspaper, claimed swamp buggies were "as important to Florida as the cow pony is to the west, in that they are the only practical means of transportation once off the main road."
As more and more hunters built swamp buggies, they would gather together to share a few homespun-engineering tips, and before long, one hunter would challenge another to a race through a muddy bog on Raymond Bennett's potato farm, which, according to swamp buggy inventor Ed Frank, "was the biggest hole in the vicinity of Naples." The first organized races took place on Mr. Bennett's potato farm around 1943, featuring a dozen or so local hunters.
By the late forties, 30 to 40 racers would gather the week before hunting season to race for the valued prize, which was usually a new shotgun donated by a local merchant. On November 12, 1949, the first "Official" Swamp Buggy Races were held, with a field of almost 50 competitors, in Naples, Florida. The mid 1950s saw continued growth of Swamp Buggy Racing. There are three races a year, January, March, and October, the world Famouse Swamp Buggy Races is one of the most unique sports in the world. Lots of people all over the united states try to remake it, but none do it just right.
The potato patch has now evolved into the Florida Sports Park and the once unruly bog has been groomed into the famed "Mile O' Mud" it is as known today. The "Mile O' Mud" is a seven-eighths of a mile oval, featuring racing lanes which are approximately 60 feet wide, with a one-eighth mile diagonal lane slashed through the center. The depth of the mud is hard to gauge because brown swamp water covers every inch of the track, making it appear to be a foot deep, though it drops to between five and six feet deep in three places. Buggies driving through these holes often disappear up to their steering wheels and exhaust pipes. The largest pit, located in front of the grandstand, is the treacherous "Sippy Hole", named after "Mississippi" Milton Morris, a legendary driver who could almost never conquer the hole without stalling.
As the popularity of the sport has continued to grow, cash prizes purses of several thousand dollars replaced the shotgun, and the incentives to go faster also grew, until the swamp buggies became far too fast and too loud to be used for hunting wild game. Today's high-tech buggies are designed for racing only. The pontoon-like bodywork fully encloses a powerful racing engine, and rather than relying upon big fat flotation tires, they stand upon tall and skinny tires, with paddle treads on the rears designed solely for forward motivation and almost bicycle-narrow front tires for rudder-like steering.
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