Blacktop Nationals: It'll make your heart race

08/27/2010 12:00 AM

08/26/2011 12:48 PM

Sit down.

Strap in.

Hang on.

If you're lucky enough to get a ride this weekend in Ford's Shelby GT500 Mustang or the off-road F-150 SVT Raptor, you're in for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

As a prelude to the first-ever BlackTop Nationals — a four-day event sponsored by Ford Motor Co. that kicked off Thursday — we got a front-seat view as two high-performance vehicles showed their stuff in downtown Wichita.

First was the Raptor, a high-powered pickup designed by Ford's Special Vehicles Team to compete in the Baja 1000 off-road race.

"We're going to run it all weekend and wash it off when we're done," said Steve Ling, director of car marketing for Ford. "We want to really show folks what this thing can do."

It can do lots.

Developed and tested by off-road racers, Raptor is heavy duty from bumper to bumper, designed to soak up bumps, curves, jumps and more. Crews moved more than 75 tons of dirt to build a temporary off-road track south of Century II to demonstrate its capabilities.

Professional truck racer Greg Foutz of Arizona-based Foutz Motorsports revved up the Raptor and took off, throwing off huge clouds of dust.

"Pretty cool, huh?" Foutz said as he sped around a corner littered with cantaloupe-sized rocks. "Isn't that crazy?"

Crazy, I nodded, and held on tighter.

Then came the jump. It felt like a roller coaster, a hang glider, but with air conditioning and Sirius Satellite Radio. It was, in a word, incredible.

And the landing? Surprisingly smooth. Credit the truck's extra-wide chassis, extra-large tires and state-of-the-art suspension and shocks.

"I want one," I told Foutz.

He laughed. "That's what everybody says."

We took the jump several more times — to get some photos, and because we wanted to — then headed across the lot to the Shelby Cobra.

This was the anti-truck, low and lean, a color we'll call Paul Newman's Eyes. (Its real name is "Grabber Blue.")

In the pilot's seat was Austin Robison, another off-road racer who likes to squeal tires every now and then. A two-time Baja 1000 class winner and Paris-to-Dakar Rally competitor, Robison has competed in several D1 and Formula D drift events and with NASCAR trucks.

South of Century II this weekend, he'll be running occasional "hot laps" in a 2011 Shelby GT500, taking riders around hairpin curves, raising eyebrows and, judging from Thursday's media rides, drawing a crowd.

I got in the car and realized immediately what Ling had meant when, earlier in the day, he described the Mustang engine.

"A nice, deep, throaty burble-burble V8," he said, pointing to the Boss 302 Laguna Seca on a turntable inside Century II. "It's the kind of sound that tells you what's under the hood."

Aw yeah. Burble-burble.

But when the Shelby took off with an eye-popping screeeeeech, I was more impressed with the seat belts — and the guy in the driver's seat. Robison charmed the Cobra, steering casually around curves, dodging cones, burning rubber.

I was speechless, except for a few choice words I can't repeat here. Let's just say Ricky Bobby would be proud.

During the BlackTop Nationals, Ford will let people test drive several new vehicles, including Mustangs, Explorers and the new Focus Hybrid and Edge crossover.

Hot laps in the Shelby GT500, though, are strictly passenger-seat, and will be offered first-come, first-served at the Ford registration tent.

After his ride Thursday, Vice Mayor Jeff Longwell climbed out of the Shelby, shook his head and smiled.

"That right there," he said, "is better than any thrill ride you could pay money for.

"You feel out of control, but at the same time, completely in control. It's amazing, incredible. What a joy."

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