JOHNSON VALLEY, California — Sixty miles north of Palm Springs, Johnson Valley is synonymous with Ultra4 racing — America's most demanding off-road competition. Every February, 75,000 people descend on this 96,000-acre desert pasture to watch insane, all-wheel-drive 1,000-horsepower dune buggies on 'roids vie for the King of the Hammers crown over high-speed flats, mountain passes and extreme rock-choked trails.
Incredibly, this alien landscape is also the natural habitat of the Ford Bronco Raptor.
Like tackling Road Atlanta — one of America's greatest race tracks — last July in a production Porsche 911 GT3, I assaulted the Hammers course with a production Bronco Raptor. In extreme 116-degree temperatures, Raptor not only survived — it thrived.
Ford's latest performance beast is part of an emerging breed of super-trucks — SUVs and pickups built on ladder frames — that can take on the most challenging off-road adventures just as supercars have taken on asphalt race tracks for years.
And like the Porsche GT3 supercar, Bronco Raptor is the new standard for super-trucks. Not the most powerful, not the most expensive, but the most versatile. Taking the Bronco's basic goodness and then weaponizing it with premium shocks, tires and turbo-V6, there are few places where Raptor won't go — just like the Ultra4 racers that inspired it.
With my lead foot planted on the floor, I tore across the desert floor at 75 mph. Wearing ginormous 37-inch BFGoodrich tires aired down to 24 PSI and live-valve Fox shocks, the Raptor absorbed ruts, whoops and moguls. Tearing into a left-hand sweeper, I stabbed the brake — the Scandinavian flick on sand! — like a rally-racer, swinging the rear end out so I could power thorough the turn, sending up plumes in my wake.
I've done this before in the F-150 Raptor, the first super-truck that redefined off-road performance. With a nearly identical suspension, width and big tires, I reached speeds beyond 100 mph in the Borrego Springs desert in 2016. Some Hammer hot shoes in Johnson Valley told me the Bronco Raptor can run in triple-digits too, but F-150 Raptor does it more confidently thanks to its longer wheelbase.
Important to Raptor's athleticism is an independent front suspension, a major departure from the off-road model pioneered by the Jeep Wrangler, Bronco's arch-rival. Like F1's Hamilton and Verstappen, it's almost impossible to have a conversation about Bronco without talking Wrangler too.
Learning from F-150, Bronc's independent front suspension allows pilots to assault punishing terrain without having their limbs shake off. What elevates Bronco Raptor over Big Brother, however, is that it can transition from high-speed flats to rock crawling in an instant. Like a Bronco Badlands. Or Wrangler Rubicon.
I'm a speed freak, but the Raptor's rock-crawling prowess is truly extraordinary. As I contemplated the rocky inclines of the Hammers course, my jaw dropped. We're going up that?