Payne: Racing across the desert in the ferocious Ford Bronco DR

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 16, 2023

Johnson Valley, California — I swung my body over the door sill, strapped myself into the molded seat with a five-point safety belt and gripped the steering wheel with Nomex gloves. Exploding forward, I watched for the dashboard Christmas lights to blink red before upshifting, the engine’s controlled violence shaking the roll cage around me. Feels like a race car. Sounds like a race car.

Except I am sitting 12 inches off the ground and slinging sand with all four of my 37-inch BF Goodrich all-terrain tires.

Welcome to the cockpit of the Bronco DR, Ford’s first purpose-built racing SUV. DR for Desert Racer. Dearborn’s automaker was born on the race track — Henry Ford raised capital by impressing investors with his vehicles’ performance capabilities — and the company has consistently used competition to hone technology and showcase its brand.

But the DR is something new. Where Ford has long made purpose-built Mustang dragsters and GT sports cars for customer teams to conquer legendary American asphalt tracks like Pomona and Daytona International Speedway, Bronco DR is made for dirt trails. Epic dirt trails like the SCORE Baja 1000 or the King of the Hammers here in California, where I got a brief taste of what it’s like to go off-road desert racing.

“This is a ground-up build,” said Ford Performance boss Mark Rushbrook of the turn-key customer racer that follows the Bronco R prototype Ford raced in the 2019-20 Baja 1000s. “(We’ve created) a desert racer that is competition-ready coming out of the factory — something Ford has never done before.”

On the desert course in California, Detroit News Auto Critic Henry Payne takes a jump in the Ford Bronco DR racing SUV, the beast's Multimatic shocks absorbing the impact after flying 30 feet.


On an undulating desert trail, I powered over a large mogul — lifting off the throttle to reduce stress on the V8-powered drivetrain as I sailed 30 feet through the air. The DR stuck the four-point landing and I was on the gas before the next whoop. Unlike my native sports car racing, where the throttle is treated like an ON-OFF switch as I maintain max revs over billiard-smooth race tracks, off-roading is constant modulation to navigate the ever-changing terrain of Mother Nature.

It’s a different discipline than on-road racing.

Later in the day, I rode shotgun with Vaughn Gitten Jr., a Ford factory racer who pilots a similar-to-the-DR #2565 Bronco in the Hammer’s 4400 racing class. Like me, Gitten was raised on asphalt racing, and he’s a drift-racing legend as a two-time Formula Drift champion. He’s taken on a second career as an off-road pilot.

As we charged across the landscape, I remarked how desert racing seems to involve little drifting.

The cockpit of the Ford Bronco DR racing SUV is spartan with removable steering wheel and center-mounted tachometer and instrument gauges.

“Yeah, these cars have to navigate everything from sand to rocks to rough moguls, so ride-height and shock travel is key,” said Gittin through his helmet microphone. “It’s all about tire placement. But give me a steering wheel and four tires and I’ll figure it out.”

To help off-road racers figure it out, the Bronco DR is a completely different weapon than, say, the Mustang GT4 that I watched win the IMSA Pilot Challenge at Daytona two weeks before.

Like Mustang, Bronco is designed for production-based class racing, so it starts life as a “body-in-white” at Bronco’s Wayne Michigan Assembly plant. Then it gets the VIP treatment. The chassis (Ford Performance has made 50) is shipped to Multimatic in Toronto — the same race shop that screwed together Ford’s historic Le Mans-winning GT and now produces Mustang GT4 and GT3 race cars. DR is then assembled with a Frankenstein’s parts list to make it an off-road monster.

The Ford Bronco DR racing SUV comes equipped with a full roll cage, 37-inch all-terrain tires, and a 65-gallon fuel tank.

While aesthetically similar to the production SUV, the DR’s fiberglass body panels are new and wrapped around a steel roll cage to protect drivers like me and my co-pilot: off-road Hall-of-Famer Curt LeDuc. The all-wheel-drive chassis sits on big, sophisticated spool-valve Multimatic shocks and bead-locked 37-inch BF Goodrich Mud-Terrain T/A tires. The rear differential is taken from the F-150 pickup, the front from Bronco. Under the hood? A 5.0-liter Coyote V-8 out of a Mustang paired with a 10-speed F-150 transmission.

Gittin suggested leaving the transmission in automatic mode rather than use manual paddle shifters, so sophisticated is the 10-speed at managing torque. Given the severity of the terrain, the drivetrain prefers low revs for easier transitions — not the constant winding of the drivetrain to redline as in a sports car.

The Ford Bronco DR's 5.0-liter V-8 engine makes over 400 horsepower.

“Smoothness and reliability are rewarded on off-roading,” said my navigator LeDuc as we bounced across a desert washboard of moguls. “Easy throttle, off the brake.”

I preferred the automatic shifter, keeping revs low at 2,000-3,000 rpm. That was just fine by the Coyote V-8, which is built for low-end torque. The exception was deep sand. There, the V-8’s 400-plus horsepower came in handy — WAAAURRGH! — to keep from bogging down.

Payne's outfitted and ready to head out to the desert course in the Bronco DR.

Notably, Ford chose not to go off-road racing with its first electric SUV, the Mustang Mach-E. EVs suffer in extreme environments like deserts where temperatures and constant throttle wreak havoc on battery range. There’s also a dearth of, um, charging stations.

The Bronco DR’s massive 65-gallon gas tank is key to getting it around Hammer’s 70-mile laps or 300-mile-long stages in the Baja 1000.

The sophisticated Multimatic live-valve shocks on the Ford Bronco DR racing SUV allow for fast desert running.

In time, I bonded with my bucking Bronco, learning its steering and braking habits. Unlike razor-sharp on-road racers, DR is designed for variable terrain with its shock absorbers and locking diffs. Oh, those shocks!

The Multimatics are remarkable in their ability to absorb off-road punishment (my spine says thank you) while also firming for high-speed, 100-mph dry lake-bed runs. “Spool-valve shocks are a game-changer,” said Gittin of a technology that originated in Formula One racing. Improving the production Bronco Raptor’s performance by over 50%, Bronco DR boasts ridiculous 15.8-inch front and 17.4-inch rear suspension travel.

The 6,200-pound beast also stands out with an approach angle of 47 degrees, departure angle of 37 degrees and 33-degree breakover angle while maintaining the production Raptor’s 74-inch front and 73-inch rear tracks for firm footing.

The Ford Bronco DR racing SUV is designed to run long, 300-mile desert sprints at the Baja 1000 - or brutal, 70-mile laps at the King of the Hammers.

Johnson Valley is the natural habitat for Bronco Raptors and DRs, where engineers spent countless hours testing equipment.

My DR test complete, I headed back to Hammers base camp in an orange production Raptor. I rotated the drive mode dial to Baja and charged onto similar trails I had just run in the DR. True to its mission as an all-around beast, the Raptor was not sprung as stuffily as DR, so I couldn’t take moguls at the same speed lest I become a four-wheel pogo stick.

But the Raptor was still impressive and a lot more comfortable than the off-road racer. And when we arrived at Hammertown, I could simply open the door to exit.

Next week: 2022 Genesis G80

Ford Bronco DR

Vehicle type: Front engine, four-wheel-drive, two-passenger racing SUV

Price: $295,000

Powerplant: 5.0-liter V-8 engine

Power: 400-plus horsepower

Transmission: 10-speed automatic with shift paddles

Performance: 0-60 mph, NA; top speed, 105 mph

Weight: 6,200 pounds

Report card

Highs: Shocks from the gods; V-8 roar

Lows: As comfortable inside as a cement mixer

Overall: 4 stars

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

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