Conquering Baja With BFGoodrich’s Unbelievable New KO2

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[Full disclosure: the good folks at BFGoodrich footed the bill for this entire trip, and when I wasn’t behind the wheel, I was being stuffed with magnificent tacos and drinking the best margaritas I’ve ever had.]

The Baja 1000 is—arguably—the craziest race in world. For almost 50 years, teams from around the globe have flocked to the Mexican state of Baja California to test their mettle against some of the most unforgiving terrain on the planet.

“Years later, I clearly recall that the defining feature of his Baja 1000 experience was sheer, protracted terror—akin to riding a roller coaster which could very well crash. Personally? I thought it sounded awesome.”

En route to the finish line, competitors battle fatigue, dust, darkness and a course peppered with spectator-created booby traps which transform the already tricky trails into a virtual minefield waiting to dismember the Trophy Trucks, motorcycles, VW Beetles and dune buggies ricocheting toward the checkered flag.

At SEMA in 2008, I talked to Myles Kovacs—founder of DUB Magazine—about a stint he did in a buddy’s Trophy Truck, and while I don’t remember all the particulars of his description, I do recall that the defining feature of his experience was sheer, protracted terror—akin to riding a roller coaster which could very well crash.

Personally, I thought that sounded awesome—though nobody has ever accused me of being the sharpest tool in the shed. And while I didn’t ride along during an actual race, BFGoodrich recently brought a group of automotive writers down to experience its new All-Terrain T/A KO2 in the country that inspired it. Predictably, it was a total blast.

BFGoodrich has a long history with Baja, dating back to 1975, when the company began using the gruelling country of Baja to test its revolutionary Radial All-Terrain T/A tire.

“In 2013, the BFGoodrich Performance Team took another Baja 1000 class victory, using not speciality racing rubber, but the same street-legal KO2 tires consumers will be able to buy for their daily drivers and weekend warriors.”

At the time, bias ply tires still dominated the field, but just two years later, driver Scoops Vessels managed to pull off back-to-back wins in the Class 8 category of the 1977 Baja 500 and 1000 races, kicking off what would become an unrivaled legacy in Baja history.

By 2003, BFG would achieve its 50th Overall SCORE Victory, which would increase to 75 in the next ten years.

In 2013, the BFGoodrich Performance Team took another Baja 1000 class victory, using not specialty racing rubber, but the same street-legal KO2 tires consumers will be able to buy for their daily drivers and weekend warriors.

Now, you’d probably figure that those victorious tires would be thrashed beyond all recognition—but you’d be wrong.

The lead vehicle for the two-day, 300-mile off-road excursion was sporting them, and at the end of the journey they looked ready to do it all over again.

Even though I live in Los Angeles, I’d only been South of the Border once before.

“First up was the Ford SVT Raptor. Now, I’ve driven the Raptor before, but I’d never been able to leave the pavement—which is kind of like going to a BBQ competition with a head cold—so I was stoked I’d finally get to truly experience its off-road chops.”

That time, I was in Mexicali—Baja’s capital city—with my buddy’s punk band, so I didn’t see much other than a taco stand, the inside of a club, and strangely, an excellent Chinese restaurant.

Just like it was last time, the crossing of the border was basically a non event. While our group had to get off the tour bus and have our bags x-rayed, the whole process took less than 30 minutes, so it felt more like a pit stop than a shakedown.

Seriously, it’s harder to get into Costco than it is Mexico.

From the border, we drove out to Horsepower Ranch, a 147-acre property that’s host to annual Baja 500 and 1000 parties and serves as an oasis of luxury in the harsh desert.

There everyone got to take a quick trail lap to get familiar with the vehicles we’d be driving over the next two days.

First up was the Ford SVT Raptor. Now, I’ve driven the Raptor before, but I’d never been able to leave the pavement—which is kind of like going to a BBQ competition with a head cold—so I was stoked I’d finally get to truly experience its off-road chops the next morning.

As you’d expect, the Blue Oval was pretty straightforward, and after the instructor walked me through what traction settings we’d be using, and how to work the GPS, I took a—leisurely—loop around the course and hopped into a waiting Baja Challenge car.

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Compared to the cushy Raptor, the Challenge car was strictly business—and totally bad ass. The dune buggies are powered by a 2.0L Subaru Impreza engine mated to a purpose-build racing transmission, and aside from the tube chassis and some lightweight plastic body work, there’s not much else.

These babies have enough suspension articulation to drive over damn near anything and are actually street-legal in Baja—the ones we drove had regular old license plates—but forget about creature comforts like a heater, climate control or windscreen. With all the weight over the back wheels and next to no mass to push, handling of the buggies was delightfully tail-happy and I was excited to explore the capabilities on the trail. The only thing that was tough to get used to? The transmission.

When my Dad was teaching me to drive a standard like, a million years ago, he was insistent to not force the lever into gear. And for a street transmission? That’s great advice. But these gearboxes were meant to be manhandled, and after I got over my fear of breaking them, I was pretty comfortable behind the wheel.

“The Raptor soaked up all the bumps from the trail easily, and the K02 provided spectacular traction on the pavement, mud, dirt and gravel we encountered along the way. Blasting along with the AC going, it was easy to forget that we were in the middle of the Mexican desert.”

After everyone cycled through the vehicles, we headed back to the main building for some seriously awesome tacos and margaritas. Before dinner, everyone saw a brief presentation about the new KO2s—including the video where it was air-dropped, sans parachute into the desert—but we’d have to wait until the next morning to see what the KO2 would do in its natural habitat. We hit the road around nine the next morning, and I started out in a Raptor.

The three hour drive to lunch would be chiefly distinguished by how easy it was. The burly Ford soaked up all the bumps from the trail easily, and the K02 provided spectacular traction on the pavement, mud, dirt and gravel we encountered along the way.

Blasting along with the AC going, it was easy to forget that we were in the middle of the Mexican desert, and I had a hell of a good time threading the truck through the trees and brush we encountered along the way.

Pro tip for those taking your truck off road—make sure to fold the mirrors in before you go plunging down a trail. What’s behind you is really of no importance, and let’s just say trees aren’t particularly forgiving if the mirrors happen to catch them at a decent clip.

To be honest? The insulating cabin made it hard to remember too much about the drive before lunch. It was fun, to be sure, but between the insane grip from the KO2s and the sweet suspension, piloting the big Blue Oval along the trails was a breeze.

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But the Challenge car proved, shall we say, different.

My co-driver, Dave Rittenhouse of 4Wheel Parts, took the first stint behind the wheel, and from there, the day got about 10,000 times more intense. One of the things we learned in the introductory session the day before was that you shouldn’t feel like you’re getting beat up driving these cars—and I didn’t—but the stripped down, race-ready construction of these bad boys makes for a no-frills performance experience—and it’s awesome.

From lunch, we were headed to Mike’s Sky Rancho, and while I hadn’t heard of it, the other members of group were clearly aware of its legendary status. Here’s the way that Matthew James Scott of Unsealed 4×4 described it to me:

“Imagine a dive bar in Hollywood, where all the biggest movie stars in the world go to drink and talk shop. Then replace ‘dive bar in Hollywood’ with ‘Mexican hunting lodge 30 miles from the nearest paved road’ and ‘biggest movie stars in the world’ with ‘bad ass race car drivers’ and that’s Mike’s Sky Rancho.”

Now, in the morning the weather had been cooperative, but as we were polishing off our lunch tacos, we could see some storm patterns moving in, and just before I hopped into the driver’s seat of the buggie the skies opened up. I was about to get all the intensity I could handle.

Initially, I spent sometime driving on the highway, and even with the rain coming into the cabin, things weren’t too bad. The KO2s were as comfortable on the freeway as they were on the dirt, and displayed none of the sketchy tendencies which knobby tires can communicate on smooth roads. It’s when we left the pavement that things got serious.

Shortly after the convoy peeled off the highway we got into the mud, and the rain steadily picked up.

“As we crossed through particularly hairy sections, the buggies sent ferocious streams of mud 30 feet into the air, and fist-sized clods of dirt rained down into the cabin, covering every surface with a thick glaze of mud.”

The KO2s are designed to eject mud from the tread to maintain optimum traction——and fling out mud they did. As we crossed through particularly hairy sections, the buggies sent ferocious streams of mud 30 feet into the air, and fist-sized clods of dirt rained down into the cabin, covering every surface with a thick glaze of mud. As we progressed toward Mike’s I kept all the speed I could—I didn’t want to lose sight of the vehicle in front of me—even as my visibility became worse and worse.

Mud began collecting on my shield, and the lack of anything clean to wipe it with made it progressively more and more opaque, until I was forced to open up to maintain any kind of visibility. With the shield open, it felt like a leaf blower was repeatedly pushing a pin cushion into my face, though my sunglasses managed to shield my eyes from the sting.

Unfortunately, the glasses soon succumbed to the same fate as my shield. I don’t know how long as I drove with only my contact lenses between my eyeballs and the barrage of dirt and rain on the trail, but it felt like a hell of a long time.

As we progressed toward Mike’s the trail got increasingly technical, and the number and size of the rocks made it look more like a goat trail than a 4×4 path, but while I probably didn’t provide much interesting conversation for Dave—aside from confirming that I could in fact, see—we eventually splashed through a creek and ploughed up a hill.

When I rounded the last corners and saw the rows of parked buggies, I’d never been so relieved to get out of car.

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I’m not going to lie. At the time? It was pretty miserable. But it’s an experience I’ll never forget, and I was laughing about how brutal it was before I was halfway through my first beer.

“The idea that BFG could make a tire that would put up with the kind of abuse we were subjecting it to for 15 minutes was unreal, but to have travelled close to 300 miles without a puncture was just incredible.”

While there wasn’t any rain the next morning, the trail out of Mike’s was even sketchier than it was on the way in, and gave me plenty of opportunity to demonstrate my near complete ignorance of off-road driving to Marty Fiolka of the Rennsport Group, my new co-driver.

Fortunately, he competes in the the Baja himself and was happy to give me pointers and navigated our way along the trail. Of course, given the drops we faced, he had a vested interest in making sure I didn’t do anything too stupid.

While we progressed along the trail, I was continually impressed by the KO2s. The idea that BFG could make a tire that would put up with the kind of abuse we were subjecting it to for 15 minutes was unreal, but to have travelled close to 300 miles without a puncture was just incredible.

And these weren’t some weapons-grade, race-only rubber, but tires regular consumers can buy for their street vehicles—like my humble Explorer—was simply astonishing. Honestly, if you get a set of these for your daily driver, you can probably ditch your spare tire—even if the folks from BFG wouldn’t recommend it.

After watching them perform in the desert, I can’t imagine what would have to happen for them to fail under anything close to normal driving conditions.

After the morning of white-knuckle driving I swapped seats with Marty for the final leg of the journey, and it was awesome to get to enjoy the view from the “wrong” side of the car. Over the years, I’ve been privileged to ride with some truly talented drivers, and I’m always impressed when someone can hold a conversation when driving at a pitch which would scare the living crap out of most passengers.

The views were absolutely stunning, as as we progressed from the mountains to the flatter sections along the Pacific, it became clearer and clearer just what a special place Baja is. In the States, property this close to the beach would be be priced somewhere north of the stratosphere, but South of the Border, there was a startling amount of undeveloped land, and it was easy to feel like we were blasting straight through paradise.

Check out some more info on BFGoodrich’s amazing new tire here!

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John Coyle is a longtime auto journalist and editor who contributes to Corvette Forum and LS1Tech, among other auto sites.

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