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September 18, 2014

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A look inside a ‘trophy truck’

Fast and nearly indestructible, these purpose-built trucks compete on dirt and sand

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Christopher DeVargas

Local off-road racer T.J. Flores stands with his Trophy Truck, Thursday April 17, 2014.

Off Road Trophy Truck

A look at the brake system of T.J. Flores'  Trophy Truck, Thursday April 17, 2014. Launch slideshow »

Professional off-road racer TJ Flores has been competing since he was a teenager and now races annually in events with titles like the Silver State 300 and the Baja 1000 in Mexico.

The 36-year-old Las Vegas native has run his race truck through the deserts of Alamo, Caliente, Panaca and Pioche in such professional off-road leagues as the Southern Nevada Off Road Enthusiasts and Best of the Desert.

Flores’ fabrication shop and race prep business in North Las Vegas is packed with about 30 off-road vehicles he maintains for competitors between races. Most of them — desert vehicles for racing or play — his team built from the ground up.

He warns it’s not cheap.

“You better bring $1 million (to buy a vehicle),” he said.

Here’s what goes into one of these “trophy trucks.”

Heavy duty shocks

They allow the front-end suspension to flex up and down 27 inches. In the rear, the distance is 36 inches – 3 full feet. The cushion is needed to handle excessively rough terrain, which can include holes 4 feet deep. “We’ve hit some of those holes going 100-plus mph,” Flores said. An average passenger vehicle’s length of shock-absorber travel is about 3 or 4 inches.

Outsized engine

Flores’ power plant is a 454-cubic-inch, small-block Chevy. It runs at a maximum of 7,000 rpm and produces 800 horsepower. Its top speed is 140 mph. By comparison, a 2014 Ford F150 pickup has a 330-cubic-inch engine, runs at 4,250 rpm and produces 360 horsepower.

Expensive brakes

The brake system (rotors, pads and caliper) is valued at $40,000. It’s specially designed for racing, with components built from lightweight, high-tech materials designed to stop the truck quickly and remain durable throughout a race. That’s important, because racers often have to slow down rapidly from high speed to handle sharp turns. The brakes are under such heavy strain that they last only one race.

No easy rides

Flores estimates he loses 8 to 10 pounds during each race, which lasts less than five hours. That’s because the temperature inside the truck gets up to 200 degrees. Heat from the engine comes directly into the cab, because there is no insulation.

Flores competes alongside Stephanie McMurrough, whose McMurrough Racing gives financial backing of $40,000 to $100,000 a race. But McMurrough is not just along for the ride: she wears a headset to communicate with Flores while he drives and monitors the motor- management system. Located directly in front of the passenger seat, the system can detect engine problems, similar to the check-engine lights on a street sedan.

Two for the road

The two seats have five-point harness seat belts and head and neck restraints. Additionally, drivers and passengers must wear a fire suit ($2,800), a helmet ($1,100) and race shoes ($250). Some race teams employ a passenger on race day to help with navigation and strategy for a six-hour race. Others sell the seat to thrill-seekers for upward of $100,000 per race to cover the expenses of maintaining the vehicle.

Offroad lights

The truck includes eight 6.75-inch, 55-watt Vision X Cannon Offroad LED lights, the most powerful that would be allowed by law on a passenger vehicle. Each light can illuminate up to 2,500 feet — nearly seven football fields, including the end zones.

Two batteries

One is a spare and can easily be switched out if the main battery dies during a race. Most passenger vehicles carry the battery up front in the engine compartment, but the race vehicle’s batteries are placed in the rear to help with weight distribution. Keeping balance is critical for race vehicles, which often go airborne. If there’s too much weight on either end, the vehicle will tilt forward or backward and won’t land properly.

Speed, not fuel efficiency

The truck runs on high-octane racing fuel transported in from a company in Long Beach and costing $13 per gallon. Because the engine of the racing truck produces more than twice as much horsepower as a standard passenger pickup, it burns gas at an exceptionally high rate. The truck has an 87-gallon tank and gets 2.5 miles per gallon.

Serious rubber

The truck rolls on 39-inch tires. One wheel and tire combo costs about $1,200. Flores’ crew can change the two rear tires and fill the gas tank in less than a minute.

• When the truck malfunctions during a race, Flores has to fix the problem himself on the course. If it’s a flat, there’s a built-in air jack system to elevate the car.

Ray Brewer can be reached at 990-2662 or [email protected]. Follow Ray on Twitter at twitter.com/raybrewer21.

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