There’s something of a negative stereotype in the car enthusiast world when it comes to pickup trucks and their owners. I admit to sometimes perpetuating that stereotype, but I need to say something here. Not all pickup trucks are hilariously large mudding machines purchased by owners overcompensating for other shortcomings. Many trucks are actually quite tasteful in their form and function, and many of those pickup owners are great people who love their rigs as much as we love our cars.
Enter the Ford F-150 SVT Raptor. Being a fan of tarmac, I was very skeptical when Ford ditched its track-friendly F-150 Lightning and replaced it with something supposedly designed for high-speed off-road use. I soon discovered, however, that the Raptor was indeed unlike any other factory stock pickup truck. Not only could it tackle rough terrain at speed, it was actually easier to drive in such circumstances. Its mushy suspension - something petrolheads generally revile - allows the Raptor to own off-road courses at speeds that would snap other pickups in half.
So yeah, I’m not a fan of pickup trucks but I’m positively bonkers for the SVT Raptor. And that got me to thinking - are Raptor owners as awesome as their trucks? To find out, I phoned up a colleague from my old car club days who bought a Raptor a few years back. Turns out, he didn’t just buy a Raptor, he partnered up with a mate to create one of the biggest Raptor events in the world. And because driving through deserts is such a pickup truck cliché, they decided to invade the Upper Peninsula of Michigan USA in the middle of winter to create something called the SnoBall.
“It actually started off as kind of a joke,” said Mark Rowe, one half of the duo behind Great Lakes Raptor Excursions (GLRE). A representative from Ford SVT suggested to Rowe that he should see just how well the Raptor’s unique suspension handles snow. After discussing the idea with fellow Raptor owner and GLRE co-founder Jason Kanakry, they planned a trip north to Michigan’s winter wonderland where a combination of deep snow, sparse population and abundant wilderness would give them a proper challenge.
To make the trip more interesting, they decided to make it something of an official event. Kanakry felt they could map out 500 miles of dedicated off-road driving, so they added a banquet and looked into doing something for charity as well. The word spread quickly - so quickly that the pair were soon overwhelmed with Raptor owners wanting to participate. Numerous companies threw in support, and when the snow settled, the inaugural 2013 SnoBall had 57 registered Raptors.
The 2016 SnoBall took place a few weeks back with no fewer than 86 trucks covering over 780 miles of plowed back roads, logging routes, and seasonal tracks that receive no winter time maintenance. It wasn’t just the biggest SnoBall run to-date; it was the largest official point-to-point road rally in Michigan’s history, requiring the participants to be split into groups of 15 so as to keep things moving in the event of a problem. On that front, Rowe was adamant about the participants’ sense of unity - when someone gets stuck the entire group pitches in for the extraction.
“It has to be that way,” he said. “When you’re out in the middle of the forest going through unplowed trails, everyone works together to help if someone slides off the road or breaks down.”
The SnoBall route is a challenge for the Raptor in every sense of the word. Some of the seasonal roads can have two feet or more of snow, requiring drivers to gear down and claw through it. The Raptor’s soft suspension tuning and ground clearance give it remarkable grip in deep snow, but slow speeds aren’t kind to a truck designed to go fast. Rowe says despite temperatures that can reach -30 degrees Celsius, drivers need to stop every so often to let trucks cool down.
The Raptors don’t suffer such difficulties on other parts of the route where there are technically no speed limits. Plowed back roads and logging trails generally remain snow covered and icy, but it’s these stretches where drivers can push the Raptor to do what no other production truck can. I hesitate to use the word fly, but Rowe assures me that speeds and suspension travel are properly exercised.
They have to be - the SnoBall is a three-day event with drivers spending roughly 12 hours a day on the trails. Covering 780 miles in that timeframe works out to an average speed of around 22mph. If that doesn’t sound impressive, you should know that 22mph is pretty much the top speed for typical off-roaders. Still not impressed? With stops and slow-speed trails figured in, what kind of top speeds are required to average 22mph? I’ll leave that math up to you.
So yeah, the Raptor is a freaking awesome pickup truck. And Raptor owners aren’t content to crawl down nearby fields to the local mud pit for a kegger with the neighbours. They literally gather from coast-to-coast and beyond, their Raptors packed with tools, radios, and all the gear you’d find on a trophy truck to handle trail-side emergencies. They watch out for each other, they love to have a good time, and most importantly, they live for going fast.
In other words, Raptor owners are every bit as cool as their trucks. And if you have the opportunity to visit the Upper Peninsula of Michigan next year, planning for the 2017 SnoBall is already well underway.
“It will be our fifth anniversary, and we’re trying to make it something really special,” said Rowe. “We’re taking what we’ve learned this year with the changes and combining it with the best stuff from the previous years. And we’ve picked up some great sponsors that help make this happen. Considering we started this whole thing off-the-cuff four years ago as something fun to do, I’m amazed at just how many people have embraced it. I thought the freezing cold and snow would keep people away; instead it draws them in. Raptor owners are some of the most passionate, dedicated enthusiasts I’ve ever met.”
Don’t have a Raptor? No problem - these guys are so cool I bet they’d let you ride in the bed. Just be sure to bring a shovel for the deep snow, extra clothes for the cold, and a parachute for when the trails open up. I hesitated to say it earlier, but even in the cold, snowy forests of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, these trucks really fly.