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Delight in the Dirt

Automobile logo Automobile 5/28/2017 Mike Floyd
Honda-Ridgeline-Baja-Truck-front-three-quarter-in-motion-02.jpg
Honda Ridgeline Baja Truck front three quarter in motion 06© The Manufacturer Honda Ridgeline Baja Truck front three quarter in motion 06

I'm harnessed in and HANS-ed up in the cockpit, cinched tightly in the Sparco seat. Underneath the hood is a custom-built, twin-turbo 3.5-liter V-6 pushing 550-plus horsepower. There's no windshield, webbing covers the side-window openings, and the entire vehicle is giant tube frame wrapped in a fiberglass body with a suspension designed to handle relentlessly punishing terrain. The road ahead is a dirt path. This is either going to be fun or a colossal failure.

"It's a six-speed sequential transmission," says a voice in my ear—or, more accurately, in my helmet—as the words of Jeff Proctor, chief driver and ringleader of the factory Honda Racing Ridgeline team, are piped in through a speaker. We're about to light off toward the challenging trails of Stoddard Valley off-road park in Barstow, California. "You'll want to lift off the gas then really jam it into gear." Got it. I think.

This is my first time behind the wheel of a vehicle like this, and it is more than a bit intimidating. Proctor first takes me out as a passenger, and as you'd expect he has the truck running flat out over massive washboards, shooting roosts of dirt from its 37-inch General Tire Grabbers and barreling into tight berms, its Fox Shox and Eibach springs rebounding as we go.

Honda Performance Development engineered this Ridgeline's engine, one very loosely based on the powerplant from the production Ridgeline. The V-6 sounds like a small army of angry hornets at full throttle. Proctor keeps it expertly in the powerband as we bust, smash, and crash our way over Stoddard's extensive network of trails. "This is about eight- to nine-10ths race pace," he says as my insides shuffle from my throat to my gut and back again and again. I'll pass on the extra tenths, thanks.

An affable native Southern Californian who was extremely patient with a noob like me, Proctor has spent most of his adult life getting after it on the trails, first on two-wheeled machines. After some not-so-gentle prodding from his wife, he made the switch to Baja-style trucks. He races and also directs the Honda factory-supported team of mostly volunteers as the head of his Proctor Racing Group operation. It has run the Ridgeline since 2015's Baja 1000.

Proctor's team effort has been a great way for Honda to promote the second-generation Ridgeline, billed as more trucklike in appearance and capability. I've spent several days in our Four Seasons Ridgeline recently, and though it looks the part it certainly doesn't drive like a truck, meaning it handles well on the freeway with steering feel that doesn't behave as though it's been injected with Novocain. It's more like a well-balanced crossover than anything else. Although there are far more capable dirt-devil production models out there, including Ford's Raptor, the Ram Rebel, and Chevy's soon-to-arrive Colorado ZR2, those are purpose-built trucks. We'll see if Honda ever decides to go that route (doubtful) in an effort to really make the Ridgeline perform off the tarmac. If it does, it would certainly be able to draw from what HPD and Proctor have been up to with the race truck.

I'm about to learn a few things myself. Proctor tells me to stand on the super soft, squishy brake pedal and pop the transmission into first using the long stalk of a gear shift. We pull out, and I'm having a hard time orienting myself toward where we're headed. I make a total mess of it at first, and Proctor almost makes a mess in his pants when I nearly put it into a fence. Once we get it pointed in the right direction and into the first set of washboards, I crack off a couple of shifts, and the truck starts rebounding as I bang hard over the rough stuff.

I work my way clumsily around the course, trying not over-steer it or over-rev it. Proctor urges me to brake as we charge toward a berm. I'm pushing down hard, but not much is there. Whoops, I forgot to downshift. But in those few moments when I feel comfortable and glide over the dusty, rock-strewn path, it's unlike anything I've experienced in a vehicle.

I feel exhilarated as I clamber out of the Ridgeline racer, happy I didn't break it but also thrilled over feeling something completely different. Sometimes we're so focused on what happens at the track or on the road that we tend to lose sight of the broader world. It was amazing to be able to do it in the dirt for a day. Have you ever done it in the dirt? Let us know your stories at letters@automobilemag.com.

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