A key component – and a major attraction to spectators – of short-course racing as practiced by the Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series is the air. No, we're not talking about the atmosphere, mixed with the lovely smells of race fuel and a bit of dust; we're talking hang time, the big air the trucks and buggies get when they leap off the tabletop jumps.
To spectators it's exciting, especially when you have a host of trucks coming off the jump at the same time. It appears to be a few seconds of uncontrolled chaos followed by a big thump at the end. For the drivers, it's just another part of the course to be conquered in pursuit of quick lap times and race wins.
“I don't think twice about being in the air,” says Robert “Fig” Naughton, the 2007 CORR Pro Lite champion, this year running the ReadyLift/Stronghold Motorsports Pro 2 Unlimited truck. It's just another part of the course, because, typically, you're coming out of a corner or going into a corner. I'm just concentrating on where I need to set my vehicle up on takeoff, so it's where I want it on the landing to set up for the next obstacle or the next corner.”
And just how rough are those landings? “If you fly the jump properly and catch the downside, the landings are nice. If you drop out of the sky and land on flat ground, though, you feel it through the spine. Even though these trucks have 20 inches of travel, if you make a mistake and land short or land long, you feel it. It's a thud,” he says.
The trick to jumps, as Naughton notes, is to take off correctly so you land where you want, with the truck in the position you want. Unlike motocross racers who can change the attitude of the bike in the air with their body and the throttle, there's not much a driver strapped tight into a 4000lb truck can do after takeoff to change the position of the truck.
Says Rodrigo Ampudia, driver of the Papas & Beer Pro 2 Unlimited and Pro Lite Unlimited trucks (and No. 36 at left): “When there's a straightaway after the jump, I usually try to carry my momentum through the jump and try not to get hung up in the air too long and try to get on the ground and keep moving. On other tracks, where there's a turn right after the jump, you want to set up the car so you land on the outside of the turn. Or you can set up to land a little bit sideways so you can dive into the inside of the turn. It depends on if you're running by yourself up front or if you're trying to set someone up for a pass.”
Changing the way a truck comes off the jump to manipulate the landing can be achieved in several different ways. First, the profile of the jump is not the same all the way across. Hitting it on the left side or the right will change not only where the truck lands, but also how far the truck flies. How fast the truck hits the jump changes the equation as well and, if the driver has no one next to him or her, they can even drive a little bit across the jump to position the truck in the right spot, depending on the next obstacle or to gain an advantage on a competitor.
“If you want to catch the inside of a corner, maybe want to dive underneath somebody, there are a couple ways you can do that,” explains Naughton. “You can out-jump them and get inside on them, or you can under-jump and then get on the brakes hard to get inside the corner. At Las Vegas, you were pretty much hitting everything and going as far as you can; but you can check up on a jump to hang the inside of a corner, or you can under-jump. Like if you're right on somebody coming into Turn 6 at Las Vegas and you out-jump them into the corner, you're basically taking the line from them. There are a lot of times when you'll manipulate how far you'll go off something depending on what you're trying to do or the pass you're trying to make.”
Just as the jumps can be used to gain an advantage on a competitor, they are also one of the places where it's possible for things to go very, very wrong. It's not always when things look bad that that happens, though. A sideways truck is one thing; a truck that's over-rotating is quite another.
“For me, to land sideways is almost the same as landing straight,” Ampudia says. “It just comes really natural to keep the wheels pointing straight and land on the gas, and the car will straighten out by itself. When the nose is coming too far down, you've just got to hold on; there's not too much you can do. One horrible thing is to hit the brakes when you land – I've had to do that when there's an accident after the jump. That makes the landing really aggressive, and that hurts. Other than that, try to hit the gas as soon as you land and straighten the car up. And if you're going to land really sideways, just try to land full throttle so the tires won't hook and you won't roll.”
That can turn the big air from something spectacular into something ugly in a hurry.