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Story by Jack Baruth

Hey, club racers! Are you interested in envy? Would you like to be envied by others? Sure you would; you’re only human, after all, and there’s nothing more human than a bit of showing-off. Here’s the problem, though: the world of amateur racing is full of money. Like, chock-full of it. Like, some guy brought a friggin’ Daytona Prototype to Mid-Ohio for a NASA race last month, and he Didn’t. Even. Win. Fast cars, shiny parts, and perfectly polished trophy wives are part and parcel of the club racing scene. Think your Gallardo will wow the crowd? Forget it; there was a Superleggera here two weeks ago. Maybe a Ferrari Scuderia? That’s the second one we’re seen here today.

No, if you want real envy – the kind of envy that causes people to talk about you when you leave the lunch table – you need a serious race rig. We’re in the middle of a tow-vehicle arms race out here. It used to be you could get some attention with an F-250 Crew Cab or a Cayenne S. Not any more. Shiny new one-ton trucks used to pull the eyeballs in your direction, but today they’re thick on the ground. To win this battle – to assert your supremacy over the guy in the next paddock space before you do so much as clip an apex – it’s gonna take a new level of heavy-duty.

Towards that end, Ford has performed some cut-and-paste in their Super Duty Lego Set and created the F-450 Crew Cab 4×4 Dual Rear Wheel King Ranch. To understand the truck, we have to take all those designations in order. First, F-450. That means a commercial-class front axle that is six inches wider than what you’d find in a standard Super Duty, a shorter turning radius courtesy of big steering angle, and a unique suspension design to make twelve-ton towing loads easily controllable. Next, we have Crew Cab. There have been F-450 Crew Cabs in the past, but now we have one with a regular eight-foot pickup bed attached, courtesy of wider rear frame rails. 4×4: electronic shift-on-the-fly to drag those big trailers out of slick situations. Dual Rear Wheel: it’s a necessity for serious fifth-wheel hauling, plus it just plain looks cool. King Ranch: Ford has now made its highest trim level, complete with free-range-look leather and country-club-friendly two-tone paint, available on the F-450. The result is a truck that pushes all the buttons, combining a previously-unavailable 24,000-pound tow rating with an Expedition-style level of interior ambiance.

Among club racers, this big hauler, dipped in Dark Copper Clearcoat Metallic, drew more attention than a stack of free Hoosier DOT-R tires. It was the talk of the paddock wherever it went, even rating an admiring mention from the event director in the driver’s meeting on the first Saturday we took it to the track. We’d come back from yet another frustrating qualifying session to find drivers aimlessly circling the F-450, poking their heads into a window or crawling underneath the front suspension to marvel at the sheer size of the components. There were few questions, because this was an educated crowd and they knew exactly what they were looking at, but there was plenty of admiration and, yes, envy.

Was it justified? Is it worth paying more than sixty-one-thousand dollars for a tow vehicle? To find out, we made a cross-country two-weekend journey between track weekends, using the infamously demanding Interstate 68 as our primary thoroughfare. I-68, the so-called “Home Of The Seven Percent Grade”, demands the absolute most from a tow rig. And since we were in a hurry, we wouldn’t be sparing the horses, either. Sure, the F-450 looks like the perfect race rig. Did it deliver? Hell, yes.

#1. What’s it cost, and why? Our tester was an eye-watering $61,775 from a base price of $50,355. Major cost options included the Torqshift five-speed automatic ($1,490), King Ranch package ($3,640), the in-dash navigation ($1,875), and a 4.30:1 ratio limited slip diff ($190).

#2. What did we pull, and how well did it do? We started with a 980-mile roundtrip to the TrackDAZE event at Summit Point’s Shenandoah course, following up with a 530-mile pull to the NASA Great Lakes race at Putnam Park, IN. Our Performance Touring “E” Plymouth Neon rode on our Quality Trailers 18″ steel-deck trailer for a total towed weight of around 4400 pounds, plus another 600 pounds or so of wheels, tires, and equipment in the bed. Although the F-450 was equipped with Ford’s outstanding “Tow Command” integrated brake controller, which removes the drama from steep descents and quick stops, we’d be fibbing if we said we really used it. In fact, for testing purposes we simply turned off the trailer brake altogether. It didn’t matter; it’s virtually impossible for a small trailer to disturb the F-450. The 172-inch wheelbase, roughly equivalent to a Honda Civic, is long enough to damp any oscillation which might occur, and the dual rear wheels impart an aircraft carrier’s worth of stability to the long bed. As a result, the King Ranch is virtually an autopilot ride on the freeway, requiring very little input at any speed. Of the various trucks we’ve used to pull over the past few years, this one’s the easiest pull, plain and simple. It’s worth remembering, however, that this is a long and wide vehicle. It’s not easy to park, and it’s occasionally a bit tight on country roads or driving through older subdivisions.

#3. Does it have enough motor? Yes. The PowerStroke diesel V8 which made our 4×2 F-250 Regular Cab tester such a rocketship feels a little less overpowering in this context, which is reasonable enough given the sheer size and weight of this rig, but it’s still capable of smoking the occasional Corolla off the line. Seven-percent uphill grades can be accomplished in top gear, even towing the relatively small car-hauler.

#4. It is “enough truck” for a club racer? Absolutely. The F-450 will pull anything short of a stacker trailer without drama. It’s rated for 24,000 pounds in a fifth-wheel or 16,000 using the beefy Class IV hitch. There’s room for a five-person crew in the spacious cab, and the DVD player in our test example can keep even the most ADD-addled of mechanics occupied on long trips.

Okay, this probably represents a little case of overkill – but when your friend needs a ride for his new motorcycle, why not?

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#5. What was the fuel economy? Towing our Neon on flat ground, we observed 11.2 mpg, which dropped to 10.8 mpg on the hilly Interstate 68 through West Virginia. Without a trailer, though, the mileage popped up to, er, 11.4 mpg. You get the idea, right? This truck won’t be cheap to run, and the massive hole it punches in the air makes a trailer almost irrelevant.

#6. How’s passenger comfort? Understand this: heavy-duty trucks are not light-duty trucks, and they certainly aren’t coil-spring, independent-suspension compact SUVs. The F-450’s massive frame and medievally stout springs make for a bit of a rough ride at times, particularly when the road is rough. Under certain freeway conditions, the big Ford fairly hops down the road. The seats are also a little harder than they would be in an Expedition or F-150. The net result is a truck that rides about as well as a mid-Nineties half-ton. Given that this truck would easily carry a 1996 F-150 sideways across the bed, it’s impossible not to smile at the magnitude of Ford’s engineering accomplishments.

#7. What options do I need? You really kind of need the King Ranch package. No, it’s not strictly “necessary”, but it’s awfully enjoyable. The Audiophile sound system also makes the long pulls more enjoyable. From a mechanical perspective, there are no required options; the “base” F-450 PowerStroke has everything you need.

#8. What options should I avoid? We’d be tempted to choose the six-speed manual over the automatic, but either choice is fine.

#9. Where does this stand compared to the competition? This is the heaviest-duty “regular” pickup money can buy. There’s no competition. No one-ton pickup, whether we’re talking about Dodges, Chevies, or Ford’s own F-350, can cut the same amount of mustard. If this is what you’re looking for, it’s the only choice.

#10. What’s the overall picture? We’ve compared the Super Duty series of Ford trucks to the Porsche 911 in the past, and it’s an analogy which continues to apply. The Super Duty is simply the most finely tuned, fit-for-purpose, deeply satisfying truck on the market. Much like the evergreen Porsche, it’s been refined time and time again to meet the precise demands of its unique customer base.

Also like the 911, the Super Duty comes in an almost infinite number of variants, from vanilla to outrageous. Think of this F-450 as a “GT2” variant; it’s not for everyone, it’s expensive to run, and it’s not quite as similar to its platform mates as its appearance might lead a casual observer to believe, but it performs a specific task to perfection. For the 911 GT2, that specific task is outright speed; for the F-450, it’s towing massive loads through difficult conditions. The price of perfection can be high – enough to buy three basic half-ton trucks – but in this case, it’s absolutely worth it. The big Ford does anything you can ask of it and generates more than a little bit of envy along the way. It is, simply, the racer’s choice.

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Jack Baruth

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