Dirt Devil: In the Heated World of Off-Road Racing, Pete Sohren Drives and Talks Hard
Pete Sohren drives his truck through the Arizona desert like an angry kid beating a toy car against the dirt.
The truck — a Ford F-150 modified for off-road racing — streaks across the landscape, a bright yellow blur trampling bushes, mud, and rocks under massive black tires. The tires churn as the truck slides sideways in the dirt, spewing out huge, brown dust clouds.
As he approaches a hill, Sohren treats it like a ramp, speeding over the crest at almost 100 miles an hour. The truck flies six feet through the air; its fiberglass body seems to levitate above the tires. Then the tires hit the gravel, bouncing like rubber balls, and the body of the truck rises four feet on suspension springs before rocking back down with a jolt.
Woo-woo-woo-woo. Sohren's horn sounds like a police siren, but approaching another racer, he's way more menacing than a cop. He's got a reputation for playing rough. The siren's just a warning for the other truck to move over. Plan B is to bump it.
The other driver sees Sohren's truck behind him, the word "Pistola" along the top of the windshield in big, white letters. He steers his black racing truck to the left; Sohren speeds up alongside it. The front bumper of Sohren's truck bounces violently, inches from his opponent's front tires.
Sohren suddenly swerves in front and stomps on the accelerator, leaving his opponent in a swirling mist of dirt.
Such in-your-face maneuvering fits Sohren's sport, a melee of motorized gladiators battling across the desert called "off-road racing." Year-round, the deserts of Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and Mexico's Baja California peninsula roar with thousands of angry-sounding engines and screaming fans. Off-road racing's popularity is growing, but it's still a fringe sport — more dangerous than NASCAR, but with far less payoff. There's a sense of anarchy about muscle cars and monster trucks vying for position across vast expanses of primitive land, on an unpaved "track" marked with arrows on fluorescent signposts and surrounded by thousands of howling, camped-out spectators.
Because desert races stretch for hundreds of miles, some drivers might try "stroking it" — driving carefully to save their vehicles. Other drivers, those who take sharp turns at high speeds and run roughshod over tough territory, are known as "hard-charging."
Pete Sohren is hard-charging. The racing veteran might stroke his own ego, but he'd never stroke a race. He's been criticized by people in the racing community for an often reckless driving style, but his brazen, balls-to-the-wall approach is how he stays competitive in a dangerous and expensive sport in which the base cost of a competitive truck starts at nearly half a million.
He's called "Pistol Pete," as much for shooting off his mouth as for the "speeding bullet" simile. He's known for driving hard, talking smack, and refusing to cut his trademark curly mullet. The 6-foot-3, blue-collar father of four is an anomaly in this "rich man's sport."
By using his mechanical skills, taking a do-it-yourself approach, and enlisting the help of corporate sponsors, Sohren's managed to stay competitive in the trophy truck class (the biggest class in off-road racing) and give prominent off-road racers like NASCAR star Robby Gordon and Las Vegas casino executive Bobby Baldwin runs for their money.
But though he's been racing for almost 30 years and made numerous top five finishes, Sohren, 45, has yet to win a race. He always starts strong and leads at some point, but he's usually plagued by mechanical problems.
His problems appear solved, however, during the first weekend in February, when he travels to the Colorado River Indian Tribes reservation, almost three hours northwest of Phoenix, for the Parker 425. At the start, it looks to be a good chance for victory. He's qualified in the top three, and his truck's been running well all week.
"I'm ready," Sohren says the day before the race. "This is man and machine against the desert, and against everybody else."
And as it turns out, it's also man against machine.
Speedway Raceway occupies a massive yellow brick building off Interstate 10 in Central Phoenix, near the Buckeye Road exit. From the freeway, it looks like a big mustard splotch among the surrounding buildings painted in quieter colors such as adobe reds and browns. There's a blue dummy in a go-kart perched atop a high pole, towering over the frontage road. And on the face of the building are a scrolling yellow text box and a giant, red-neon marquee. The building's loud and flashy, like its owner.
Pete Sohren opened the indoor go-kart track in 2003. The building also serves as the garage for his trophy trucks. He's here almost every morning, including a chilly Tuesday morning in January, when he finds himself yelling at someone on his cell phone.
It's barely 10 a.m. and Sohren's already got smears of grease on the knuckles of his left hand. His hair, a curly, shoulder-length mullet, is slightly wet, giving it a greasy look, too.
He's also wearing dark sunglasses indoors — not to look cool, but because his left eye is messed up. Funny, it's not from racing. His father-in-law accidentally hit him with a club while golfing three years ago, and his iris is almost black.
"If I say I'm going to order the shocks to fix your truck, then I am," he says, stepping around the six boxes of shocks he ordered. "I'm not a fucking liar. That's not how I do business."
Sohren's indignant about his integrity being questioned. Hot-headedness is typical in off-road racing. The sport's road-warrior mentality and army of expensive, modified desert cars fuel the drivers' competitive fire. Things can get nasty when so much money and pride is at stake. Case in point: Sohren's feud with Greg Foutz, owner of Chandler-based Foutz Motorsports.
Early last year, Sohren purchased three Trophylite trucks from Foutz. He planned to rent them to other drivers but says the trucks weren't built correctly. Sohren says Foutz refused to fix the trucks; Foutz says Sohren never fully paid his bills for the trucks. Both went at each other in online racing forums for months.
Sohren fixed the Trophylites himself and recently re-sold them, but he still holds a grudge against Foutz. "He's a moron. I was stuck with trucks that were pieces of shit. It hurt my business for a year," he says. "Greg Foutz is a liar and a snake, in my opinion."
In an interview with New Times, Foutz says Sohren's "so full of crap" and "needs to get over it." He seems wary of the topic now. "Pete's trucks are all gone now, so I don't know what he has to whine about anymore. What can I really say about it?"
Problems with trucks could stem from rough driving, too, Foutz says, and Sohren's not exactly known for taking it easy. "Yes, these trucks have 800-horsepower motors and can go over rocks and through washes, but they can be driven into the ground," Foutz says. "Some drivers ride the trucks too hard and just break them apart. Guys can be fast, but they've got to be fast and smart."
Sohren's feud with Foutz is just one piece of drama in a very long career. Sohren's love affair with off-road racing began more than 30 years ago, when he was a kid in Salem, Oregon, riding in a dune buggy with his father, a tall, rough-and-tumble man from Oklahoma known as "Cowboy Bob."
He got serious about the sport when he was about 13, after his family moved to Arizona and his father introduced him to a local racecar driver named Bob Austin.
Austin, now retired, started racing off-road vehicles in the mid-'70s. He met Sohren in 1981 and remembers him as an enthusiastic high school kid (with the same mullet hairstyle he has today) who would come to Austin's garage and help him work on his racecar.
"He was a newbie. He knew a little about mechanic work but, really, he was just so glad to be involved. And when you do desert racing, you take all the help you can get," Austin says. "He was a very upbeat and energetic kid. He still is."
Sohren attended the annual San Felipe 250 race in Baja California with Austin several times as a teenager on his pit crew and, eventually, he got behind the wheel. "And that was the end of it, right there," he says. "I was hooked forever."
He got an after-school job at an off-road racing shop called Dirt Tricks at 18th Avenue and McDowell Road, near the state fairgrounds. He also got his own welder and started building parts in his garage.
"So that's how it began," Sohren says. "You get addicted to the sport. It's probably something like how people are addicted to drugs. Most people in off-road racing are in it forever."
Between races, Sohren takes his kids camping, boating, and hunting. His petite, blond wife, Cami, whom he met at a Phoenix Suns game in 1996, attends most races with him, sometimes with their four children — Paige, Van, Blair, and Farrah.
A certified public accountant, Cami handles the books for Sohren's two businesses, Speedway Raceway and Baja Racing Adventures. The latter rents off-road trucks to beginner drivers and sells ride-alongs for 10 grand each in Sohren's number-two "Pistola" truck at the Baja 1000 race.
The money helps finance Sohren's racing team and truck; he says his popularity gets him sponsors. "It's hard to compare it to another sport, but let's say you're Kobe Bryant or Shaquille O'Neal in the NBA — you're one of the most popular guys in your sport," Sohren says. "That's what our team is in the desert."
Cami's gotten used to people approaching him. "He seems really well known. When we go out to dinner, almost every time, someone will come up and ask, 'Are you Pistol Pete Sohren?' I mean, everywhere," Cami says. "We go places, and if it's anything race-related, we can't even walk two feet without people wanting to shake his hand or take his picture."
Sohren's definitely well known in racing circles, and not just for his driving. "He tells it like it is. He's got this in-your-face attitude and doesn't sugar-coat anything," says Shaun Ochsner, a television producer for Lucas Oil Motorsports. "He's got that kind of personality where people either love him or love to hate him."
As a driver, Sohren's admittedly aggressive, and he has his share of haters. Gary Newsome, editor of the blog BajaRacingNews.com, refers to Sohren as a "mullet-kook" and says his team "is known for running down lower classes."
After the Baja 500 race in 2008, an article in Ensenada's El Vigia newspaper accused Sohren of ramming Mexican driver Arnoldo Ramirez's car from behind without warning, then pinning Ramirez to some boulders, causing extensive vehicle damage. The story also accused the "arrogant American" of hitting driver James Marquez's truck a year earlier in Baja.
"This is all bullshit," Sohren says, explaining how he lost control of his truck after it hit a boulder in that race. He claims he doesn't know anything about wrecking Marquez. And either way, this is a sport where people should expect some knocks. "When you race in our class, we get it on. We go fast. We play rough," he says. "It's a move-or-be-moved type of operation. I race turn-to-turn, and we're trying to beat everybody. We're trying to stay in front."
The small town of Parker butts up against the Colorado River in the northwest corner of Arizona. It's usually a quiet place, a quaint cove of about 3,100 people, with a small casino and a few restaurants.
But on race weekends, it's like something out of a Mad Max film.
The main pit area around the Parker 425 track stretches for several miles across the desert, a serpentine convergence of luxury and lowbrow cultures. Rickety Airstream trailers sit next to expensive tents with clear-plastic bay windows. Shiny black Cadillac Escalades purr softly beside growling, primer-gray trucks.
A small city has sprung up around the race, with people camping out for three days in huge clusters across the desert. Trailers, tents, and RVs stretch for miles, interspersed with green plastic outhouses. Billy Bob's Barbecue Shack feeds the masses from a modest red trailer. A graffiti-covered, chime-warbling ice cream truck comes through every day. The air is ripe with beer, dust, and gasoline fumes.
More than 289 vehicles are crammed onto the streets of downtown Parker on the morning of the race, forming a kaleidoscope of welded steel and fiberglass — utility yellow, burnt orange, fluorescent green, cobalt blue, Knight Rider black — adorned with colorful stickers proclaiming things like "General Tire," "Snap-On," "BF Goodrich," and "Canidae All Natural Pet Foods."
The starting line is at the traffic light on California Avenue, in front of a 20-foot-tall inflatable Goodyear tire. Pete Sohren starts third, leaving streaks of black rubber across the asphalt before turning and disappearing onto the desert track.
For Sohren, the thrill of off-road racing is the danger, the necessity to maintain control in an out-of-control environment. It's the adrenaline rush of going airborne over hills, being lifted off his seat, tossed side to side; the excitement of seeing the ground fly up to meet him.
Sohren's one of hundreds of drivers in the Parker 425 this year. Combined with the teams, sponsors, vendors, families, and fans, there are easily 10,000 people in this thriving tent city. And this is one of the smaller races. Other off-road races bring even more spectators. The sport's biggest race, the annual Baja 1000, draws as many as 250,000 people.
Off-road racing wasn't always so huge. Its roots were humble when, in 1921, a handful of men on motorbikes raced across the California desert in the first Big Bear Run. That event brought out a few hundred participants every year until it ended in 1960. In 1967, the first official Baja 1000 (then called the Mexican 1000 Rally) was held.
That first sanctioned race had 68 entrants, but once the sport swept up celebrities like actors Steve McQueen, James Garner, and Paul Newman, its popularity grew. The celebrity infatuation with off-road racing continues today: West Coast Choppers CEO and reality TV star Jesse James, Grey's Anatomy actor Patrick Dempsey, and Micron Technology CEO Steve Appleton all race off-road vehicles.
Notable NASCAR drivers have also gotten in on the action, including Roger Mears, Jimmie Johnson, and Robby Gordon, who won the Baja 1000 last year.
Pete Sohren's just an average guy, running around his garage in green flannel shorts and tan Converse shoes, listening to Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. But when he races in Baja, he's a celebrity. "Trophy-truck drivers are like rock stars in Mexico," he says. "I'm like Bon Jovi when I go down there."
Long relegated to niche cable stations like Vs. and Speed, off-road racing events now receive television coverage from ESPN and the Discovery Channel. NBC has started broadcasting races in the Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series.
Television producer John Langley, best known for inventing the long-running reality show Cops, spent several months in the deserts of the Southwest, filming off-road racers and events for an upcoming show called Road Warriors. One of the drivers he followed and filmed was Sohren.
"He's a character," Langley says. "Everybody knows Pete and his mullet. He's on a shoestring budget, so he's typical of the aspirations of a racer. He'll use glue sticks, paper clips, gum — whatever it takes to stay in the race. Pete's a good driver. He can win, if he keeps his car running."
That's often been the challenge for Sohren. He's had numerous top five finishes, including a fourth-place finish at the 2007 Baja 1000, but he hasn't been able to nab the top spot. In the 2008 Baja 1000, his motor blew up eight miles into the race. After racing to second place midway through the Laughlin Desert Challenge this January, his truck suffered "massive engine failure." He and his crew had to completely tear down and reassemble his truck just a week before the Parker 425.
But Sohren's new tires, headlights, radiator, and oil will all have to be changed multiple times in an off-road race. The courses are long, unpredictable, and littered with spectators — and sometimes mischief-makers.
The Baja 1000, in particular, is known for booby traps set by fans. Every driver has a sordid story: people changing directions of the arrows on the course; women flashing their breasts at drivers on tricky turns; people moving pit crews' ribbons so their drivers can't find them. There's a story that one year, fans placed a telephone pole in a dip on the course and covered it with dirt so the driver wouldn't see it. He broke both of his arms in the crash.
About 25 deaths have been associated with the Baja 1000 since its inception. A 2005 documentary about off-road racing called Dust to Glory calls the Baja 1000 "the most dangerous race in the world," and Forbes magazine included it on its list of the "World's Most Dangerous Races" in 2006.
Sohren's had only one bad wreck. It happened at Phoenix International Raceway on Mother's Day 1991, at the SCORE Off-Road World Championships. He was passing other racers when his back tires came up and the front of his car took a nosedive.
"I crashed my car severely — broke the seat loose, smashed my helmet against the cage, tore off the whole front and back of the car, and went immediately to the hospital," Sohren says. "I had a severe concussion. I couldn't walk or talk very well for weeks. That was my worst crash ever, where I've been injured. We've crashed the trophy truck a few times, but nobody's ever been hurt."
But the potential for an epic wipeout is always there. "There's an element of anarchy, the whole 'Wild West' part. There are so many variables," he says. "You're making a billion calculations per race — thousands per second. Think of driving from here to Oklahoma City, but off the side of the road."
"It needs more garlic."
Two weeks before Christmas, Pete Sohren, the man who inspires expletives from his competitors and bravely hauls ass over desert brush, is wearing an apron and talking about seasonings. But he's still surrounded by burly racing trucks.
Inside a west Phoenix garage the size of a hover port, Sohren's making shrimp tacos for the annual Geiser Bros. Christmas party. His kids are playing the full-size arcade version of the video game Baja: Edge of Control. The game, created in 2008 by 2XL Games for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, features a variety of real racers' trucks for players to simulate driving, including Sohren's number two "Slime" trophy truck.
Many of the trucks in the game were made in this garage. Geiser Bros. Design & Development has built some of the most successful trucks in off-road racing for the past 25 years, including Jesse James' black West Coast Choppers truck, a silver custom Ford pre-runner built for Dallas Cowboys (and former Arizona Cardinals) guard Leonard Davis, and the trophy truck Robby Gordon drove to victory in the 2009 Baja 1000.
Rick and Jeff Geiser have known Sohren for 24 years and built some of his earliest racing vehicles. Rick Geiser considers him a good friend but doesn't gush about his overly daring racing skills.
"He puts on a good show for everybody. Is he better than anybody else? In some ways yes, in some ways no," Geiser says. "Anybody can get in a trophy truck and drive one — it's having the knowledge of when to go fast and when to not. Pete's well known for his looks and his mouth. That's what gets him what he has now. Can he drive? I won't elaborate. But he has the best truck he could be in."
Sohren's truck is a modified Ford F-150 with custom-made parts, including an eight-stack fuel injector and a dashboard crammed with six speedometers, more than 18 switches, and about 20 buttons. There's also a GPS system and a 442-cubic-inch, 700-horsepower engine.
But monster-truck muscle doesn't come cheap. "The base cost for one of these trucks is $450,000," Rick Geiser says. "And we'll spend $30,000 to $40,000 per race just to maintain them. The tires alone cost $500 each, and we'll change them an average of three times during a Baja race."
While a good racing vehicle easily costs six figures, prize money (when there is any) is only about $30,000 for first place in a Class 1 race. Some companies, like air filter manufacturers KNN and E3 Sparkplugs, sponsor races with purses up to $150,000, but they're the exceptions.
"It's a rich man's hobby," Jeff Geiser says. "There's not a lot of profit in the racing industry."
Many successful off-road racers, like BJ Baldwin, son of off-road racer and Mirage Resorts CEO Bobby Baldwin, have millions of dollars behind their racing teams, compared to Sohren's six figures.
One racer who influenced Sohren was Cave Creek resident Larry Ragland. Like Sohren, Ragland started desert racing with virtually nothing. But Ragland's waterbed business, Wood Stuff, took off and allowed him to pour more money into racing. He won the Baja 1000 five times during the '90s. Ragland, 66, is the second-winningest driver in the sport's history, behind New Zealand's Tony McCall.
"Ragland's a racing legend," Sohren says, "and a self-made millionaire."
Sohren sort of models himself after Ragland. He hopes his businesses, particularly Baja Racing Adventures, will profit enough for him to spend millions on his equipment, too.
For Sohren, the fact that he's been competitively racing trophy trucks "for the love of the sport and the glory" for three decades on a small budget is pretty amazing. "I had nothing. I built Speedway Raceway with nothing. I begged and borrowed money," he says. "My parents didn't have any money. They're not rich. I came from nowhere, helping other racers and riding three-wheelers, and now I'm at the pinnacle of my sport."
To offset expenses, Sohren and his chief mechanic, Eric Waite, do all the work on the truck themselves. His pit crew consists of about seven guys, mostly volunteers. "One advantage I have over the rich guys is they don't know how to fix anything," Sohren says. "First, you have to finish the race. The guys that win without any problems are probably 3 to 5 percent. Everybody else has to fix their problems."
Sponsors like Slime Schampa tire sealant help keep Sohren's costs down, while companies like Maxxis Tires, KC HiLites, and King Shocks help by providing valuable truck parts.
All told, Sohren's got about a $60,000 engine package in his truck and another 40 grand in parts. And he often finishes in the top five with guys who have millions invested in theirs. He may not have won a race yet, but he's done well with a big mouth and a skinny checkbook.
"Pete's out there racing, and he's doing it with half what these other guys are doing it with," Shaun Ochsner says. "That's why people respect him."
The weather at the Parker 425 sucks. Gray clouds hover overhead all day, pouring rain down on shivering fans under black trash bags and turning the race into a slush-fest.
Back at Pete Sohren's pit stop, his crew waits in raincoats with wrenches in hand. After starting third and moving into the lead after the first lap, Sohren got a flat tire and had to get down in the mud and change it himself. He's now running 40 minutes behind the leader as he nears the end of the second lap.
Eric Waite looks up at the hazy sky. His glasses are covered with drops of rain. Suddenly, his headphones crackle and Sohren's voice comes booming through. "I think a bead-lock ring broke off at the end of the second lap," he says, swearing.
Thirty minutes later, Sohren's truck appears through the mist and grumbles to a stop in front of the pit crew. They swarm around it, a frantic mélange of gray coats hurriedly changing tires, oil, and radiator fluid.
Sohren gets out and removes his helmet, yelling over the rumble of the engine. "One of the fan blades broke off and poked a hole in the radiator," he tells Waite. "I stopped and fixed it myself, but it's still losing pressure."
Waite hands a plastic jug of water to two crew members and jumps in the bed of the truck. "Somebody check the temperature!" he screams at them, red-faced.
The truck's still running hot and with only one lap left in the race, Sohren hands his keys over to one of his co-drivers, Jason McNeal. McNeal shoves his helmet on his head, gets in, and roars off.
Sohren doesn't say much. He looks bummed, but calmly explains to his 11-year-old son, Van, that he's going to call Mommy and they're going to watch the end of the race. Hopefully, McNeal can finish.
But of the 289 vehicles that started the Parker 425, only 89 cross the finish line. Mechanical problems are common in this sport, but this race hasn't been typical. Everybody's wiping out or breaking down, including Sohren's number two Slime truck.
While Jason McNeal's driving the final lap, clouds of smoke begin pouring from under the hood. The truck coughs to a halt. It won't restart.
No need to rush now. The truck will be towed back to Phoenix, tires caked in three inches of mud and yellow body splattered with streaks of brown, for extensive repairs. Again.
While Sohren stands over his hood cursing the steaming chrome, the number 97 truck, driven by BJ Baldwin, crosses the finish line first.
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