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.

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Niki D'Andrea has covered subjects including drug culture, women's basketball, pirate radio stations, Scottsdale staycations, and fine wine. She has worked at both New Times and Phoenix Magazine, and is now a freelancer.
Contact: Niki D'Andrea