I Found Out Why Cars are Torture-Tested in the Southwest

From the bottom of Arizona to the top of Nevada, you’ll find some of the harshest terrain, temperatures and elements Earth has to offer.

The majority of the world’s drivers will never put their car through hours of triple-digit heat and miles of severely broken or unfinished roads while pushing the car its performance limit – but automakers have to. In order to achieve wildly high tolerances and reliability (just in case the car sees the most extreme environments this planet has to offer) manufacturers take their vehicles to the American Southwest.

From the bottom of Arizona to the top of Nevada are some of the harshest terrains, temperatures, and elements Earth has to offer, the likes of which are seldom seen anywhere else on the planet. This is why Ford, Nissan and Honda are among a handful of brands that bring test mules to one of America’s most remote regions to develop their road cars. It’s also where you’ll find one of the country’s longest and most difficult off-road motorsport events, the Best in the Desert Vegas to Reno — a 550-mile race between the two cities that skims Death Valley National Park and cuts through the heart of where major car companies try to kill their cars. I’ve done (some of) the race, and it is brutal.

Just outside of Las Vegas, I set out from the starting line toward Reno in a race-prepped Polaris RZR Turbo S, knowing full well what sort of ride lay before of us. The day before, most of our racing team thought we lucked out because the race day temperatures were going to cool off. ‘Cool off’ in this particular instance meant the air would come down to 98 degrees. In the shade. Aside from the convection oven we were driving into, we had to keep an eye out for basketball-sized boulders on the track and steep drop-offs inches from the trail, not to mention the other 360-ish cars and motorcycles also competing in the race, kicking up blinding clouds of desert dust.

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Regrettfully and depressingly, we only made it 50 miles into the race before a glitch in the ECU caused an airflow sensor to malfunction and screw up our fuel flow rate. We made it through tire swallowing silt beds and some of the rockiest sections of the course and got into a groove just before we were cut short.

Once back in Reno, we did the math (the woulda-coulda-shoulda math) and had we finished, it would’ve been around 10 am the next day, but third-in-class — a gut-wrenching thing to miss out on, to say the least. We didn’t get to drive for long enough to really test the RZR the way its engineers and designers would. But for that same reason, I’m going back in March to compete in the Mint 400 — the Monaco Grand Prix of American off-road endurance racing (the same race Hunter S. Thompson covered in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). It’ll be four laps of a 100-mile course in the same desert major auto manufacturers go to abuse and torture test their cars, only with some healthy competition thrown into the mix.

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