Formula Awesome!

The pits are full of Super Dutys, Duramaxes and Big Dodges with trailers towing V-8 Jeep based racecars.  Just beyond the pits are a series of crazy obstacles that will require the cars to defy gravity to conquer.  You might think this was the King of the Hammers or a WE Rock race, but no.  This is Formula Offroad and I’ve come all the way to Akureyri, Iceland to check it out.  I was first introduced to Formula Offroad many years ago while watching an episode of Top Gear.  At the time I thought it was amazing, and I still do.  Over the years I would occasionally see videos and photos of their events and I always fascinated by them.  So when the opportunity came along to actually see an event in person I grabbed it like a hungry Rottweiler attacking a rib eye.

Unlimited driver Steingrimur Bjarason (ISL) passes through the final gate on course 1 of round 6

Iceland’s population is about 300,000 and covers just under 40,000 square miles, or about the size of Kentucky.  Half the population lives in the capital of Reykjavik, which leaves large portions of the island undeveloped and uninhabited.  All that space translates to tens of thousands of miles of off roading areas for the people of Iceland, and they embrace off road sports with a passion that rivals our own.

The FIA-NEZ (Northern European Zone) Formula Offroad Championship consists of six rounds of racing. Sweden and Finland each hosted two rounds of the final two rounds of the championship were held in Akureyri, Iceland.  The sport started in Iceland formally in the 1980’s when a set of rules were developed and they are largely the same today.  But even before it was an organized sport Icelanders have been competing against their buddies for decades to climb hills, blaze trails and generally out due their counterparts in off road.

Modified driver Olafur Bjornsson flips over backwards and crashes during course 1 of round 6
Modified driver Olafur Bjornsson flips over backwards and crashes during course 1 of round 6

Most of the racers compete in the Unlimited class, but there are also Modified and Street classes.  Competitors tackle six courses or tracks per round.  Five of the tracks are hill climbs, with a final time trial course as the sixth.  In Iceland both time trail courses included crossing a 4 foot deep pond.  For the hill climbs the racers start at the bottom of the hills and negotiate a series of gates on their way to the top.  If they pass through all the gates and are able to drive away from the course under their own power they receive a perfect score, 350 points.  Points are deducted for backing up, not being able to drive away (i.e. getting to the top of the hill but landing on your roof).  The scores are tallied for the day and a winner declared.

The cars themselves are quite simple and their closest relatives in the North American off road racing market would be KOH/4400 cars and rock racing buggies.  They are deceptively simple.  The best cars feature tube frame chassis but many also started as jeeps and other production off road vehicles.  A few have coilovers but most run a simple 4 link suspension front and rear with airshocks and hydraulic bumpstops.  Turbo 400 or Powerglide transmissions are the top choice to put the power to the axles.  GM 14 bolt axles are common, as well as Dana 60 and Ford 9 inch variations.  All feature extensive trussing for strength and reliability. On those axles are big hubs to live up to the abuse of massive paddle tires.  The tires are semi custom, pavement racing slicks with big scoops glued on, as are used for sand drags.

Unlimited driver Martin Michaelsen (NOR) jumps off the lip of a hill during course 3 of round 5
Unlimited driver Martin Michaelsen (NOR) jumps off the lip of a hill during course 3 of round 5

What often separate the different cars are engine selections.  Big power is the name of the game when trying to climb a vertical wall made of sand, silt or loamy dirt.  V-8s are the top choice but the variance comes in what power adders they run.  Nitrous Oxide is the most prevalent, but turbos with big boost are also popular.  800-900hp is the normal range but others opt for overkill.  One racer was running a twin turbo 427 that could be turned up to 1600+ horsepower.  For this event he dialed back to about 1200.  Another was running a turbo 2.0 liter Honda engine putting out 600+.

While simple, these vehicles and drivers also specialize in the impossible.  While examining various courses throughout the weekend I found myself thinking “there is no way they can make up that, it’s impossible!”.  I was proven wrong time and again as the racers scaled hills and walls more than 80 degrees and even vertical in some spots.  While the cars have amazing capabilities the drivers are the really impressive ingredient, and the styles vary greatly.  Some are all about finesse and precise control, dancing with their car in carefully choreographed steps through each gate on their way to the top.  Others embrace the throttle jockey philosophy, relying on massive horsepower, a heavy right foot and brute force to make it to the top.  While the dancers tend to score more points, the throttle jockeys put on a show to the delight of the crowd.

Unlimited driver Hafsteinn Porvaldsson (ISL) races across the top of a pond during course 6 of round 6
Unlimited driver Hafsteinn Porvaldsson (ISL) races across the top of a pond during course 6 of round 6

So now that you know a bit about the sport I pose a question to you, the off roaders of North America.  Why don’t we have Formula Offroad USA?  The cars are simple, most talented garage fabbers could build one if they had the budget.  The hard parts, suspension, axles, etc are everywhere.  As are drag racing engines, the most popular choice.  If you want to get technical I have not yet personally indentified any hills or areas where competition can be held, though I do have an excuse as I am still in Iceland drinking overpriced weak beer at the moment.  Despite that I have no doubt that there are tons of suitable areas to hold a Formula Offroad competition in our traditional desert racing areas (California, Arizona and Nevada).

The only thing really missing at the moment is organization and a formal sanctioning body.  This however is but a tiny speedbump taken in a trophy truck.  Many of the racers from the five countries (Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark) that currently compete in Formula Offroad have volunteered to come over to the good ole U. S. of A to help us hold the first Formula Offroad USA event.  The events are dynamic, exciting, daring, crazy and full of carnage so they are sure to appeal to an American motorsports audience.  I can’t think of a single reason why we don’t have Formula Offroad in the US.  Can you?

The US is not enough though, I want take a step further, Formula Offroad BAJA!  If we can get a few of the European racers there for just a single event it would become a regular part of the European Championship series.  We just need to introduce our visitors to the taco stand.  One taste and they will be hooked forever.  Combine that with the crazy fans, great people and general awesomeness of Baja and it will be like crack, irresistible.

This is actually one of the most accurate description of Formula Off Road written of foreign journalist. Well done!
  • E
    Erland Lønnerød
  • August 24, 2012
Very good article. You should come to Skien in Norway on 7-9th sept. When the icelanders came here the first time, they where pointing at the hill and asking "Are we going UP THERE??" Its supposed to be the sickest hills of them all.

Well done with the article!
  • D
  • August 24, 2012
Nice write up on a fantastic event in a country that evokes a mystic sense of awe. Spectacular pictures thank you for sharing.
I have viewed Formula off road for a number of years and it is amazing. It seems it would be easily marketable much like Motorcyle hill climbs. Not quite stadium races, but in the right location could be an viable and entertaining event.
  • L
  • August 25, 2012
Here in Sweden we almost always drive in a gravelpit.
Works just fine...