On the dunes, the Barracuda Buggy is hard to beat
Warning: this is a hardcore edition of Off the Beaten Path.
Although the solid racing cage of tubular steel gives an impression of full protection, the long front suspension springs with an astounding 500mm of wheel travel and a high-revving Hayabusa engine leave no doubt as to the potential of unleashing motorhead hell on the dunes south of Abu Dhabi, following the old Desert Challenge track down towards Liwa.
In fact, the Barracuda buggy, imported from Australia by the UAE Fury Team, is built specifically for extreme performance on open sand dunes: is a top speed of 190kph and acceleration of 0-to-100kph in 3.5 seconds enough to convince you?
Just to put that into perspective, it's quicker than the most powerful Porsche ever built, the Carrera GT, which clocks into 100kph at 3.9 seconds. And to help make that sink in, let me invite you to see what it's like to drive.
Courtesy of Emil Khneisser, owner of the Fury Team, an avid rally competitor, and all-round fun-filled off-roading enthusiast, we took four Barracuda buggies for a ride - the ride of a lifetime. Ask him and he might oblige you, too.
Khneisser has raced the Desert Challenge in his custom-made buggy for years now, and he is a well-known, and well-liked, member of the off-roading community in the UAE. You can find him online at www.4x4fury.com
We met up at the Adnoc in the Musafa Commercial Area, waypoint 1, and followed his train of professionally made trailers, towed by his actual Desert Challenge racing machine, with his wife in control of the second towing vehicle, towards the Abu Dhabi-Al Ain Truck Road.
We passed "Flamingo Lake" at waypoint 2, and a few kilometers after that we took an exit right at waypoint 3. The tarmac soon split, with us taking the right branch at waypoint 4, away from the hill.
We turned off the tarmac left at waypoint 5, and set up base camp at waypoint 6, on the flat sebkha, decorated with hundreds of sand structures beautifully sculpted by the wind. Just over the southerly sand dunes was the starting point for the 2009 Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, scheduled for March 31 to April 7 this year. Yes, Khneisser will be competing for a fourth time, sponsored by Hutchinson and Pitbull tyres.
The Barracuda buggies are a sight to behold - as Khneisser off-loaded them and set up the safety flags, I admired the precision of build, and the design choices, which clearly left no compromise in aiming for a rugged desert machine.
Sand buggies, or sand rails, have become common in the dunes recently, and they can be seen at most popular duning spots. Most of them run large, powerful V8 car engines.
Quality varies; the results sometimes are Frankenstein monsters with axles directly welded to a scrapped car chassis - but they do belt out the required horsepower, and they do give an adrenalin rush, as long as you go in a straight line.
Khneisser's Barracuda buggy is at the exact other end of the spectrum. Light is might, and lean is mean. And just looking at it, you can sense this is a precision-made extreme performance machine.
Just what does that mean, though, besides the rhyme?
Well, compared with one of the popular V8 sand rails, it means the Barracuda benefits from a stronger frame construction, which is both lighter and safer; this weight saving means it can out-run and out-manoeuvre its V8 cousins because it results in a higher power-to-weight ratio - which is the real measure of performance, instead of horsepower, and the reason the Barracuda can out-burst the Carrera GT, as mentioned earlier.
So the light Barracuda buggy does not need or even want a heavy V8 engine, which would compromise all aspects of its extreme performance. It runs the venerable 1,300cc Hayabusa motorbike engine, built by Suzuki, with a six-speed gearbox.
It's a reliable, water-cooled engine, powering a chassis with a suspension system based on double A-arms and Fox coil-over struts. The brakes complement the handling, with 180mm double-piston discs up front - there are even two brake pedals to activate front and rear brakes separately or simultaneously.
A five-point harness bucket seat completes the no-nonsense design, and Khneisser and his friends wear racing clothing and boots, gloves, a full-face helmet with sand goggles.
Khneisser has opened his four buggies to the public, and runs adventure rides on weekends - so experiencing the Barracuda buggy for yourself is definitely possible. Regardless of what you do the trip in, the vehicle should be up to the task - this is no easy ride that can be taken in a soft-roading crossover.
Starting from our waypoint 6, on the map above, the blue track (which can be downloaded on The National website with waypoints 101-146), is very close to Leg 1 of the professional rally route from last year's Desert Challenge - so this is no cake walk, dear readers.
This is the track that World Rally champions attempted, with their professional rally vehicles, and the support of not only million-dollar support teams, but also international rally officials and Abu Dhabi authorities headed by the Automobile Touring Club of the UAE and international Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile, so let the weekend warrior be aware of the seriousness of such a route.
The desert tracks are tight and unfriendly, and they leave very little room for error. At a slow pace the dangers are minimised, but at speed the uneven hard sebkha can wreak havoc on your vehicle's balance from one bump to the other. The straights invite high speeds, yet there are wide potholes lying in silent ambush and loose dirt piled up at the sides.
The sand dune sections are just as treacherous. Appearing tame, they are in fact traps of powdery white sand, which will remove traction from even the most aggressive tyres and nullify the power of torque: progress with caution yet know that any hesitation will be punished with a stuck.
Do not attempt unless you are confident in your preparation and ability to not only complete it under regular conditions, but also in the eventuality of unexpected incidents.
Riding in a pack of Barracudas, with Khneisser and the support of his Fury Team, is a great way to approach this route. He prefers a group of four friends, so see if your buddies are up for it.
The open desert is spectacular, and the combination of long fast tracks over sebkha and tight dune formations puts any driver's mettle to the test. Quite frankly, in my own car, I very much doubt I would complete it without hardship. In the Barracuda, it's a different story.
Take the fun, fast turns safely
Fact #1: speed is fun.
Fact #2: speed kills.
Reconciling these two elements of motoring outside of professional motorsports is problematic, yet a balance must be reached, particularly in demographic segments where tragic accidents are common place.
In the UAE, far too many speeding vehicles skid off our roads, smash into palm trees and try to straighten roundabouts. Just look at the tell-tale black tyre marks and gouged-out scars that decorate the cement railings that border our highways. They are silent witnesses to a national tragedy that has affected many families.
Most often, responsibility is diverted away from the driver. The car was modified. The road signals were not clear. The tyre burst. It was too dark, or the sun was shining in his eyes. There was a traffic diversion. A slow driver would not move out of his way. There are always a hundred excuses to avoid placing blame on the shoulders of the driver whose right foot was too heavy for the road conditions.
I sense my younger readers rolling their eyes ... blah blah … we've heard it all. The fact is, we enjoy the sensation of speed, the challenge of exceeding ourselves, the adrenalin of racing or just going really, really fast. All true. I feel it, too, and I break out into a smile every time I fire up my sweet V8 in the morning as I start my commute to work. Straight pipes, guys; you know what that means.
But here is where we have to negotiate with ourselves. I purr to work driving like grandma, signalling every turn, leaving space to the cars in front, even allowing other motorists to pass me - why? Because I have reached a reconciliation within myself between the fun of speed and the speed-kills factoid.
I save my adrenalin for the track and off the road.
On public roads, I follow every traffic rule the police issue. Impeccably. Like a robot. But catch me on the go-kart circuit, or on a nice circular track in the dunes on my Banshee, flying over sebkha in the Barracuda buggy, or in one of the many 4x4 club challenges - then you'll see my exhaust headers glow.
I believe that is a fair compromise, and I would like to invite our readers to reach a compromise of their own creation.
Save the fun for where it is comparatively safe for yourself and others. Save the power for when it counts. Let the public roads be for the public transportation of families and goods, and take the racing to where it belongs - check out the racing events organised in the UAE, or try go-karting. Join a motocross club, or find your place in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge.
Who knows, you might even be good at one of these things.
Updated: January 22, 2011 04:00 AM