This Ford Explorer is a $1000 cheat code for off-road racing

Brandan Gillogly

Holley’s popular Ford Fest event in Kentucky brought out some fun drift builds, scores of drag racers, and interesting engine swaps this year. But while we were there we most enjoyed the dirt-cheap dirt racing that has become synonymous with the HooptieX class. We savored the various entries tearing up the groomed off-road course, but no doubt this fourth-generation Ford Explorer stood out most.

explorer hooptiex
The 4.6-liter three-valve engine uses a simple air filter and sends exhaust through a Black Widow Race Venom muffler for a bit of extra power. Brandan Gillogly

James Lane purchased his Explorer a few months ago at auction, for a steal. The SUV was involved in a wreck that just damaged the grille and headlight, so it could have been a driver with some elbow grease and some spare parts. However, after competing in a HooptieX in a ’98 Durango, Lane was looking for something a bit more powerful and a little lighter and this 292-hp, 4.6-liter Explorer seemed like the right tool for the job.

The first order of business was installing new front struts and springs to replace the original set that was worn out. Then Lane sold the fenders and the hood, which were still in great condition, to recoup some of his investment.

explorer hooptiex interior
Brandan Gillogly

There’s not much to look at inside the cabin. Lane stripped out almost all of the interior in a quest to shed weight and improve performance. From a starting weight of 4760 pounds, it now tips the scales at just over 4000 pounds.

He told us that the seating location is almost perfectly in the middle of the wheelbase, so that helps with weight distribution, although the factory seat is a bit heavy and doesn’t have much in the way of bolstering. Future upgrades will include a racing seat and a harness to improve stability, safety, and performance. Another project is to relocate the radiator to the rear to further reduce front-end weight and take some stress off the front suspension, which tends to stuff the front tires into the inner fenders on hard landings. “It has a V-8 and nearly 300 hp,” Lane said, “so it gets out there and rips.” Indeed, the V-8, especially with its reduced burden, looked like a blast on the loose dirt course, especially when he shifter into two-wheel drive and really let the Explorer get loose in the corners.

Brandan Gillogly

Lane has participated in several HooptieX events and other low-buck races in the few months that he’s owned the Explorer, as evidenced by the decals worn proudly on the door. As weight continues to go down—door glass, side glass, and some or all of the rear hatch may also get the axe—the rig’s off-road performance should continue to go up.

For as little as this project has cost, it seems that Lane can easily justify a bit of investment to keep the Explorer performing at its best. One future upgrade may be a bit costly considering the total budget so far. “The tires slip a little more than I’d like,” Lane said, and considering the price of the truck and its struts haven’t hit the four-digit mark, he might have to splurge to get the next level of performance from his HooptieX Explorer.

explorer hooptiex off-road
Brandan Gillogly


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