Robb Pritchard, Off-road correspondent
Green-laning, Pay and Play sites, Comp-Safaris and winch challenges.... we all know where to go when we feel the need to get our 4x4s dirty... but what happens if the nearest piece of mud is somewhere across the Gulf of Aden in the mountains of Iran?? Well... if you live in the United Arab Emirates, where the desert only ends when it reaches the sea, then you have no choice but to turn to the sand. But if 'Dune-Bashing' – driving over the undulations of the sand a little more sedately than the name might suggest, doesn't grab you, then the alternative is the national Sand-Drag championship, where the locals throw their 4x4s at the 52 degree slope of a 300 meter high sand dune. Maybe it doesn't sound like much at first but with the welcome death of restrictive regulations the locals have created ever more outrageous machines for this challenge... far, far beyond special tyres or a chipped engine... vehicles that on grainy Youtube videos actually shocked me.
I am talking about Nissan Patrols fitted with turbos the size of washing machine drums that pump out more than 2000bhp, and by some estimates, which, I admit, am far from qualified whether to judge wild or not, up to 3000! I was in town for the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge and heard rumors of a workshop that spawned such beasts and so always on the lookout for the world's most outrageous 4x4s I couldn't help but investigate Project X Motorsports to see for myself what kind of madness was going on in the workshop.
Yousif Al Sayagh is a very laid back guy... not at all like the wide-eyed nitro-psycho I was assuming he'd be from what I'd seen on the videos. In his top-of-the-range, pearl-white BMW he sat almost crossed legged and drove to the workshop leaning against the door... as I worried about getting his bright orange shag pile floor mats dirty. It was a raging electrical storm outside with lightening flashing like a strobe light at a rave, bringing the first rain for 8 months, but the all thunder was coming from inside the workshop. A standard looking 100 Series Land Cruiser was on the dyno, but the sound it was making was far from normal... the gush of the turbo when the tuner let off the gas was like the cascade of a fast-flowing waterfall and Yousif led me to the front so I could see why. Normally the engine bay of straight-6 Land Cruiser is a fairly spacious place, with large gaps either side of the block, but the turbo was so oversized that it hardly fitted under the bonnet and the induction pipe was as thick as my leg. "Someone get me Bosch fuel pumps!" Anthony Espinola, the Aussie tuner cried as he dropped his laptop on the front seat. "This is useless. I can only get 800 horsepower out of it. Pathetic!" Yousif tells me quietly that he was hoping for well over 1000.
The workshop itself is an eclectic mix of supercars and 4x4s and huge engines piled up like scrap in the corners and against the walls. Near the door was a stunning black Dodge Challenger, lowered slightly and fitted with wider wheels and when Anthony popped the hood a massive stainless steel supercharger gleamed brightly under the strip lights. "We wanna make this the fastest Challenger in the world," he said matter-of-factly.
Nearby a group of teenagers, dressed in head scarves and the traditional ankle-length, bright white thobes stare at the engine bay of another Land Cruiser with excited smiles on their faces and I stepped over to see why. Again, another massive turbo lurked out like someone had made a plastic Tamyia model with bits from a kit of a different scale. "What for?" I shout over the noise of the racing engine pointing at the drainpipe sized air intake. The oldest guy shrugged. "For fast!" he smiled, but his English wasn't so good so Yousif led me away to explain. "To beat Ferraris," he said. "With foul-wheel drive you have great traction and with the tuning you have the power to burn away Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and any Porsches!" The lads then were the Abu Dhabi equivalent of boy racers, except there are no Corsas with oversized back-pipes and No Fear window stickers here... beating Italian supercars from the lights takes some serious performance... and Yousif certainly knows his stuff. His day job is director of the drag strip at the Yas Marina circuit and he also organizes the F1 podium, although with fizzy date juice rather than champagne.
"How long do the engines and transmissions last?" I asked, thinking that things would go bang fairly regularly. He pointed out to the yard where yet another 4x4 was pulling up, a standard Nissan Patrol GR. "This guy ran a stock engine on 1000hp for a year and a half, but then he upgraded to stronger pistons, rods and crank and has had them in for... mmm... four years, and he uses it every day. Now he is having a bigger turbo fitted. But the secret is that there is a boost switch so you can set the rate of the turbo. You can have one setting just for cruising, for using the car every day and unless you really put your foot down it won't feel much difference. But then for performance, you press the button on the dashboard and poof... all things happen!”
And the engines in the Patrols and Land Cruisers aren't the low revving, load-pulling diesels that Europe is used to. There are no caravans or horse boxes to pull here. The Toyotas have the 4.5l FZ and the Nissans run the slightly bigger and more powerful 4.8l TB. Both are Straight 6s. “But of course such power puts a lot of stress on the engines, so if someone wants to be serious you can get as many upgraded parts as you want.” And as an indication of just how popular such vehicles are here a Japanese company makes specially re-enforced clutched clutches, just for the UAE market.
"And what about diffs?" I wondered, mindful of the Land Rover and HJ60 ones I'd popped in the past. "Well," he smiled, "There is a war here between Nissan and Toyota fans. They really hate each other, some even write poems! My Nissan is worth a thousand of your Toyota's..." he sang. "But for me, I think Nissan axles are best, you can put 3000hp through them no problem."
"3000!" I sniggered a little incredulously at his seemingly obvious over-exaggeration, but then he waved me back towards the rear of the workshop... and there it was... tethered by ratchet straps to the dyno-roller, restrained like a savage animal to prevent its chances of escape and the havoc that such freedom would entail. It was a true animal and looked otherworldly, as though someone had gaffer-taped some industrial sized ducting pipes from the huge intercooler with the massive fan set in front of it... but it was all terribly real. He handed me a dusty pair of ear defenders and made sure that they were securely fitted... and then got in and started it. The fear subsided a little as it was loud, but nothing untoward, nothing worse than an engine running without an exhaust... but then with an evil smile from through window he put his foot down and bad things began to happen in my bowls... the growing whirring sound, the loud sucking and then it began to spit and I instinctively took a step back, sure that nothing good was going to come from this experience. But still it got louder and louder until it was actually battering the air against my chest... and just when I thought it was running at its maximum he pressed down on the pedal even more and suddenly my flight reflex was triggered, I had to struggle to stop myself running away like a little girl... it really did seem as though something intrinsically evil was yearning to free itself from the depths of hell, clattering bursts of flame shot from the wastegates and the noise was so overwhelming that it completely consumed me, leaving nothing but a raw primal fear, the same as that of a young boy faced with things that his parents tried to assure him weren't lurking under his bed.
Back in the office, a cold can of Red Bull in my shaking hand, Yousif answered my gasped question of, "Why?" "Because it is Sand Dragging is serious," he said. “There are three main competitions a year and the prize is a new Land Cruiser, but more than that, it is the pride!" I tried to think of an off-road competition with a prize value of about £60,000, but couldn't. "And like in all serious sports you push the limits to get the maximum. To be the best.”
On my travels around the world I have seen some very extreme 4x4s, but for out and out pure power Project X's workshop has to be granted the accolade of creating some of the world's ultimate 4x4s.