by Rolf Lockwood
Since Mike Ryan first entered his Freightliner in the Falken Tires Pikes Peak International Hill Climb some six years ago, fans have seen the 'Big Rigs' class as the highlight of the event. That's one reason why the organizers leave the class-8 trucks - three of them this year - to the end of the day, after the bikes, the old-style sprint cars, the stocks, the professional rally cars, and all the wonderfully quirky specials have roared up the 12.4-mile gravel course with its 156 turns, 2000-ft cliffs, and 4700-ft elevation gain.
This year's 80th running of the 'Race to the Clouds' in Colorado's glorious Pike National Forest saw 160 entries - and forest fires raging just 20 miles away - but it was Ryan who provided even more than the usual drama with the very last run of the day.
"I pushed the truck on the last leg and hooked my tire just before the finish line," he said later. "The truck flew sideways across the line. I have to admit it was pretty dramatic."
In fact, he rolled it over as he passed the timing light at the finish line, coming to rest on #77's side in front of hundreds of wildly cheering fans at the summit, 14,110 ft in the air and well above the tree line. But the moment wasn't actually quite so straightforward.
Unhurt, Ryan didn't realize he'd crossed the line, so he clambered out of the truck, taking the steering wheel with him, and then jumped the 8 ft down to the ground. He intended to get across the line on foot, thinking that his run would count if he took the wheel with him. But having mangled his feet in a plane crash that nearly killed him several years ago, and despite being a Hollywood stunt driver in his day job, Ryan doesn't jump too well. He fell, dropped the wheel, and then had to wrestle it back from an over-exuberant fan wanting a souvenir.
"I hobbled across what I thought was the line," he said, "until I heard people yelling at me that I'd already done it." As it happened, and much to his surprise, Ryan had broken his own record in the single-axle truck class and won the big-rig prize. He broke his previous record of 13 minutes, 39.2 seconds with a fast time of 13 minutes, 21.4 seconds. His top speed as measured by timing lights was 96 mph.
All of that was moments after Bruce Canepa had also broken his own record in the tandem class with his Caterpillar-powered Kenworth T2000. His time of 13 minutes, 57.8 seconds was just slightly better than the 13 minutes, 59.6 seconds set at last year year's Pikes Peak race. His top speed up the mountain was 90 mph.
Of the three class-8 entrants to run the hill, Ryan's second truck, driven by Molly Morter, led the way, the first woman to drive a big rig in the Pikes Peak race. Her Sterling, also in the tandem class, was a couple of minutes slower than Canepa - 15 minutes, 56.4 seconds - but still good enough to win her Rookie of the Year honors. Given that her previous racing had been confined mostly to dune buggies, she was overjoyed just to reach the top.
By comparison, the best time of the day was 10 minutes, 52.3 seconds by local racer David Donner in a V8-powered open-wheel special. He hit a top speed of 119 mph.
"What an incredible day. You have to say I'm truly blessed," said the affable Ryan when he finally drove his battered truck down from the peak. Amazingly, once righted, it fired up and ran fine. "My goal was to break my previous record on the mountain, so I really drove the Freightliner hard."
Ryan's much-modified Century Class is a racing machine pure and simple. It features a race version of the Mercedes-Benz 501 V6 twin-turbo engine that produces up to 1450 hp. It's the same engine used in the European Super Truck Tracing series. The truck rides on Michelin X-One tires, Accuride wheels, and an ArvinMeritor rear axle, a package that weighs only 7800 lb. It was built at the Freightliner Engineering and Test Center in Portland, Ore.
The No. 33 Sterling driven by Molly Morter is a 2000 AT9500 model powered by a 14-liter race-version of the Detroit Diesel Series 60. The engine, built by Detroit, puts out 1000 hp and 2500 lb ft of torque, with gearing for a top speed of 102 mph. It sports ArvinMeritor hydraulic disc brakes all round, with Tenneco coil-over shocks and Freightliner's FAS II air suspension. The rear axle is an ArvinMeritor RS-17-145. The truck was also designed and built in Portland. It first raced at Pikes peak two years ago, when New Zealander Steve Chapman took it to third place behind Ryan and Canepa, but missed last year's event. Ryan added it to his team this past spring and then hired 26-year-old Morter to drive it.
"I just had one of the best races in my life," she said, in a wonderful display of exuberance when she came back down to the Ryan Motorsports paddock area at the start-finish line. "Reaching the top truly proves that I can do anything."
Canepa's truck, prepared by an enthusiastic group of 12 volunteer Kenworth engineers led by the company's assistant chief engineer Mike Gilbert, didn't have a good day despite bettering last year's record tandem time. Veteran racer Canepa said the truck lost a lot of power a third of the way up the hill after appearing to overheat. He soldiered on regardless and was still pretty quick.
"It was good to get the record, but I think all of us on the Kenworth racing team were a little disappointed that we didn't run even faster based on our qualifying record and practice runs," said Canepa, who finished third in the 24 Hours of Daytona in 1979 with teammates Rick Mears and Monte Shelton.
When the big KW came back down the hill, Gilbert searched high and low for a cooling-system problem but found nothing. In the end he blamed the searing 100-degree weather, believing the electronics had chopped power by as much as 30% to prevent damage from overheating. The T2000, sponsored partly by Contract Freighters Inc. (CFI), is powered by a Cat C-16 that pumps out about 1375 hp at 2600 rpm and 4000 lb ft of torque at the starting-line elevation. By the time the vehicle reaches the summit, the thin air drops output to 1290 hp.
Other key equipment includes a ZF 5HP500 Ecomat transmission modified by ZF to racing specs. A de-cambered Dana I-beam axle with composite leaf springs is on the steer axle, and a Dana DS344 tandem-drive axle - mounted on a modified Kenworth Airglide 200 suspension - is out back. The truck also sports custom-made Gabriel adjustable racing shocks, Bosch hydraulic disc brakes, and Bridgestone M711 low-profile 255/70R22.5 drive tires with hand-cut tread pattern secured to Alcoa aluminum wheels with 20 beadlock screws per tire.
Ryan, and possibly Morter, will be showing off their trucks on a Canadian road-racing course as part of a preview of the Super Truck Racing Association of North America (STRANA) series. Now sanctioned by the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA), STRANA will hold two demo races this summer in connection with American Le Mans Series events - including one at Mosport International Raceway near Bowmanville, Ont. on August 18. The other venue is California's famed Laguna Seca track on Sept. 22. While it had been hoped that the Super Truck series could be launched this year, a soft economy has delayed it until 2003.
For those of you with satellite receivers, the 80th Pikes Peak race will be televised on ESPN2 on Saturday, August 24th at 3 p.m. (EST) and Sunday, August 25th at 11:30 p.m. (EST). You can also visit the event's website at www.ppihc.com.