Ultimate Truck: Racing Freightliner
Semi-Sweet! Road Trip and Racing in a Freightliner
My son, Kris; his girlfriend, Ashley; and Jake, our team driver, left Los Angeles on a Friday afternoon for Jackson, New Hampshire, via Phoenix, to pick up Todd Cook's Wells Coyote Mini Sprint. In classic L.A. style, this 3200-mile trip began in a traffic jam, most of the way to San Bernardino. While they drove, I flew from L.A. to Baltimore to get our new Freightliner/Jerr-Dan rollback race-truck trans-porter. The graphics match our race truck's GT40 Gulf Steve McQueen Le Mans paint scheme, and it looks groovy, in a late 1960s-early '70s kind of way. The following Tuesday, I drove the multi-state marathon up I-95, 91, and 93 from Maryland, through Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, and into New Hampshire.
Jake et al. left Phoenix around 10 a.m. Saturday, after loading Todd's car, and did a 2800-mile nonstop run, arriving in Jackson, New Hampshire, at race headquarters mid-afternoon Monday. The classically beautiful Eagle Mountain House Hotel, built in 1879, was a welcome sight after all those miles, and evening cocktails on the veranda made our arrival that much sweeter.
This was a big deal for us. We'd never had the truck in the Northeast, and were excited by the prospects of a new (to us) event, on a road that is celebrating its 150th birthday this year. Fortunately, I had been working in New York City on "Men in Black III" and was able to travel up to Mt. Washington and drive the road to the summit several times. Tim O'Neil, previous record-holder at Mt. Washington and owner of Team O'Neil Rally School in Dalton, New Hampshire, spent a day with me pointing out the details of the road and helping with course notes.
This steep, narrow, off-camber, rough, kinky, harrowing cart path would be a challenge in our 9955-pound, 1950-horse beast of a truck. After seeing a video of Travis Pastrana's record-breaking 2010 run of the 7.6-mile course, I petitioned with the race organizers at Vermont Sports Car and the owners of the Mt. Washington Road to let us enter the exhibition class. It looked easy enough in the video, but it's definitely different in person. What was I thinking? The lure, of course, was to check another box on my bucket list, show the truck to a new audience, and be the first big rig to race the event. If we made it to the summit, we also got to establish the record.
I started racing on Pikes Peak on a motorcycle in 1995, ran again in 1996, and switched to a Freightliner to run every year since. It's a 16-year tradition in my family to go to Pikes Peak, and my decision to abandon our fans, friends, other competitors, and that mountain for New Hampshire left me feeling out of place. I don't know how both events ended up on the same day.
We set up our pits on Wednesday, and went through tech and regis-tration. Jake spent most of Tuesday and Wednesday detailing the race truck and both transporters, and, in standard fashion, the rain began just as he was finishing up. "No good deed goes unpunished" has become our official mantra. The rest of our crew arrived and we made our plans for final prep on the truck and the various camera-mount positions.
It rained nonstop all night -- so much for our final prep. We hung out under the tent and did what we could while trying to stay dry. Friday morning, it was still raining. This was our first day of practice and the clouds obscured the upper half of the mountain, so we decided to run the bottom half to just above the 4-mile mark.
I'd been up the mountain about 20 times in the rental car, doing course notes and trying to memorize the road. The details of every corner at Pikes Peak are etched in my mind, and every corner of Mt. Washington now looked very different at speed. That feeling of being lost and not knowing what is coming next grabbed me. In the pouring rain, it was dark and misty, and the road had all these weird crowns, crests, and kinks designed to control water runoff -- unfortunately, those also upset my truck's stiffly sprung chassis. I was driving this thing for all it's worth, trying to figure it out as I went and just make it to the halfway point and clear the course for the people behind me. Historic cars were here, including the 1933 Alfa Romeo 8c 2300 Zagato in which Tazio Nuvolari won the 24 Hours of LeMans in 1933. Amazing!
The second run was better, with the rain mostly subsided and the road drying. The surface was still sketchy, but now I'd seen it at speed and the practice runs were starting to pay off. We dramatically improved our times, which put us in 30th on the first run and 33rd on the second.
Saturday morning's weather was improving. The steady rain had become intermittent, but the race director informed us the upper half was still completely in clouds and that we would be running the bottom again on the day's two practice runs. Our bottom times continued to improve as the road dried and became more familiar. After practice, I drove up in the rental, but it was so cloudy there wasn't much to learn. Sunday would be race day and many of us had never seen the upper half at speed.
Race day arrived with slightly improved weather. The bottom was fast but the upper half felt like those crazy dreams about falling and fighting with no power in their punches. I could see 50, maybe 100 feet, and turns cropped up out of nowhere. Some as-they-happened impressions:
"Wow," the Scout Master says. "I didn't know there was a car race here today." Really?
- On the brakes, steer now, gas it, can't see, can see, turn-damn, this truck hauls ass. Keep it gathered up, don't chicken out now. Here is the dirt. I usually love dirt; it's consistent. However, this is wet and narrow and filled with deep washouts near its edges. A fun tail-out turn at the crag's and up the incline back to the asphalt.
- Race to the clouds was the lure. This is racing in the clouds-this is crazy. I should slow down a little, but the top has to be getting close. There's the cow pasture-I remember this one and it's not far from the summit. There is an uphill right-hander at the end, but where is it? As I brake hard and turn quickly, the rock wall flashes past close to my side window, shrouded in the clouds. Nothing but space in front of me, and I have to gather this thing up. Maybe they were right, this road is too crazy for a truck. Calm down, just stay focused, you need to cross the finish line, I tell myself.
- Orange cones appear out of the fog and force me to the left side of the road over the crest. The waving checkered flags and people with flashlights streak by the right side of the truck. We've made it, finishing the hillclimb in 8:02.65.
- I thought the fog, wind, and rain were crazy halfway up, but this looks like ghosts in a full gale storm. I put on my new raincoat and jump out to join in the revelry that can only come after making it with all limbs intact. A scout troop has just made it to the summit.