Steve Hartsell, regular driver of the medium-duty truck I'm currently driving, smirks as I take it slightly off course. "You're gonna curb it," he says. Hartsell drives for the Pratt & Miller Corvette C6R racing team, whose Vettes won the GT1 class in the 24 Hours of Le Mans sports-car race in 2002, 2003, and 2005 and are the reigning American Le Mans Series GT1 champs.
"Do you think?" I ask optimistically, peering furiously in the right side mirror of the Chevrolet Kodiak 4500 as we round a corner.
"Oh, yeah," says the experienced Hartsell.
"No, I think...dammit!" I ease around the tight right turn, still getting a feel for how wide you have to swing the tow vehicle around a corner when hauling a 45-foot, 32,000-pound gooseneck trailer with a medium-duty truck. This Kodiak tow vehicle was outfitted by Monroe Truck Equipment, which installs air suspension equipment, including rear springs and mounts on the cab and seat to cushion driver punishment. All this isolation gives you a waterbed effect, but you quickly adapt.
The Link Manufacturing-supplied UltraRide air suspension replaces the rear leaf springs with air springs mounted to large trailing arms. This not only yields a better ride, but lowers the ride height by three inches at the axle, making the Kodiak's pickup bed low enough to hitch a gooseneck or fifth-wheel trailer without tipping the front up in the air. The air suspension also lets the truck "kneel" down lower for hitching to the trailer.
Under the hood of the 2006 truck is the Duramax 6600 turbodiesel V-8, rated at 300 horsepower and 520 pound-feet of torque. Hartsell says it feels like the Kodiak is a little more sluggish than the team's usual one-ton dualie with the Duramax, probably a result of the dualie's lower weight and lower effective gearing because of the smaller diameter wheels and tires. For 2007, the Kodiak is available with an optional upgraded engine with the same horsepower, but 605 pound-feet of torque. It should drink less #2 diesel, because the Allison automatic gains another gear for a total of six speeds.
The Monroe Kodiak pickup is towing Pratt & Miller's trailer that carries the team's spare parts, pit-lane equipment, and hospitality items. The team's pair of Kenworth highway tractors pull the glittering, polished aluminum 57-foot trailers, each dedicated to carrying one of the team's racers and its related garage tools and equipment. For obvious reasons, the team won't let journalists drive the big-rig carrying the almost-irreplaceable race cars, those each get their own Kenworth rig, leaving me instead to try my hand with the truck that hauls spare parts and pit equipment. And the medium-duty doesn't require a commercial driver's license.
The drive from Pratt & Miller's suburban Detroit headquarters to the Mid-Ohio Sports Car course (between Columbus and Akron) takes a few hours, and the team wants to arrive first thing Thursday morning to get the pit equipment set up and ready for Friday qualifying. That means we'll roll out at 4 a.m.
The team refers to this rig as the "fifth wheel," but in truth it's a 45-foot, triple-axle gooseneck trailer by Classic Manufacturing (www.classicmfg.com) the team regularly pulls with a Silverado dualie packing a Duramax diesel engine. Like many of us with big fifth-wheel and gooseneck campers, car haulers, and horse trailers, the team found that even the burliest dualie is overmatched by having so much mass behind it.
Some might think the Kodiak's $85,000 price tag sounds steep compared with that of a regular pickup truck, even one with the same engine. But a decked-out dualie can push $60,000, and the Kodiak provides a lot more truck for not much more money. Further, when the cost of the trailer and its contents is considered, the truck is a minor expense in comparison. Contemplate the health and welfare of those people likely to be inside the truck, and that should settle the question for anyone pulling a really big trailer.
During our Wednesday shakedown drives of the Kodiak with the trailer, we practice emergency stops to see how it feels. The truck not only stops in an easily manageable straight line with no wiggles or threats of jackknifing, it does so in what Don Male (head of Pratt & Miller's transportation department) estimates is about half the distance the dualie would need. That's some margin of safety.
Those brakes have massive 15-inch rotors, thanks to the use of commercial-grade 19.5-inch wheels and tires rather than the 16-inch rubber on Chevy's Silverado dualie (and 12.8-inch brakes). For use on long downhill grades, the Kodiak features an optional exhaust brake. Diesels provide little engine braking on deceleration, because they have no throttle plate in the intake tract that prevents the engine from spinning freely. The Kodiak's exhaust brake is a throttle plate that creates backpressure in the exhaust, letting the engine slow the truck when you lift off the gas pedal. And it does it without the earsplitting BLLAAAAAAAAA! of a jake brake.
There are plenty of other big-rig goodies, too. An air horn helps. We did get the inevitable arm-pumping from kids in a school bus, so you have to be prepared to respond when you drive something like the Kodiak. There's a switch on the dash that flashes the taillights to thank drivers when they flash headlights to let you know your trailer has cleared them and you can move right to complete a pass. Satellite radio, a 15-inch flat-panel video system, and vertical exhaust stacks also are available.
The climb up into the Kodiak's pilot seat is a long one, even in this lowered version of the truck. Better grab handles would help, because in their absence, the driver will use the steering wheel to pull up, which isn't good for the steering column.
Once behind the wheel, the Kodiak delivers a real king-of-the-road view like no dualie pickup can. Aiding the view are the enormous right and left side mirrors. Think your towing mirrors are big? Your wife could use one of these things as a full-length closet door mirror.
The cabin does fall short of the opulence we've come to expect from pleasure dens like the Ford Super Duty King Ranch. It's the consequence of the Kodiak's commercial truck origins, observes Ross Hendrix, director of medium-duty trucks for GM. Now that the trucks are serving more personal use, the company is turning its attention to the sea of hard shiny plastics and shoddy-looking switches and controls that meet the eye in the Kodiak's cabin. Monroe dresses up the Kodiak with fake carbon fiber and woodgrain, but that's really just a temporary fix until the truck gets a proper new interior from GM.
The front bucket seats are comfortable over the long haul. The rear seat offers a sea of legroom and the seat folds flat to serve as a reasonably spacious bed. In its fully upright position, the rear seatback is uncomfortably vertical, but using the power unfolding switch slides the seat bottom forward and the rear starts to slip back in preparation for lying down. This lets the occupants trade the extra legroom for recline angle on the seatback.
A key task for trucks used in a personal role is driving without the trailer. No one's going to commute in one, but the truck needs to move people and belongings once the trailer's unhitched. Dualie drivers know what a hassle it is to park their trucks among regular cars and might figure that the Kodiak would be even worse, but that's not the case.The Kodiak navigates cramped restaurant parking lots more easily than a dualie, thanks to a tight 46.7-foot (38.4 feet for the regular cab) turning circle. That compares with a whopping 53.5-foot circle for the Silverado dualie. The tight turning circle means that slotting the Kodiak between a Civic and a Taurus is no problem despite the Kodiak's tremendous 95-inch width. That's more than 15 inches wider than a regular dualie.
The ease of driving the truck on errands, to dinner and the hotel from the track, show grounds or other destinations, makes the Kodiak much more user friendly than its imposing size might suggest. But that size, and the capability that comes with it, makes the Kodiak the ideal vehicle for anybody who tows large, heavy trailers. Leave pickups for the light work. For real work, the Kodiak's safety, stability, and long-haul amenities make it the truck to have.
The Pratt & Miller team is like a small town. After all, the team not only fills a whole trailer with spare parts and pit equipment, but the trailer is where some of them live as well. And during the down time, we hear stories of past victories and defeats. Among the best is about an emergency fix during the 2002 24 Hours of Le Mans.Only four hours into the race, one of the team's cars pitted for tires and fuel, explains Ross Jeffrey, race technician for the #4 Corvette. During the tire change, the tire man dropped the large center-lock nut that holds the wheel in place. He kicked it out of the way and installed the tire with the extra nut he keeps on hand.
Unfortunately, when the nut rolled into the garage, someone thought it was one the tire man needed and kicked it back out to him. The nut rolled under the front of the car and came to rest beneath the ground-skimming dry-sump oil pan. "When we dropped the car off the jacks, I heard a 'clang!' and knew it didn't sound right," Jeffrey recalls. He motioned the crew to lift the car back up and poked his head underneath to investigate the source of the unusual noise. He was greeted by the sight of the nut embedded in the oil pan, precious oil leaking out.
The crew rolled the car back into the garage, lifted it up, and got underneath. They soaked a paper shop towel with two-part five-minute epoxy and slapped it in place, holding it until it cured. The crew sent the car out, fingers crossed, and it ran the remaining 20 grueling hours with no problems. The repair was so secure that mechanics back in the shop had a hard time chiseling the paper towel off the pan when they tore the engine apart for its rebuild.
|2006 Chevrolet Kodiak by Monroe Truck Equipment|
|Engine ||6.6-liter TD V-8, iron block, alum heads|
|Valvetrain ||OHV, 4 valves per cylinder|
|SAE horsepower, hp @ rpm|| 300 @ 3000|
|SAE torque, lb-ft @ rpm ||520 @ 1600 |
|Transmission ||Allison five-speed automatic|
| 1st|| 3.10:1|
| 2nd|| 1.81:1|
| 3rd|| 1.41:1|
| 4th|| 1.00:1|
| 5th|| 0.71:1|
|Axle ratio ||4.88:1|
|Final-drive ratio|| 3.46:1|
|Wheels|| 19.5 x 6.75 in|
|Tire size|| 225/707R19.5|
|Overall length, in ||246.0|
|Width, in ||95.8 (114.9 w/mirrors)|
|Height, in ||91.2|
|Wheelbase, in ||169.0|
|Price as tested|| $84,457|