Mike Ryan, a stuntman and race driver, had tackled most of the on-wheels challenges available in the United States. In 1997 he discovered the fierce joy of racing big rigs, and at no less of a place than the famed Colorado Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. "This is a ferocious beast and people dig seeing it," said the 52-year-old California native, who also runs a racing and race safety products business. "People just don't know when, or if, the truck is going to tip over or go flying into a ditch."
The 2009 season will mark the 87th climb season at Pikes Peak. Several hundred racers, as well as thousands of spectators, will take to the course to watch drivers pilot their machines up several thousand vertical feet of switchbacks, hairpin turns and straights that give new meaning to "hitting the wall," before reaching the finish at more than 13,000 feet (3,962 meters) above sea level.
Ryan has taken 10 wins and set six records at the annual competition. He currently drives a hand-built, black Freightliner Cascadia powered by a 1,600 horsepower Detroit Series 60 married to a 5-speed ZF automatic transmission. His other truck is a Mercedes Benz OMLA 501 R V6, 12-liter from the Mercedes European Super Truck Team. The transmission, an Ecomat 5-speed sequential, was specially modified for European racing. "I think I'm the only guy (in the United States) with two of these truck racing transmissions," Ryan said.
While hill climbing for the trucks is relegated to a demonstration sport because of lack of competitors, it still draws a huge crowd. And the very thing that draws the crowds, the huge size and the implausibility of taking a big rig up a big mountain, is what gives Ryan the advantage. "This truck handles like a dream," he said. "I can see farther up the road than any of the other drivers…I've got the best seat in the house."
And taking that much metal up the hill is good for the racing soul, too. "You get the truck up there and it makes the crowd feel good and the sponsors feel good. I'll admit it, it's a little ego trip for me," Ryan said.