America supposedly does things a bit bigger than the rest of the world. One case in point is monster trucks -- bigger tires, bigger engines, bigger noise; they're kind of like Texas on wheels and steroids.
In one specific area of trucking (or truck racing), however, the good old U.S. of A. may be beat. In Europe and other parts of the world, the kings of the road have become the kings of the tracks. Since the early 1980s truck racing has been a growing draw. Think of the truck delivering a trailer load of diapers to Wal-Mart thundering around a flat track at speeds of up to 100 miles per hour (161 kilometers per hour). And this isn't a road-weary traveler caked with sand and salt, but rather a slick, modified race machine on par with today's top NASCAR and Formula One machines.
Like American NASCAR racing, the super truck circuit grew from humble origins where drivers would pull off from their anticipated delivery, drop the load, race, pick up the load once again and deliver the cargo by the next business day. Rather than moving from the back roads and moonlight moonshine runs as early NASCAR drivers did, these trucks moved from hauling everyday goods to hauling, well, you know, around some of the more storied European and international race ways. Their drivers are much the same -- average guys with not-so-average dreams making a name for themselves in a sport that drew more than 200,000 cheering fans to each race during its hey day.
With the passage of time and the effects of shrinking economies super truck racing has transformed into simply truck racing. And while these leviathans are not likely to make it to United States shores anytime soon (at least as anything other than a video game), it's still better to be ready, because it may only be a matter of years before American race fans embrace the brash and behemoth reality of super truck racing. So, read on and be prepared to take a pole position in what may be the racing trend of the future.
Anyone who has driven major highways knows how intimidating a semi truck can be. They roar and crash along the pavement, the exhaust brake popping and growling, slipstreams causing their smaller gas-fueled cousins to sway and rock in their wake. They are powerful and sometimes awe-inspiring machines to witness in motion.
It's those same qualities, plus their familiar and mundane presence, that makes them appealing as a race vehicle. While race trucks will never haul a load of washers to the local big-box appliance store, they still retain many of the same characteristics as road-going brethren.
European super trucks, encompassing the United Kingdom, the European Union, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil and China, race under the broad umbrella of the FIA, or Federation Internationale de l'Automobile, the French authority that also supervises the Formula One series. The FIA mandates strict regulations including super trucks retaining much of the equipment standard to the everyday hauler, including a standard diesel engine. But the race trucks are allowed to tweak and tune those engines to dance to the beat of a very different, and all together faster, drummer.
The race trucks are limited to a 12-liter diesel engine. When the sport first got its start in the 1980s, beefing up the engines meant adding turbochargers -- the bigger the better. As technology has changed, and engine management software has replaced brute force with finesse, most race trucks sport software that manages engine power and torque with algorithms and advanced math rather than mechanical crudities.
What all this boils down to is the software allows a savvy diesel engineer to tweak the air-fuel ratio in literally every cylinder to produce more than 1,000 horsepower and more than 6,000 pound-feet of torque (8,135 newton-meters) from a standard engine.
This power is handled by the transmission, which makes use of modified gearing for performance. In the United States, Allison transmissions dominate the market, but outside of our shores, ZF transmissions rule the road.
ZF was the main medium- and heavy-duty maker for over-the-road transport and became the main producer and supplier of racing transmissions during the sport's height in the mid-2000s. Similar to their more mundane street-going cousins, the racers use a manual transmission; however, again, various electronic and mechanical tweaks are added to the system to give better performance.
Super Truck Weight and Power
With high-horsepower diesel engines and performance-geared transmissions linked together as a ferocious duo, racers have to be alert to the tremendous weight of their machines and just how dangerous that combination could be. Stuart Oliver, lead driver and principal of the United Kingdom's Team Oliver Racing has won several British championship cups since he began racing more than a decade ago. He is all too aware of how much energy is produced by a super truck wielding a performance package on a race track. "There is no rpm limit but the 160 kilometer limit is in place due to the kinetic energy produced by a 5,500 kilogram truck at maximum speed," he said.
Translated, this means the trucks are limited to a minimum weight of 12,000 pounds and a maximum speed of 100 miles per hour on the track due to the tremendous forces being created by hurling that amount of metal, at speed, around the track.
Bowing to that energy and potential, drivers are cocooned in a steel roll cage, belted in with race harnesses, fire safety systems at the stand by, the truck's suspension systems are lowered and limited in travel and stability is controlled by traction control systems in most locations as stock tires are required. Water-cooled disc brakes are also par for the course.
While engine placement is not considered under FIA rules, there is a minimum front axle weight limit of about 7,000 pounds (3,175 kilograms). That minimum weight limits how far back the engine and transmission weight can be shifted.
The trucks must also look similar to shipping vehicles. Oliver said the trucks minimum height is about 2.5 meters or a little more than 8 feet high, with a similar width, yet no length restrictions.
British trucks are classed as A and B. Class A is allowed disc brakes on all wheels and adjustable shocks. Class B does not have adjustable shocks, but can use disc brakes as this is where the trucking industry as a whole is headed. There are no classes for trucks racing outside the United Kingdom.
While anyone can see a typical over-the-road truck virtually anywhere in Europe or the United Kingdom, the super truck racers can only be seen in a few places. Keep reading to learn more about those.
Super Truck Tracks
If an American race fan is abroad and wants to take in some of the wildest and woolliest racing happening in the world today, they can find it at the following tracks:
Nürburgring, Nürburg, Germany: Opened in 1927, the Nürburgring has become a destination race circuit and is listed among Germany's most important national monuments. It hosts more than 100 races, among all types of racing, through the year. But for super truck fans and drivers, the high point of the season is in July when the ADAC International Truck Grand Prix, which takes place on a 2.25-mile (3.6-kilometer) shortened version of the full ring. The weekend event attracts more than 150,000 fans and offers everything from merchandising like a NASCAR village to country western music concerts. Lederhosen are optional.
Donington Park Motor Racing Circuit, Derbyshire, England: Opened in 1931 on the grounds of the Donington Castle, this race course plays host to super truck racing, the British Motorcycle Grand Prix, the British Touring Car Championship and the Le Mans Series. They offer a 1.95-mile (3.1-kilometer) National circuit (the original) and the 2.5-mile (4-kilometer) Grand Prix circuit.
Brands Hatch, Kent, England: Brands Hatch bills itself as the busiest race venue in Europe. It started life as a dirt motorcycle track in 1926 and now plays host to World Superbikes racing, and the World Touring Car Championship, to name a few events. They offer an Indy circuit that's 1.198 miles (1.927 kilometers) long, and a Grand Prix circuit that's 2.3 miles (3.7 kilometers) long.
Le Mans, Le Mans, France: This storied track plays host to the 24-hour Le Mans endurance race and has been a racing venue since 1906. Trucks take to a smaller section of the 8.3-mile (13.4-kilometer) course.
In addition to those listed above, there's also the TT Circuit Assen in the Netherlands, the Jarama race circuit in Barcelona, Spain, Misano World Circuit in Italy, Circuit Zolder in Belgium and several other tracks in England as well as emerging tracks in Brazil, China, Australia and New Zealand.
So now you know where to go to watch super trucks compete, up next find out which truck manufacturers you might see competing when you get there.
Super Truck Manufacturers
Truck racing is a truly international sport with venues and driver nationalities from around the globe, and the trucks themselves are a melting pot of makers' labels as well.
In his time on the track, Stuart Oliver has seen many truck makers hit the pavement, ranging from Mercedes to Renault, with the German-based MAN AG leading the pack. British race truck driver Carl Brookfield said he sees similar machines in his races but added Ford, Foden, ERF, DAF, Volvo, Scania, SISU and Seddon Atkinson to the manufacturer list.
Like the drivers, the trucks are straight from the world of over-the-road hauling. "You don't really have super trucks anymore," Brookfield said. "You just have truck racing." This move away from the glitz and glamour of what was once considered super truck racing (and still is in some circles), was based largely on economics. Similar to NASCAR in the United States, sponsorships for the teams has withered as company dollars, Euros and pounds are directed towards survival and away from "non-essentials" like the racing programs.
In the United States the big movers and shakers in the truck world are Freightliner and Peterbilt for the rolling stock, Detroit and CAT for the engines and Allison transmissions providing motive force to the wheels.
The mention of the United States in the truck racing mix is because while super truck racing once made a debut in America, it ultimately failed; however, it's still possible to see some super truck action in a few places here.
Super Trucks in the United States
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.
Super Truck Drivers: Driving the Fast Rigs
Many people see racing as simply going around in circles -- fast. Sounds easy, right? This is far from the truth. Drivers are drawn to racing by the challenges offered, both mental and physical, and to see if they have what it takes to take the checkered flag.
Truck racing drivers are no different from Formula One or NASCAR drivers -- they're out there to prove themselves, truck drivers just use a bigger machine to do so. Indeed, driving those machines was once characterized by a guest driver at a British truck meet as "driving an apartment block from the sixth floor." And according to the report on the BTRA Web site, the guest driver was hooked after his first run, and that lure is a common theme among the drivers.
Stuart Oliver said he entered truck racing to mix business with pleasure. He was in the road transport industry and wanted a chance to stretch his legs, so to speak, and that stretch has lasted 11 years. "Still to this day I find it demanding, exciting, and challenging," Oliver said, adding racing the truck required the same mental and physical skills as driving a race car.
Carl Brookfield entered racing, he said, when his brain told him he could do better than some of the guys on the track. He was also a big rig driver who, like Oliver, wanted to mix business with pleasure. Brookfield was able to obtain an engine sponsor, locate a rule book and start building a truck from what he saw in the pits at one of the races. "We were foolish," he said. "It may be just truck racing but all racing is a science. Now we keep changing bits, then going back to the track to test it out. This isn't material you can buy over the counter a lot of the time so we invent and test to the best of our budget. It's a lot of fun."
And just as important as equipment is the will to win. "Well, that and speed and track position," Brookfield added.
The STRANA Story
Mike Ryan's interest in the hill climb, as well as the allure of super truck racing, led him to attend some of the big races in Europe. "It was an incredible thing, it was outselling the Formula One," Ryan said of the crowds attending the super truck races.
He said most people here and in Europe could relate to the trucks, they saw them every day, while the Formula One cars were more like spaceships. That familiar allure, melded with the alien idea of a fast truck appealed to most people. "I mean, I go to Pikes Peak (with my team and truck) and it's like I have star power. I mean I'm a fat 52-year-old guy driving a truck -- that's not star power, but that's the power of the truck," he said.
In 2001, the power of the truck racing idea in the United States grew and he became involved with the emerging Super Truck Racing Association of North America, or STRANA. STRANA organizers brought together Class 8 trucks -- big rigs without trailers -- and competed in races as the Tonka Super Truck Celebrity Challenge. The races fell under the American Le Mans Series sanction, rather like European race trucks fall under the FIA. Races were held at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis., and Road Atlanta in Ga. Demonstration races were also held at Mosport International Raceway in Bowmanville, Ontario Canada and at Laguna Seca in Salinas, Calif.
Ryan said the trucks were essentially built from the ground up and were as similar to road-going trucks as passenger cars were to NASCAR race machines. And it was this factor, plus several others, that led to the death of the sport in the U.S. "I think it would have survived if the organizers hadn't built from the top down," Ryan said of starting a series from custom machines rather than evolving a custom machine from stock. "The fans loved it, but it was too expensive to get into races, something like $600,000 for a truck and a lot to just get on the circuit. Sponsors couldn't afford it."
He added, the sport may have had staying power if it started like NASCAR, from drivers with little money and big dreams -- growing the sport in a natural way like they did in Europe and Britain. "But it was just too much too fast," Ryan said.
United States Super Truck Racing
Will super trucks roar in the U.S. again? Yes, the potential is there to resurrect the sport. Carl Brookfield said America was a big nut to crack; even famous European singers have a hard time making it to super stardom here in the States. And just try doing it by shipping 20 trucks from Europe to the United States to compete in a series that very few Americans are even aware of.
"It's difficult," Brookfield said. "But some of the truck racers go to China and drive in local events, they just use local trucks, and that may be an option. But the two-week shipping time for a truck to get to the United States would leave a big hole in the racing calendar."
Stuart Oliver is in agreement with Ryan in that the sport would be possible, and profitable, if grown correctly. "It's just a case of promoting circuit track racing to the U.S. road transport industry," Oliver said. "Truck racing could be used in the U.S. the same as in Europe -- as an excellent brand and product exposure platform for the U.S. truck manufacturing industry."
For Ryan, who drove in many of the STRANA demos and races, this would be a change he could definitely live with. "It's just a lot of fun," he said.
For more information about super trucks and other related topics, follow the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- Brookfield, Carl. British race truck driver. Personal correspondence. March 3, 2009.
- Oliver, Stuart. British race truck driver and principal for Team Oliver. Personal correspondence. March 2, 2009.
- Ryan, Michael. Stuntman and race driver. Phone interview. Feb. 28, 2009.
- Zandbergen, Cees. Dutch race truck driver. Personal correspondence. March 6, 2009.