I do know those types of guys, they’re my people, they’re my brothers and sisters who know that no matter what we are strapped into – if there is more than one of them on track, it’s go time.
Well that’s what happened last year when long time racing innovatory John Condren decided to take a page from the European racing scene and make it work in ‘Mercia. And what’s more ‘Mercian than taking some of the biggest road-going vehicles, add a cage and appropriate safety gear, and go racing?
Fast forward form ChampTruck’s inaugural year to last weekend at Portland International Raceway and my opportunity to jump into what I have affectionately now named the “Racing Rhino” for a crash (literally) course in ChampTruck racing.
See, throughout years of reading story after story of various journalists driving spectacular racing cars on incredible tracks, but now I have a story of my own: I’ve driven and raced a ChampTruck World Series Semi and I lived to tell you about it. So here goes…
I decided to take the first lap easy, with no real breakdown of guidance or technique, just to get a feel for the truck and the 12 turns that make up Portland International Raceway. It was pure, unchecked fear. I was screaming, shouting, and generally scaring myself silly with the pure heft of the truck; huge barely begins to describe the mass that the ChampTrucks carry though the straightaways let alone any corner you encounter. The lap also made me realize the simple fact that this is unlike any other road racing vehicle on the planet.
The rush of driving this self-named “Racing Rhino” for the first time was so intense, I couldn’t focus on anything else, including how to sort out how to shift a 10-speed splitter transmission that was anything but forgiving. By the time I finished my first practice session of the day, I could barely stand to hear those gears grind away even once more. And since my experience behind the wheel of a big-rig to date was moving one 40 yards, I also felt very rushed to learn, so it was time to start talking to the ChampTruck crew.
Once back in the paddock, I picked the brain of several people including the ChampTruck staff to try and figure out what the heck I was doing – for lack of better ways to say it… wrong. It turned out to be the single most informative experience driving a big rig I’ve ever had.
They warned me ahead of time that I would mostly be slowing down on all of the controls and letting the truck be a truck and not a sports car, and it was a good thing: not being overly assertive and quick with feedback. I worked on adhering to the racing line, adjusting to the braking needed to haul in close to 14,000lbs, and powering out of corners with massive turbocharged diesel torque.
On my final practice session, I worked to apply the lessons, calmed my nerves, managed to ignore the want to drive it like a sports car, and focused on cleaning up my line and beating my previous times. I worked into a rhythm of sorts, or as well as a rookie truck driver could on a rhythm track in what I can only call a Racing Rhinoceros.
Now comes the other part: the racing.
Not one to ever shy away from a challenge, I was feeling far more confident behind the wheel of the No. 11 Optima Freightliner than ever and it was time to line up on the grid for the first of seven planned races set for the weekend. You have heard all the sayings and have seen all the memes; when the green flag drops all other nonsense goes out the window and after once around the horn on PIR, it was time to get serious.
The grid of eight trucks round the final turn headed out onto the front stretch and then there it was – the green flag and in a cloud of black smoke we all streamed towards the chicane. I, for once, laid back and let things sort themselves out for a lap or two. But like all of us that have pulled the belts tight, I started to find myself thinking, “wait, I’m staying with some of these guys,” and then it got real right then and there.
I’m not sure how many laps we were into the first race of the weekend, but it was enough laps of being right on the ass of the No. 54 Minimizer truck and it was time to get this thing moving. So, with a carefully planned run off of turn seven, I headed down the back straight with one purpose in mind: beat him to turn 10, which is a slight left that kinks into the set of turns that head back onto the front stretch, but that was where things started to get a little hairy…
I got the run I wanted, I got the position I wanted, and now I had to make a decision. Was the No. 54 going to give, was I going to lift? And in that micro-second, I made, what I now regret, was the decision to lift and not put the No. 54 into the wall on the left, so I started the awkward line of trying to force 14,000-pound semi into the grass and direct it back onto track. Things did not work out.
At first, all I thought to myself was, “Here I go, out mowing the infield grass off turn 11, maybe the staff at PIR won’t be too mad,” and then the mass of the truck bit me in the butt. See, 14,000 pounds of truck and soft dirt designed to stop a Miata or a bug-eyed Sprite takes very little to dig into and just like that, I was on my side.
“Did that really just happen? Did I just do the one thing they told me NOT to do?,” I thought to myself. “F^%#, f^%# and f^%#” is about all I could come up with as I unbelted myself and took the submarine-style exit from the truck as the safety crews arrived. After a quick check from the EMTs, the truck was rolled back onto its wheels and into my paddock. I sat there mostly trying to calm my wife who was in a justified panic, not being able see either the wreck or myself coming back in the No. 11. So, that’s it, the weekend is over, trucks done, right? Wrong.
In a NASCAR-esqe fury, not only did the #11 Optima and ChampTruck crew jump on the bent big rig, but so did people from two other teams, and in less than an hour, guess what? I’m strapped back into the Rhino awaiting the next race; talk about indestructible! The wreck did not even change the suspension setting! And like that I was back out on the track without glass and some bumps and bruises. The funniest thing out of it all is that I was faster than before I dumped it on its side.
The rest of the weekend was filled with the same leading up to the “famous” part of my time behind the wheel. There were definitely a group of trucks that were faster than the others, and even though I was a second off their pace, I was at the lead of what would be called the second pack. Throughout the rest of the weekend’s racing, I found myself getting separated into the void that left me only one thing to do: hang out the rear end and put on a show.
Now, everyone knows the saying, “Loose is fast and on the edge of out of control.” Well, I was not out of control, but I was out of my mind with the fun I was having as I hung out the ass of a 14,000-pound ChampTruck though most of the 12 turns of PIR. In fact, I could not make up my mind, was it more fun to back it into the chicane with the rear tires into the air and then power out all the way into turn 4, or come out of 11 and 12 wide-open powersliding the No. 11 truck 60-70 yards out onto the front straight?
I’ll tell you which one: all of them. Guys like Turbo and Rude were out there being faster than me, but I was out there putting on a better show. Every time we came back into the pits, I anonymously sat back and watched the No. 11 truck get the “ooohs” and “ahhs” as the spectators came over to check out all of the trucks. If I’m going to be slow, then I’ll be spectacular. So, after six sprint races and being at the front of that second pack for most of the day, it was time for the final points race, and as you can imagine, I’m all full of zest and confidence, as well as ready to go out and put it all out there.
As expected, I was with the front guys for the first couple laps, but then their experience showed and, once again, I found myself behind the No. 54 truck. This time there was no messing around, no lifting, and no giving up the line. I powered the No. 11 down into turn 10 and then proceeded to make space to get out on my own, but of course, the racing demons bit me again.
After several laps of tail-out fun and a quick check of my mirrors, I could see that I was half of a lap behind one set of trucks and the same distance in front of the other, so it was more of a self-test to see just how far I could hold the No. 11 truck sideways on the back straight, and just how far I could power out of turn 12 headed onto the main straight and then what, wait, huh, oh you gotta be kidding me!
I started to run out of gas! See, showing off does not only make you slow, but it burns more fuel, and even though I peddled it as much as I could right as I was about to cross the finish line, there was Brad in that No. 54 truck on my left. I lost a position in the last 20 feet, and even though I dropped a position at the end of the race, it mattered not, as I was having more fun than you can possibly have in a weekend at the track.
Great people, great trucks, great crews and great racing are all anyone in motorsports could ask for. The ChampTruck World Series deliverers on all levels, and even though they offered, I had to reluctantly pass to drive in the next race. Yes, they asked me to come back, but as of right now, I will only be able to follow from afar.
As for me, I’ve never spent so much time on various websites looking at used Freightliners and Macks thinking about how to make the budget to get one for myself. I’m already writing the letter to John to see how to get this seat full time, because If they will have me, I’m going to be right where I want to be: behind the wheel of the No. 11 Optima Batteries ChampTruck. I’ll worry about how to get the smile pried off my face after the 2016 season is over.