Back in July, the legendary German motorsport race track Nurburgring held a major surprise for a small group of American truck journalists unfamiliar with the European truck race scene. Competing - and winning - were a pair of Freightliner Cascadias from the Buggyra truck racing team of the Czech Republic.
The Cascadia is only now appearing on North American highways, but these two blue Freightliners have been campaigning all season in Europe and, with their Caterpillar power, conquering most that challenge them.
Drivers are the Swiss Markus Bsiger and Czech David Vrsecky. On the Sunday final race in mid-July, they finished in the top spots at the legendary track in the Eifel Mountains.
The track is the short 3.2-mile Grand Prix circuit, a far shortened but more spectator-friendly track than the incredibly difficult 17.5-mile original course. The old course still exists as the Nordschleife or northern loop, where for around $25 per 14-mile lap you can take you own car (or preferably a rental!) and indulge your fantasy as a race car driver. We were treated to some hot laps on this long circuit, driven by ZF engineers who really know the track and really know how to drive. It's something every red-blooded person needs to do at least once.
But the real action in July was on the GP track for the German round of the FIA European Truck Racing Championship. There, as guests of truck-racing supporter ZF Friedrichshafen AG, our group saw these two American conventionals mixing it up with tall cabovers from MAN, Mercedes-Benz, Iveco, DAF, Renault and Scania. And mix it up they do: During the four-race qualifier and championship events, many times these big tractors would bump each other, at times resulting in lurid spins in the middle of a tight pack of racing trucks.
Because of the weight of the competing vehicles, top speed is limited to 160 kph (100 mph) and penalties are assessed for drivers who exceed the limit - as well as for a number of other infractions, which results in the winning order at times being a lot different from the track positions. While this may appear to limit competition, it actually results in a relatively close field throughout the racing.
The trucks are substantially modified, with different engine/transmission setbacks and sophisticated suspensions that can be fine-tuned to the race requirements. But they look much like the trucks on the highways, with substantial curb weights of around 12,000 pounds. But they still accelerate like crazy out of the corners, often with 1,000-plus horsepower on tap.
The Freightliners featured race-tuned engines from the Buggyra team, which offers a range of race and road high-performance engineering for diesels and passenger cars. In the race trucks, the power is C13 Caterpillar with two-stage turbocharging and fuel calibration and injection boosted to produce 4,400 pounds-feet of torque and 1,050 horsepower, according to the race-truck specs. Transmissions are ZF 6-speed manuals, and brakes are water-cooled discs, which produce billowing clouds of steam as the trucks slow for the corners.
The racing is spectacular, drawing 192,000 spectators for the Nurburgring weekend.
The Freightliners with their Caterpillar engines are a winning combination this year, with Buggyra driver Vrsecky currently leading the driver championship and teammate Bsiger in third. Sandwiched between them is Antonio Albacete, who is competing with a cabover MAN.
For a glimpse of the excitement, go to www.youtube.com, search for "Buggyra," and select "Truck Racing @ Le Mans" to see Vrsecky and the others racing wheel-to-wheel.