Bruce Canepa and the Kenworth race truck, top and right, bettered their performance this year,...

Bruce Canepa and the Kenworth race truck, top and right, bettered their performance this year, while record-holder Mike Ryan and the Freightliner race truck, bottom, failed to finish the course.

The 79th Pikes Peak Race to the Clouds saw two big rig entries for this year, but only one finisher. Bruce Canepa, driving the CFI Kenworth T2000 uphill race truck, bettered his own record by over half a minute, setting a new record for tandem Highway Haulers of 13 minutes 59.96 seconds in the final run up the 12.4-mile mountain climb.

A midday thunderstorm wet the mostly dirt mountain road and Mike Ryan, who ran the Freightliner Century Class Unlimited Single-Axle after the lunch break, lost traction and spun at one of the tight turns less than a quarter way up the 156-turn course. By itself, it wasn't serious, but in backing up to get headed up the mountain again, Ryan dropped a rear wheel over the edge of the mountain road and couldn't get traction to get started again.

Under the rules, since he couldn't get out under his own power, he was eliminated and posted a "did-not-finish."

Canepa credited improvements made to the CFI-sponsored Kenworth for the better performance in this year's event. Volunteer Kenworth engineers managed to shave 1,400 pounds from the truck, and gained an additional 300 horsepower from the Cat C-16 engine.

Together with a switch to the ZF Ecomat transmission and an impeccable drive, Canepa reduced his best time from 14 minutes 34.41 seconds to just under 14 minutes.

The Pikes Peak event is staged annually, usually over the July 4th holiday but this year on the weekend prior. It features just about every kind of wheeled and powered vehicle, with motorcycles, sidecar outfits, quads, high performance showroom stock cars, super stock cars and open wheelers as well as the crowd-pleasing big rigs. It is run over the Pikes Peak Highway, a narrow road that snakes up through 156 corners from the start at 9,390 feet elevation to the summit at 14,110 feet. The road is closed for the one-day event, though practice runs in the week leading up to the race are held early in the morning over different sections of the road.

Track conditions at the start of the event, held June 30, promised record-setting runs. While Canepa succeeded in establishing a new record in the three-axle class, the absolute course record, established in 1994 by Rod Millen at 10 minutes 4.06 seconds driving a Toyota Celica SuperSport Turbo, was never seriously challenged. A major team effort by Suzuki, spearheaded by driver Nobuhiro "Monster" Tajima, was frustrated on race day by a broken shock absorber mount.

Earlier, the event was overshadowed by the death of Chandler Brunning of Colorado Springs, Colo., who ran off the road during practice in a freak accident. Despite the challenging nature of the course and the frightening drop-offs into oblivion, Chandler was only the third driver to die on the mountain in its 85 years of racing.

Despite his no-finish, Ryan still holds the record for big trucks on the famous Pike's Peak hill climb, with a time of 13 minutes 39.02 seconds, set last year in his Freightliner two-axle.

He was philosophical about his spin, joking later that he was trying to evade a spotted owl. But he commented "as disastrous as today was, it was filled with positives," referring to conversations between truck racers, trucking press and sponsor ZF on the upcoming Super Truck Racing Association of North America efforts to promote truck racing, starting at race tracks next year.

Ryan's truck is a lightweight racer, powered by a V6 Mercedes-Benz truck engine, prepared to the same specifications as the European race series trucks. Englishman David Atkins, who runs a team campaigning a Mercedes Atego with the same engine, says they produce around 1,450 horsepower, though Ryan's is de-tuned to 1,250 for the altitude.

Atkins was over to see the Pikes Peak race, and commented that the performance from the OM501 LA engine is awesome, but the driveability is frightening. "It's all or nothing; the power comes in like you're throwing a switch," he said, underscoring the high level of skill Ryan shows driving in the conditions on Pikes Peak.

Ryan is used to danger, though. His "day job" is driving as a stunt man and counts among his credits working on movies such as Terminator II, the currently showing Swordfish and upcoming Training Day. Ryan also drives the Freightliner speed-record truck known as "Joint Venture." Driving at Bonneville Salt Flats, he posted a speed of 206 mph in August 1999. He also holds the truck record for the Queenstown, New Zealand, Gold Rush hill climb, which is some ways is similar to Pikes Peak. That record was set last year using the same truck he drove at Pikes Peak.

Bruce Canepa is a long-time racer, too, though he may be more familiar to truckers for the customized race-car haulers and workshop trailers he has produced though his Canepa Designs business. The concept Kenworth W900 featured at the Mid-America Trucking Show this year was from his prototype design shop. Canepa is also a very experienced race driver, with successes in NASCAR Sportsmen and Super Modified, IMSA GT and Prototype and other race series.

He said that the changes to the Kenworth T2000 for this year meant he was within a few seconds of Ryan on each section during practices. The performance from the Caterpillar C-16, now pushing out 1,300 horsepower and 3,500 pounds-feet of torque, is great, but it also has a significant turbo lag, with little power to 1,600 rpm and a sudden rush thereafter as the turbo spools up. Like Ryan, he was running the ZF 5HP600 this year.
The 5-speed, fully automatic is a torque-converter transmission, which greatly eases driving up the mountain, Canepa says.

The event was covered for ESPN, and the Trucks/Big Rig segment is scheduled to air in late July, late August and early September.