Big-Rig Racing – - Why? Because You Can

April 15th, 2011

Text and Photos by John Stewart

Two big triple-axle rigs prepare for burnouts. There were classes for all kinds of trucks, and all kinds showed up for a day at the track.

Imagine the spectacle: Two triple-axle Peterbilt trash compactor trucks edge into the burnout box and light up the tires, building to a fine crescendo of white smoke. They stage, the Christmas tree counts down, Detroit Diesel engines rage, black smoke blasts from the stacks and the two are off––rear ends hopping, lumbering down the track in slow motion, turbos whining like a dental drill, with dueling train horns blasting back and forth all the way down the track. OK, so they’re not exactly fast. But take it from us: You haven’t lived until you see it for yourself.

This we discovered when we stopped by the 30th Annual Truckin’ For Kids event held at Toyota Speedway, in Irwindale, California, to grab a quick look around. You’ll also find rigs like this racing at Colorado’s Bandemier Raceway for the annual Trucks on Mountain event. Once you see the spectacle, you have to stick around for the whole circus.

The event was fund-raiser for needy children that was supported by big-rig truckers. They came in droves to support the charity event, filling the parking lot with hundreds of immaculate tractor-trailer rigs. There was show judging, there were backing and maneuvering contests, and there was a whole day of drag racing on the 1/8th-mile track at Irwindale. Every time two big-rigs squared off, pride was on the line.

A knowledgeable, enthusiastic crowd was on hand to watch the racing at the 30th Annual Truckin’ For Kids charity event, in Irwindale, California.

Most of the participants were owner-operators who raced more or less standard working rigs, perhaps with a few custom touches, some extra chrome, sometimes with custom paintwork to personalize their truck. Some went further, with wild, flamed paint jobs and some of the most flawless chrome we’d ever laid eyes on. But even so, they were daily driver rigs who earned their keep on the road.

Like Jeeps or Harley-Davidson motorcycles, no two big rigs are ever exactly alike. The attitude among the truckers on hand was, “These trucks work hard all week, but that doesn’t mean they can’t play on weekends.” All kinds of trucks and brands signed up to race—Peterbilt, Freightliner, GMC, Volvo, Sterling IHI, you name it—but the most common by far was the classic Peterbilt 379.

Grudge Match: Two drivers in nearly identical fleet trucks square off on the starting line … and go for blood.

Along with these were perhaps a dozen extreme built-to-race big-rig-based dragsters. These lightened, lowered, powered-up-to-the-max rigs were trailered in by experienced teams that travel the country and race to win. While they’re not incredibly fast by some standards, they’re not slow, either. Many were capable of running in the 11-second range in the quarter-mile, and in the high 7 seconds on the 1/8th-mile track at Irwindale. Watching them do professional burnouts, stage and launch straight as an arrow, it’s obvious that they’re piloted by good racers with a lot of track experience. We talked to a few to find out what they were doing and how their rigs were built.

Pat Kyle, who runs a 1960 Kenworth, also races diesel pickups on the NHRDA circuit. His Kenworth has a 855 Cummins with an altered button under the hood. The engine internals are more or less stock. Pat runs no nitrous, just a high-capacity fuel pump and what he describes as a “big cam.” Lightened to 7,500 pounds with driver, the rig has done 12.2 seconds at 114 mph. Like a lot of the faster racers, he has added a four-speed Allison 740 automatic transmission––strictly hydraulic––for cleaner starts and faster shifts.

Shortened, lightened and equipped with high-po engines, some of the racing big rigs get pretty serious.

There is an electric water pump in back to provide cooling on launch, which is assisted by rear tires that have been recapped with 15/32 of sticky stock car tire rubber. His suspension is a four-link setup with airbags, and he launches with a little more air on the right side to compensate for the torque.  In the massive rear axle are 2.78 gears, which combine with very tall tires to create the kind of tall gearing only a diesel can pull. His engine turns just 2500 rpm; “I’m just using sheer torque of that big motor,” he explains.

On the 1/8th-mile track at Irwindale, anything close to 8 seconds is great for a big diesel. Kyle, running close to that mark all day long, ends up finishing first in the Super Drag class. He estimates that his rig would cost maybe $25,000 to build if he had to buy it, but for Pat, it’s all labor. All the parts are salvaged from the scrap pile behind the shop. His wife is his biggest sponsor: “It’s just something to do; you got to have something fun in your life.”

A closer look at the twin-turbo, supercharged Detroit Diesel engine in Frank Fierro’s rig. That’s just not enough, so there’s nitrous too.

Another guy out to have fun is Paulo Hernandez, whose 1956 Kenworth drag truck is built in the finest rat rod tradition. The primer-gray paint scheme sports orange-and-black pin striping over a fine rust-patina frame, accented by spotless whitewall tires. Inside the cab, the throttle pedal is made from a rat trap. On the back of the cab are painted the words, “The Beast,” which, along with the Hernandez’ huge burnouts, make it a crowd favorite. It’s powered by a Cummins six with a single (huge) turbo. A manual transmission is in keeping with the old-school, low-bucks looks and philosophy.

The Hernandez team brought another truck as well—a Detroit Diesel powered rail with twin Holsett turbochargers and nitrous. Dubbed “Mighty Mouse,” the rig ran well in the Outlaw class and was driven by Alfonso Hernandez.

In the same vein is the blue F&M Racing Peterbilt, campaigned by Frank Fierro, who runs it in both the Outlaw Diesel and the Super Drag classes. This rig has a little more money in the engine than most. Although most of the Pete-based racers on hand seemed to be working with similar Detroit Diesel V-8 engines, this one had two turbos and a supercharger, making it the biggest super/turbo combo we’ve seen. Boost is set at 75 psi. According to Fierro, because of its dual solenoids and nitrous, this engine develops an estimated 1900 horsepower.

Maybe he was pulling our leg, but he told us that the big Detroit can rev to 8500 rpm. Shaved governors, Teflon-coated pistons and marine injectors are part of the formula. The rig has reportedly run a best of 11.67 at 117 mph at Palmdale. The frame has been shortened, allowing for a final weight somewhere in the vicinity of 7,500 pounds. The F&M truck, which sports the slogan, “No Fear,” has been a perennial winner at the track.

One of the fastest trucks at Irwindale that day was the Acosta Racing Outlaw Drag truck, billed as “the world’s quickest ¼-mile drag truck.” The Acosta team brought two race rigs with them; this one was freshly painted silver with a glossy-red frame and professional body and paintwork. The cartoon character, Speedy Gonzales, and two nitrous bottles are painted on the back.

The other Acosta Racing truck looks like a rail with a cab on it: blue with range fenders. The logo, “Terminator,” is painted in script on the back. Obviously, great pains have been taken to lighten the truck. There is not a scrap of extra metal anywhere; its wheels appear to be aluminum alloy, the windshield is plastic and the firewall is made from sheet aluminum. Running a twin-turbo version of the Detroit Diesel V-8, the rig raced flawlessly all day long, consistently under 8 seconds in the 1/8th mile.

There was also a strong contingent of cabover racers, like the one Jim Disher brought out from Commerce City, Colorado. His flat-black Kenworth, “Low Buk$,” rides low to the ground with zero chrome and jet-black stacks. The truck has a modified fuel pump feeding a 1971 355 Cummins, as well as a stock turbo with an Allison automatic transmission and a solid suspension. Cabovers like Disher’s might weigh between 11,500 and 14,000 pounds new, but this one has been stripped down to 8,000 pounds.

“Every 1,000 pounds you lose is good for 4 seconds in the quarter,” he tells us. “Low Buk$” isn’t super fast, but it hustles down the track pretty well and has logged a time of 16.29 seconds in the quarter mile at 90 mph. And Disher is a master at burnouts, so the crowd goes wild. “The burnout, that’s really for show. We build these with line locks.” He has 3.73 gears in the truck at the moment, but he plans to go back to the taller 3.33s he ran in the past.

Disher obviously has fun with his rig, but he’s not in love with it, because the cabover configuration is a big handicap on the track. “This is just a truck we had around. You bounce around more because it is narrower; it’s like launching an empty pickup truck. There’s no weight on the back.” Disher hauls heavy equipment for a living and prefers Peterbilt trucks over anything else on the road. “The Peterbilt is the Cadillac of semi trucks,” he told us. “I’d hate to cut up a Pete like this.”

For racing purposes, the rigs are classed by their number of axles and body characteristics. Triple-axle trucks, big and heavy, race each other, and Cabover configurations have their own class. There is also a separate class for big rigs driven by female drivers. Super Drag rigs have rear fenders; Outlaw Diesels have no rear fenders, so by adding then, some Outlaw rigs can qualify for both classes and get more runs in.

As serious as some of these machines seem to be, there’s no real money in Big Rig racing—far from it. The owners race for trophies and for the fun of getting out on the track. Most of the racers we talked to were backyard engineers, usually in the diesel repair business, out to have fun and bask in the glow of crowd appreciation.

Drag Results 2010

30th Annual Truckin’ For Kids

Irwindale, California

2 Axle Diesel Cabover

Winner – Jimmie Disher

Runner Up – Connie Cavers Brodek

2 Axle Diesel Conventional

Winner – Fred Butler

Runner Up – Mark McLeroy

3 Axle Diesel Conventional

Winner – Harry Cleeland

Runner Up – Big Sal

All Other 3 Axles Catch All

Winner – Tray Atkins

Runner Up – Mark Tarrascou

Ladies’ Eliminator

Winner – Connie Cavers Brodek

Super Drag Trucks

Winner – Pat Kyle

Outlaw Class

Winner – Alfonso Hernandez

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