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Speed Thrills

by Rolf Lockwood

There's nothing like the spectacle of big trucks racing. Add one of the world's legendary race tracks and you've got a recipe for serious fun. This lucky motor-noter was mighty excited to be on hand for the premium weekend in the FIA European Truck Racing Championship series at Germany's Nurburgring a few weeks ago. Watching the furious action, I was bound to compare the sophistication of the trucks, the track, the event at large, with the long lost Great American Truck Racing series over on this side of the pond.

Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, GATR ran for a few years on North American ovals, with an annual pilgrimage to Cayuga International Speedway southwest of Toronto. It was fun, but the comparison stops there.

The European truck series has evolved over the years into something quite different, but it was originally inspired in the 1970s by American dirt trackers making a lot of left turns around ovals. Since the mid-1980s, it's been a very, very successful enterprise governed by the same body - the FIA, or Federation Internationale des Automobiles - that sanctions Formula One and the World Rally Championship, among others.

The comparison with F1 isn't misplaced, though truck racing actually attracts more fans if you can believe it. There were 250,000 people at the Nurburgring that weekend, nearly twice what F1 would muster. It was a three-day festival, with dozens of major manufacturers there entertaining VIPs in lavish trackside tents and thousands of truckers and civilians listening to non-stop live country music when they weren't buying Mercedes-Benz or Renault souvenirs. There was even a long parade around the track of truckers' own North American rigs.

The racing trucks run on many of the same road courses used in F1, the pinnacle of motorsport. Tracks like Zolder in Holland, Brand's Hatch in England, Jarama in Spain, and of course the famous 'Ring, which saw its first Grand Prix race in 1927.

There are two truck classes running in separate races at every event: Super Race Trucks and just plain Race Trucks. The latter are modified production rigs weighing 5800 kg or so and getting upwards of 1000 hp from 12-litre diesels. They're slower than the Super machines but much less expensive, so that's how amateurs get involved. There's even a few North American conventionals competing in this junior class.

The Super Trucks are very different. They're branded MAN, Mercedes-Benz, Sisu, or Tatra in the name of fan recognition, but in fact they're pure racing machines in factory teams just like Ferrari and Maclaren. Like NASCAR does with its fake Fords and Pontiacs - a lightweight lookalike Taurus body over a racing chassis - the Super Trucks only look like Tatras and MANs.

For example, underneath the Finnish Sisu run by Chris Hodge Truck Racing Developments, a Caterpillar-sponsored British team and the only independent in the series, I found a Cat C12 pumping out 1550 hp at 2750 rpm and 3395 lb ft of torque from 1650 to 2450 rpm, using a standard-issue ADEM black box. It does 0 to 100 km/h in 3.7 seconds, reaches 160 in less than 8. Pretty quick for a racer that must weigh at least 5000 kg, the rules say.

All Super Trucks use a ZF Ecomat automatic transmission. The ordinary Race Trucks must use ZF Ecosplit manual gearboxes. Continental supplies special racing tires to all teams.

The Super Trucks were lapping the 'Ring at average speeds of about 125 km/h, while the Race Trucks were 10 km/h slower. There was no difference, however, in the ferocity of the competition.

Could this exciting series cross the Atlantic? Yes indeed, though we'd need to see trucks available in North America instead of Czech and Finnish ones. So we'd need the support of manufacturers, which GATR never had.

One of the major sponsors of the European series is ZF Friedrichshafen, the German transmission-maker that teamed up with Meritor last year to create ZFMeritor. The joint venture is already involved in racing here, part-sponsoring Mike Ryan in his Pikes Peak effort, along with Freightliner, this past July. Driving a much modified Century Class, he won the truck division and broke his own record time in the process.

Anyway, there are moves afoot led by Ryan and ZF to bring serious truck racing to North America, and they're looking to gauge the industry's enthusiasm. Yes, please, we say. If we do it the way Europeans do, the trucks will be utterly quiet and completely smoke-free, the series very professionally organized, and the competition first rate. There's no reason why we couldn't pull it off here, so let us know what you think. We'll pass your opinions on.

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