By Aaron Ladage
Didn’t you always want to drop the trailer, forget the speed limit, and cut ’er loose? Both sticks forward, both feet flat on the floor and waiting for your hair to catch fire?
That’s what driver Mike Ryan does, and it’s made him who he is. Instead of delivering America’s goods and supplies, he’s making his mark by taking the idea of what a truck can do and pushing it to its very limits.
By day, Ryan is a professional stunt driver and stunt-driving coordinator in Hollywood, working on commercials and movies such as “Herbie: Fully Loaded” and “The Day After Tomorrow.”
But to truckers and fans of truck racing, he’s the owner and driver of the record-breaking truck that has conquered the Pike’s Peak International Hill Climb for eight of the past nine years.
Twelve minutes, 46 seconds.
That’s how long it took Ryan to complete the 12-mile-long, 4,910-foot ascent and capture the world record in the Big Rig division of the race in July 2005 - and to beat most of the racers from the other vehicle classes along the way.
“I don’t know the total count - I think there were about 130 or 140 vehicles altogether at Pike’s Peak. And we were faster than all but four motorcycles and all but eight cars,” Ryan said.
“For an 8,000-pound lump to go beat up most of the rally cars and most of the motorcycles and the other race cars ... there were a lot of rally car guys who were talking big talk until the race was over, and then they got kind of quiet.”
Besides breaking the world record five times (meaning he topped his own world record four of those times), his truck has lowered its total time by more than any other class in the history of the race - three minutes, two seconds in nine years.
Ryan said the hardest part at Pike’s Peak is maintaining composure for the entire race.
“It’s pretty wild, but I have no idea how to describe it,” Ryan said. “It’s probably the most honest, continuous amount of minutes that I spend doing anything all year, because it requires every ounce of focus I’ve got.”
Conquering a mountain and working as a stunt driver would be enough for most, but Ryan doesn’t stop with taking trucks to high altitudes - he’s also driven them faster than almost anyone in the world.
For five years, Ryan was the driver for “Joint Venture,” a land-speed truck that holds the world land-speed record - 224.163 mph - in its class at the legendary Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.
To officially claim a world record, a speed has to be driven twice. Ryan was not driving Joint Venture when it took the world record, but once he did get the truck up to 225.675 mph - faster than the world record.
“I’m under the illusion that at Pike’s Peak, I’ve got some ability that might save my tail,” Ryan said. “I’m under no such illusion at Bonneville. When that truck gets over 180, 190, I’m pretty convinced I could just go sit in the passenger’s seat.”
So what can racing do for everyday, over-the-road truckers?
Ryan’s theory is that trucking technology is still heavily anchored by what a truck can do, not what it is designed to do.
He said he’s sure a NASA aerodynamicist can go out there and make a lot of recommendations, but developing trucking technologies demands real-world driving. He said it’s necessary to experience what it is to have the vehicle close to the ground, at those speeds, on that kind of ground, at that altitude, under those conditions.
And gearheads like truck drivers, he said, are still the best at that.
THE ‘LAND SPEED’ TRUCK
Year: 1997 (2001 major update)
THE ‘HILL CLIMB’ TRUCK
Year: 1998 (2001 major update)