EXCLUSIVE: 'Like tuning a thousand-string guitar'

By Tyson Fisher, Land Line staff writer | Thursday, July 02, 2015

Wheels line up at the starting line at 9,390 feet above sea level. More than 12 miles of road and nearly one mile higher up, most vehicles will cross the finish line. Not everyone will make it and only one driver will make the attempt with a heavy-duty truck: Mike Ryan.

You may remember that name from the popular YouTube video “Size Matters 2,” where Ryan, an OOIDA member, does some stunt driving in a Freightliner Cascadia. Ryan does more than shoot cool videos with that truck. He also participates in one of the most grueling races: Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.

Courtesy of Mike Ryan MotorSports

Mike Ryan’s custom-built Freightliner

Pikes Peak isn’t for the weak, mentally or physically. At nearly three miles above sea-level, the altitude makes the race more physically demanding on both the vehicle and the driver. According to the race’s website, engines lose up to 30 percent of their power due to the thin air. Altitude pressure has a similar effect on the human body.

This year, a motorcyclist lost his life on the track during a practice round. The driver steered into an embankment due to “messed up roads.” Last year, a biker let his emotions get the best of him. Excited upon crossing the finish line, the man lost control of his bike and crashed, ending his life.

In the last 20 years, Ryan has participated in the annual race 19 times, 17 of those in a truck. He cut his teeth on the track with a motorcycle. A veteran on the track, this year’s race was uncertain after an incident that happened during 2014’s race.

Last year was a busy year for Ryan. After shooting the Size Matters video, he went to work on a movie for several months. During that time the Freightliner underwent some minor repairs after the beating it took from some jumps in the video. While Ryan was on the movie set, his crew was prepping his car for Pikes Peak.

Fast forward several months later (and several thousands of feet higher in altitude). Ryan is taking turns in the Freightliner on the mountain road. It’s business as usual for him and everything seems to go well. Ryan takes another left turn at 65 mph, but something unusual happens: the left wheels turn left, but the right wheels were going right. The Freightliner plummets 45 feet below the road, smashing into pine trees. The truck is totaled.

While Ryan was working on the movie before the race, steering and front axles were not properly checked for cracks or any other damage. Ryan and his crew would later find out that an awkward landing during the shooting of “Size Matters 2” had caused some damage in that area. It would go unnoticed until it was too late.

Undeterred, Ryan and his crew quickly went to work to fully rebuild the Cascadia. Nearly everything on the truck needed to be fixed. On top of Ryan’s busy schedule, they had less than a year to get the truck ready for the next Pikes Peak race.

With the help of sponsors, including Freightliner, Detroit Diesel, Meritor Drive-Train and many others, Ryan and his Cascadia were at the starting line at this year’s Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. He was about to find out if nine months of reconstruction had paid off.

Fine tuning a vehicle in any circumstance is a taxing process. Factor in cold weather and high altitudes and even the brightest engineers will be scratching their heads.

“The guy from Detroit Diesel said it’s like tuning a thousand-string guitar,” Ryan explained. “You got to get each one just right, because there’s so many different little electronic modes, you can cue the timing, how long the injectors stay open and when they open and how much fuel goes in and how much air goes in.”

In the first practice run, the Freightliner wasn’t running what it was capable of doing. Ryan expected a hand-built machine with 2,400 hp and 4,000 lb-ft of torque to do more. After switching out an experimental VGT Turbo, the truck was clocking in record times and ready for the race.

More than 70 four-wheelers and 60 bikes competed in this year’s race, with five divisions and seven classes of motorcycles and four divisions and eight classes of cars and trucks. According to the race’s official website, Ryan finished the race with a time of 05:16.286, fourth in the Pikes Peak Open division. The three cars ahead: 2002 Chevy Camaro, 2003 Chevy S-10 and a 2014 Ford Mustang. Cars that Ryan and his 2008 Cascadia bulldoze through.

“Over the years, my truck has evolved into arguably the fastest,” Ryan said with modesty and decorum. “I’m sure there’s faster drag race trucks, but fastest road racing truck, arguably, in the world.”

From totaled vehicle to racing against Camaros on a mountain in less than a year, no one is going to argue that.

Copyright © OOIDA