Mike Ryan is a happy-go-lucky 57-year-old Californian, always smiling and cracking jokes.
His jovial nature is infectious and, while he walks with a slight limp, you’d think he was a stand-up comedian. Personally, I see the limp and, given his career and recreational choices, I’m surprised he’s here talking to us at all and not pushing up daisies.
Plenty of people work demanding jobs during the week and wind down on weekends with a spot of motorsport, but Mike goes more bad-arse than anyone else – you’d think he’s from Texas (as everything’s bigger there, or so they say).
‘Size Matters’ is his weekend plaything: a full-size, 4.5-tonne Freightliner Cascadia prime mover packing a turbocharged and supercharged, methanol-sucking 14-litre Detroit Diesel in-line six and ‘lightweight’ carbonfibre and fibreglass bodywork. This monster has been specifically developed to dominate at the Pikes Peak Hill Climb, the 156-turn race to the sky that has included a truck class since the mid-’90s.
Mike has won the class an astounding 13 times in 16 attempts. He’s also set the class record six times, with his name currently at the top of the time sheets of the Big Rig class, at 12min 38secs.
“I remember the first time I went to Pikes Peak, back in 1995. I was racing in the Open Amateur Motorcycle Class and I wasn’t very good, but I still came back and did it again in 1996,” the stunt legend laughs. Ryan’s day job as a Hollywood stunt man is just one of a few strings to his bow (he also recreates crash scenarios for the State of California). If you watch closely, you can see some of his handiwork in Terminator II.
“I did all the close-ups of the kid’s bike’s back tyre getting hit by the front bumper of the tow truck, and when Arnold grabs him off the bike I run over the dirt bike,” he explains.
“Then I tossed it sideways up to the bridge, just before it blows up. I also did most of the later cryogenic container truck stuff in the dark, except the roll-over.”
“Rolling trucks is right up there on the danger level, but I’ve done a bunch,” he continues, nonchalantly. “I actually just rolled two buses, one in Captain America 2 and one for Fast & Furious 7. In Captain America 2, I get t-boned by a big utility truck while driving a city bus, while in Fast & Furious 7 I rolled a big, black Transformer-looking, bad-ass tour bus down a mountain into a quarry.”
It confirmed for me this guy is not only a super-talented driver – disarmingly charming and straight-talking – but he’s nuts in that awesome way we all want to be, fearless, in that man-child juvenile way. But how did a stunt man wind up racing a truck at the second oldest motorsport event in the world?
“I’ve always been into trucks,” he says. “At Pikes Peak in 1995 there was a guy there called Sid Compton who raced a circle-track truck and established the record with a 15min 48sec run. I figured, with my stunt work, truck racing would fit in well, so, in 1997, I bought a top tube-frame, custom-built circle-track truck that was from a series that ended in 1991.
“Because it was a circle-track racing truck, the drivetrain was set four-inches left of axle-centre to get the weight offset, and to make that work at Pikes Peak took a lot of development. But in our first year we broke Sid’s record, clocking a 14min 40sec run.
“By 2007, we’d dropped the class record by 3mins 5sec and then last year we dropped it another 5sec with this chassis and set-up. It’s not actually a brand new chassis as it was initially built by volunteers at Freightliner in 2000 and Shane Chapman drove it at Pikes Peak that year. Then it sat in a Freightliner warehouse, kind of unloved and just back in a corner.
“Back in the mid-2000s, Mercedes was trying to change American truckers over from the Detroit Diesel engines to Mercedes, but Americans didn’t go for it. So we had to go back to the Detroit Diesel engine but it was almost impossible to change the last truck back to one of them without destroying it, as the Mercedes engine is a V6 and the Detroit Diesel Series 60 is an in-line, so it was easier to take the Stirling chassis that had a Series 60 in it and put it all together.”
It’s hard to keep track of how many trucks it’s been. “I call this truck number four or five, depending on how you view it. The first truck was the circle-track truck, second had a two-stroke Detroit Diesel 8V-92 engine, then we put a 6V-92 in it and it became number three and was terrible, then when we got the Mercedes European factory Supertruck engine and ZF transmission and that was amazing.
“That truck was only 3950kg, this truck is around 4500kg. This one last year just got as fast as the 2007 truck, purely because it has so much more horsepower.
“This truck has pretty much been specifically built for Pikes Peak – but back in the dirt days – so to turn it into a bitumen race truck has been quite a long process of development. These tyres are made specifically by Michelin for us, but I wish they were softer. These were made for when Pikes was still dirt.
“Unfortunately, this year we had terrible weather with wet surface and sand and all kinds of crap on the track. The only analogy that seems to apply is ‘driving a 427 Cobra on an icy parking lot with big cliffs on every edge’.
“I spun-out near the top and lost 40 seconds getting going again, plus the last third of the track I had almost no brakes, but I know we’ve got another minute in it if the weather is good and we don’t touch this engine set-up.”
That engine set-up comes from Banks Power, the Californian diesel and turbocharging specialists who design and build custom engines and electronics for everyone, from the US military to Jay Leno’s tank-powered hot rod.
Mike stores Size Matters at their sprawling headquarters and so we continue to chat as we navigate the gigantic complex in Irwindale, Los Angeles, rolling past several huge buildings spread out over a few acres andincorporating a host of connecting roads.
The Freightliner is hidden away in the far back corner of the complex in a new warehouse, but as soon as Mike fires it up everyone knows where it is, as it is by far the loudest race vehicle I’ve ever experienced. Forget Top Fuel dragsters or 9000rpm NASCAR engines, the wail from this truck is like a Metallica concert; it will leave your ears ringing for days.
Mike hooked up with aftermarket legend Gale Banks at Pikes Peak a couple of years back. Banks has been setting speed records and blowing turbocharging and diesel-fueled myths since 1958 and he approached Mike with the goal of increasing the formerly twin-turbocharged truck’s horsepower, improving response and eliminating black smoke from the diesel engine, which Banks sees as a lack of efficiency in the burn-rate and therefore wasted power.
Banks built Mike a twin-charged set-up called a ‘Super-Turbo’, using a gigantic supercharger to pressurise air for a huge turbocharger, all safeguarded by one of his trick methanol injection set-ups called StraightShot.
The Freightliner needs the methanol given the gigantic Whipple 14-litre supercharger is overdriven, turning at 4:1 crank speed for around 25psi of boost pressure. This helps build huge boost low in the rpm range to help the big rig fire out of the many slow-speed corners and hairpins at Pikes Peak.
“It turns really well, sits flat and doesn’t really roll all that much,” says Mike. “The issue with Pikes Peak is that every time you go there you’re actually racing the mountain, the weather, the surface of the road, it makes a huge difference.”
The 14-litre Detroit Diesel Series 60 six revs out to a ‘giddy’ 2700rpm, but it’s making 2087kW by then and can easily blaze the tyres into a haze of smoke if Ryan isn’t judicious with the throttle. That said, anyone who’s seen his video Size Matters on YouTube can attest to how well the big rig drifts.
As we wrapped up the photoshoot, Mike casually mentions he has to move the truck back to the main office and asks if I’d like to ride shotgun. Now, I’ve ridden in all manner of tuned and race-spec vehicles, from eight-second drag cars to 1120kW GT-Rs, but nothing prepared me for what Mike’s truck can do. Not only is it the loudest vehicle I’ve ever been in but it’s unbelievable how easily Mike can throw this monster around like it was an 1100kg drift car.
Mike made every T-intersection at Banks Power a riot, drifting and power-sliding with ease, doing handbrake turns outside the head offices (and in front of 71-year-old Gale Banks himself, who was recording these shenanigans on his iPhone!). The whole time the truck stayed flat, predictable, and totally communicative. I’ve felt more body roll in standard WRXs.
So after everything he’s achieved, surely there isn’t much left on Mike’s to-do list?
“At 57 years old the one thing I haven’t done is join Stunts Unlimited and that’s a major goal of mine now,” he admits. “[Legendary stuntman/director], Hal Needham [think Smokey & The Bandit, Cannonball Run] and those guys had the foresight to try new things, they pioneered cannons, using jet pods and I like that. My father was a nuclear engineer working for the Atomic Energy Society so I like innovation.”
Engine: ‘Detroit Diesel 60’ 14-litre inline-6, 12V, twincharged
Power: 2087kW @ 2800rpm
Torque: 6800Nm @ 1000rpm
Power to Weight: 464kW/tonne
Top Speed: 356km/h
Transmission: 5-speed automatic