The Suzuki semis function as homes and lounges for riders and their families, as well as fully equipped garages for race day.
The massive, brightly colored beasts of burden you know today as the factory semi truck wasn’t always the norm for the big teams. Oh so long ago, you’d be lucky to have your own pickup truck or a Ranchero to haul your bike to the track. As motocross became increasingly popular and more money poured into the sport, the ride of choice eventually evolved into the now venerated box van.
Box vans are usually medium-sized vehicles with a cab separate from the chassis, which actually bears the container unit referred to as the box. This box not only allowed the rider more room for those ever important spare parts, but also harbored an important side effect of being a sweet rolling billboard. The term ‘box van’ in the motocross industry is used a little looser, as a box van can be almost anything that has room for a couple bikes, parts, and that oh-so-crucial sponsor space on the side. The box van has been used since the infancy of the AMA series, and is to this day still the norm for privateers, amateurs, and even some riders with big sponsors. The gap between the thousands it costs for a box van and the millions it costs for a decked out semi are just too astronomical for almost all but the factory-sponsored hotshots.
Ricky Carmichael proves his worth every time he steps out on the track. Off the track Suzuki outfits the best rider in the sport, with one of the best support system in the business.
A mere 15 years ago a full factory ride meant you were lucky to get a box van, bikes, and some parts. In 1990, Mike LaRocco accepted a factory ride from Team Suzuki to take a shot at the 250cc class and was elated that he got his very own box van and his father as a mechanic. That may sound like a sweet deal, but to put it in perspective, this year Ricky Carmichael not only has a semi truck for himself and his family (complete with all the home amenities a movie star would be accustomed to), but also an asinine amount of parts, bikes, support staff, professional mechanic, and a bevy of various perks like plasma TVs and a Playstation. Hey, championships sell bikes, right?
Although the factory semis might look pretty from the outside, they are all business on the inside. These transporters are a veritable cornucopia of technology and brute strength. Standard semi truck engines from Mercedes Benz, Detroit Diesel, and Caterpillar, to name a few, are torque powerhouses generating the kind of power it takes to rip that ice cream sandwich out of Rosie’s kung fu death grip, as well as churning out 350-600 horsepower. They can have highly advanced air bag suspensions, robotically welded axles with composite springs, fuel leveling systems, 1,200-2,000 square-inch radiators and a multitude of other aerodynamic and technological options.
What’s that you say? All this to carry a few dirt bikes from race to race? You’ve got a good point, except the level of competition in motocross today has become so fierce that these rolling factories have become the epicenter for team operations every weekend of the season. The price is steep, but when you consider what these juggernauts do it doesn’t seem too ridiculous: They are homes and lounges for the riders and their families, fully equipped and stocked garages for the mechanics, restaurants for the entire team, huge rolling advertisements seen all across the U.S., private conference rooms for team and business meetings, and of course, you can hold a lot of beer in the fridge.
So if the pinnacle of motocross inter-track transportation is the semi trucks, then who are the guys driving these gargantuan multi-million-dollar rides? I decided the spectators needed an better look at these impressive beasts and their handlers, so I spent a few minutes with Team Suzuki transport driver Derek Littlejohn to get an inside view of what it takes to drive one of these bad boys and what it’s like to be behind the wheel of millions of dollars worth of machinery.
MotorcycleUSA: What’s the make, model, tow capacity, and any other pertinent stats on your semi?
Large aluminum tanks on the back of the trailers store water for the pressure washers to keep things looking their best.
Derek Littlejohn: I drive a 2001 Peterbuilt 387, extended-frame tractor. It has 600 gallons of water in aluminum tanks, sleep-ins, all the toys. We weigh in at about 76-78,000 pounds, the maximum legal amount is 80,000 pounds.
MCUSA: How big are these semis?
DL: My tractor is 75 feet long and 13 feet 6 inches tall.
MCUSA: How much do they cost loaded with parts and bikes?
DL: If we were to go out and buy one it would be about $500,000 for the trailer and $106,000 or so for the tractor. (That’s without bikes, parts, paint job, customization, etc.)
MCUSA: how many miles per year do you put on them?
DL: I drive about 35-45 thousand miles a year.
MCUSA: How many miles have you driven in one sitting? Hours?
DL: The D.O.T. (Department of Transportation) only allows us to drive 11 hours at a time.
MCUSA: How did you get the job driving for Suzuki?
DL: I started in 2000 with Pro Circuit and drove for 2 years, then Plano Honda for a year until that team went under. After that I heard Suzuki needed a driver so I called them up and got the job at the 11th hour. I love it. Suzuki is a great team to drive for.
MCUSA: What’s special about these semis? What makes them different from one we see barreling down the freeway?
DL: The graphics and the insides are just beautiful. We have so much stuff packed in back there that we can pretty much build or fix anything we want. The one thing that people, other drivers and folks just checking them out look at are the aluminum tanks on the back of the tractor. We use that water for our pressure washers to wash the bikes, trailers, you name it.
MCUSA: Ever get nervous that you are driving around millions of dollars worth of high-tech machinery and thousands of hours of blood, sweat and tears?
DL: Oh yeah, it gets sketchy sometimes. You have to completely check out an area before you park, planters, trees, overhangs. You have to watch for a lot of things. We also try not to stop at truck stops because we’ve been run into before.
MCUSA: What is your favorite part of the country to drive to, favorite track?
DL: My favorite is the Northwest. Oregon and Wyoming are so beautiful. I actually love it all, you can see so much more from a tractor over being in a car. I’ve been to every state but Vermont.
MCUSA: Do you have XM or Sirius Satellite radio?
DL: I have a Sirius system, but it’s broken right now (laughs).
MCUSA: How do you pass the time driving cross country? Do you chat on the CB radio a lot?
DL: Oh yeah, my wife usually is following me on the drive and we just chat and do our own thing. The drive in a tractor doesn’t seem as long as it is in a car. I just get in and go.
MCUSA: What’s your favorite aspect of being a truck driver?
DL: Everyone is just unbelievably nice to you. People will give you stuff and talk to you just to tell their friends, “Hey I saw the Suzuki truck drivers!” I also love to drive. I love to get out and see the country; just being out there is fun. I have family west of the Mississippi and they have no idea what its like out here (the West).
MCUSA: Least favorite?
DL: Hotels are the worst part of the job. We take up a lot of space at the hotels and people aren’t always receptive of that, it gets a little rough sometimes.