Horsepower & Smoke

It is said the word “inaugural” is marking the beginning of an activity, but the Inaugural Great Lakes Big Rig Challenge, held May 18-20 at Onaway Speedway in Onaway, Michigan, was so much bigger than an activity.  It has staked its claim as a huge event, drawing in people from all over, with a promise of an annual event for years to come.  Uphill semi-truck drag races were non-existent in the US – until now.  What exactly is an uphill drag race?  Like the name implies, loaded and bobtail rigs drag race up a hill.

I found out about this event on Facebook in September 2017 and knew, without a shadow of a doubt, I wasn’t going to miss this.  Rodéo du Camion in Notre-Dame-du-Nord, Quebec, has been on my bucket list since 2008, but I have yet to get there.  So, when a similar event was announced to be held here in the United States, it became a must-go show, for me.  And not one part about this event was disappointing – I’m already looking forward to next year!

After spending some time at Diesel Freak in Gaylord, MI (one of the major sponsors of the event in Onaway), I made my way north on Wednesday before the show.  The forecast looked awesome, but having been a past resident of Wisconsin, I knew to be prepared for all seasons.  On Thursday, I went up to the track to meet Mike Sturgill, founder of the event and owner of Precision Forestry, along with a few members of his staff.  Seeing the grounds in person, a certain level of excitement came over me in anticipation of the start of the Big Rig Challenge.  Not only would this event be full of horsepower and lots of black smoke, but NAST (National Association of Show Trucks), known for their involvement in the Richard Crane Memorial Truck Show in St. Ignace, Michigan, was in attendance to handle the truck show portion of the event, also taking place during the uphill drags.

By far, the coolest thing driving into the grounds was seeing the huge American and Canadian flags flying proudly over the track.  Racers from many places in Canada came down to race, including Jean Guy Boulanger with his Orange Kenworth W900L, Jean’s brother Daniel Boulanger with his black “Le Quack” Peterbilt 379, Ray Murphy with his blue Kenworth W900, Martin Couture with his green 2001 Freightliner Classic and Mathiew Dinnigan with his white Peterbilt 386, just to name a few.  This was definitely an event supported by both countries, with plenty of mutual respect and support.

Mike Sturgill purchased Onaway Speedway in April of 2017 initially because he wanted to run the oval track and other speedway events, but this event was already in the back of his mind.  Having attended the Rodéo du Camion since 2014, he formed associations with the racers, along with the announcers and staff, in Quebec.  After buying the track, changes were made to the landscape to create the uphill drag strip.  Preparing for the show went as planned, but work that had to be done was delayed due to a late spring and, worse yet, a huge snowfall just weeks prior to the event.  But that did not stop them from getting the venue ready!

Friday was a beautiful day, and bobtail trucks were allowed to make practice runs from 2:00 pm to 7:00 pm.  Prior to the practice runs, I was able to catch a small convoy heading up to Onaway consisting of Wade LaLone of Diesel Freak and his well-known “Foolish Pleasure” Kenworth W900, along with Curt LaLone, owner of MLT Transport out of Mt. Pleasant, MI with his 2002 Peterbilt 379, Michael Ostetrico of MO Power/MO Haulers and Recovery out of Aurora, OH driving his Kenworth W900 pulling his trailer loaded with his Peterbilt 379 daycab race truck, and Mario Monette (Mario High Performance Diesel) out of Edmonton, Alberta in his Kenworth W900 pulling his enclosed trailer (which was hiding his Peterbilt 379 race truck inside).

Show trucks and race trucks continued coming in throughout the day.  Plenty of people showed up to watch what was going on, and campers came in to get parked for the weekend.  If you have a camper, this is a perfect place to bring it.  There was plenty of beautiful area to park the campers, along with many food vendors to meet everyone’s needs.  That night, I checked the forecast for Saturday, and what was originally supposed to be a beautiful day, now showed rain in the morning.

Many of the show trucks in attendance were rigs I hadn’t seen before except for two – V-Max Transportation’s popular red and white 1995 Kenworth W900, pulling a matching Utility trailer, and Curt LaLone with his previously-mentioned 2002 Peterbilt 379.  The show trucks were parked on the asphalt along the outer edges of the oval race track, and by the time it was all said and done, there were 24 trucks registered for that part of the event.

Saturday brought the expected rain and lower temperatures, which caused a delay in the noon start of the races and a cancellation of the bobtail runs.  All was not lost, as the battle began for who had the most pulling power hooked-up to a loaded trailer of logs with a gross weight of 125,000 pounds.  Photographing in the rain wasn’t too bad, until around 4:00 pm, when the rain really started coming down.  Spectators were out in full-force, geared up with rain jackets and rubber boots.  It was awesome to see everyone out there enjoying the races, even when Mother Nature decided that she didn’t want to play nice.  I will admit, I didn’t stay the whole time on Saturday – part of me was done having my feet suctioning in the mud and the other part of me wanted to get back to the hotel room to see how my initial photos were turning out.  But, what I missed couldn’t compete with what Sunday would bring.

Why loaded log trailers?  Northern Michigan is known for its logging industry, so it only seemed fitting to have the trailers loaded with a product providing economic activity in that region.  Not only a necessary industry, but Mike Sturgill also owns a logging company.  With that, he has at his disposal a truck scale, so the logs could be loaded and weighed, making sure each trailer was within 10 pounds of the 125,000-pound mark.  Usually, for uphill drags, they pull loaded box vans, lumber or concrete barriers, but the logs just seemed appropriate and fitting for this event in Michigan.

Sunday was the last day of the event, and due to the late start on Saturday and the omission of the bobtail races, the anticipated start of the races was moved forward, from noon to between 10:00 am and 11:00 am.  The truck show judging and awards occurred at around 10:00 am.  The day was perfect for taking pictures, but being by the track, which had been rained on the day before, made for a bit of a muddy mess in the morning, and then, as it dried in the sun, dusty conditions.  But, still no complaints from me, because it was a day of racing for all the classes.  Black smoke was in abundance, and seeing the horsepower of these trucks, was quite a sight.  In total, 58 trucks were entered and competed in the uphill drags.

With three classes each in the bobtail and loaded divisions, everyone who wanted to be a part of the racing action got the opportunity to do so.  Class A was the high-end, with a 19-liter engine limit size, a two-turbo maximum and only one injector per cylinder.  Class B had a 16-liter engine limit size, along with a single turbo setup, and the ECM had to be OE (Original Equipment).  Class C was open to strictly stock semi-trucks, blowing no smoke, with a 2,400-rpm limit.

I’ve heard many people talk about their thoughts on the event, but no one has said anything negative.  And, now that the inaugural event has passed, show producers are already focused on next year’s Big Rig Challenge, which is scheduled for May 17-19, 2019 – so mark your calendars now and don’t miss it!


A-CLASS (LOADED): 1st Peter Wag; 2nd Leon Smith; 3rd Tyson Brandt; 4th Martin Couture; 5th Mario Banville.

A-CLASS (BOBTAIL): 1st Peter Wag; 2nd Colton Sailer; 3rd Tyson Brandt; 4th Leon Smith; 5th Mario Banville.

B-CLASS (LOADED): 1st Michael Chartrand; 2nd Martin Couture; 3rd Ghyslain Pharand; 4th Jacques LaFleur; 5th Tim Kamps.

B-CLASS (BOBTAIL): 1st Jacques LaFleur; 2nd Martin Couture; 3rd Joe Lemerise; 4th Stephane Gosselin; 5th Michael Chartrand.

C-CLASS (LOADED): 1st Richard Beckerton; 2nd Billy Tremblay; 3rd Matthew Dinnigan; 4th Neal Dams; 5th Bobby Lambrix.

C-CLASS (BOBTAIL): 1st Matthew Dinnigan; 2nd Richard Beckerton; 3rd Billy Tremblay; 4th Daniel Boulanger; 5th Triston Cole.



BOBTAIL (MAIN CLASS): 1st (tie) Zack Walker of Zwerk and Sons Farms AND Dean Bugg of Forest Products; 2nd Curt LaLone of MLT; 3rd Eric Timmins of Zwerk and Sons Farms.

COMBO (MAIN CLASS): 1st Dave Haitsma of V-Max; 2nd Mike Sercombe of Sercombe Trucking; 3rd Jeremy Moore of Earl Harding Trucking.

BOBTAIL (WASH & SHOW): 1st Justin Richardson; 2nd Mike Pitch; 3rd Wayne Savlyier.

COMBO (WASH & SHOW): 1st Joe Arndt; 2nd Matt Zeerip of Rick Zeerip and Son; 3rd Ken Bickham of Sercombe Trucking.

WRECKER: 1st Mike Fraiser of Joey’s Towing; 2nd Kevin Fisher of King MTN Trucking.

ANTIQUE: 1st Cletus Snow of Sercombe Trucking; 2nd (tie) John Moore of Earl Hardy Trucking AND Jim Sercombe of Sercombe Trucking; 3rd Ken Sharp of Weick Brothers.

PAINT: 1st (tie) Curt LaLone of MLT AND Dave Haitsma of V-Max; 2nd Dean Bugg of Forest Prods.; 3rd Justin Richardson of Black Gold Trucking.

INTERIOR: 1st (tie) Dean Bugg of Forest Products AND Dave Haitsma of V-Max; 2nd Zack Walker of Zwerk and Son; 3rd Curt LaLone of MLT.

LIGHTS: 1st Dean Bugg of Forest Products; 2nd Mike Fraiser of Joey’s Towing; 3rd Mike Sercombe of Sercombe Trucking.

BEST OF SHOW BOBTAIL: Dean Bugg of Forest Products.

BEST OF SHOW COMBO: Mike Sercombe of Sercombe Trucking.

About Stephanie Haas

With a history in the trucking industry dating back to 1997, Stephanie’s “addiction” to big rigs has only grown with time. Today, operating independently as “Diesel Addict Photos” (find her on Instagram and Facebook), Stephanie has been a regular contributor of features and show reports to 10-4 Magazine since 2016. Keep an eye out for her work as she shares her love of large cars… one photo at a time!