When I think about Michigan, I think of the automobile industry, a state not normally driven through, and multi-axle log trucks. However, in 2018, it became the first place to introduce uphill races to the United States and the first time Neal Dams (48) of Hamilton, MI would experience this kind of racing behind the wheel of his 1999 Kenworth W900L. And let me tell you, this cool race truck will get your adrenaline pumping as its big horsepower sends it screaming down the track.
Neal grew up on the north side of Holland, MI and the only person in his family who drove truck was his father for a few years in the 80s. Some people tend to be self-starters and learn as they go – Neal is one of those people. As far back as he can remember, trucking was all he wanted to do. He started in the industry washing trucks for a friend of the family at age 13 and taught himself how to drive in the process.
In June of 1994, the day after he graduated from high school, he was in the driver’s seat working for a milk hauling outfit out of Holland driving a straight truck. His experience ranged over the years making him a diversified driver, including pulling both van and stepdeck trailers. Neal thought he finally found his career home in 1999 at a construction company hauling asphalt with a dump truck and pup trailer. Unfortunately, the company closed their doors in 2000. He finally found something he loved moving equipment in the mid-2000s, doing that until 2008, when he was diagnosed with cancer.
After a spot was located on his abdomen, he received his diagnosis and started chemotherapy. He said he doesn’t wish chemotherapy on anyone. In reality, this was a wake-up call for him, because he wasn’t living right, nor taking care of his body. He believes this was God’s way of telling him to get his head out of his butt and take better care of himself. During that battle, he spent quite some time watching the big uphill races that happen every year in Notre-Dame-du-Nord, Quebec, which quickly got added to his bucket list.
He started driving a Kenworth for someone in 2010 with the intention of eventually owning it, and ten months later he had it paid off, allowing him to accomplish his dream of owning his own truck. From there, he started Neal’s Trucking LLC in 2011. We think we know what our direction in life looks like until life turns out a little differently, because the truck was totaled in Battle Creek, MI during a snowstorm on January 9, 2015. He bought it back, but it just sat until Neal could figure out what he wanted to do with it.
Small town locations usually have everyone knowing everyone else, but that wasn’t the case with Neal and his wife Melissa. He was friends with her dad and brother without ever knowing she existed, until her sister-in-law’s birthday. Some get it right the first time, but for some, the 3rd time’s the charm, and he and Melissa married on July 29, 2017, combining the families of her three daughters and his daughter and son.
The same year they married, a frenzy started, as uphill semi drag races were coming to the states. Updates, posts, shares and hype were all over social media that an event called the Great Lakes Big Rig Challenge, as well as a truck show, was going to be held at the Onaway Speedway in Onaway, MI. Personally, I was pretty pumped about this, as well, as I had also been watching YouTube videos of the big races in Quebec and had always wanted to go.
Needless to say, Neal had it on the schedule and he decided it was time to put his wrecked truck back together as a show truck. Melissa was in charge of the interior with the help of Interior Specialists out of Holland, MI while V-Max Transportation out of Zeeland, MI handled the polishing and detailing.
All the exterior and mechanical work was done in-house by Neal, his brother and dad, and a guy in Clarksville, MI repainted the truck to Emperor Pearl Blue. This is the same truck that Neal changed his mind about showing 30 days prior to the Big Rig Challenge, and instead entered it in the C Class of the uphill races – and the same truck you see pictured here today!
The truck, as previously mentioned, is a 1999 Kenworth W900L with a CAT 3406E under the hood, 3.90 rears, and a 252-inch wheelbase. The transmission is a one-off custom 18-speed which might be considered more like a 20-speed. Four transmissions were used to make this one. The truck sports 7-inch stacks, a 13-inch Trux stainless visor, a 20-inch Valley Chrome Bumper, and Hogebuilt full fenders. Inside the cab you’ll find a custom button-tuck interior, along with a sharp hardwood floor.
So, what kind of horsepower does this thing have? It hasn’t been on the dyno in a few years, but she moves. Since 2018, he has gone to the Big Rig Challenge, along with its sister event on Labor Day weekend, the Over the Top Diesel Showdown, each year. This year, another uphill racing event was added in the states called Unc’s Semi Stampede at the Kuhnle Motorsports Park located in Thompson, OH at the end of June earlier this year. As a follow-up to that show, Kuhnle is hosting their second event, “Unc’s Fall Brawl” in October 2023.
This year has been an exciting one, starting out with the Great Lakes Big Rig Challenge, where Neal didn’t place, but he still had a blast anyways! At Unc’s Semi Stampede, he earned a second in bobtail and fourth in the “loaded” class. Something exciting this year for Neal that he got to check off his bucket list was hauling the truck to Notre-Dame-du-Nord in August to participate in the famous Rodeo du Camion in Quebec. He placed first in bobtail on Saturday and third in bobtail on Sunday but didn’t get to participate in the loaded races because his ECM and supply fuel pump went bad.
Next was the Over the Top Diesel Showdown on Labor Day weekend where, for the first time at Onaway Speedway, Neal took a first place in a bobtail class and second in a loaded class with a newly installed transmission to break in. When I asked Neal about the excitement of racing, he said, “It is the coolest thing to do in a truck with your pants on!”
I mentioned before that he entered the C Class races at the inaugural Great Lakes Big Rig Challenge. Some may wonder about the classes and how the trucks are classified as such. A Class is modified trucks with multiple turbos, lots of black smoke pouring from the stacks, fast times, and pushing in excess of 3,000+ horsepower. The B Class is the mid-range, with less horsepower than A (and less smoke), while the C Class is the slowest class (seeing it, we would not call these trucks slow) – and also the most affordable. You won’t see much smoke in the C Class because these rigs are the closest to stock. The loaded classes are the same as above but pull the same weight. The loaded trailers weigh 120,000 pounds, which keeps these tractor/trailer combos around what classifies as a legal Canadian load.
Today, Neal and Melissa are a team on every level, including Melissa being Neal’s shotgun rider in the races and dubbed the “passenger princess” effective this year at the Quebec races (she had never ridden in the passenger seat during a race until Quebec). Their blended family includes Neal’s daughter Shawna (18) and son Nathan (16), as well as Melissa’s daughters Anaya (16), Elianne (13), and Lexi (11). After losing a customer because they bought their own trucks, Neal was offered a job he couldn’t pass up at a trucking company wearing a few different hats including dispatching, sales, and driving (when the need arises) for Great Lakes Heavy Haul. Melissa is a title clerk at Crown Motors in Holland, and she is always Neal’s biggest fan, biggest critic, and his first hug after every race.
A big shoutout to Neal’s sponsors which include Nevius Truck Repair out of Littlestown, PA, Diesel Freak located in Gaylord, MI, Leading Synthetic out of Hamilton, MI, Fine Line Transport & Rigging out of Holland, MI, Jimmy’s Custom Speed Shop from Hamilton, MI, Wolters Honey Farm out of Hamilton, MI, and Valley Truck Parts out of Grand Rapids, MI.
Special thanks from Neal to his beautiful wife Melissa for her constant, unwavering love and support, Jimmy Bantjes of Jimmy’s Custom Speed Shop for stepping up with a sponsorship, the new transmission, and his willingness to help (even in the heat of summer). To his brother Keith for the help and use of his shop, and to all members of his race family for their constant encouragement, support, and advice at events.
If you’ve met Neal, you’ve made a friend. His humble and kind demeanor makes him approachable and easy to talk to. I was lucky enough to meet him in 2018 and remained in contact with him over the years. I’ve had the opportunity to hitch a ride during the races with Wade Lalone a couple of times in Onaway, and I was able to also ride along with Neal last year at the Draggin’ and Pullin’ In The Pines races in Texas. I’ve been to different kinds of races before, but the uphill racers from the US and Canada are by far the nicest, most helpful, and genuine people out there.
Thank you to Neal and Melissa Dams for the continued friendship and your time when I made the drive over from Wisconsin to Michigan to take these pictures. If you ever get the chance to ride along in one of these amazing uphill racing trucks, I encourage you to seize the opportunity, because the pure adrenaline rush is something that can’t be described, and feeling all that power is a memory that will last you a lifetime! As always, to all the drivers out there doing the deal, truck safe.