«MEMORIES OF LA SARTHE»: HEINZ DEHNHARDT AND HIS SPECTACULAR THREE AXLE MERCEDES
Versión en español clicando aquí. // I can’t deny it, most of the pieces in “Memorias de la Sarthe” have a highly biographical component. Today, that personal component is more present than ever. This is because the first time I stepped on a race track to watch a truck race was in the Jarama Circuit, in October 1988, with my father and my brother.
Before the race track of San Sebastian de los Reyes faced rehabilitation works, at the end of the main straight there was a fence from which races could be watched very closely. This fence is still there, but for security reasons it was moved back and it is no longer a premium spot to watch the races from.
Now imagine yourselves, being 12 years old, you watch in astonishment as the huge «Chinese six», the famous 3 axle Mercedes Benz NG2250 driven by Haulier Heinz Dehnhardt, heads towards you at the end of the straight…. and now you will understand what is behind this piece.
In 1983 Dehnhardt was the owner of a Transport company in Meinerzhagen, Germany. That year the 2nd edition of the 24hours of Le Mans truck race is taking place, which had a dedicated piece in here, and as it is narrated in the book: » Truckrace 1992″ edited by the Transpanorama Magazine and written by Leo Nuyers, Dehnhardt visited the Mercedes factory where he learned that Mercedes was developing a racing truck. He had the chance to test-drive the truck in the circuit, and managed to improve the lap times of that years chosen official driver, the frenchman George Groine, that had previously won the Dakar Rally twice in the truck category. After this feat, he decided to try his luck by racing his own Mercedes Benz NG2038 in a 6×2 configuration with a lift axle.
We must make a pause here to explain this technical detail. Up to 1987, competition was divided among three categories: Up to 300 HP, 300 to 360 HP and finally 361 to 450 HP, category in which Heinz was competing. Trucks were set in these categories according to the HP declared in their technical specs card, and not to the HP that could be achieved by fine tuning the engine for competition.
From 1985 to 1987 he raced with a beautiful two axle NG1644, managing a final third place in 1987. He was 55 years old, being one of the few German pilots to compete regularly in the championship. Mike Key, in his book «Truckracing», mentioned that the german had managed to squeeze approximately 1000 CV out of the OM 442 LA engine, a 14.6 liter V8 with a declared power of 435 HP.
In 1988 a new set of rules dividing the categories by engine displacement was introduced. Three categories were created: Class A or 1, with engine displacements up to 11950 cc, Class B or 2, between 11951 cc and 14.200 cc; and Class C or 3, where Dhenhardt would race, with engines up to 18.500 cc.
The Swiss company Naw, that had been created from Saurer, was specialized in the transformation of Mercedes heavy vehicles into custom and special transport trucks. One of them was the amazing Naw 2250, with four drive axles, with a twin turbo V10 18.200 cc engine, that reached 500 HP. Using unique frame as his starting point, Larag, another Swiss company that customized heavy vehicles, prepared the NG2250, nicknamed «Six Chinese», that Dehnhardt used in the 1988 season. The two steering axles gave more grip and turn stability, although on the other hand it also produced more friction and weighed more, somewhere along the lines of the F1 Tyrrel P34 project.
At the closing of the season, he managed to be the best Mercedes, ahead of the Heggman Brothers, Kraznai or Parrish, but above all he took a spot on the collective memory of all fans. Or at least in my tender retinas.
And the 1450 SK made an entrance….
That same company, Larag, would be chosen to prepare the very well known official SK1450 S in 1989 (They would stay in the job until 1998), one of which travelled to the hangars of the Dehnhardt Spedition, in Meinerzhagen. The truck cost 245.000 DM (Deutsche Mark) of the time, almost 21 million Pesetas, in € that’s a very impressive 125.000 €.
Heinz was 58 years old, he was at his peak, and 1989 should have been his year. But unfortunately, a lack of regularity pulled him down to a final 5th place, behind Körber, Kraznai and Allen, although he managed two 3rd places and a 2nd spot in Germany. His greatest feat that year would be a win in the Great Final of Paul Ricard, where he managed to beat Curt Goransson in the last minute. Hegmann dominated the championship from beginning to end, getting 7 victories.
In 1990, sadly, he didn’t have an official truck, so he cometed with a brief program of 3 races in Nurburgring, Zolder and Jarama, always driving his NG2250.
In 1991, using the same chassis of the famous 3 axle, a short SK cabin was installed, along with and official engine. In Paul Ricard that year, (third race), he would drive for the last time the legendary «Chinese Six» in the current configuration, as for the next race he decided to eliminate the second steering axle, its most distinctive feature.
During the 1992 and 1993 seasons, Dehnhardt, obtained some official support and managed to drive the SK1450 S again. He achieved a 6th place in 92 and a 4th in 93, during the 93 season he obtained his last two podium finishes, with two 3rd palaces, because the german announced that he would retire after that season. The race at the Jarama circuit would be his last dance.
In the two legs of the Spanish race, he would manage a 4th and a 5th place, while in the Great Final, he would find himself leading the race after the first laps. His team mates had opened the door for him, and where also trying to secure his position by slowing down a very fast Körber driving a Sisu Sr340, who was not aware that the German pilots were trying to give a very heartfelt homage to Heinz in his farewell. He managed to win what would be his last race. He was 62 years old.
Nevertheless this was not the end of truck racing for him. With the support of Esso, he started a team for the 1995 season, that would help Slim Borgudd to secure his third and last championship; and in 1998 to obtain, with Ludovic Faure driving the Atego in the super truck category, the last title for the Silver Arrows.
During the last years, some drivers, mechanics or just fans, have started to restore and rebuild racing trucks from the 90s. Timo Korhonen has restored the Sisu that Jokkie Kallio drove, that he prepared himself; there are three Phoenix-MAN restored and in driving condition, some of them with their original innards; and one of the Russian Man has been restored to original condition.
In our own country, we could see the Vila family take up the restoration of the Pegs Troner that Cañellas drove, the Volvo White Roadboss from the Kent Commercials team, or the DAF 3300 that had Gregorio Díez as last driver and is for sale if someone wants to restore it.
There is even a movement stirring in Europe to organize its own championship, along the lines of classic racing, and if this were to materialize…, Dehnhardt, please restore your «Six Chinese»!!!
I wrote at the beginning that this article has something special, because my father, with whom I attended that 1988 race, died in May as a result of COVID. For what this little text is worth may it serve as a tribute to the person who put the diesel poison in my veins. May the earth be light upon you.