Fast Times at Notre Dame du Nord
A spur-of-the-moment race between local trucks has evolved into a must-see yearly event
Story and photos by Andy Turnbull
Sitting on his porch, Gerry Dussault hears the staccato roar of over-tuned diesel engines in the distance. Behind him the quiet village of Notre Dame du Nord in Quebec, Canada, home to about 1,200 people, is host to nearly 60,000 visitors. Concrete barriers cut off some streets. Nearly every lawn and parking lot is crammed with tents, trailers and motor homes, and the village is crowded with singles, couples and families.
A couple of blocks away, the bathrooms, shower rooms and cafeteria of the local high school are open to visitors, and the parking lots and playing fields are full of trucks. Behind the school, the ground in front of the local arena is filled with a bandstand, some midway attractions and a flea market, and behind the arena another playing field is filled with trucks.
“Sometimes I find it hard to believe,” Dussault says. “I never dreamed of anything like this.”
This is the Rodeo du Camion, Canada’s biggest — and certainly most interesting — truck show. Dussault started it all more than 30 years ago with an impromptu drag race of loaded logging trucks up a hill near the middle of the village. He won that race, and others began to challenge him.
When rigs race
Local police were less than enthusiastic, but in those days Dussault’s company ran 35 heavy trucks, hauling logs out of the bush and lumber to customers in the States. In a village of 1,200 people, that made him a hard man to argue with. Soon afterward, when the village needed a new arena Dussault bought a new Peterbilt tractor, printed up 2,000 raffle tickets, and sold them to truckers for $100 each. That raised more than $100,000 toward the arena, and the village council began to take a friendlier view of the annual drag races.
The Rodeo is now organized by a council of 15 local volunteers backed up by about 600 volunteer workers and a couple of hundred local and provincial police and paid security guards. The main event is still working trucks with over-loaded B trains drag-racing up the hill, but they also have bobtail races between working trucks, and a few super-trucks that are built for racing.
There are cash prizes for the drag races, but even the top prizes of $2,000 would barely cover the average competitor’s expenses. Some truckers travel hundreds or thousands of miles to enter, and when you’re drag racing with a gross weight of more than 140,000 pounds, a minor mistake may do thousands of dollars’ worth of damage to a truck.
“Some guys will do anything to win,” Dussault says, “but I will back off rather than damage my truck.”
That’s true enough today. But in 1985 he buffed the cams on his fuel injectors a bit too much. Dussault figured the buffed cams would let him rev up to about 2,600 rpm, but they slid off. He got almost 5,000 before his engine exploded.
The fixers are in
Standard race damage is three or four broken driveshafts per year, a couple of clutches destroyed and several damaged, and maybe a turbocharger or two gets blown. Competitors often carry spare parts, and the grounds are crawling with mechanics.
Some of the mechanics charge for their services but many work free. Phil Ratte, service manager for the Kenworth dealer in Timmins, about 150 miles away, says, “I come to see my customers, and I used to spend all my time in the pits, helping them. Then my wife put her foot down. ‘This is a vacation,’ she says, and I’m not allowed to work on trucks here.”
Logging contractor Andre Gagnon, his brother, his two sons and a mechanic brought five trucks and a trailer load of parts to the show, about a six-hour drive from his home base in Maniwaki, Quebec. They need them. His younger son, Sebastien, lost a driveshaft this year and the elder, Nicholas, flipped his truck coming off the line two years ago. Both trucks are highly modified and, in competition mode, Nicholas usually lifts his left front tire off the ground when he starts and when he shifts gears.
The boys sometimes haul loads with their trucks, but Andre’s pride and joy is strictly a toy. Originally a 1997 Peterbilt, it ran more than a million miles before it was retired to become a show truck. Now, with stunning orange and black paint, lots of chrome and a little more than three inches road clearance it won best truck, best interior and people’s choice in the show and shine.
Dussault, a regular winner in the drag races was also a director of the Rodeo until he moved to Montreal in the early ’90s. He now hauls logs out of Edson, Alberta, but has a house in Notre Dame du Nord and comes back for the Rodeo du Camion. The ‘81 Mack that won the first race still has an honored place in his garage. “I never expected anything like this,” he says again, “but I like it.”