Racing To The Clouds: The Pikes Peak Hill Climb

Romain Dumas crosses the finish line at the top of Pikes Peak in 2014. [Photo by: Romain Dumas Rallye Team]

Turk’s Tracks: A Few Loose Lug Nuts from Pit Row

By Gene Turk

During the beginning of the 20th Century, the American public was becoming fascinated with that new crazy invention called the automobile. There was time when a new automobile company would start up every month. Each manufacturer would fight for every sale by trying to prove that their car was better than everyone else’s. To prove their point, cross country races were planned between towns and major cities. Needless to say, the term “crowd control” was not in use as people would line the roads as the cars speed by. But racing was about to experience a major change as the nation began the second decade of this new century.

In 1915, gold baron and entrepreneur Spencer Penrose turned his attention to Pikes Peak and widened the original primitive road and converted the road into the Pikes Peak highway for the small fortune sum of $500,000. Upon completion of the road, Spencer created an automobile race to the 14,000-foot summit. The first race took place from August 10-12th in 1916. The race was a huge success with newspapers from all around the world covering the race. Rae Lentz won the first race in a custom-built car in a time of 20 minutes,55 seconds. I can only imagine how the early engines were wheezing for oxygen at those lofty heights. I bet more than one heavy smoking driver was also wondering where all the oxygen had gone. Another important fact was the large number of motorcycles that competed in the first race. 29 motorcycles were entered, with over 60% of them being the Excelsior make. This was just the start to the popularity of motorcycles, and sidecars, in the hill climb.

Because of World War I, the race was not run from 1917 to 1919. In 1920, the race picked up where it left off. 1926 was an important year when the famed Unser family began racing with Robby Unser, who was the father to Bobby, Al and Jerry. Another major event happened in 1929 when stock cars were allowed to race. Prior to this time, only open wheeled cars were allowed to run. For whatever reason stock cars were dropped in 1935, only to be allowed back in 1956. Ironically, this division was very popular in the 60’s with USAC and NASCAR drivers competing. Famous drivers like David Pearson, Paul Goldsmith, Parnelli Jones, Wally Dallenbach, Roger Mears just to name a few that ran the hill climb.

For many years, the car of choice to win the race was the Sprint car. Here you had a front engine, rear wheel drive car with the driver in an upright, erect driving position. But like the Indy 500, change was coming in the late 60’s to the rear engine car with the driver in the reclined, laid back position. NASA calls that the “launch position”.

During the 50s and 60s one name stood out as the “King of the Hill’. That name is Bobby Unser. During his reign, Bobby amassed 13 Pike Peaks victories. Actually, the Unser family was so dominant during this period that some people thought of renaming the mountain “Unser Mountain.” This was also a time when more divisions were added and by 1981 the Rally division was added.

Early into the 21st Century, the race course underwent a major change. The dirt and gravel was now being replaced with asphalt. In 2007,46% of the track was paved. By 2011, it was up to 76%. And finally, in 2012, it was completely paved. Now this paving did allow for faster times, but it also made the track more dangerous. During my research, I found that 5 people had been killed at the event since 1916, but many, many more had been injured. There is no crowd control as such. People are still allowed to stand or sit anywhere and everywhere along the track. Most recently, a little 5-year-old girl was badly injured when the rock she was standing on was hit by a racing Mustang. Here are some excerpts of what a day at the race was like and the danger involved along what a driver observed: eight red flags, three flight for life helicopter trips, five ambulance trips, over a dozen drivers’ visits to the hospital and at least one injured spectator. The main reason for this increase in accidents is the reduction in practice time due to the large number in entries. Normally, the drivers would be allowed five to seven practice runs per day for a total of 15 to 21 before the timed race. Now it was reduced to only two passes every morning.

So what makes this hill climb so popular that drivers come from all over the world to compete? First off, it may be the only race where you can “run what ya brung.” There are so many divisions that there is something for everyone. In theory, you can design a race car at your kitchen table, build it in your garage, head out to Colorado and race up the hill with no previous racing experience.

The Pikes Peak Hill Climb is the second oldest race in America and has a long-standing tradition in Colorado Springs and the Pikes Peak region. The race starts at 9,390 feet and ends at 14,110 feet. The course is 12.42 miles long and has 156 turns. What you can expect on any day or even during the race is brutal winds, snow, rain, ice, hail, fog and lightning. The race is now changing rapidly and it’s future never looked brighter. The number of racers is growing and a global interest is mounting fast.

The 2018 race was a major milestone. A new race record was established at 7.57 minutes with a specially built car by Volkswagon. The car was electric powered and weighed 2,400 pounds. To move this up the mountain was 671 horsepower with a huge amount of torque. It looks like the writing is on the wall and after 101 years of internal combustion dominance there just might be a new way to beat the mountain.

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