In the beautiful Rocky Mountains, where cliffs higher than Lindsay Lohan tower over tight corners and hippies come to hug trees, there's something very special that happens in July every year-the pinnacle of racing madness.
Motorsport can be a bit of a crazy pastime at the best of times, especially when drivers get to the sharp end-six second passes, high-end drifting and let's not forget the borderline insane top fuel guys.
But one of America's longest motorsport spectaculars is the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb in Colorado Springs, which is by far the most hardcore. An impressive 85 years running, it's become a world-renowned icon, attracting some of the best dirt drivers that want to fire themselves to the thinner part of the atmosphere where horsepower is starved and, as a result, handling realistically needs to be a known quantity. And when there's 12.4 miles of road split between cliffs, tarmac, dirt, and a 156-turn course, it takes a special blend of grunt, fearlessness and experience.
There were some big names in the field in 2007-including Mike Ryan in his massive Freightliner truck, doing what only the incredibly brave would in a big rig. Motocross personality Mickey Diamond did his best on a BMW bike, but failed to take out the hard-fought class that runs side by side up the Peak, broadsliding all the way. Perhaps the most spectacular off in the event was drift icon Ken Gushi in his Open Class Subaru WRX STi, spearing off into the trees at very high speeds on the infamous Engineers Corner.
There was, however, a genuine hillclimb hero on the mountain, as he is most years. Japan's Nobuhiro 'Monster' Tajima delivers a power-hungry cocktail annually, and with real force. This year his lightweight Suzuki Sport XL7 Hillclimb Special was toting a twin turbo 3.6 liter V6 with variable valve timing (VVT) producing a huge 1007ps and 102kg-m of torque. It also uses its massive rear wing, deep front splitter to increase the downforce to cope with the uber smooth new asphalt sections plus a top secret hydraulically controlled AWD system to help with the tricky transitions back to the loose dirt sections. Monster was chasing a goal set by dirt racing legend Rod Millen in his 1,000-horsepower Toyota Celica-it's held firm for a massive 13 years, since 1994-and this year Tajima knew he had the package to break the record.
With the severely potent, purpose-built XL7 he pushed hard from the 9,420 ft. start line to the 14,110 ft. checkered flag in an awesome 10:01:408, just shy of the all-important 10-minute barrier, but taking out Millen's 10:04.06 outright record in the process. "It just means I have to come back next year to break 10 minutes," he joked with us after the race; his massive smile is very hard to miss.
But the 57-year-old Suzuki Sport boss said that the dirt sections of the road were difficult this year after rain a couple of days before the event. "To finish, yes, of course I'm happy. One more second and I have my goal," he says. "My thinking is that I can run nine minutes and 59 seconds here. I'm honest-with the conditions here today, it's a very slippery run but more traction was needed for under 10 minutes."
Drifter Rhys Millen was also pushing very hard in his Pontiac Solstice GXP drift car. "We thought that with my 14 years experience running up the mountain, the new drift car, the Solstice, had the perfect package for the new Time Attack class," he says. "It's got the power and the torque." Very keen to post a time that would set a solid record for the new class, Millen in the 550hp 2.4 liter, ECOTEC-engined, Pontiac, Millen took out his class to notch up his seventh win at Pikes Peak.
With just 1:55.189 to the checkpoint at the picnic ground, he was the one and only car in the class to break the two-minute mark. "The checkpoint is right as you go through Picnic Ground straightaway, right as the pavement finishes and it turns to dirt. At that point I was just like, 'This thing is flying, this is going to be an incredible time.'" But on the same slippery dirt that hampered Monster, that was not to be, and Rhys had to be content with a time well under his expectations. Another blow was watching the outright record finally fall. "Dad's record stood for 13 years," explains the New Zealand-born race driver Millen, Jr. "It was set on an all-dirt road, and this road is now 50- to 60-percent paved. It really puts me in a mindset that I want to come back and put that record back in the Millen name." Millen may have plans to build a faster, more competitive car for 2008, which should be better suited to the increasing asphalt sections that are slowly but surely advancing year by year towards the top of the mountain.
The Sierra Club has a mandate that will see the road 100-percent paved by 2010. This new Time Attack class will surely attract a large number of vehicles developed for road and track work with the challenge of the legendary Pikes Peak course beaconing. But for now, plans are being laid for another great battle between the clock, the mountain, Monster and Mr. Millen, not discounting a number of other parties eyeing up that elusive 10 minute barrier; 2008 is sure shaping to be a stunning competition. The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is as challenging today as it was the first time, back in 1916, and remains one of the most spectacular places on Earth to view incredibly fast racecars, bikes and ATVs sliding their way up a mountain.
Pikes Peak Highway: A Long and Winding Road
Way back in 1873, a primitive road opened on Pikes Peak. Horses dragged the passengers up the first half of the mountain, then altitude-hardy mules took care of the rest. It wasn't until the automobile became more common that local entrepreneur Spencer Penrose, owner of the luxurious Broadmoor Hotel, widened and improved it as a tourism scheme to attract more people to the region and eventually held the first hill climb race in 1916.
When the evil powers that be of international rallying banned the no holds barred Group B formula in 1986 after a number of driver deaths, manufacturers like Audi and Peugeot had the perfect excuse to make a series of trips to Pikes Peak.
There was nowhere else to race these fire-breathing machines, and not driving them was probably a sin. This is perhaps the reason that the event has gained infamy across Europe. Climb Dance, an incredible video of Ari Vatanen's Peugeot 405 T16 setting a record in 1998, was so widely watched around the world that Pikes Peak instantly found legendary status. Watch it at www.ifilm.com/video/2674471.
The first robot version of Pikes Peak will run later this year. Modeled after the real thing, it is basically a race for full-sized radio-controlled cars. A video of the course can be found at www.driverlessmotorsports.com/pprhc.
Bust A Move
The well-known slogan Pikes Peak or Bust, painted across many of the prairie schooners, is a reference to Colorado's Gold Rush. While there was a lot of rushing done, there wasn't a great deal of gold. Other local areas like Cripple Creek, strangely, were packed with the stuff.
Get On Up
More than 400,000 people go up Pikes Peak's 14,110 ft. annually. Pikes Peak is the second most visited mountain in the world after Mt Fuji.
Not The Remix
Katherine Lee Bates wrote "America the Beautiful" after being inspired by the view from Pikes Peak.
Old Skool Climber
In 1916 Floyd Clymer set an overall record at Pikes Peak on an Excelsior motorcycle of 21 minutes, 58 seconds. This year, Eddie Mulder set a new vintage bike class record of 13:23:250 on a 1969 Triumph Bonneville.
Pikes Peak is the second oldest motorsport event in America, behind the Indianapolis 500 that started in a brickyard in 1911.
Susan Apgar and Bob Gillis-Pikes Peak International Hillclimb-Nobuhiro Monster Tajima-Suzuki Sport, Rhys Millen and Eric Cantore-Rhys Millen Racing and Mike Ryan-Mike Ryan Motorsports.