Within a split second, a deafening engine roar followed by the crackling of wood and a sudden gust of wind whizzed past my body. When I come to I unexpectedly find myself lying on the floor with a sharp ringing sound in my ear followed by the screams of random people running through the forest. My heart beats feverously as I dust myself off and think to myself "What just happened?" It was only then that I played back my actions a few seconds prior. I had managed to shutter three images in rapid succession before realizing that something was wrong with the vehicle heading toward me. Without second-guessing the situation, I quickly spun around and dove headfirst down the embankment. Paul Dallenbach, multiple champion at Pikes Peak, lost control of his 1,400hp Banks Sidewinder twin-turbo machine as the throttle stuck wide open in Fifth gear, sending his car skidding off the road and careening through the tree line at more than 130 mph. When he came to at the hospital, the first thing he asked his crewmember was "Did I hit that guy?" Thankfully, the answer was "no", because that lucky guy happened to be me.
The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is the second oldest motorsports race in America and a long-standing tradition in Colorado Springs and the Pikes Peak region. The race is run on a 12.42-mile (and now fully paved) course with 156 turns that begin at 9,390 feet and finish at the 14,110-foot summit of America's Mountain. Located 15 minutes west of Colorado Springs, the first recorded hill climb was documented in 1901 when two Denver men challenged the mountain in a two-cylinder Locomobile Steamer. The climb took just over nine hours but more importantly, drew recognition to an event that pushed man versus Mother Nature to its limits.
Through the years the road was widened and some sections paved. It is now fully paved after work was completed in 2011, and the most recent event was the first on all asphalt for the competitors. The now dirt-less road allowed drivers and teams to outfit their cars with race compound tires for maximum traction, which proved beneficial early into the event but turned deadly as the day progressed; rain, snow, and hail coated the roads leading to the summit. Numerous crashes and red flag stoppages led to a total of 16 DNFs and several hour delays, the longest running Pikes Peak event in history. At approximately 6:15 p.m. the final 15 competitors were forced to race a shortened course in near darkness due to severe weather conditions and time constraints.
America's most famous mountain celebrated its 90th event as Japan's Nobuhiro "Monster" Tajima prepared to attack the mountain once again in the Unlimited division, defending a title he managed to keep for six consecutive years. In 2011, Tajima broke the elusive 10-minute barrier for the first time with a time of 9:51.278 The reigning hill climb champion successfully completed three days of practice in his new all-electric E-Runner Pikes Peak Special race car without issues and managed to qualify First in the Electric class. It looked as if the overall win was once again within his grasp when a mile into competition, the electric motor began to overheat and catch on fire. The billowing smoke inside the cockpit was so severe that it forced him to quickly pull off to the side of the road and finish with a DNF.
Paul Dallenbach's crash was traumatic for many-including me-but the worst crash of the day put the entire event on lockdown. Hill Climb rookie Jeremy Foley's 500hp Mitsubishi Evolution VIII went wide coming off of Devil's Playground, a turn that has needlessly taken many lives over the years. The Evo barrel rolled off a 100-foot slope into a rock field as parts came flying off the car. How violent was the crash, you ask? Enough to cause the engine to separate itself from the car and even cause the passenger seat to rip away from an 1/8-inch steel plate that was welded to the car's floor. Rescue crews airlifted both driver and codriver; we found out later that day that both had survived.
Among the day's tragedy, there was also triumph within many teams. Scion Racing successfully campaigned two cars up the mountain. The Greddy/Scion Racing tC piloted by Takeshi Aizawa (Greddy R&D technician and Ken Gushi's Formula D spotter/mechanic) experienced his first Pikes Peak. Aizawa confessed to having some nervous jitters prior to his run but maintained his composure and ran a respectable time of 12:08.60. The Scion Racing xD is a formidable foe in the Rally America 2WD class as they entered Pikes Peak, freshly coming off a Third Place finish in the New England Forest Rally. The xD was quickly transformed from gravel car to tarmac spec by removing all the rally equipment, skidplate, and underbody guards, swapping the suspension from TEIN HG to custom TEIN two-way tarmac coilovers, and sizing the wheels up from 15x6 TE37 gravel wheels to tarmac-spec 18-inch TE37 wheels with BFG A10 asphalt tires. Andrew Comrie-Picard "ACP", current xD rally driver, was playing dual role as he was at the helms at Pikes. This was ACP's second stint up the mountain. The first time, in another car, was a forgettable moment for him as he ran off the cliff at Engineer's Corner. This corner also had sentimental value to other drivers, including the Love Fab NSX at this event and Ken Gushi, who also crashed at the same spot in his dad's Subaru GC8 a few events back. This time around, both ACP and Gushi successfully completed the climb with ACP clocking in at 12:06.160. Gushi in the slick-looking Lexus CCS-R challenged the mountain in 11:36.175 without issues.
Rhys Millen, whose father, Rod Millen, held the mountain's speed record from 1994 through 1997, took top honors as he challenged the climb with a time of 9:46.16 seconds. The newly established record was an amazing feat considering his '13 Hyundai Genesis coupe was put together with no major sponsors and powered by the same engine used to compete in the Formula D drift series. The victory was taken by the slightest of margins with rookie Romain Dumas driving a Porsche 911 GT3 R relegated to the second quickest time by the a margin of 17/1000ths of a second.
Drivers will say it's the adrenaline rush they get every time they test fate, while others want to be a part of hill climb history. Regardless of reasons, we respect and commend the men and women who challenge Pikes Peak and do so knowing one wrong turn can spell life-altering disaster.