In the months leading up to the 95th running of the Pike’s Peak International Hill Climb, I saw a split vote in awareness. When people asked why I was going to Colorado and the event came up there was a 50/50 chance they were going to know what I was talking about. Hill Climb Racing isn’t as mainstream as NASCAR or Formula 1; mention those and even if the person doesn’t know he can still create an image in his head. Pike’s Peak International Hill Climb, on its own without any clarification, can sound like an event involving mountain biking or the X-Games. It doesn’t give the impression of 1000 horsepower V8’s charging up a mountain.
Those that did know reacted with a subtle, suppressed, childlike excitement on their face. A poker player’s tell that Pike’s Peak was something of great significance in the right circle of people. And with good reason, as the hill climb is the second oldest motoring event in America, dating back to 1916.
Respect the Mountain
In basic English, this event is King of the Mountain on wheels, a race to the top of Pike’s Peak. The winner is the one who can get there the quickest. That – of course – is easier said than done. Because this race track is 12.42 miles long with 156 turns, and not a pair among them. Plus, the fact that the start line is already 9,390ft up a mountain and finishes at the summit of 14,115 feet. Imagine Germany’s Nurburgring race track that’s been pulled into a line rather than a circle, and then draped over the face of a mountain. Pike’s Peak, in the terms of hill climbing, is the Nurburgring in the sky.
During the race, both men and machines will be punching through their own limitations as the air thins and the stakes get higher. Thin air affects the drivers’ performance by slowing their reflexes and draining their strength. An engine can lose 30% of its power during the climb to the top. The road itself offers little in the way of protection. Sliding off the track literately means driving off a cliff or into a forest at PPIHC. All this makes for a one-of-a-kind racing spectacle that creates an addiction, a yearning, to come back. A common factor in motoring events that puts a driver against Mother Nature and Father Time, Pike’s Peak offers both in one epic challenge.
Before I could get my “go anywhere I want” media credentials it was mandatory that I attend a safety meeting. They kept the meeting short and simple. Don’t stand outside the turns, because it’s dangerous and potentially fatal. Electric bikes and vehicles will be running sirens to announce themselves to people and wildlife. Be safe and practice common sense or risk certain death by becoming a race car’s new hood ornament before it summersaults down a mountain, while people watching a live stream in their office cubicles watch in horror. But have fun!
A Surreal Place
Both times I visited the mountain it was before dawn, which means I spent an hour driving through pitch dark, seeing only what the headlights can illuminate. You trust the lines of the road with your life because darkness can make you paranoid into believing that the edge of the planet is right next to you but you can’t see it. Ears start to pop while you drive until you reach the summit just as the sun greets this side of the world. Sunrise allows you to see where the dark road has taken you, to a place that literally takes your breath away as you park among the clouds, feeling like Zeus.
While attending a practice session at Devil’s Playground, 13,000ft up, I was feeling light-headed and sat inside my car to sleep it off with a power nap. When I awoke I was greeted by white. The clouds had washed over the camp zone like Stephen King’s Mist. Waking up to white all around and not being able to see anything can be momentarily terrifying. The phrase “Did I die?” pops into your head as a first reaction. After a few seconds, you remember where you are and everything is fine, but it’s definitely a split second of panic.
On race day, I was at the summit. The media room smelled like a truck stop bathroom with poor management. I overheard it was something dealing with the septic tank. Thankfully the thin air and cold temperatures tuned out the smell within minutes. I quickly realize how new I looked compared to the other media members; they were sporting thousands of dollars of cameras around their necks with lenses longer than my forearm. As for me, all I had was a notepad, a borrowed hat, leather jacket, my smartphone and a bandana for a scarf.
The current record is 08:13.878, set in 2013 by Sebastien Loeb; a mind-blowing lap that reminded unbeaten this year. The fastest time this year was 9 minutes 5 seconds by Romain Dumas. All motorcycles riders finished the race without any serious accidents or wrecks. Of course in the event of an accident, the doctor was on standby… on a Ducati. This is a medical professional with sports car and motorcycle racing experience under his white coat. Badass!
My two favorite vehicles that completed their runs included the 1969 “Big Red” Camaro which did the run in 11 minutes 08 seconds. The other was the 2016 Faraday Future FF91, a car that made big waves when it was revealed last year at auto shows. The FF91 did it in 11 minutes 25 seconds.
The last five cars at the event had their race cut short when a hailstorm at the summit created another white out and made people run to safety. Hail stones, no matter how little, are very solid when you’re 14,000 feet up. It feels like getting hit with low-pressure BB gun pellets.
What Makes the Pike’s Peak Hill Climb So Special?
It’s the thrill. The challenge. The fun. Those are the only reasons people decide to spend the money, come from around the world and risk their lives riding or driving fast up a mountain. Drivers and riders from all branches of motorsport come to race the mountain. Stock car drivers, rally racers, GP riders, professional drifters, and others come to test their skill on a challenging circuit you can’t duplicate anywhere. It’s but one more example of how car culture encourages diversity through a shared common trait.
The lack of big money is another charming quality that makes the event exclusive. The track is a closed public road that reopens the moment the race is over. Everyone who competes isn’t doing it for the money because there is none. The reward is completing the race, going all the way. It gives the race a “Dead Man’s Curve” vibe to it. People gathering to see these modern-day gladiators risk their lives driving on an infamous road – for fun. I love it.
It’s simple, pure, classic, and traditional. It is gearheads coming together to see who can get their machine up a mountain against the clock. Every driver and rider has trouble describing what it feels like to make this run. One driver said, “You can’t appreciate the sensation of 100mph at 14,000ft.” I encourage everyone to read the history of Pike’s Peak and visit this national park. Being at the summit overlooking the clouds and seeing the Colorado landscape I had just one thought:
“My God, this planet is beautiful.”
Followed by “I gotta’ remember to pack gloves.”