Pikes Peak – A Race to the Clouds

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By Dale Vinten

Surely anyone with even a remote interest in motorsport (and even those without any such inclination, thinking about it) has heard of Pikes Peak. With everyone from rally legends like Michèle Mouton and IndyCar racer Bobby Unser, to self-proclaimed ‘Hoonigan’ Ken Block having had a pop at the famous Colorado landmark it has been etched into the collective consciousness of motor racing fans for decades. And it was none other than German rally star Walter Röhrl who inspired this article after we featured a link to footage of his 1987 record breaking run in our recent five-cylinder engines write-up.

So What Is It?

In essence, the main function of Pikes Peak, from a motorsport perspective at least, is a hill climb event. A timed run along 12.42 miles of pubic toll road in Colorado Springs, USA, the route rises 1,440 metres from start to finish, through 156 turns, with the chequered flag being waved, rather dramatically it has to be said, at the mountain’s summit.

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An invitational event that is run annually on the last Sunday of June the race is currently open to six divisions: from the no-limits ‘Exhibition’ and ‘Unlimited’ categories, through to bikes and open wheel racers and even a Porsche specific trophy. Competitors race against the clock to try and set the best time possible, overcoming an enduring course that becomes increasingly arduous as the road climbs into the clouds where the air becomes much thinner and both driver and vehicle power is sapped.

A Little History

Named after Lieutenant Zebulon Pike (who let’s face it sounds like the character from an Iain M. Banks sci-fi space opera) Pikes Peak was ‘discovered’ after Pike was commissioned by Thomas Jefferson to explore the great plains of Colorado in 1806. Nearly a hundred years after Pike’s initial encounter with the mountain a rudimentary roadway had been built, traversing the land mark, and in 1915 American entrepreneur Spencer Penrose, seeing the tourist (and therefore financial) potential of the area, developed the road into a more substantial highway.

It was then, in 1916, that the first recorded race took place as a way for Penrose to show off his new venture. A legend was subsequently born and that initial dash to the top was achieved in the fastest time by Rea Lentz in a shade under 21 minutes – a far cry from the sub-eight minute times of today.

Through the Years

The second oldest motorsport race in America after The Indianapolis 500, Pikes Peak has been raced regularly since those first forays in the early 1900s and many a budding champion has attempted to break the ever-diminishing course record. The post-war period saw that record shattered year after year, due in part to technological advancements, but it wasn’t until the early ’80s that the Europeans got involved, with a whole host of rally pros taking to the mountain.

Initially an all-gravel road the highway underwent a series of updates beginning in the early 2000s and the route was paved section-by-section, mainly due to environmental concerns, until 2011 which saw the last race held with dirt sectors still included. The event is now conducted solely on tarmac which has obviously had an impact on record setting times as well as on the actual spectacle of the race itself and the set of skills required to drive it. Managing a four-wheel drift on loose gravel is a whole different kettle of fish to clipping the apex of a grippy, paved corner.

Notable Wins

It wasn’t only Röhrl’s deft mastery of his Audi Quattro S1 E2 that captured the imagination of motor racing fans the world over. Oh no. Other notable runs include French rally connoisseur Sébastien Loeb’s record smashing run in 2013 where he crossed the line in a Peugeot 208 T16 a full minute and a half quicker than the previous record. And then there’s fellow rally driver Ari Vatanen’s filmed attempt in 1988 and the ferocious Finn’s sprint to the summit was indelibly deposited onto celluloid by French film maker Jean Louis Mourey.

 

Entitled ‘Climb Dance’ the short film shows Vatanen expertly pilot his formidable four-wheel drive, 600bhp Peugeot 405 T16 to a record time of 10 minutes and 47 seconds, a car that would go on to win another world famous race – the Paris Dakar Rally – a year later. If you haven’t seen Climb Dance then stop what you’re doing right now and go and watch it.

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It’s a truly breathtaking piece of driving as well as a visually stunning bit of film making. At one point Vatanen is in full drift mode, a sheer drop to the left and with one hand on the wheel as he shields his eyes from the impossibly bright sunlight steaming through the windscreen, all at full chat. Incredible. In fact, go and watch Loeb’s POV run while you’re at it too. It’s equally astonishing but also shows how the course has changed over the years.

 

The current automobile record stands at 7.57.148 set by Romain Dumas in an all electric Volkswagen I.D. R while the motorcycle record is a slightly slower 9.44.963 and is held by Rennie Scaysbrook on an Aprilia Tuono V4 1100, both in 2018.

Pikes Peak Today

While electric vehicles have been raced at Pikes Peak since the 1980s, it wasn’t until the second decade of the twenty first century that they started to become seriously competitive, taking numerous podiums since, including the current record as mentioned above. It comes as no surprise though as electric powered cars are perfectly suited to the twisty nature of the course where instant torque delivery is incredibly advantageous. Not only that but electric motors do not suffer the same degradation of power output and efficiency that internal combustion engines encounter as the route climbs to higher altitudes where the air is less dense.

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Gone are the days of souped-up rally cars kicking up clouds of dust as they scream sideways around the mountain’s many curves to the cacophony of a highly tuned combustion engine, and personally speaking we think that some of the drama has been lost in the process. No longer do we see rear tyres coming within inches of a sheer drop as they scramble for traction on the dirt and gravel as is perfectly demonstrated by Vatanen in Climb Dance. It’s still an amazing spectacle though, don’t get us wrong, but perhaps it has been dumbed down slightly from those heady days of the ’80s and ’90s. But that’s progress for you. The same can arguably be said of Group B rallying but increased safety is always a welcome addition to any form of motorsport and if it means less injury and less tragedy then so be it.

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The good news is that the Pikes Peak Highway remains a public road. That means you and I can drive on it. We’re not going to be setting any course records but we can at least soak up the history and heritage of such an esteemed piece of blacktop whilst taking in the glorious views along the way. It’s definitely on our list of top drives and if you find yourself there on the last Sunday of June well then that would be quite the silver lining.

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