When Australian motorsport stalwart Tony Quinn, a man not unaccustomed to driving fast, confesses to being terrified of a race, thereís a moment where you think heís pulling your leg. But look into his eyes and watch his knee bounce up and down as his crew tinker in the background and you feel his trepidation.
Standing on the start line gazing up at the summit, it becomes clearer. Pikes Peak is like the Nurburgring for its hellish layout and nauseating 20km length, only here itís draped over a 14,000-foot mountain. Sheer cliff faces await drivers who make mistakes or take liberties on its 156 turns. The difficulty increases in magnitude the higher you go and the tarmac temperature lowers a few degrees meaning less grip on a surface faster than ever before.
The corners come at you with increasing frequency, the margin for error ratchets down the higher you go, reaching literally zero as you near ĎDevilís Playgroundí where Grim likes a front-row seat to the action. Even with a tarmac surface today, itís a false sense of security because there is no concrete wall or guard rail offering salvation.
The air thins as you climb higher, sucking power from your internal combustion engine. Even the most sophisticated machinery canít bypass Mother Nature. Engines often run rich and billow smoke down the bottom of the mountain at 9390ft in order to maximise gains on the final 4000 feet of elevation. By the time youíre nearing the summit you will be down 30% on power, which spurs drivers to pedal harder still, to look for those marginal gains, further increasing the chances of mistakes.
The human body suffers too. Drivers will have been concentrating hard for around seven minutes with no section the same as the last, their muscles fatiguing as their lungs struggle to breathe, their adrenal glands dumping like a big Walbro. Drivers use O2 respirators to stop them losing consciousness as they pant and sweat inside the cockpit. Those not in a sealed cockpit sometimes have to endure sub-zero temperatures, further sapping
strength. A hundred years ago they coined the phrase ĎPikes Peak or Bustí; a sentiment that still rings true.
Although Pikes does attract the mega-budget factory teams, thereís still an authentically grass rootsy feel to it. This deathly hillclimb is still built on the enthusiasts scraping together the bucks for an entry, with home-built contraptions and the sense of mateship and enthusiasm that underpins all the best motorsports events. Wandering through the paddock, youíll spot gritty-eyed faces squinting at the sky, awaiting the start (and finish) of their Pikes Peak campaign. Blokes can be heard cackling in the distance and Honda four-stroke generators burble behind the long queues for ice-cream.
Thereís a wide array of motors in this public-access paddock (thatís right, no power-tripping Ďsecurityí demanding to see which colour-coded laminate youíre wearing on a lanyard. You just walk on in). Porsche 911s are countered by all-wheel-drive Mitsubishi Evos and Subaru WRXs. Theyíre met with home-made open-wheelers, and muscle cars like Camaros, Vipers and Mustangs. For the most part, nobody seems too bothered about breaking records in leaf-sprung, rear-drive steel-bodied American classics Ė itís more about having fun. A growing part of the race is the hypercompetitive electric division where big-budget engineering brilliance meets DIY. You donít hear them coming until theyíve passed you at astonishing speed. Some teams use tyre-warmers now thanks to the full re-surfacing.
Others canít afford to. Some are just here for a good time, some cold beers and burgers the size of manhole covers.
Everybody has a different idea on how to solve individual issues at such a unique place.
Thereís no right answer to Pikes Peak, just wildly different interpretations of the best way to get from A to B. Some wouldnít be seen dead in anything Japanese, while others scoff at the inadequacy of simpler, less refined machines. Itís the beauty of no-rules motor racing.
Tony Quinnís wearing the
look of a man who belatedly realises just what a serious echelon his horsepower count has put him into. Heís still enjoying himself, but thereís something niggling at him as he introduces his crew and points to things on his not-really-a-Ford-Focus.
ďI think itís a twin-turbo V6 Nissan engine under there but thatís about it,Ē his Scottish accent describes with a few misplaced y-sounds that trend from his Australian-New Zealand adopted homes.
ďItís putting out about 650 horsepower and Iím not sure what the torque is but itís a frighteningly fast car, geared for 230km/h in sixth,Ē he says.
Not short on grunt, he turns his thoughts to what the mountain has in store.
ďThe height is the biggest problem for me. I have to tell myself to just do it. Deep inside, Iím glad I only get one run today because itís petrifying.Ē Not something you expect from a bloke whoís done Targa.
ďFor someone who has a fear of heights itís stupid, absolutely ridiculous. When you arrive here in the plane it feels like theyíre
ďI LIVE in Monument, Colorado, and weíre running our 1971 Plymouth Cuda. It came black from the factory and we kept it that colour. Its only advantage is there arenít many black Cudas at Pikes Peak! Itís definitely a crowd pleaser.
Unfortunately itís really heavy. So it eats brakes and tyres and chews fuel like crazy, and itís expensive to run. Many years ago, the car used to handle like evil and so we focused on spring rates. Weíve tuned it for around 12000ft; starting lean at the bottom, on song in the middle and a bit rich at the top.
You always have butterflies here.
Thereís always a bit of fear. When you hear thereís an incident and you have to wait longer you get hot and anxiety increases. But that green light goes and it all disappears. You donít see spectators, you donít see anything but whatís in front of you.
When it was dirt, it was awfully scary, and slick, and weíd pray for rain overnight to dampen it down.
The dirt was quite hard so theyíd put calcium carbonate in it to stop it washing off the mountain. But it would have little balls of rock in it, like marbles.
Some critics say itís lost its character since being sealed but the speeds now are so much faster.
Way faster than before. You can easily die here. Jay Leno once asked Mario Andretti what the scariest race was heíd ever done. ĎPikeís Peak,í he said.
Iím in conservation mode here; Iíll always lift off a little, because I wanna make it to the top.Ē
ďWEíRE AT Pikes Peak for the first time and itís an awesome place, but Iím really scared of heights. Weíve qualified eighth during the week and the carís great. Itís really just a Nissan-engined, turbo monster of a thing. Itís bloody fast. Itís only a Ford Focus shape because the body builder picked it. Iím not a technical kinda guy but itís a brute of a thing.
Anything more than the lowest turbo boost itís on now is just too vicious. I know itís got gold foil in the air filter, I know that much.
I wonít be competitive because the guys who do well have been doing it for 20 years. I just read the road as best I can, but itís such a monster Ė the lights are constantly flashing! Youíre in fifth and sixth gear before you know it. I donít wanna do anything more than that (230km/h) because the faster you go, the further you fly and I sure as hell donít wanna go off that edge! It took me three years to do The Remarkables ski road in Queenstown [NZ].
To be honest, if Pikes Peak isnít on your bucket list, youíre just filling in time. Itís like Spa or Bathurst. There are only 100 or so guys here, and for a chocolate maker from Sydney, itís special to be here for the 100th anniversary.Ē
crash landing the plane in the mountains, thatís how high it is. I got here and have three days! Itís ballsy and stupid but Iíve gotta do it.Ē
Itís an unsettling thing to hear. This isnít some go-kart track on XBOX with a reset button. Standing at the start line watching cars take off in clouds of smoky wheelspin, thereís a feeling like these daredevils are walking the plank. The only thing between them and the bottom of the hill is a roll cage and pine trees.
The rent-a-fence that feebly stands between spectators and the cars stops after a few turns beyond the start line.
You watch them tear up the hill with something close to a prayer, or at least fingers crossed they make it to the top in one piece, mostly.
The paradox here is the road itself. Gravel since before the raceís inception in 1915 when Spencer Penrose was given half a mil to promote the area for tourism Ė which he did by introducing motorsport Ė the highwayís decade-long process of sealing was complete in 2013. The achievement of Sebastian Loebís monumental record-smashing lap of 08:13.878 that year in the Peugeot 208 T16 is put into chilling perspective by the fact one racer has died each year since the Frenchman eclipsed the timing sheets. This yearís best time was claimed by Romain Dumas in his Norma M20 open wheeler, some 38s slower than Loebís mark.
The most diehard spectators and officials will pitch themselves at key vantage points, but to do so means youíre in for the long haul.
Once racing begins just as the sunrise touches the tarmac, it doesnít stop until the last car reaches the summit at whatever time of the afternoon or evening. Devilís Playground is the most infamous and the last spectator point. Then four miles after, thereís a split second of enjoyment as fans wave and punters take snaps three inches from the apex drivers are trying to hit. Itís just driver, car and mountain.
And fans with no sense of self preservation.
Pikes Peak hillclimb is an oddity in our safety-conscious world. Itís breathtakingly beautiful to visit and fatal to those who donít respect its idiosyncrasies. There are no swarms of marshals with brooms, no safety cars, not even a hospital close by. Quinn continues to mingle with friends as the car and his crew queue in the searing Colorado sun. I watch him clamber into the car and glove up. But the chirpy Scot was clearly not comfortable.
Whichever you are, racer or fan, Pikes Peak International Hillclimb for all its danger, is on every petrolheadís bucket list. For rookies itís about staying alive and getting to the top. For the seasoned, itís a fight with the clock, pushing as hard as you dare.
Remembering of course, that the clerk of course always has the last word.
FOR PIKES Peak itself, I feel the NSX has a lot of potential.
The hybrid systems and twin-turbo engine brings benefits at altitude that other cars donít have. I could confidently push the car and still feel in full control.
I hope our time of 10 minutes 28.820 raises awareness of the benefits of a hybrid system. On track, thereís a real opportunity for NSX once an appropriate race series allows hybrid systems to be used. Even now with the GT3 version weíre seeing NSX on the race track raising that awareness.
ďIíM FROM Houston Texas and we built this 1984 Honda CRX over the last two months and itís got a B16 VTEC engine with a GT37R turbo, makes about 400 horsepower. To the front wheels.
Itís been an adventure. Practiced last week with a 600hp motor and broke a rod bolt. We came trying to break the FWD record, now weíre planning to just set a PB. Itís a monster, almost uncontrollable. This thing has a tonne of torque steer, even with 10 and a 1/2-inch slicks on the front. You give it a bootful and it jerks the wheel, then the turbo kicks in a few RPM later and it jerks it again.
Thereís no power steering, the car just goes where it wants to go. I just fight to keep it straight.
I spend a lot of time at high altitude, so Iím ok with that part. I just have to see what the mountain gives me.Ē
ďITíS DEFINITELY not the Falcon youíre used to back in Australia. Itís got a 500hp 363 cubic-inch Boss motor in it which makes it great for blasting up Pikes Peak in.
Itís certainly not the fastest car here, but itís completely stripped of all the weight we could take out of it. We get around 12-13 minutes, which isnít bad for the vintage class.
Itís got a lot of torque but itís still a heavy car compared to others here, so it can be a bit of a handful around some of the tighter sections before Devilís Playground. Iím certainly glad for the roll cage too!Ē
ďWEíVE BOUGHT about 200 bags of ice because weíre trying to keep all the batteries underneath and all the electrical systems as cool as possible. Call it backyard engineering. Basically, we took a lot of info from our practice runs during the week and noticed the car ran quite hot. Ludicrous Mode is designed for short bursts, but weíre using it for nine minutes which is a lot of strain on the systems. This is the first Tesla to race at Pikes Peak and Iím chasing the electric production record of 13 minutes. The advantage an EV has here is that the torque is instant and where they become starved of oxygen toward the top, the Tesla just keeps going.
Weíve managed to get 750hp, maybe a bit more, out of the Model S. Itís great seeing how motor racing has progressed in the last 100 years.Ē