Race to the Clouds

By: Earl Gandel

Following the interest in the Virginia City Hillclimb, here?s a report on another famous hillclimb, admittedly a non-Ferrari event, but we hope of interest. Ed.

That's the official name of the Pike's Peak Hill Climb, an institutional American event held every year on the 4th of July. This year's race marked the 75th anniversary of this classic world-renowned challenge of the 14,110 foot mountain, and a spectacular party it was.

Pike's Peak Highway was built in 1915, so naturally, the first race was held in 1916. (The road was closed during WWII, which accounts for the missing years. 1997 was the 75th event.) The course is mostly gravel, with a little bit of blacktop added only in the past year or two, and is 12.42 miles from the 9,402 elevation start to the peak. Basically, it's a narrow (20') dirt road with no guard rails and what appear to be sheer dropoffs to oblivion and hundreds of opportunities to do so. It's a toll road, and the normal tourist drive at 25-30 mph can scare the hell out of you. Once you've seen it, it's hard to imagine doing the same thing flat-out in a 1,000 hp 4wd race car, or on a motorcycle, or an open-wheel sprint car, or any of 21 classes of cars, trucks and bikes. (Including Class 8 trucks, like a full-size, brand new Kenworth tractor, which had to be seen to be believed.)

The current record was,set by Rod Millen in his Toyota Celica at 10:04-06. Rod is an incredibly likeable New Zealander whose need for speed and winning is belied by his easy manner. His car is phenomenal, with 4wd, ground effects, and a superturboed version of the IMSA GTP engine that produces over 1,000 hp at sea level, around 800 at these altitudes. Rod is back to go for the magic 10-minute mark. There's only one other car in the unlimited class, a so-called Suzuki Sidekick, a factory entry that looks more like a landspeed record car. However, there are plenty of others that could give the unlimiteds a run for their money.

Bobby Unser holds the record for 6 consecutive wins, and the Unser family --Al, Louis, Louis J., Jerry, Bobby, Al Jr., and Robby, have too many overall and class wins to count, beginning in 1934. Robby is back this year in a factory Chevy truck for an all-out Chev vs. Ford battle. Other classes include open-wheel, multi-winged roadsters, Porsche twin turbos, Mustangs, a clutch of pro rally cars, (the fastest Hyundai anyone's ever seen), vintage cars, and trucks, cars and motorcycles of every possible description. Most are prepared or built just for this one event, once a year. This is truly one of the last old-time motorsports events. It's billed as the second-oldest sanctioned race event in the U.S., and looks a lot like the good old days, with no pits to speak of, everyone just sort of parked around in the woods below the start line. There are maybe four big-time factory rigs -- Toyota, Suzuki, Ford and Chevrolet -- but for the most part, everyone towed, trailered or drove in. Everyone seems to know everyone else, spectator provisions and restrictions are, shall we say, loose, (20,000 people spread up the mountain), and a picnic-like atmosphere pervades.

There are no Ferraris. Or anything Italian. A quick look over the years show very few Europeans, with the exception of the Audi Quattro and Peugeot Rally cars of the '80's, and way back to the '60's, some Porsche RSK's and RS-61's. (1960 was the year of the last-maybe only-recorded Ferrari entry. It was Dick MorgensenŐs 500TR, which qualified 5th among Sports Cars. No record of its finish.) Let's face it, it's the 4th of July, it's in the middle of the country, and it's a singular American event. Also, the road conditions aren't too inviting for 2-wheel drive, expensive or classic machinery that isn't specifically built for the job.

The almost 200 entries get off the mark, one at a time at about 10-second intervals in beautiful, cloudless summer weather, and most mak