Article by Brian Hannon. Photography by Ryan Randels, Caitlyn Randels, James Harris and Corey Davis.
On June 30, more than 150 drivers and riders will take to the Pikes Peak Highway for the 91st running of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb (PPIHC). Before them are 156 turns winding up a 12.4-mile road that cuts through dense Ponderosa pines, then up above the tree line to sheer granite cliffs.
Hitting speeds of up to 150 mph, the drivers will encounter menacing hairpin turns, with barely a handful of guardrails to prevent them from plummeting down the mountain. More than two and a half miles above sea level, the air is so thin that the engines lose 30 percent of their power from start to finish, with drivers and riders gasping for air as they barrel their way to the top.
If this doesn’t get you excited for one of America’s hallmark races, we aren’t sure what will.
How did America’s second-oldest race end up as an all-out sprint above the clouds? In 1915, the only way up Pikes Peak was an old rutted wagon trail—not exactly conducive to encouraging tourism on the mountain. Local businessman Spencer Penrose took it upon himself to widen and smooth the dirt trail, allowing tourists to enjoy the Rocky Mountain range.
Upon completion in 1916, Penrose decided to commemorate the new mountain road in typical Western fashion. He promptly issued his challenge: Who could drive up this treacherous road the fastest? And thus the second-oldest organized race in the U.S. was born, five years behind the Indy 500.
Image courtesy of Another Indy Car Blog
The next few decades were a blend of world wars, bankruptcy, and uncompromising speed as drivers continued to race up the unpaved trail to the top of one of Colorado’s most famed Fourteeners. In the late 1960s, the race even made it into the USAC Champ Car schedule, the premier open wheel racing series in America.
Over the years, open wheel racers dominated the mountain, but things changed in 1982 when Audi delivered its new all-wheel drive Quattro Coupe and obliterated the course record. The era of the AWD rally car had arrived, with its overboosted, wastegate-cracking madness in tow.
Beasts like the Audi Sport Quattro and the Peugeot 405 Turbo 16 paved the way for technological wonders like Rod Millen’s Toyota Celica and Tacoma, as well as Nobuhiro "Monster” Tajima’s wild Suzukis. It also brought about one of the healthiest rivalries in the Unlimited Class, with Millen and Tajima battling for 14 class victories from 1992 to 2011.
Image courtesy of Autoviva
Since its inception, the PPIHC has attracted a veritable "who’s who" of famous drivers, with legends like Mario Andretti, the Unsers, Ari Vatanen, and Walter Rohrl all tackling the mountain.
Image courtesy of Autoblog
Until 2011, only half of the course was paved, with the rest being a challenging combination of dirt and gravel. The skittery footing meant no one had broken the 10-minute mark until Tajima broke through in 2011. It wasn’t until 2012 that the Pikes Peak Highway was fully paved . . . and the records were shattered.
Before we go into this year’s race, let’s take a quick peek at what actually battles up the mountain.
Pikes Peak International Hill Climb 2013 Race Car Classes
Pikes Peak Time Attack Class: Production-based 2WD and AWD vehicles, like last year’s record-setting Hyundai Genesis Coupe
Pikes Peak Open Wheel Class: The classic Pikes Peak racer, resembling Indy cars or buggies
Pikes Peak Unlimited Class: Run what ya brung and hope you bring enough!
Pikes Peak Open Class: Look like a stock vehicle but are extremely modified, like Romain Dumas' Porsche GT3
Pikes Peak Vintage Class: Vintage racers
Pikes Peak Exhibition Class: Catchall for vehicles without a home like Ken Gushi's Lexus CCS-R IS-F
Pikes Peak International Hill Climb 2013 Race Motorcycle Classes
Pikes Peak 250CC Class: Small-displacement supermoto-style bikes
Pikes Peak 450CC Class: Larger-displacement supermoto bikes
Pikes Peak 1205CC Class: Think Ducati Multistrada
Pikes Peak Heavyweight Supermoto Class
[No picture, this class wasn't present in the 2012 event]
Pikes Peak Superbike 750CC Class
Pikes Peak Vintage Motorcycle Class
Pikes Peak Quad Modified Class
Pikes Peak Side Car Class
Pikes Peak Exhibition Powersport Class
Pike Peak Exhibition Powersports-Z (Electric)
The PPIHC really does have something for everyone.
This year’s race will be nothing short of amazing, with one man bent on destroying the current record of 9:46.164. Frenchman Sébastien Loeb is quite possibly one of the most dominant rally racers to ever strap into the driver’s seat. Although a Pikes Peak virgin, he’s won nine consecutive World Rally Championship titles with Citroen and dominated almost every race en route to his "retirement” at the end of 2012.
With more top-tier titles than fellow champions Michael Schumacher and Valentino Rossi, the dude can drive. This year, he’ll be piloting a one-off 875 hp AWD prototype designed by Peugeot that borrows heavily from their successful Le Mans endurance program.
But Loeb will be facing experienced Pikes Peak veterans—current overall record holder and Formula Drift star Rhys Millen will be back to defend his PPIHC title. Millen will be well equipped with a Hyundai-backed creation—a modified Crawford chassis (think Daytona Prototype) with a Hyundai Genesis–derived 4-liter turbocharged V-6 in the neighborhood of 850 horsepower.
From what we’ve seen in test times, Millen has his work cut out for him, but if the past has shown us anything, we know he will attack the mountain with everything he has.
This year’s Hill Climb will also revisit the old rivalry between Tajima and the elder Millen, as they battle it out in the Electric Vehicle (EV) class. This class garners more attention every year, not due to its green roots, but because EVs don’t lose power as they ascend the mountain. Since they don’t require any oxygen to run, they are immune to the effects of altitude. But before you dismiss them as a Prius with slicks, these things are fast. Monster’s stated goal for this year is 9:30.000 or better.
This is just scratching the surface of this amazing event, as drivers and fans arrive from all over the world. If you are in Colorado, you need to be here. And if you aren’t, then you need to catch the coverage online via the streaming broadcasts. There aren’t many opportunities in America to watch racecars fly up the side of a mountain, but we’ll be there, and we look forward to seeing you there as well!