Anniversaries are handled differently depending on the scenario. In relationships, they generally make men stumble to react correctly to their significant other. In pop culture and technology, they signify the memory of what life used to be like – and usually result in a good laugh. But in motorsports, they’re honored. Races that occurred many years before most of us were born have shaped the automotive enthusiasts of past generations; the history has been passed on with reverence and continues to shape our current automotive culture. As these anniversaries continue to pass, records get set and broken, lap times drop, competition gets stronger, rivalries grow, and winning becomes more prestigious.
In 1916, the inaugural Pikes Peak International Hill Climb was completed in a time of 20 minutes and 55 seconds. Now celebrating its 100th anniversary, it is the second-oldest running motorsports race in America and the lap record has trickled down to a mere 8 minutes and 13 seconds.
One of the most challenging courses in all the world, Pikes Peak in Colorado Springs is still a functioning National Forest. The famed hill climb road is in use by the public throughout most of the year, which leaves the only time available for hill climb practice sessions to start during the middle of the night on the weekdays leading up to the event. The mountain road is only shut down for inclement weather that would make it dangerous to drive. In the days before the hill climb, the mountain closes the roads in the early morning to allow competitors a chance to practice the four different sectors that make up the track.
Split into their different classes, a myriad of different vehicles are constantly climbing their way up the treacherous bends of the mountain. During the early stages of practice before sunrise, all vehicles have their headlights powered on to make up for the lack of ambient light present on the course.
Once the sun does peek above the horizon line, it casts a saturated orange hue across the entire sky, which gives competitors a colorful backdrop among the depths of mountain behind them.
There is only one automotive route up the mountain, a two-lane winding stretch of tarmac that measures 12.42-miles in length. Contrary to race day when a competitor only makes one climb up the mountain, during practice, different sections of the course are closed off to allow recirculation of the drivers back down the mountain.
As the sun began to crest the mountain, the landscape became a photographer’s dream. The warm sunlight started to pour over the sides of the rocks, and onto a stagnant Romain Dumas in the Norma M20 RD Limited Spec-2016 with an unfortunate engine failure. If his name sounds familiar, that’s because Dumas edged out the Toyota to win the 24 Hours of LeMans in the Porsche 919 just days before flying to Pikes Peak for the hill climb.
As more sunlight engulfed the mountain, its overwhelming size became more apparent. The remnants of snow from a previous storm survived solely in crevices throughout the hillside.
By mid-morning, each competitor made numerous trips up their designated section of the course. They dialed in their car setups and familiarized themselves with the layout in preparation for their Race to the Clouds.
Drivers had to keep their vehicles on the tarmac or risk a certain death, as majority of the 156-turn course lacks any form of guardrail. Precision driving and laser-like focus are attributes that come well-regarded in Pikes Peak competitors.
By 9:00am on Friday, the practice sessions were completed and teams packed up in anticipation of the race. Saturday at Pikes Peak offers the only semblance of a break throughout the entire weeklong event. The teams gather in the town of Colorado Springs for Fan Fest, a festival with a block party atmosphere where fans can see their favorite vehicle up-close and in-person.
The morning of race day starts even earlier than the previous practice sessions; technically, it occurs during the middle of the night prior to race day. All competitors were required to set up in their temporary paddock during the previous day in order to alleviate some of the mass confusion that occurs during race day. Team Honda used a unique generator/light combination to flood their paddock area with the light necessary to make adjustments before their final run.
Spectators took advantage of the mountain’s only legal camping day by setting up campsites in various locations throughout the mountain to beat the rush of traffic attempting to colonize the course. Even at 1:30am on Sunday, the spectator cars filled up the accompanying road for miles; with a sea of headlights stretching all the way back into the town at the base of the mountain. Then the wait begins…
The atmosphere completely changed with the rising sun just a few short hours later. The calm that occupied the start line of the mountain throughout the night heightened to a hectic display; as the Pikes Peak helicopter film crew made its preparatory passes over the course, cars like this Ford Falcon – being driven by Fast’N Loud star Aaron Kaufman – were unloaded to begin their prep.
A mandatory motorcycle driver’s briefing officially began the day’s festivities, and within a few short minutes, the first green flag was waved to the opening two-wheeled competitor.
The early corners of the track are riddled with trees, ready to attack any rider that dares to veer off course, and once they clear the first sector populated with trees, there are countless unprotected corners where exceeding the track’s limits could mean a fatal drop. All motorcycle competitors at Pikes may need their head examined; it seems as if every section is setting them up for failure. Somehow, all but four were able to record full times up the dangerous mountain.
Marking the 100th anniversary of the hill climb and launching the automotive portion of the event, the historic 1918 Pierce-Arrow touring car named The Broadmoor Special Yellow Devil – complete with period-correct race-trim clad pilots – made a slow trek up the first section of the course before turning around. This antique car was originally owned and raced by the event’s founder Spencer Penrose in 1922. Today it’s been fully restored and made for a historic display of automotive progression.
Remember Romain Dumas and his broken Norma M20? His crew were able to fix the car prior to his competition climb, where he set not only the fastest overall time of the weekend, but the second fastest time in the event’s history – a 8:51.445 pass.
From the lower reaches of the course, the summit of Pikes Peak seems like a lifetime away, and its world famous donut shop offers a mere hint of its existence atop the peak’s outline. The donut/gift shop located on the top of the mountain serves as a makeshift headquarters for all of the drivers after their run. Because the usual two-way traffic is only uphill on this day, the drivers who complete the entire course up to the freezing summit park their race crafts in the dirt parking lot and find sanctuary inside with a hot cup of coffee and crisp donuts. Rumor has it that the recipe for the donuts doesn’t work at sea-level due to the change in altitude.
Competitors in the remaining classes including Electric, Time Attack 1, and Time Attack 2 continued to push the limits of their car attempting to best the other entrants in their class. Unfortunately for the Mackin Industries Toyota 86, a driveline failure forced a premature retirement from their tour up the mountain. Stay tuned for more on this car – we were able to follow along with its creation and get up close and personal with the driver, Rob Walker, and the crew, during the weeks leading up to the 2016 event. They provided us with an inside look into what it takes to be competitive while tackling the rigors of the Peak.
By mid-day, the event was drawing to a close; the final groups of competitors launched their car through the starting line and out onto the bends for their one-and-only chance to record a time during the hundredth running of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. With unpredictable weather shortening last year’s hill climb course, the event was finished this year in full, with all 100 registered competitors able to utilize the entire course, although some mechanical failures prevented all from finishing. Aaron Kaufman completed the course in his Open-class Ford Falcon, which ran a 12:15.484 pass.
This event was incredible to witness from start to finish. Its beautiful scenery and massive risk involved for each of the drivers will forever make other racetracks a walk in the park from our perspective. We already can’t wait to take another trip up the mountain!