Pikes Peak 2016

By: Scott Murray, Photography by: Scott Murray, Randels Media Group

Presented by

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At Pikes Peak the grim reaper is clerk of course. Come unstuck here and it's a long way down

hen Australian motorsport stalwart Tony Quinn, a man not unaccustomed to driving fast, confesses to being terrified of a race, there’s a moment where you think he’s 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 it’s 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 ‘Devil’s Playground’ where Grim likes a front-row seat to the action. Even with a tarmac surface today, it’s a false sense of security because there is no concrete wall or guard rail offering salvation.

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The air thins as you climb higher, sucking power from your internal combustion engine. Even the most sophisticated machinery can’t 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 you’re 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 ‘Pikes Peak or Bust’; a sentiment that still rings true.

Although Pikes does attract the mega-budget factory teams, there’s 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, you’ll 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.

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There’s a wide array of motors in this public-access paddock (that’s right, no power-tripping ‘security’ demanding to see which colour-coded laminate you’re wearing on a lanyard. You just walk on in). Porsche 911s are countered by all-wheel-drive Mitsubishi Evos and Subaru WRXs. They’re 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 – it’s more about having fun. A growing part of the race is the hyper-competitive electric division where big-budget engineering brilliance meets DIY. You don’t hear them coming until they’ve passed you at astonishing speed. Some teams use tyre-warmers now thanks to the full re-surfacing. Others can’t 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. There’s no right answer to Pikes Peak, just wildly different interpretations of the best way to get from A to B. Some wouldn’t be seen dead in anything Japanese, while others scoff at the inadequacy of simpler, less refined machines. It’s the beauty of no-rules motor racing.

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Tony Quinn’s wearing the look of a man who belatedly realises just what a serious echelon his horsepower count has put him into. He’s still enjoying himself, but there’s something niggling at him as he introduces his crew and points to things on his not-really-a-Ford-Focus.

"I think it’s a twin-turbo V6 Nissan engine under there but that’s about it," his Scottish accent describes with a few misplaced y-sounds that trend from his Australian-New Zealand adopted homes. "It’s putting out about 650 horsepower and I’m not sure what the torque is but it’s a frighteningly fast car, geared for 230km/h in sixth," he says.

Not short on grunt, he turns his thoughts to what the mountain has in store.

"The height is the biggest problem for me. I have to tell myself to just do it. Deep inside, I’m glad I only get one run today because it’s petrifying." Not something you expect from a bloke who’s done Targa.

"For someone who has a fear of heights it’s stupid, absolutely ridiculous. When you arrive here in the plane it feels like they’re crash landing the plane in the mountains, that’s how high it is. I got here and have three days! It’s ballsy and stupid but I’ve gotta do it."

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It’s an unsettling thing to hear. This isn’t some go-kart track on XBOX with a reset button. Standing at the start line watching cars take off in clouds of smoky wheelspin, there’s 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 race’s inception in 1915 when Spencer Penrose was given half a mil to promote the area for tourism – which he did by introducing motorsport – the highway’s decade-long process of sealing was complete in 2013. The achievement of Sebastian Loeb’s 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 year’s best time was claimed by Romain Dumas in his Norma M20 open wheeler, some 38s slower than Loeb’s mark.

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The most diehard spectators and officials will pitch themselves at key vantage points, but to do so means you’re in for the long haul. Once racing begins just as the sunrise touches the tarmac, it doesn’t stop until the last car reaches the summit at whatever time of the afternoon or evening. Devil’s Playground is the most infamous and the last spectator point. Then four miles after, there’s a split second of enjoyment as fans wave and punters take snaps three inches from the apex drivers are trying to hit. It’s just driver, car and mountain. And fans with no sense of self preservation.

Pikes Peak hillclimb is an oddity in our safety-conscious world. It’s breathtakingly beautiful to visit and fatal to those who don’t 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 petrolhead’s bucket list. For rookies it’s about staying alive and getting to the top. For the seasoned, it’s a fight with the clock, pushing as hard as you dare. Remembering of course, that the clerk of course always has the last word.

MEET SOME OF THE COMPETITORS

Jess Neal
1971 Cuda

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"I live in Monument, Colorado, and we’re running our 1971 Plymouth Cuda. It came black from the factory and we kept it that colour. Its only advantage is there aren’t many black Cudas at Pikes Peak! It’s definitely a crowd pleaser.

Unfortunately it’s really heavy. So it eats brakes and tyres and chews fuel like crazy, and it’s expensive to run. Many years ago, the car used to handle like evil and so we focused on spring rates. We’ve 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. There’s always a bit of fear. When you hear there’s an incident and you have to wait longer you get hot and anxiety increases. But that green light goes and it all disappears. You don’t see spectators, you don’t see anything but what’s in front of you.

When it was dirt, it was awfully scary, and slick, and we’d pray for rain overnight to dampen it down. The dirt was quite hard so they’d 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 it’s 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 he’d ever done. ‘Pike’s Peak,’ he said.

I’m in conservation mode here; I’ll always lift off a little, because I wanna make it to the top."

Tony Quinn
Ford Focus

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"We're AT Pikes Peak for the first time and it’s an awesome place, but I’m really scared of heights. We’ve qualified eighth during the week and the car’s great. It’s really just a Nissan-engined, turbo monster of a thing. It’s bloody fast. It’s only a Ford Focus shape because the body builder picked it. I’m not a technical kinda guy but it’s a brute of a thing. Anything more than the lowest turbo boost it’s on now is just too vicious. I know it’s got gold foil in the air filter, I know that much.

I won’t 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 it’s such a monster – the lights are constantly flashing! You’re in fifth and sixth gear before you know it. I don’t wanna do anything more than that (230km/h) because the faster you go, the further you fly and I sure as hell don’t 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 isn’t on your bucket list, you’re just filling in time. It’s like Spa or Bathurst. There are only 100 or so guys here, and for a chocolate maker from Sydney, it’s special to be here for the 100th anniversary."

Nick Robinson
Honda NSX

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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 don’t 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, there’s a real opportunity for NSX once an appropriate race series allows hybrid systems to be used. Even now with the GT3 version we’re seeing NSX on the race track raising that awareness.

Aaron Kaufman
1963 Ford Falcon

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"It's definitely not the Falcon you’re used to back in Australia. It’s got a 500hp 363 cubic-inch Boss motor in it which makes it great for blasting up Pikes Peak in. It’s certainly not the fastest car here, but it’s completely stripped of all the weight we could take out of it. We get around 12-13 minutes, which isn’t bad for the vintage class.

It’s got a lot of torque but it’s still a heavy car compared to others here, so it can be a bit of a handful around some of the tighter sections before Devil’s Playground. I’m certainly glad for the roll cage too!"

Wil Kitchens
1984 Honda CRX

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"I’m from Houston Texas and we built this 1984 Honda CRX over the last two months and it’s got a B16 VTEC engine with a GT37R turbo, makes about 400 horsepower. To the front wheels.

It’s been an adventure. Practiced last week with a 600hp motor and broke a rod bolt. We came trying to break the FWD record, now we’re planning to just set a PB. It’s 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. There’s 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 I’m ok with that part. I just have to see what the mountain gives me."

Blake Fuller
Go Puck Tesla

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"We've bought about 200 bags of ice because we’re 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 we’re 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 I’m 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.

We’ve managed to get 750hp, maybe a bit more, out of the Model S. It’s great seeing how motor racing has progressed in the last 100 years."

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