Back before the invention of the internet, distant car fanatics like me only knew of the Pike’s Peak International Hill Climb thanks to sporadic magazine references to the event, when the exotic machines that climbed the hill were showcased in the photography of guys like Jeff Zwart. I knew that the legendary Group B rally cars made the trek to the top, along with crazy purpose built racers with wings, that looked like not so distant relatives to Indy cars. The winners roster included legendary names like Unser, Buffum, Mouton, Röhrl and Vatanen. Even Mario Andretti has been up the hill, winning his class in 1969.
With the appearance of Youtube came videos of the action from the event they call The Race to the Clouds. Most notable was a short, award winning film called Climb Dance. The incredible video showed a combination of on-board and road side footage of Ari Vatanen’s record setting win at the wheel of a Peugeot 405 Turbo 16 in 1985. If that video had been a vinyl record, I would have worn it out, I watched it so many times. Back in those days, the road up “America’s Mountain” was gravel.
The Pike’s Peak Highway, which winds to the summit of Pike’s Peak was built by Colorado Springs business man Spencer Penrose and was completed in 1916. An avid fan of the automobile, Penrose created the Pike’s Peak Hill Climb that same year as a way to draw tourists to visit the mountain and contribute to the local economy. The sumptuous Broadmoor Hotel, where I was fortunate to stay as a guest of Mitsubishi, was also completed prior to the running of the first running of the event.
In recent years, thanks to the Sierra Club’s concerns about erosion, the road that climbs to the 14,110′ summit has been paved. While this has allowed climb times to drop, it has increased the danger, as speeds have increased so dramatically that if a competitor goes “off”, they have an increased chance of falling off the mountain.
The recent trend towards alternative-fueled consumer vehicles has made for class changes on the entry list as well, as auto manufacturers serve to showcase new technologies, specifically electric vehicles. At higher altitudes, the air has less oxygen, which not only causes respiratory problems for humans, but for machines as well. Traditional combustion engines rely on the intake of oxygen to create horsepower, which means that an engine produces only sixty per cent of its horsepower potential at the top of the mountain. Electric motors are not susceptible to this, as they do not require oxygen to create their power.
Mitsubishi has been at the forefront of building electric powered racers to the hill, this year bringing two racers in the company’s signature red and white livery. The futuristic looking machines would be piloted by multiple time Dakar Rally winner Hiroshi Masuoka and six time Pike’s Peak motorcycle winner Greg Tracy. You might have seen Tracy’s work when he performed the first ever double loop in a car, driving on a life size Hot Wheels track at the 2012 X-Games. Clearly, Mitsubishi brought the big guns to tackle this year’s climb.
With the engineering might of a company like Mitsubishi’s electronics prowess, one might think that the duo might have a lock on the win, but there were a couple of other notable competitors in the field. Porsche factory sports car racer, Romain Dumas, who has won the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans twice was at the wheel of a French built Norma M20 sports racing car, while legendary Pike’s Peak competitor Nobuhiro “Monster” Tajima was in his own brand of electric racer. There were those on the hill who wondered if the dominance of petrol powered hill climb cars was about to come to an end.
My day began at 1:50 am, as media had to be at their chosen work space before 3:30, when the spectators made their way up the hill. I had chosen to shoot around the 12,000′ mark in the Devil’s Playground, so named due to the way that lightning bounces around the mountain. Racers approach the area through a series of steep and rather frightening switchback roads which are a photographer’s dream as they wind their way up the mountain. The first competitors reached my vantage point about 8 o’clock, and continued to stream by until shortly after 9, when the event was red flagged.
While Pike’s Peak has had a pretty safe history compared to other motorsports venues, the very nature of the course means it is unforgiving of mistakes. Fifty four year old Texan Bobby Goodin lost control of his bike just moments after crossing the finish line and was tossed onto nearby rocks. It did not become official until after the final runs of the day, but as many of us near the summit suspected, Goodin did not survive. As happens in international motorsport, the competition continued.
The first car up the hill was Dumas, who was clearly setting a blistering pace when he reached my vantage point at a spot called Bottomless Pit. Eerily quiet, the threee electric racers followed, with electric sirens bleating out a warning that there was a car on course that could barely be heard over the high mountain wind. Quite frankly, the three did not appear all that fast on this wide open section. The Nissan GT-R of my friend Mike Skeen (you may remember him from last year’s Silverado 250 here in Ontario) was on full attack as he went past.
By the time the final checkers flew, Dumas was the fastest up the hill, with a time of 9:05.801 which was fast, but well shy of Sebastian Loeb’s record run of 8:13.878 in 2013. Despite my visual observation of pace, Tracy led Masuoka and Tajima across the line.
Combustion engines still rule the hill, but it may only be a matter of time before an electric powered machine sets its mark on Pike’s Peak. Smart money would be on Mitsubishi to continue leading the charge. Pun intended.
Ride along with Greg Tracy during his qualifying run.
Text originally published in the Toronto Star Wheels section. Photos and words by Gary Grant.