I have wanted to go to the Pike’s Peak Hill Climb since I was 12 years old. My family took a big camping trip to Colorado, we hooked the pop up to our trusty Nissan Pathfinder and left the flat expanse of Texas in the rear-view mirror. When we arrived in Colorado Springs I marveled at the height and beauty of the mountains. When I learned the history of Pike’s Peak it thrilled me, when we drove up the winding, precipitous road I was amazed. At the summit we picked out souvenirs from the gift shop. I immediately gravitated to an airbrushed t-shirt because it had a Dodge Viper on it, in 1998 the Viper was the coolest car on earth. I read the shirt, “Pikes Peak Auto Hill Climb Race” I asked my father, “Dad, do they really have a race up the mountain?!” “Yes they do.” was his reply. That day I made a vow to return.
Sunday the 29th, 16 years after that fateful trip I again found myself on America’s mountain. Ready to once again take in the majesty, but this time to also hear the roar or engines, to cover the race for Tribute Racing. The day started in the predawn hours, after far too little sleep in my tiny backpacking tent I got dressed in the dark and dragged myself behind the wheel of my trusty Miata. This year in a bid to increase safety the race organizers limited the viewing area for both media and the spectators to only several spots on the mountain. If you made it past the start-line by 7 am, you were stuck on the mountain until all the competitors finished their runs and came back down. Having driven Pike’s somewhat less famous, slightly scarier, and even higher cousin Mt. Evans the day before, I had already experienced the sunburn, exhaustion and freezing winds that come from being at thirteen or fourteen thousand feet can do to you. For this first trip to the hill climb I erred on the side of caution and decided to stay at the start line.
The crowd came quickly and kept coming, parking areas filled, the roadside leading up the “pit areas” filled. A massive throng of spectators, team workers, officials, media, law enforcement, volunteers and promoters all commingled on the street and the surrounding forest. Accustomed to strictly defined areas for each, it was a breath of fresh and confusing air, so free and open was the atmosphere. The race began at 8 am, the bikes going first. The excitement in the air was electric, the cool, bright morning portending a perfect day to take part in America’s second oldest race. And then it happened. Only the fifth rider to take to the course, Bobby Goodin crashed at the summit. We now know that he lost control of his bike and smashed into a boulder. All we knew at the bottom was that something was wrong, because a lengthy delay began to develop. It felt more like being at a rally than a traditional race, as information traveled slowly and got distorted from person to person. Some said he was trying to slow down but couldn’t, others said he was celebrating and then lost control. All we knew is that it was bad. Later we learned it was as bad as it gets. Our friend Trevor was at the top and wrote a great piece, it’s been featured on Motorsport and Jalopnik, I highly suggest reading it here. I won’t go into any more detail of the crash other than to say it dampened the rest of the day for everyone involved; organizers, fans, media, racers, you name it. It is naive to think that the possibility of death or serious injury has been eliminated from modern motorsports, but it is now so rare that you never expect to experience it first hand. Everyone at the mountain that day has been changed by it.
Due to the near two hour delay I took the time to talk with people around me and found a very knowledgeable group of fans, one in particular had a running conversation about the merits of Formula One versus the World Endurance Championship. I headed back to the area immediately below the start-line to check out the pit area, or rather what was called the pit area. Some of the marquee and factory teams had fancy spots alongside the road, complete with big trailers, tents, ropes, fan gear, etc. but most had little spots carved out of the woods between parked cars and porta potties. It was here that I realized the true magic of the hill climb. It is the last great run what ya brung event in American motorsports. The sheer variety of machinery competing is astounding. From Romain Dumas’ shrunken Le Mans style ptorotype, to Monster Tajima’s all electric star fighter, bubble cockpit Mitsubishi. Old classics, Cobras, 914’s, BMW’s modified to within an inch of their lives. Contemporary supercars; Porsches, a Viper not unlike the one on my old t-shirt, a V8 Miata appearing very much like my own, but much much faster. Hell even a Mini Cooper was there, all ready, all primed to attack the mountain.
After the delay I staked out various areas along the start-line area to watch from, each car had a soundtrack and a driving style as unique as its appearance. A modified Cobra thrilled the crowd with a lurid slide in the first turn, a bit of opposite lock and off he rocketed. The crowd cheered nearly every competitor, neither class or number of wheels seemed to matter. It was the true ethos of racing, fans appreciating the sheer audacity and artistry of drivers pushing themselves and their machines to the absolute limit. Each there to take on not only the mountain, but themselves, each there to achieve the glory of victory and their own personal victory, whether it was proving a new concept, proving their prowess or merely proving them selves for simply having made it there in the first place. It was the most human motor race I have ever attended. As far as times, it proved to be Romain Dumas in his Norma M20 RD Honda powered prototype to take the top time, second and third place going to Greg Tracy and Hiroshi Masuoko in their electric Mitsubishi MiEV Evolution III’s.
But unlike most races, that wasn’t the point. Pike’s Peak isn’t so much a competition as a celebration, a celebration of all that is good and great about racing. It is about the passion of the racers, the teams and the fans. A fellowship as it were of people who just seem to “get it.” Around mid afternoon a remarkable heat set in, the temperatures at 10,000 feet rising into the mid 90’s. It thinned the crowd a little, and gave me a good sunburn, but it couldn’t stop everyone who had worked so hard to be there that day. One thing the hill climb isn’t for is the faint of heart. It takes dedication and maybe even a bit of madness, not just to race it, not just to host it but to even be there. Logistically, practically it is rather insane and much like the Monaco Grand Prix or the Dakar Rally, were it pitched today it would never have made it. But it reflects an earlier time, when ambition was a big as the western sky. In that sense it is the quintessentially American race. Where else can you find a road up a 14,110 foot peak just because? And where else would any one dare to have a race up it? Hill climbing as we know it began in the U.K. on hills. Leave it up to America to take it up a notch, to take it to the mountains. My trip to the Hill Climb was all at once everything and nothing like I expected it to be, it was nothing like any other race I have ever attended or covered. It was terrible and difficult in every sense of the word, but majestic and wonderful too, it’s something I think every racing fan should experience once. It fulfilled a near lifelong dream and I’m already planning to go back.