The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is a relevant, engineering-driven, lightly commercialized race endangered by uncorralled fans’ lack of common sense, the commoditization of the car, waning manufacturer support, and the paving of the roadway.
If you didn’t go this year, you need to be there in 2010 — before inevitable filters change the event forever.
In wild western Colorado, both vehicles and footwear are earth-toned and traction-centric. For outdoorsy natives that may very well burst into a 20-mile hike or interstate whitewater trip at any moment, camping on the Peak is akin to a passport stamp. Camping is permitted only once a year, on the day before the race. It’s feasible, then, that a sizeable portion of the yearly attendees are drawn primarily by the prospect of personally taming the mountain, and stay for the race out of both casual curiosity and convenience. Staking a spot on the mountain entails a steep $100 charge per car. Proceeds benefit the US Forest Service, which cedes control of the mountain during practice sessions and on race day.
Thirteen of my friends and I piled our overnight gear onto a Mitsubishi Outlander and a Land Rover Discovery, and ditched the manicured media junket in favor of an honest, rootsy experience. Sleeping on a bare tent floor is both ‘rootsy’ and ‘rocky’, indeed — bring an inflatable mattress instead, and don’t skimp on the blankets. Until race morning, the mountain is bitterly cold. By midday, the temperature rises to rival concrete-crusted Houston. At any moment, a front can roll in and God will start sleeting all over your camera gear. You’ll probably have to poo in the woods and cuddle with dudes to keep warm. You may be accosted by well-meaning rednecks who are made uncomfortable by dude-cuddles. The Peak’s grandeur is so disarmingly picturesque during every weather condition that you’ll be thankful through every shiver fit and shed of clothes — just be prepared.
Prepare to be jarred by the level of trackside access, too. Even the most golden NASCAR, ALMS or F1 credentials can’t get you as close to the action as a general admission Hill Climb pass. Almost none of the 12.45-mile course is barricaded or crowd-controlled. Fans hide in roadside trenches to snap photos — the same craggy trenches that even the most precise drivers sometimes dip a wheel into. Brave, dumb, or dedicated fans can dart across the track between entrants to frame the perfect shot. If their timing is off, they can easily find themselves in the path of an 800-horsepower machine operated by a driver focused solely on the checker. This year, at least two drivers cited pedestrian traffic as the reason why their cars were wrecked before the finish line. Radio chatter indicated increased frustration among race organizers. In the future, spectator barricades could spell the end of an aspiring race photographer’s best photo op.
Almost every major auto manufacturer has competed in the Climb at some level. The Chevrolet Lumina, Saab’s 900, Peugeot’s most beautiful rally car, and even a Toyota Tacoma have all etched their way into the Climb’s annals. Today, raceday on the Hill is Suzuki’s time to shine — and perhaps the only day American media pays real attention to the microcar masters. For a decade, Suzuki has chased the clouds in a quad-digit-horsepower, and sometimes twin-engined, dirt devil. Two years ago, SuzukiSport founder Nobuhiro Tajima, better known as “Monster”, drove a race-bodied XL-7 from start to summit in a record-breaking 10’01.408. A scramble to break the ten-minute barrier has ensued. This year, Tajima’s SX4-badged rocket won overall, but fell short of a record time, prolonging the marketability of a sub-ten chase.
Sadly, Suzuki’s popularity on the hill has not yet translated into a turbocharged SX4 at retailers — or curbed their sales slide of 78 percent on the year. Suzuki has famously failed to tout its decade of dominance through grassroots advertising. Hyundai, on the other hand, banked a great deal of street cred on its Peak-bound Genesis Coupe. Young drifter Rhys Millen, son of former Climb record-holder Rod Millen, has a name and persona as marketable as Tajima’s. However, Hyundai hyped Millen’s Genesis with multimedia Web 2.0 campaigns aimed squarely at a thrillseeking demographic. Millen’s Genesis was often the prime subject among young fans, even before the drifter set a new Time Attack record in the 2WD production class. Fostering enthusiasm and culture among burgeoning drivers is a smart way to grow strong brand advocates. Some brands recognize that. Others, unfortunately, do not.
If one manufacturer deserved enthusiasm to match its prevalence on the Hill, it was definitely Ford. Two factory Fiestas chased Suzuki’s hallmark, but the unluckiest of the pair could not quell a tendency to roll over. The other car couldn’t touch ten minutes, but its seasoned rally pilot Marcus Grönholm captured Rookie of the Year honors. It remains to be seen whether the Fiesta’s factory-backed presence on the Hill will be nurtured into a winning effort, or was simply a one-time promo for the car’s US launch.
The factory-backed effort wasn’t Ford’s only presence on the Peak. Blue-badged privateers thrilled fans across nearly every class. A Falcon captured first place among Vintage entries, while Mustangs filled both the Vintage and Super Stock classes. Ford was easily the most prevalent manufacturer in the mudslinging Pro Truck class. Several Outlaw-style Open Wheel drivers displayed “Powered by Ford” decals. The most historically important vehicle on course, Mach 2 Racing’s 1984 Ford RS200 Evolution, commanded cheers and reverence. However, due to mechanical failures during practice trials, driver Mark Rennison never had the chance to run the complete course before raceday, and thus couldn’t match rivals’ faster times.
Both Rennison and Grönholm promise to return.
Each year, additional segments of the once-raw Pikes Peak Highway are paved over. Today, about half of the race route is rendered in asphalt. Someday, an asphalt-biased race course could dramatically change the nature of the race itself. Until then, Suzuki’s dominance, Hyundai’s support, Ford’s prevalence, and fans’ loyalty may ensure that the ten-minute barrier is indeed broken before the world’s attention wanes.