Pikes Peak turns 100
Pikes Peak – the hill climb, not the mountain – has been around for an eternity – since 1916 in fact. The mountain itself has been around even longer, probably several million years.
At 4302.31 metres (14,115.2 feet), the summit is the highest point of the southern Front Range of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. An 1806 expedition, led by Zebulon Pike, is credited with almost, but not quite, reaching the top – it took until 1820 for that to happen. Over the subsequent decades, a rough track was gradually hacked out, which gained slight improvements year by year and eventually served as a military observation post. As often happens, the transformation of the crude road into something suitable for motor vehicles was done by a property developer; one Spencer Penrose. The extremely wealthy Mr Penrose had extensive interests in the immediate vicinity, particularly in Colorado Springs, where he established the sumptuous Broadmoor Resort Hotel, which is today the naming sponsor for the annual Pikes Peak Hill Climb. The usually snow- capped Pikes Peak itself dominates the local skyline, and to encourage tourists to the district (and to his hotel), Penrose widened and improved the entire length of the road into what was renamed Pikes Peak Highway. To further showcase the location, he hit upon the idea of a “Race to the Clouds”. In an eerie parallel that saw the Mount Panorama circuit constructed as a ‘scenic drive’ in order to secure government funding, the road to the summit of Pikes Peak was the result of a contract between Spencer Penrose and the US Government, signed in 1915 with a budget of $25,000. It was built all right, but not for $25,000 – the final cost exceeding half a million dollars.
The first Pikes Peak National Hill Climbing Contest, held in August 1916, was basically a local contest, as much of the world outside the United States was busy fighting each other in Europe. The race track in this case was a sinuous clamber of almost exactly 20 kilometres (12.42 miles), with 156 corners. The summit is 1,439 metres above the starting line at what is known as Mile 7 of the Pikes Peak Highway, which itself sits at 2,862 metres above sea level.
The road climbs at an average gradient of 7%, and there are (unfenced) sheer drops of 100 metres or more throughout the journey. The outright winner of the first event was Fred Junk driving a Chalmers Special, who completed the run in 23 minutes 4.60 seconds. Motorcycle honours went to Floyd Clymer, who went on to become the biggest name in motorcycle publishing in the US. Since then, the event has continued annually, interrupted only from 1917-1919 and 1942-1945 inclusive as America joined in the European and Pacific skirmishes. That makes Pikes Peak the second oldest motor sport event in USA, behind only the Indianapolis 500.
Originally, the entire road was gravel surfaced, and virtually impassable in rain or winter snowfalls. In 1948, responsibility for Pikes Peak Highway passed from the U.S. Forestry Service to the City of Colorado Springs, and within a few years the first six miles – to just below what is now the starting line – was paved. This remained the case until 2002, when a program was instigated to pave the remaining 13 miles, which was completed in 2011. As the years rolled by, the contest was opened to more and more classes of cars, and in 1954, motorcycles were re-added to the bill (a Sidecar class was run in 1916 but dropped after that year). Despite being dropped from the program in 197779, and 1983-1990, the bikes are now once again part of the show. The current “2-Wheel Record” stands to Carlin Dunne on a Ducati Multistrada 1200, who achieved a time of 9 minutes 52.819 seconds in 2012. That motorcycle is now displayed in the Penrose Heritage Museum, adjacent to the Broadmoor, in Colorado Springs, alongside the 1906 Reading Standard motorcycle, which was the first motorised vehicle to climb Pikes Peak.
Because of the altitude and resulting lack of oxygen in the air, normally aspirated engines become quite asthmatic as they near the summit. Forced induction, such as turbocharging, goes some way to compensating, but in recent years, the rapidly emerging electric motorcycle technology has gone even further. In 2013, that man Carlin Dunne, on a Lightning Electric Superbike, whistled silently up the hill in 10 minutes 0.694 seconds.
Perhaps surprisingly, there are only six deaths associated with the event over its century of usage, the first being a car driver in 1921 and the most recent, motorcycle competitor Carl Sorensen in 2015. There have been more fatalities in international Hammer Throw competition than at Pikes Peak! Naturally, times have dropped dramatically since the sealing of the road, the current record standing to rally ace Sebastian Loeb, who drove his Peugeot 208 T16 to the top in a time of 8 minutes 13.878 seconds in 2013. The Race to the Clouds gained a multitude of followers worldwide in 1988 as a result of a documentary film “Climb Dance” showing the remarkable feat by Ari Vatanen in his Peugeot 405 T16 – the road still dirt, the driver hanging wheels over the edge and shielding his eyes against the glaring sun. If you’ve not seen this amazing footage, go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=UEuZG37gFdM.
Hitting a century
For 51 weeks of the year, the road to the summit is part of the National Park, but is closed to normal traffic for strictly regulated periods during race week; an uneasy alliance between the race promoters and the park staff, but one that seems to work.
And so to June 2016 – 100 years after the first vehicles (motorcycles actually, which preceded the cars by two days) roared up the mountain, enveloping everyone in a dense blanket of dust. If you’ll pardon the obvious pun, the event has had its ups and downs since then, hitting its nadir in 2007 when it was almost cancelled due to lack of funds. The gradual tar sealing of the climb alienated the purists, who saw the dirt surface as the great leveler of driver skill and control, probably quite correctly. With the coming of the tar, the buzz word became ‘grip’, or perhaps ‘lack of grip’ would be more correct. And because the new track surface now spends 8 months of the year buried under snow, the sub surface is constantly undermined, producing bumps and corrugations that change year by year. By 2016, those bumps, particularly on the upper sections, have become so severe they would shake the loose change out of your pockets. With great commitment, the organisers managed to struggle through the near-abandonment of 2007, never losing focus on their goal to stage the 100-year
event in 2016. Every year, they face targeted opposition from environmentalists, residents and people who just don’t like motor sport, but a turning point came when the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb organisers captured the iconic Broadmoor Hotel and Resort as the naming sponsor, giving much-needed civic cred to the event. As speeds rose due to the new surface, so did the intensity and severity of the accidents, and two recent motorcycle fatalities further armed the critics. With the determination to make the 100th year safe and spectacular, they decided to limit entries to just 100; each carefully vetted as to the skill of the rider/driver and the caliber of the vehicle. Bikes were given approximately one third of the entry list- a total of 33 in the various classes.
Rise and shine
I’ve been at race tracks in the early hours all my adult life, but usually the sun was up. However like the Isle of Man TT, this track is a public road apart from the strictly regulated periods when it is a race track. That means rising around 2am for each of the practice periods – even earlier if you are staying out of town (Colorado Springs) – and around 1 am on Sunday’s race day, when vast queues form at the gates of the National Park. If you want to watch from anywhere on the upper sections you need to be there before the roads close at around 7 am and be prepared to stay there until they reopen late in the afternoon. You need to bring plenty of water, and oxygen canisters are a good item to pack because there’s precious little of that element at 14,000 feet.
For 2016, the capacity limit for the Heavyweight Motorcycle class was lifted from 1000cc 4 cylinders/1200cc twins to 1100/1300 – a move that enticed KTM to enter their 1290 Super Duke R. One of the two examples entered was a joint effort between KTM USA and US on-line magazine Cycle News, with Road Test Editor Rennie Scaysbrook (who happens to be my son) in the saddle. Like every other competitor, he honed his knowledge of the track by devouring videos and playing game simulations, before finally taking part in the two-day ‘Tyre Test’ two weeks prior to the event. There’s a lot to learn in a very short space of time, with 156 corners, 18 of them hairpins, plus the rather chilling nature of the course itself; the lower regions lined with stout trees and the upper section, above the tree line, bordered by sheer drops and huge boulders.
For the tyre tests and for practice/qualifying, the course is split into three sections; cars and bikes alternating between sections on the various practice days. The only time they get to run over the entire length ‚
is on Sunday’s race day – and they only have one shot at it. And once your run is complete, you’re stuck on top of the mountain until the final vehicle arrives, and because the motorcycles go first, that means most of the day. The lower section, beginning at 2,862 metres above sea level, accounts for approximately half of the distance and is extremely fast, requiring major commitment to keep the throttle pinned. Section two contains most of the hairpins and as the vegetation disappears, the air gets thinner and petrol engine performance drops notably. By the time you hit Section three and four, engines have lost around 30 per cent of their power, and that’s where the electric motors come into their own. Rennie came away from the tests with the fastest time on the lower section, but admitted he was well off the pace on the top. “I really like the first bit,” he said. “It’s like a really quick road race but you have to convince yourself to not back off, and commit to the corners or you lose speed. You have to get the turn-in points exactly right, because if you apex too early you run wide, and that’s definitely not a good idea as there is zero run off.” The cars and bikes each have one designated qualifying session run over the lower sections to determine starting order (and bragging rights), and for the bikes this was on Friday morning on the final day of practice week. It came down to a thrilling shoot out between the two factory entries from Victory – journalist Don Canet on the Prototype Empulse RR electric bike and 2014 motorcycle winner Jeremy Toye on the Project 156 vee twin, Corsican hill climb specialist Bruno Langlois on a Kawasaki Z1000, Shane Scott’s KTM 1290R, and Rennie, the audacious rookie. Qualifying was conducted over three runs and after the first Canet held a narrow advantage over Rennie with Toye third, but in the second run Rennie edged ahead with a time of 4 minutes 16 seconds. It all came down to the final attempt and with a large gulp of oxygen from the canister, Rennie peeled off a run of 4.14 while Toye remained several seconds in arrears. All eyes were glued to the timing screen as Canet’s Victory electric silently whooshed off the line but by the first split he was 1.5 seconds down on Rennie’s time. The final split was crucial but Canet had his transponder come adrift and the honour of being fastest qualifier went to Rennie – the first rookie to do so according to those who know the year-by-year statistics. There was no time for celebrations because Friday evening is Fan Fest, when the Main Street of Colorado Springs is closed off and 35,000 people jam the area to see the competition vehicles and collect autographs. Thankfully, Saturday is termed a rest day, but there’s little rest for the officials and volunteers who work feverishly to make sure everything is in place for Sunday’s big event.
The great escape
“That was the most terrifying thing I have ever done”, said Rennie through chattering teeth, draped in an Australian flag and scarcely able to climb off the bike. It’s 6.15 pm on Sunday night, and competitors have finally returned to the start area after spending many hours on top of the mountain, where a blizzard has been raging since late afternoon. Half frozen, physically and mentally drained, and with a large bruise on his arm, Rennie had been on the peak – as snow and sleet set in – since 10.30 am, but he was lucky to be there at all. After setting the fastest times in the first two sectors, he crashed at the entrance to one of the right hand hairpins. “I braked at the same marker I had used in practice, but the problem was that I was going a lot faster and it was way too late. I didn’t even have time to change down; I hit the barrier in fourth gear and the bike went between the hay bales and the Armco and stopped dead, flinging me over the fence.” That was when his luck cut in, because he landed on a small level area beside the fence, beyond which there was only mountain air. Only minutes earlier, 21 year old Scotsman Connor Toner had made exactly the same mistake, but the rider and his SXV Aprilia cleared the fence and landed far down in the valley below. His father Joseph, riding a Triumph Triple, passed the scene a few minutes later, oblivious to the fate of his son, who was airlifted by helicopter with serious head injuries. After his somersault, Rennie quickly regained his feet and set about extricating the KTM. Back in the saddle, a precious 22 seconds had passed, and it was now raining on the last section before the summit, but he put his head down and finished his run with the second fastest time over the final few miles of Sector 4, despite having to
dodge a family of groundhogs that decided to cross the road at the apex of the first of the flat out left handers – which has an unguarded sheer drop on the outside. Various bits had been wiped off the KTM, including one of the GoPro cameras, which, remarkably was found by a marshal and returned to Rennie after the race. Crucially, the transponder, although torn loose from its mount, remained with the bike, recording a time of 10 minutes 28.407 seconds. The margin to the ultimate motorcycle winner Bruno Langlois (the 2015 winner) was 15.301 seconds. Simple maths tells what might have been, but it could also have ended in tragedy. While the majority of the program – the car classes, beset by numerous accidents and stoppages – were run, the bike riders huddled on the mountain as the weather closed in. By the time the last car arrived at the finish line and the slow process of returning to the start, 5,000 feet below, began, the snow was a foot thick. Despite the disappointment of losing the overall win, Rennie was quick to acknowledge the help he received from experienced Pikes Peak racers, particularly Greg Tracy who is the only man to record sub-10 minute times on both a motorcycle and in a car. “Greg is a fabulous guy who helped me more than I could ever imagine,” Rennie said. “I would go to him constantly and explain where I was having problems and he would sit me down and take me through the steps until he was confident that I had the message. That sort of help is just invaluable on a place like this for a first-timer like me.”
In this day and age, Pikes Peak is the sort of event that beggars belief. It is difficult to put into words just how punishing and scary it really is – a throwback to the ‘death with honour’ events of the ‘fifties like the Mille Miglia and Targo Florio. But Pikes Peak has always been thus, and it isn’t compulsory. Whether the motorcycle side of the event survives is currently a moot point. This year, the bikes were very nearly eliminated from the program over mainly insurance issues, and only retained after the organisers and the motorcycle people agreed to exclude race-spec superbikes in favour of modified road bikes – defined by having one-piece handlebars instead of clip-ons. With more worrying incidents this year, it can only be assumed that the pressure on the bike side will continue, but while the event remains, it is most assuredly a must see. Just remember to bring your oxygen canister and plenty of water.
TOP Fastest motorcycle qualifier Rennie Scaysbrook signs autographs at the Fan Fest. TOP CENTRE The prestigious and historic Broadmoor Hotel, built by Spencer Penrose, the instigator of Pikes Peak Hill Climb. ABOVE LEFT Rennie with Tom Moen, KTM North America Media Manager who organized the entry for the 1290 R Super Duke. ABOVE RIGHT Around 35,000 visited the Fan Fest in the main street of Colorado Springs. RIGHT Very few of the corners have any form of fencing, but this 100mph double right shortly after the start is not one of them. FAR RIGHT Happy birthday, Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.
It’s 5am on top of the mountain and riders huddle for a briefing. Pre-dawn at the starting point for the final section to the finish line.
Ducati fielded a four-man squad of experienced Pikes Peak riders to mentor contestants.
Young Scotsman Connor Toner was seriously injured when he crashed on the mountain. 2014 winner Jeremy Toye had the Exhibition Powersport class all to himself on the Victory Project 156 – named after the 156 corners of the hill climb.
Tomasz Gombos had a novel way of beating the ‘no clip-on handlebars’ rule on his Yamaha FZ-07 – the upside down ‘ace’ bars familiar to café racers of the ‘sixties.
TOP LEFT Regular visitors to the AMCN Island Classic, Wade Boyd and Christine Blunck on their GSXR1000 outfit. TOP CENTRE Five Quads entered; this is 17-year-old Brandon Tubbs II on a Yamaha Raptor. TOP RIGHT Japanese sidecar crew Masahito Watanabe and Masahiro Ozaki at work on their LCR GSX-R1000 in the freezing pit area on the Upper Section during Thursday’s practice. LEFT Eventual Middleweight winner Kris Lillegard prepares for an Upper Section practice run on his MV Agusta Brutale.
Rookie of the Year (Bikes) and second in the Heavyweight class, Aussie Rennie Scaysbrook qualified fastest in the motorcycle division but a mistake in the third sector of the main event cost him the overall win.
ABOVE LEFT Cycle World Road Test editor Don Canet took out the Electric Bike class on the Victory Empulse RR. ABOVE RIGHT Sidecar winner John Wood and passenger Matthew Blank grabbed a third Pikes Peak title. BELOW At least you can’t complain about the fences being too close. Check the following Youtube link for a short film of Rennie at Pikes Peak. www.youtube.com/watch?v=lX586jFyZXI&feature=youtu.be
Overall winner for the second year in a row, 54-year-old Bruno Langlois from Corsica on a Kawasaki Z1000.