Tackling Pikes Peak
At 12.42 miles long, it’s one of the shortest yet most challenging races in the world. So what does it take to truly climb to the top in the ‘Race to the Clouds’? Total 911 talks to Bbi’s Betim Berisha and driver David Donohue to find out…
David Donohue and BBI Autosport reveal the secrets to success at the world-renowned ‘Race to the Clouds’
Pikes Peak is written into history as one of the world’s most iconic races. It is to the art of hillclimbing what Le Mans is to endurance racing: every driver wants to win it, every team wants to conquer the competition and be crowned king of the hill. This year, Total 911 followed the fortunes of BBI Autosport, the Los Angeles-based independent Porsche specialist founded by Betim Berisha. In a true David v Goliath story, Berisha and his BBI team once again took on manufacturer efforts in the top ‘Time Attack’ class for the 99th running of Pikes Peak, after the team and star driver, David Donohue, suffered heartbreak in the 2020 event as a punctured tyre curtailed efforts to win the competition outright.
In the run-up to this year’s race, held on 27 June, Total 911 spoke to Berisha and Donohue to find out what makes the ‘Race to the Clouds’ so special, for both driver and team…
T911: Pikes Peak is a renowned event in motorsport. What makes it so special?
David Donohue: It’s a unique event. It is really pure because it’s you against the mountain. Yes you are up against competitors, but it’s not like they can have it off on a corner so it’s really down to you. I have always liked single-driver races and one-lap qualifying and this takes it to a whole new extreme. It’s like turning up to a track with no practice and doing a one-lap qualifier in the rain. You could have all four seasons in one run and the competitors, for the most part, are wonderful.
For the team, what’s your appeal and what’s your history with it?
Betim Berisha: It’s something special and as a group we love the challenges. From a crew standpoint you prep a car like a 24-hour Le Mans car, so you are building an endurance car for under 9.5 minutes or in that range, so you think about everything – you don’t get a second chance.
The other thing I like is how crazy it is on the crew, both physically and mentally. It’s a 2am wakeup call, get the trucks up the mountain, you are unloaded by 4.30am, you run hard, you test and compile as much data as possible to make changes based off of the driver’s feedback, to make them as comfortable on the hill as you can. You have five to six chances per day and then by 9am you are already back down the mountain. It went from -10c to 20c in temperature within a three-hour period, and then you have the altitude.
“That’s what really made us think this is a good fit for us: big horsepower, good handling cars and whacky downforce”
On Tuesday, we typically test during the official practice at the Devil’s Playground, which is 12,000ft in elevation. You get out of the truck, you are cold and a little delirious. You have just sat in a warm truck for about an hour and then you watch the crew guys get out and the altitude hits you. You are laboured for breath, you are carrying tyres, it’s cold, it’s dark, and you are using head lamps.
I have been fortunate enough to go as a technician to Le Mans for two years and then I did eight Daytonas as a crew guy and nine Sebrings, so I have gotten a lot of experience in endurance racing, whether it’s been in private tier teams or working for Porsche directly. Nothing has captured me like this place when Jeff Zwart took us there in 2013, and since then I have made it my mission to be up that hill as much as possible and compete at a serious level.
It’s nice being in a private tier team like us because we can go and rub elbows with the factory people, even if we aren’t in the same class. You can still pull up in the van with an open trailer with a serious weapon and good driver and do really well. In North America, it feels like the last frontier – you have the Baja 1000, the Salt Flats where private tiers can go and set records. You don’t need the trucks, trailers etc so as David said, it’s very pure.
From a technical standpoint you have a few things working against you: the altitude for one, which can cause horsepower limitations. The cars have a lot less aerodynamic downforce because of the thinner air. Then you are pulling less heat out of the car so your turbo is working harder, so they turn into heat pumps and then you have to try and leach that heat out within a thin atmosphere. Then you have the cold temperatures, so you are trying to keep heat within the tyres, and then a driver who is trying to piece it all together and make sense of it all. The crew are trying to make the most sense of the four minutes so that they can make the changes and get back out in line again. So a lot of cool challenges. Also, the sheer size of this place – it’s unreal. When you are at the bottom of the race and you look up you just see this barren peak that looks like something from Mars, and you just see this tiny little light and realise that is where they are going in under ten minutes.
It’s just incredible and I can’t imagine what it would be like for the driver and the sheer scale of testing you have, piecing that all together. We try to pride ourselves on giving the driver a car where they give us small bits of feedback that can make a big difference. The driver has to use all of that bandwidth to piece the track together. If you take away 25% because the chassis is battered, then that is going through their head and this takes away from the driver. So as their team, it’s our job to let the driver utilise as much of that bandwidth as possible.
What took you there in 2013?
BB: We were commissioned by a gentleman called Jeff Zwart, who is a heavy hitter in the Porsche world from the Pikes Peak Hill Climb, who is also an iconic photographer and filmmaker. He has been competing there since the early ’90s. I started BBI with a few friends and shortly after that Zwart walked into our shop and wanted us to put a car together. I drove a GT2 RS – 997 variant – with the turbos and the year before that I drove a Cup car. I thought if I could mix the nimble lightweight suspension geometry of the Cup car with the engine of the Turbo then we would have something.
We built the car, with a 996 Turbo street engine put into a Cup car, and warmed it up with 800 horsepower. It ended up being so much fun because we were able to have a scenario where the driver could rip it in the corners and have enough power in the clouds to carry him through it. When we went there in 2018, that’s what really made us think ‘this is a good fit for us’: big horsepower, good handling cars and whacky downforce. We got 3rd place that year in TA1, in 2014 we learnt some lessons and came 2nd, and then in 2015 we got 1st place in class.
How about you, David?
DD: I befriended Porsche Colorado Springs and it is in their back garden. They asked me with such enthusiasm that I couldn’t say no. I saw a video and honestly thought, ‘how am I going to learn this?’ because it isn’t close to where I live either, being a four-hour journey away.
To be competitive in a race where you have so many factors to take into consideration, it’s fascinating to watch…
DD: I never did the race when it was gravel, but I can imagine it’s more consistent between the practice and race when it wasn’t all asphalt, because now we have tyres that work in a certain temperature range. However, it’s hard to get the tyres into that operating temperature range. If you are practising at the top section and starting at 12,000ft going to 14,000ft, you cross the finish line of pavement and go onto dirt, so if you happen to get your tyres up to temperature, it’s like glass. You can’t pour hot water onto glass and then cold because it won’t like it, and tyres are just the same. As soon as the tyres get onto moist dirt, the tyres don’t like it. You could have no miles on a car and kill your tyres by not managing them correctly.
How do you go about entering the world of Pikes Peak today?
BB: I wouldn’t be a part of a programme unless there is a lot of responsibility and/or the driver themselves are vetted and prepared to do this, because it is a ‘both feet in’ sort of deal. I had to shut my shop in order to check the cars and I had all 14 employees with all hands on deck. If someone were to come to BBI and say, ‘I want to do this, I don’t have experience but I am a seasoned driver’, I would say let’s do the GT4 class. In the first year, get familiar with the hill, environment and altitude, get used to living in Colorado for a month or so.
If you don’t have the experience then I wouldn’t want to be a part of that programme because it would be irresponsible. There are so many elements that you don’t think about until you experience it and then they hit you. You can prepare for them but there is always something new that hits you.
Would it be fair to describe BBI as the Manthey Racing of North America?
BB: I worked for Porsche Motorsport North America so I was very fortunate to be immersed in that programme, and actually that is where David and I really first met. I worked on his Daytona prototype programme back in my past life. I would love BBI to be something like Manthey. I look up to what they have done as a company and how they have done it. We are fortunate enough to have a powerhouse of staff here. Every single person here is wildly talented at what they do and that is key to our past successes and our vision. I would love to be rubbing elbows with Manthey or even in the same conversation. It’s so flattering to even have our name in the same sentence as those guys.