The Broadmoor Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is one of the most insane and dangerous races I have ever done in my career. With high-speed corners obscured by century-old trees, 140 mph blasts along a cliff’s edge and high-speed corners with only sky as your reference point, it challenges every skill I’ve ever earned as a driver. It is also one of the most addicting races I’ve ever competed in, unsurprisingly for those same reasons.
The race is in my blood now, which is why — after a two-month COVID-19 delay — I found myself back at the start line, looking up at the mountain’s 14,115-foot peak and steeling my nerves for another run to the summit as quickly as my car and my talent reserves would allow.
But this story doesn’t start there. It actually started 14 months prior to my previous attempt at the mountain. That year, for the first time since I started racing Pikes Peak, I failed to make it to the summit. Fortunately for me, it wasn’t a car issue and I didn’t crash — although I might as well have crashed, given the substantial dent to my ego. No, last year Mother Nature decided that my run to the summit was not to be, as she unleashed rain and hail in biblical proportions while I did my best not to literally float off the side of the mountain, as I was running on racing slicks.
Making the tough admission that discretion was the better part of valor, I pulled off the road at the halfway point (hence the dent to my ego) and spent the rest of my afternoon hanging out with the hundreds of spectators who had camped out above Glen Cove. Any time you DNF is tough, but to DNF while you’re going after a record is an extra giant kick in the ’nads.
Back in 2016, I set the front-wheel-drive record for the Hillclimb with a time of 10:56. A couple of years later, Nick Robinson eclipsed that time by 8 seconds with a 10 minute 48 second run in a factory-backed Acura effort. The car I ran for my record-setting run was our 24 Hours of Nürburgring Audi TTRS with barely 370 HP at sea level and still running an endurance set-up, so I was confident that I could get my old record back with a bit of effort.
However, two full years would pass before I would get that chance. In 2017 I ended up running a 900 hp, salvage Corvette up the hill (yes, that actually happened) and I had to opt-out of the race in 2018. So to miss out on the record in 2019 just because of a few sprinkles was more than a bit frustrating.
As you can probably guess I was more than amped-up for this year’s race. And then came COVID…
During the lead-up to this year’s race (which at the time was set for June 28), I must have called race director Megan Leatham a dozen-plus times looking for any updates. The closer the race got, the more obvious it was that there was no way that it would, or could, go off as scheduled.
Sure enough, in mid-March the decision was made to postpone the event until August 30. That decision was followed by a second, and far more difficult, decision not to allow spectators at the event. Both decisions were reasonable and prudent given what we knew of the virus and right in line with what other motorsports events have done. More important, making those hard decisions would guarantee that the race would go on.
Although a two-month delay in the race doesn’t seem all that big of a deal, from the driver’s and team’s perspective it changes almost everything. For starters, the simple logistics for the teams have been flipped upside-down. Even though the hillclimb itself is only one day, the whole event — including tech, practice, and qualifying — takes up an entire week. Crew, hotels, flights and all that are usually reserved several months in advance. With the change in the race, everything had to be rescheduled.
For us drivers sitting on the couch, watching the scheduled race date pass by is more than a bit unnerving, but more important, it puts us into unknown territory on the mountain. For us veterans of the race (and I am an admittedly junior veteran) you gain an understanding over time of what to expect out of the mountain.
Temperature, weather, and road surface conditions throughout the week are usually similar from year to year. And a lot of our car set up and preparation is based on that general knowledge. But with the race now moved to late August, you don’t really know exactly what to expect.
Add to that unknown the thick smoke that enveloped the mountain from the forest fires in western Colorado and you’ve got a whole bunch of furrowed brows wandering around the hillside, not exactly sure what to do with their car set-up.
For us, the week of practice/qualifying actually went pretty well. The lack of spectators wasn’t really noticeable as they aren’t allowed up on the mountain until race day anyway. The only other difference was that we got a slightly later start in the morning due to sunrise coming later in August than in June, by fully 30 minutes. That meant I could get up a 3 a.m. as opposed to 2:30. Hooray! Because the road up Pikes Peak opens to tourist traffic at 9 a.m. the week of the race, we have to do our practice runs bright and early at 6 a.m. That means we have to be up on the mountain at 4 a.m., which in turn requires us to leave the hotel no later than 3:30. Yeah, its a bitch, but it is a small price to pay for getting to get to drive up a national landmark at unrestricted speeds.
Our Motul/Bluewater Performance Audi S3 was virtually unchanged from the race the year before. We swapped out the old Drexler-sourced differential that was in the trans and replaced it with a new one as we were concerned about the longevity of the original unit as we were now trying to push 600 HP through a diff that was designed for only half that. Otherwise, we ran the car in the same spec as the year prior, as it was working very well then.
And my practice times were backing up my confidence in the car. I was 1.5 seconds quicker in the top sector and 2 seconds quicker in the middle sector than my times from last year. While those times gave me a bit of a morale boost, I wasn’t relaxing one bit. Ever with our quicker pace, we were only, by my best guesstimate, 4 or 5 seconds up on the record. That’s 4 or 5 seconds over an almost 11 minute run on a road that can change dramatically day to day or even hour to hour.
The other thing concerning me was that the top section was as bumpy as I’ve ever seen it. Laying and maintaining asphalt at 14,000 feet on a narrow, steep mountain road is no small task. This year the task has been made even more difficult, as there is a massive construction project under way at the peak — a new cog rail house to handle all the tourists that either take the aforementioned cog rail to the summit or make the drive up throughout the summer.
With heavily loaded trucks constantly driving up and down the mountain’s upper section for the past year, the road has been pretty well worked. The last bit of road coming up into “Cog Cut” (which is the second to last corner on the run) was so bumpy and rutted that it was literally bouncing my foot off the gas pedal! Also, ABS systems don’t really like it when only one of the wheels being braked is actually in contact with the ground. The resulting system shit show—which is a technical term we use — forced me to brake way early. Otherwise there was a good chance I could go sailing past the corner, right off the face of the mountain, with the ABS happily singing along and providing no stopping effort whatsoever.
I guessed that the poor conditions at the top could cost anywhere from a few tenths to a couple of seconds depending on how hard you were willing (or able) to attack it.
With last year’s death of our fellow competitor and friend Carlin Dunne still fresh in our minds, we all entered this year’s race with a renewed respect for the dangers of the mountain, and many of the competitors I spoke with before the week started said they were going to take their time getting up to speed and avoid taking too many risks early. But hey this is 2020, and 2020 gives zero fucks about your plans.
Straight into the week, we had two crashes. The first crash was one of the three Teslas that were competing. Pikes Peak rookie Josh Allen took his Model 3 off at Engineers corner (a corner that has caught many a veteran out as well). That Model 3 wasn’t too badly damaged but unfortunately Josh was. Suffering from compressed vertebrae, he was forced to withdraw from the race. Later that same day, Pikes Peak veteran Don Wickstrum went off in a fast Porsche at Sump corner, the same corner where Randy Pobst went off a few years back. Unfortunately, both Don and his car were both too badly banged up to continue.
Speaking of Mr. Pobst, Randy decided to continue the run of pre-race incidents by nearly having the mother-of-all-offs. I’m sure you’ve read all about that crash on these pages already, so I won’t rehash the details. However, I will say that every single report on his crash did not do any justice to how near a miss Randy actually had. Just the other side of the wall that Randy hit is a straight 1,000-foot drop. And when I say straight drop, I mean it. Randy literally would not have hit anything but air for 1,000 feet. Yeah…
Anyhow, our week leading up to race day was much less dramatic. The car ran well. We qualified 14th overall and 4th in class (and fastest FWD by some margin). So we went into race day knowing that we had a pretty decent shot at retaking the record.
Race day itself was totally different from previous years for a number of reasons. The first was (as I mentioned before) there were no spectators on the hill except for a few die-hard mountain bikers/race fans that managed to find the back trails up to the paddock. The only nice thing about having no spectators was that I was able to actually spend the night in my hotel room as opposed to having to get up a 2 am to beat the spectator traffic in order to get up the hill on time. Imagine several thousand spectators all trying to get to the top of the course on a two-lane, twisty mountain road and you’ll understand my desperation not to be stuck in that particular fuckery.
Traditionally the motorcycle classes ran first, but after Dunne’s deadly crash last year, motorcycles were not included for the 2020 running. Combine that with the lack of spectators, the going thought was that we could get the race done and dusted before noon. However, as always, Mother Nature had her own plans. A heavy overnight rain shower combined with freezing temperatures at the peak had turned a section of road into an ice skating rink. There was no way to remove it without damaging the road surface so the decision was made to delay the start a couple of hours to let the sun melt it.
That plan worked to perfection, however waiting for the sun to heat things at the top also meant the road heated up at the bottom as well. We practice early in the morning, long before the sun has had a chance to heat the road. Going off nearly five hours later means that we face completely different conditions than what we had set the car up for. We made our best guess to reduce tire pressures by two psi all the way around, but it was just a guess.
We got it wrong, something I realized about two corners from the start line.
My Motul/ Bluewater Performance Audi S3 had substantially less grip than at any time in practice. As the lower section has some of the highest speed corners I knew I had to do what I could to minimize the time loss there and try my best to make it back later in the run.
In sectors 1 and 2 (out of 4 that make up the course) I lost 6 seconds to my best time in practice but was able to make all of that back as we got higher in elevation and the road cooled down a bit. That meant I started the 4th and last sector one-tenth of a second off the record. But the bumps and ruts in that 4th sector were insurmountable, and I lost another three seconds and finished with a time of 10:51.243. That’s one second off of 4th place in class and an agonizing 3 seconds off the FWD record.
I’m gutted that we couldn’t get the record back this year, but the team is already hard at work giving the Audi S3 a major overhaul for next year’s race, and we will be back ready to take up the challenge once again.
Congrats to all of the competitors for making it to the top this year. And a big congrats goes out to this year’s King of the Mountain, Clint Vahsholtz. Clint has run the Hillclimb every year since 1992 and is a local in the truest sense of the word, as he lives six miles from the hill.
To me, that’s what makes this event so special. Pikes Peak is that throwback event that I always hear fans saying doesn’t exist anymore. Think about it — two years ago you had a full works Volkswagen EV prototype with a French pro behind the wheel. This year you have a local hotshoe winning in a home-built open-wheeler. Now that’s old-school racing at its finest and that’s what keeps me coming back.
I had Larry Chen back shooting pictures for us during the race this year. He has too many good shots to include in the post so I’m just going to post a few of my faves for you guys to enjoy.