By my count there were eight red flags, three life flight helicopter trips, five ambulance trips, over a dozen driver visits to the hospital, and at least one injured spectator at this weekend's Pikes Peak Hill Climb. Why?
Many people think the fully-paved course is too fast and responsible for the accidents, but all the big ones occurred on sections that were already paved in the past. Personally, I believe it was the limited practice time that created a less safe environment. It was certainly the big reason why I decided not to race this weekend.
In the past, competitors got 5-7 runs each day of practice for a total of 15-21 runs on the various sections before race day (the mountain and drivers get divided into three groups and you practice a third of the mountain each day with only one complete peak run allowed on race day). This year the race organizers accepted a ton more entries but didn't pay to keep the mountain open longer on practice days.
So we only got two passes every morning instead of the usual 5-7 runs. While sitting in line to qualify, I heard one official say to another something to the effect of: "if one more driver complains about the limited run time I'm going to lose it!"
The drivers were complaining out of safety. Out of concern for their lives. And they had every right to complain. Take a look at Jeremy Foley's crash as he climbed the W's to Devils playground. I don't think I've ever seen a scarier accident in my entire life. Thank God Jeremy built one hell of a strong car. I think it saved his life.
I think this underscored my point that the drivers weren't complaining because they paid money and expected so many runs-per-dollar like an autocross. They were complaining out of fear for their life. When I heard that statement about drivers complaining about lack of practice, I feared the organizers had no idea how this year's race was about to shake out. I'm sure there have been worse years with more injuries and there have been deaths in the past. It's the second oldest race in the US, but only two drivers have died competing, which is amazing given the nature of the course. But I've never been to an event with so many injuries after one day of racing.
Sure, some cars had mechanical issues, like when the throttle stuck in Paul Dallenbach's car. That has nothing to do with practice time. Dallenbach is a legend at this race, he knows the course perfectly.
The old school hill climbers and hard-core rally guys laugh at the limited practice time, but the Pikes Peak Hill Climb is one of the largest grassroots races on the planet. It's one of the last events where you can build your own car, of your own design, and show up and race it without any previous competition experience. They say you need to state previous competition experience to be considered for the race, but there are drivers there who have never held a competition license.
And it's not just the amateurs that need practice. Even the pro Dacia team had issues and Jean Philippe Dayraut lost control and stuffed the car. It was for sale if you had 250,000 euros. And it wasn't just the drivers that got hurt. All week long it felt like injuries were being announced over the radio. The saddest might be the 5-year-old girl that went to the hospital when a Mustang hit a rock she was standing on –- no one is exactly certain where she was standing but apparently she was within inches of losing her life.
She was released from the hospital later that day. The co-driver of the car also went to the hospital. No word on his recovery. The same thing happened on race day. Red flag after red flag. Life flight helicopters racing up the mountain on numerous occasions. It almost seemed normal it happened so often. And I'm not sure how many ambulances brought people down the mountain. There were so many incidents I lost count.
Imagine that. You go to a race and so many people get hurt you can't even keep track of all the names. And we haven't even covered the spectator safety issues. Take another look at Dallenbach's crash. He cut massive trees down with his car. It's amazing that no one was hit. The outside of the corner was lined with people watching the race. My friends told me horror stories of people lying down and sleeping on the outside of corners only a few feet from the road.
Unlike other races, you are allowed to stand anywhere provided your feet are not on the pavement of the race course.
Some of this makes the race a cool place to visit, but it's also dangerous. Someday it will be a race of only professionals in carbon fiber monocoques, but for now the field is a mix of drivers. They need the practice. It's critical to their success and, more importantly, to their safety.
(Full Diclosure: Bill Caswell was registered for the event in a World Challenge Mazda RX-8, but only made two runs in qualifying and withdrew for a number of a reasons that he'll cover in another article. A large factor in his decision was the limited practice time in the car and on the mountain, but it wasn't the only reason. — Ed.)
Photo Credit: Bill Caswell, Getty, Mitsubishi