It’s hard to grasp exactly how crazy the idea of racing up Pikes Peak really is from photos or maps. This year 77 cars and bikes of all shapes and sizes rocketed toward the sky in one of the world’s greatest races, braving steep drop-offs and treacherous bends. But what does that really feel like?
I wanted to know too. So, when I was offered the chance to borrow the actual pace car for last weekend’s hill climb for a trip up the mountain, I pretty much had to do it.
(Full Disclosure: Acura tossed me the keys to their pace car Saturday morning, paid for the obligatory donut and mug at the top, and made some of their drivers available to ride along and talk shop. Additionally, Volkswagen paid for my food, travel and lodging to this race weekend to be there for their epic record-setting run.)
The pace car for this year was a 2019 Acura RDX A-Spec, which is Acura’s new midsize crossover that they’re pushing hard at the moment. Sure, it’s a far cry from any race car, but I get how marketing works, and it handled pacing duties just fine.
This one had all-wheel-drive, and it was peppy and comfortable on the mountain. Heck, I think I may have been affected by the elevation more than the Acura’s turbo inline four-cylinder engine was. On Sunday, it seemed to handle speeding around the mountain alongside the hill climb’s well-loved hail-dented course pickups just fine.
I, however, wasn’t about to speed up a mountain I didn’t know during open public drive time. Pikes Peak had already lost a demo car from the race to jackwagon behavior in Colorado Springs.
Instead, I was there to take a closer look at the course and the many, many ways it wants to hurt you if you get something wrong at speed. James Robinson, the driver of the No. 902 Acura NSX this weekend, was riding shotgun to explain the course. James and his brother Nick both work at Honda Research and Development in Ohio, and both competed in Acuras last weekend.
Weirdly, most of the course didn’t really feel as scary or sketchy as I expected. It’s a pretty standard two-lane road all the way up the mountain now, having been fully paved since about 2012. Many parts felt downright roomy compared to the winding outer-suburban roads near Seattle that I learned to drive on. You should be looking where you want to go behind the wheel of a car anyway, so I saw more of the road ahead of me than the brutal drop-offs to the side.
But don’t mistake the race for a nice Sunday drive through the park. Robinson was sure to point out some common corners where people trip up, or where the dangers are extraordinary.
On Friday, Pikes Peak rookie and friend of the site C.J. Wilson summed up the course the best out of anyone I’d spoken with all weekend after running a practice section that ended above the treeline at the Devil’s Playground area: “There’s a couple corners where legit—if you fuck up, you’re dead.”
Take, for example, the series of hairpins before Devil’s Playground. If you mistake one for the other, or lose concentration there, you can fly right off the mountain onto a steep, boulder-covered section. Or there’s the tricky turns ahead of the “Sump”—named so for a pond nearby, which Motor Trend contributor Randy Pobst’s Nissan GT-R launched right over when he got the line wrong there in 2015. Pobst was okay, but the video’s still really unsettling to watch.
A turn deemed “Blue Sky” is named such because that’s all you see in front of you when you face it. That’s exactly where you’ll fly if you forget to turn and accidentally use it as a ramp.
Then there’s the spot called “Bottomless Pit.” Technically, it has a bottom, but it’s far down a steep cliff and you really don’t want to find it. One Porsche driver who skidded towards Bottomless Pit’s drop-off was mighty thankful there were barriers at the edge of the road.
Barriers are one thing that you notice on Pikes Peak simply because there aren’t many there. According to James, they only put guardrails where there’s a significant danger. If you can see clearly ahead of you and will probably go straight or follow the road, there isn’t a guardrail. That’s why there’s big drop-offs to the side of the road with no barriers, but still guardrails where there’s a hairpin turn. There’s also hay bales put on the course, often in front of barriers to soften the blow for motorcycle riders.
The top section of the mountain includes some of the fastest parts, but because the road is affected by permafrost, it’s constantly shifting and always bumpy. Some parts were recently repaved this year, which were a surprise to new overall record-holder Romain Dumas on a practice day two weeks before the race.
No one told him there was fresh pavement up there, but hey—you don’t get any warning that the road has settled or shifted, either. The RDX wasn’t too fazed by these lumps, but it can get super rough in the low, purpose-built racing prototypes that are now Pikes Peak’s fastest cars.
Overall, the course is 156 turns that all seem to want to trick you. Because it’s all uphill, it’s easy to over-slow for corners and lose momentum. You spend so much time going up hill that some parts are steeper than they appear—a good chance either to shorten your braking distance by letting the hill slow the car down for you or to forget and screw it all up.
James noted several corners you’d intentionally ignore, not apex or otherwise “throw away” to get a better line through a trickier corner right after it. He also noted that the hairpins all but require you to turn in late to get the most speed on the straighter bits afterwards. As for those turns, his advice was to consider right turns—which you can see a little better—safe, and never trust left turns, just as a rule.
Competitors were already trying to help themselves by sneakily marking turn-in and apex points on turns with rocks on Saturday, but James advised against this. Marmots and spectators alike tend to move those rocks, which could be your undoing. Pick a more permanent landmark to reference—guardrails, towers or other bits—if you must.
Spectators are another thing to watch out for, as there’s not a lot of fencing to keep them out of your way. James noted one photographer who likes to stick up out of a ditch like a gopher when cars come by near the top. Sometimes they wander where they shouldn’t be, and where drivers don’t expect them to be.
The top is cold but weirdly welcoming, with an incredible view, an abundance of good dogs out to stretch their legs, and a snack bar that serves donuts unlike any others I’ve ever had. The elevation seems to affect how the donuts cook, because James pointed out that they tend to deflate and aren’t as good if you try to bring them down the mountain. There was a constant flow of tourists in and out on Saturday, which meant that the donut I got was fresh and warm.
It was slightly crispy on the outside, and sweet despite not being coated in a thick glaze. Ripping sweet dirt parking lot donuts on the summit in your car is heavily frowned upon, so the edible kind have to do.
I was mostly doing fine with our leisurely trip up and down the mountain until I started to feel a little dizzy down by the base. Fortunately, there was a parking lot outside the exit gate to pull over and give the car back, but that’s another hazard in itself. If the course itself doesn’t get to you, the elevation might.
The top of the hill climb is above the 12,500-mile point where pilots are required to use supplemental oxygen in planes so as not to pass out mid-flight, for one. A lot of competitors now use oxygen in their cars to handle it, but stories of getting loopy on one smuggled-up post-race beer before taking a nap at the summit are common.
Then there’s the weather, which is notoriously unpredictable. The Volkswagen team didn’t even want to put it out there that they might set a new overall record because they knew how quickly the weather could change for the worse on race day. This year’s race was paused in the afternoon after it started hailing on the start line, and only resumed after the storm passed with a shortened course that only went up to Glen Cove—not even above the treeline—as it was also snowing up top.
Actually seeing the course in person makes it all that more incredible that folks were hauling up there in under 10 minutes, much less the 7:57.148 that’s the new overall record. Not only do they just get one shot to go up there, but sometimes there’s a giant drop-off where the runoff area would be on a normal race track.
Many competitors spoke about being a little more conservative with their runs up Pikes Peak than they would otherwise be on a regular race course, yet all the lost time that they leave behind also seems to be what nags them to return. There’s always room to push harder or improve the car.
Dumas’ 7:57.148 run was beyond nuts—but something tells me that it won’t stay put as the record for too long.