Volkswagen’s big-budget, record-breaking I.D. R may have dominated the headlines from Pikes Peak this year, but it was far from the most interesting story at the mountain. Every year, there are dozens of smaller teams whose road to Pikes Peak includes everything from last-minute thrash-wrenching to driving the car all the way to the race—all in hopes of getting one clean run.
(Full disclosure: I was Volkswagen’s guest for Pikes Peak this year, and they paid for food, travel and even gave me a loaner car to use to do things like buy calf fries and head back to the race after the press group left.)
You only get one chance to get a fast run up the mountain. There’s no other stages as there are in a rally where you can make up time. Practice times don’t factor into your final time up the mountain. It’s down to you, a car and how fast you can drive up that mountain. That is, if the mountain lets you.
Some competitors didn’t even get to run all the way up due to a hailstorm that ran across the base of the mountain, visibility-killing fog and snow blasting the very top. Getting to run at all is purely at Mother Nature’s discretion here.
In that context, the amount of effort that people put into hopefully getting one good shot up the mountain is incredible.
Here are some of the most fascinating teams I saw at this year’s Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.
Kash Singh’s 2017 Ford Mustang GT is exactly the kind of street car I dream about. It has a gigantic hillclimb-worthy wing that satisfies something deep down in my Fast and Furious-addled soul. It’s stripped down to go racing, but left the important creature comforts in, like a stereo system and cupholders. Plus, up front lies a delightfully ludicrous twin-turbo V8.
That’s because it is a street-legal car, and he drove it down from his home just south of Seattle, Washington, to run up Pikes Peak as the No. 78 entry. Singh bought the car with just 40 miles on the odometer, and only put 40 more miles on it before he let a shop hack into it and turn it into a true beast.
Singh’s journey to this year’s race wasn’t exactly smooth. His engine blew up on June 5, forcing him to rebuild it in less than ten days so he could drive to Colorado on June 14. He took three days to get there, as he had clutch and brake issues en route. Luckily he was able to fix it in Colorado, and then he started laying down his personal-best times in practice.
Granted, even I am afraid of driving my race car to events in case it gets crashed en route or at the event itself. A tow vehicle and a trailer is a nice back-up method of getting home in case the worst-case scenario happens. But Singh said that it doesn’t bother him. He’s not afraid of crashing—after all, he did that in 2017 when his car ate rock at Pikes Peak.
Racing the same car you drive around on the weekends sounds like a blast. This isn’t the first road-driven Mustang Singh has taken up Pikes Peak, either. He previously ran a GT500, and then a 2016 EcoBoost after that.
One had subwoofers that spectators could hear blasting up the mountain, as Singh does like to put on good driving music for his runs up Pikes Peak. The cupholders came in handy, too, as Singh became infamous for eating a bucket of KFC in his race car. He even won over a cranky photographer on course with a Snickers bar pulled out from one of the car’s cupholders. The car’s bluetooth system also came in handy one year when Singh’s power steering went out on course.
For years, I’ve thought I was a true genius for ripping out all of the niceties from my race car to save weight, but I think Singh may have outsmarted us all with his cupholder-having, stereo-blasting race car. Sadly, Singh’s run this year happened after the course was shortened due to foul weather conditions, but even then, if he’s not living the life, I don’t know who is.
One man was so fast in such a cheap car that even new overall record-holder Romain Dumas was astounded by his speed: Tim Hardy. Tim bought his Pikes Peak-running 1988 BMW E30 from Craigslist seven years ago for just $450, according to the Colorado Springs Gazette, although Hardy says it was $460 on his older build thread on r3vlimited. Either way, it’s no multi-million dollar Volkswagen.
Hardy is a Colorado Springs native who dreamed of running up the mountain all his life, so when he finally had that cheapo BMW, he spent years making it ready to run up the mountain, as he told the Gazette:
Everything has been gone through and redone. We had it on a rotisserie and flipped it over, we started on a shell and stitch welded the frame up and gone through it multiple times. We made all of the aerodynamic panels ourselves to try to lighten the car and try to get a car that’s aerodynamically like a brick to run closer to something like a Porsche or something that flows better.
This year, he qualified in the top 20 in that sub-$500 Craigslist find and laid down an unthinkable time of 9:59.709 for his run up the mountain. That won him third place in the Time Attack 1 class and eleventh place overall.
Even after that run—which was a faster time than the Acura NSX GT3 and the Radical RX3 GT3, both of which were built as race cars and race cars only, not as converted street cars—Hardy told the Gazette that there’s still a few corners where he thinks he lost time. That’s Pikes Peak for you: it’s a race against yourself as much as it’s a race against time.
One of the prettiest cars I saw on the practice day right before the race was a 1966 Shelby Cobra powered by a rowdy bored-out, meth-injected Chevy small block V8. Layne Schranz was set to run an updated, fuel-injected version of this car, but it broke the Friday before the race weekend. So, they pulled his father Randy Schranz’s carbureted Cobra out of the Penrose Heritage Museum and thrashed to get it ready to race.
Randy Schranz was inducted into the Pikes Peak Hill Climb Museum Hall of Fame this year for competing in the race for over 40 years with ten class wins to his name, so his Cobra was in the museum for the past four years for good reason.
This year, that ultimate ran-when-parked-in-a-museum special received a transmission swap, a new rear end and new shocks to get running for this year’s race.
Sadly, this back-up Cobra/museum piece didn’t finish the full climb up Pikes Peak on race day, but it certainly sounded great in practice, running, inexplicably, less than a week after being pulled out of the museum.
The Hyundai Tiburon is one of those cheap, almost-sporty cars I always associated with high school parking lots. You couldn’t talk your mom into a Mustang, so you got this cute little Tiburon instead. Somehow, Jonathan Newcombe’s 2008 Tiburon cranks out around 500 horsepower to the wheels.
A Tiburon even held the front-wheel-drive record up Pikes Peak until some hoser named Robb Holland beat it in an Audi TT in 2016.
Newcombe’s Tiburon was an ex-World Challenge racer that he’d built up into a hillclimb monster over the years. It wasn’t running great this weekend—it blew an oil fitting near Devil’s Playground in practice, oiling down the finish, and despite thrashing to get going on race day, ultimately pulled out of the race after the hail started falling on the start line.
But man, I appreciate that this thing is there. This is one of the true joys of Pikes Peak: you never know what you’re going to see. In a line-up of beautiful Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsports on practice day, it was this oddball Hyundai that stood out the most.
This Tiburon was better built than your buddy’s was in high school. It ran on E85 fuel, had a big turbo, had a massive wing and splitter as Pikes Peak cars often do, and of course, had all the required safety gear inside for hillclimb racing.
It usually ran mid-pack every year among much faster cars in the Time Attack 1 class. I was rooting for this one so hard—partially because I’d love someone to force Robb to come back and try to defend his front-wheel drive record.
If there’s any car you become extremely familiar with over years of use, it’s a daily driver. David Hackl’s 1983 Audi A1 Quattro used to be his daily, but had been fixed up to run on the mountain.
Hackl’s car was the other one that grabbed my attention on practice day in the run group full of Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsports. He said that the car was taken down to the bare shell in the process of being fixed up to race hillclimbs, and the cool fender flares were added after that.
Hillclimbs aren’t the only place Hackl’s classic Audi goes. He takes it ice racing in the winter to keep his driving skills sharp. Hackl told Jalopnik that he plans to build another couple of classic Audis, only this time, they’ll be a bit shorter like the Audi S1 that used to hold the overall record up Pikes Peak.
Is there any better place to see a classic Quattro than at Pikes Peak? Probably not.
Volkswagen’s beautiful record-destroying Pikes Peak racer was the ultimate “we’re sorry” for Dieselgate. It’s the car that screams, “Here is the cutting edge of what our new technology is capable of, so please forget that Dieselgate was ever a thing.” So, let’s look at Boxeer’s tube-frame, fiberglass-body Fun Cup based on a 1972 Volkswagen Beetle running a (formerly) cheaty 2.0-liter turbodiesel from a 2011 Volkswagen. It rules!
Boxeer, who specializes in VW tuning, first removed the TDI’s cheaty EGR system, throttle body and diesel particulate filter and replaced them with their own parts. The car runs an aircraft ECU that uses a CAN BUS system instead of the usual OBDII so they can tweak items a bit more easily. And tweak they did—the TDI now cranks out 250 horsepower and 450 lb-ft of torque.
They originally bought the Fun Cup to do platform testing in-house, but what they built with it was too fun not to race. In addition to tuning the crap out of TDI engines, they can make the fiberglass parts at the shop, so they’re set in the case of a worst-case scenario up the mountain. The Beetle itself has a 1974 VIN plate (yes, even race cars have this) and windshield wipers from a 1973 Beetle, but nearly everything else on the car is custom.
Boxeer is already planning a carbon fiber version of their car to follow up the Fun Cup’s run, possibly even with methanol injection. They really, really want the diesel record up Pikes Peak, and I’d love to see that of all things won by a Volkswagen. Sadly, they couldn’t go for it this year, as they only got to run the shortened course after storms pounded the start line with hail.
Ohio State University is in a sweet spot when it comes to vehicular shenanigans. Honda’s major research and development hub for the United States is close by, and student teams get to use the Ohio State-managed Center for Automotive Research for their own projects. So, you get neat stuff like the Venturi Buckeye Bullet 358-mph electric car and the all-electric Buckeye Current RW-3x 3 motorcycle that ran at Pikes Peak this year.
Electric drivetrains that don’t lose power at high altitudes are a no-brainer for hillclimbs like this, and with more and more electric cars on the road, this is exactly the kind of project you’d want to do if you’re looking to hop into the automotive industry after graduation. Best of all, competitions like Pikes Peak leave the design requirements far more open than student competitions, which allow the engineers on the team to go nuts.
Ohio State’s motorsports projects are entirely led, built and engineered by students. The university gives them space, but students do all the rest, including attracting sponsors who enable them to tackle bigger, crazier projects. This was their second year running at Pikes Peak, and the only non-student on the team was pro rider Robert Barber. Barber’s feedback as a former Isle of Man TT racer helped the student team develop the motorcycle into a quick competitor.
When I spoke with members of the team, they said that they had been there for three weeks leading up to the race. Eight students form the core of the team, with 20 descending on Pikes Peak weekend itself. Big events that need extra hands are a good way to get younger students involved in the team and train the core members’ likely replacements as the older students graduate.
The Buckeye Current RW-3x run an entirely electric drivetrain in a Honda CBR1000 frame with an MV Agusta front end. It’s a neat mishmash of off-the-shelf parts and custom items designed by the student team. Battery upgrades for this year gave it over twice the power over last year’s bike—15 kWh instead of last year’s 7 kWh.
They were seeking a time of 10:20 or even 10:15 up the mountain and really wanted to set a new record. Another university team from the University of Nottingham was there with their own electric bike, so they were the main rivals. Sadly, Barber was the rider who fell on race day and brought out the long red flag that delayed the start of the cars going up the mountain. The team will have to try again another year.
Seventy-seven cars in total were on the official Pikes Peak results list this year, and each one has their own story. Some were bigger-budget efforts with more support, but even those have their own struggles to contend with. Others spend months scraping up whatever extra cash they can in hopes that they can get one full run, at a place where hoping that the weather holds out is all you can do.
The open rule set means that everything from full-on racing prototypes to grassroots rally cars and 1200-hp diesel trucks can run up the mountain. Yet it’s the folks who just scrape by to get here every year who are the most interesting and relatable to me. Pikes Peak may attract some of the biggest companies and names in racing, but it’s worth a look past the crowd huddled around the cars fighting for overall records to some of the ingenious fixes and absurd mods done to otherwise fairly regular grassroots race cars.