Over a hundred years ago, the mining entrepreneur scion of a wealthy Philadelphia family set his sight on Colorado Springs. He started construction on a swanky, European-inspired hotel back in 1916, but decided he needed an attraction to lure tourists to the region. Setting his sights on a nearby carriage road, winding its way up a neighboring mountain, he had it built up into a highway fit for motor vehicles. Then, he held a race.
That was the first Pikes Peak (not-yet-inter-) National Hill Climb, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that backstory would lead to a droll, uninteresting motorsports event. Rich men, out to rake in tourist cash, devised a race that now features a one-model-only class for Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsports. Surely this is a champagne and caviar occasion, accessible only to those with a Rolex on their wrist and Pilotis on their feet.
If you think that, you’re dead wrong.
Full Disclosure: Acura brought me out to Colorado Springs for the 100th running of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. They paid for my airfare (including another, last-minute flight after one was suddenly cancelled), lodging, food, and oxygen tanks. They also gave me the keys to a 2023 Integra, and sent me up the mountain in it with a factory driver riding shotgun.
The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is the world’s biggest grassroots motorsports event. Sure, manufacturers and race teams dump absurd amounts of money into building cars to climb the hill, but those high-dollar builds run side-by-side with factory-fresh Mustangs and race-worn Subarus. A purpose-built single-seat chassis may hold the mountain’s overall record, but the event’s race divisions still let drivers jockey for times against vehicles that they stand a real chance of beating. It’s balanced, in that way.
For half the price of a ticket to NASCAR at The Glen, you can camp out by Pikes Peak’s finish line or wander the paddock at the start. At either end, or from anywhere in the middle, you’ll see one of the most varied groups of racing cars ever to share a single course. Diesel trucks, open-wheel dune buggies, showroom fresh Porsches and big-aero E36es are all welcome.
The paddock, however, is where Pikes Peak truly feels like a grassroots event. No amount of money poured into the event will stop Larry Chen from passing out peeker stickers, or give you any more time to dodge Dai Yoshihara as he saunters through the crowds with the determination of a born-and-bred New Yorker. Those people you know from YouTube? They’re here. They’re two feet away from you.
The cars are even closer. Spectators are blocked from the staging area, just behind the green flag, but that area only fits one car. To approach the course, each competitor still drives through the gawking crowd. There’s no separation between competitor and spectator, and why should there be? We’re all on equal footing as enthusiasts.
Each driver can bring a few crew members into that staging area, to ensure the car is prepped and ready for the twisting road ahead. But, if you don’t have enough crew member to fill out the roster, why not bring your Zoomer-haired kid right up to the green flag? I saw more than one, shooting their Instagram content unencumbered by a pesky media vest.
The course itself is grueling, miles of nearly-identical twists and turns that can confuse even experienced drivers. The one corner everyone knows, the Evo Corner? It really does tighten far more in person than you can see in any GoPro footage, and it comes at the tail end of repeating switchbacks — count the turns, make sure you got them right, or you’ll go off the edge.
Of course, that assumes you can even see the corners. At over 9,000 feet of elevation to start, and over 14,000 at the end, Pikes Peak’s weather is harsh and unpredictable. This year, thick fog and cold winds made the course even less forgiving towards mistakes, leading one competitor to roll his car fully off the course.
He landed on his wheels, and kept going. If you got the chance to drive Pikes Peak, wouldn’t you?
For many people, myself included, seeing Pikes Peak in person is a true bucket-list item. It’s one of the most historic races in the United States, and one that runs so differently from any other that it’s almost a completely unique form of motorsport. Aero, suspension, tires, wheels, nothing from other racing series works perfectly here. Everything needs to be tweaked for the Race to the Clouds.
If you missed out on the race’s 100th running, get a ticket for the 101st. Wake up stupid early on a Sunday morning, and make your way up the hill to a spectator spot. The people around you will have done the same thing — everyone, from spectators to crew chiefs, is equal in enthusiasm and in sleep deprivation.
I’ll see you there next year.