Photo: Volkswagen

A good fictional character once said, “I just wanna go fast.” That’s a noble pursuit, yet when you delve into the world of racing, you come up against so many rules and regulations in most series prohibiting you from so much that you just want to tear your hair out. Not so much at Pikes Peak.

(Full disclosure: Volkswagen wanted me to check out their new Pikes Peak car so bad that they paid my way to show up, which included travel, food and lodging for a test day as well as the race weekend itself. I even got a warm and fuzzy VW hat that will face certain greasy doom as soon as a cold race in the 411 comes up.)

Set-up started before the sun rose for a practice day earlier this month.
Photo: Stef Schrader

The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb tickles that same pleasure-center in my brain as crazy projects like the Porsche 919 Hybrid Evo: the goal is to build the fastest car and go the fastest in it, with little more than safety concerns in the way.

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There are some rules at Pikes Peak that sort builds into classes, some of which are more restrictive than others. Yet if you just want to build something truly insane, this is the place that allows you to run it. The rules are mercifully hands-off compared to any of the major wheel-to-wheel series on earth, with some basic safety and design restrictions that allow competitors a mostly-blank slate to build whatever they can dream up.

Want to build something nuts, be it in your backyard or with the full backing of a major constructor like Volkswagen or Norma? Go for it, dude.

Want something tamer, and proven? There’s an entire class here for Porsche GT4 Clubsports, if you’re more into keeping it simple and competing against people in the same machinery. Travis Pastrana, C.J. Wilson and J.R. Hildebrand are among the names tackling the Peak in that class.

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Want to run a twin-turbo W12-engined Bentley Bentayga up the hill, because you can? That’s what Rhys Millen is doing this year, and it’s hilarious to see that big behemoth tearing up the hill.

This is the beauty of Pikes Peak. PPIHC is one of the last pure, no-BS forms of racing. Its classes leave things open to home-built or thrash-prepped machines to compete alongside big factory record-seeking and attention-grabbing efforts. You’re all at the mercy of the hill and its unpredictable weather, equally. There is no equivalence of technology, balance of performance or other speed-hobbling nonsense in its top classes. Run what you made, suckers.

It’s the ultimate display of human ingenuity and a captivating madness all in one. It draws you in. The enthusiasm is infectious. They aren’t just here to run the cars—they’re here to suck you into this madness with them.

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Photo: Stef Schrader

There’s truly something for everyone at Pikes Peak. Turbos and electrics rule in the thin air at altitude, which means that it’s one of the last places where the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution—the faster, turbo-rally-nut version of my beloved daily driver—lives on. I cheered when it went by on practice day. Now that’s a real Mitsubishi: all speed and violence.

Pikes Peak isn’t limited to cars, either. Semi-trucks, UTVs and bikes also make the run up the mountain. All are welcome at this celebration of speed. There are numerous different records accordingly, not unlike land speed racing. There’s always some kind of crazy stat or feat worth enshrining as extraordinary every year.

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Past Le Mans winners like David Donohue and Romain Dumas speak of Pikes Peak with incredible reverence even though they have all the opportunities to race in the biggest races in the world. Le Mans feels like the big professional milestone—a must-do for top-level endurance drivers. Events like Pikes Peak and the Nürburgring 24 Hours feel more like what those pros do for fun.

There aren’t many places where a car like the I.D. R is allowed to exist.
Photo: Volkswagen

What baffles my mind is that Pikes Peak is a tremendously accessible race if you’re crazy enough to try it. While I’ve never been to the race until this year, I’ve seen friends back home—as in, normal people with regular day jobs and the smaller budget that implies—fight hard to scrape together just enough cash to run. Folks will sell off spare parts for months and go all-in on miser mode just to fund entry fees, fixes and upgrades for one annual shot at Pikes Peak.

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eBay louvers on Donohue’s 911 Turbo S from 2017
Photo: Stef Schrader

But the cleverness needed to send it up the mountain isn’t limited to that. Everyone does what they have to to make it work. Even the major guys improvise to an amusing degree. Donohue—who now acts as Porsche’s official go-to guy for anything 918 owners can ask—proudly showed off his Porsche 911 Turbo S from last year, which featured eBay-sourced $18.99 louvers for Ford Mustang rear-quarter windows in use as fender vents.

Hey, it worked! He set a coveted sub-ten-minute time as a rookie in that car—thanks in part due to motorsports superfan (and longtime friend of Jalopnik) Noah Wheeler modifying Donohue’s cars for the elevation in Assetto Corsa, which Donohue used to practice running the hill at home. The ways people get involved with this race from all over—even digitally—are fascinating here.

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Donohue’s car this year is a more standard 991.1 GT3 R that used to belong to the Alex Job Racing IMSA team, but even it had some freshly installed weather stripping under the hood from Home Depot to help channel air more efficiently through the hood scoops into the radiator at elevation.

Donohue’s 2018 car.
Photo: Stef Schrader

Most of all, Dumas explained over lunch that the need to constantly improve here is almost like an addiction that won’t ever be satisfied no matter how many times you run the hill climb. Maybe the weather slows you down, the car could be developed a bit further, or you left time here or there. Dumas, who’s won here three times before, even told us that he “gave up” on Pikes Peak multiple times but always came back, because this race nags at you to come do better. Go faster. And in Dumas’ case behind the wheel of the utterly bonkers Volkswagen I.D. R this year, aim for that record.

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The sentiment that unites all of these different racers from vastly different backgrounds is that Pikes Peak is as much man versus the mountain as much as it is man versus themselves. The mountain doesn’t care how you got there, made a part or made something work. All that matters is going fast.

Photo: Stef Schrader

This year marks the 96th running of America’s second-oldest race and features nearly 100 entries, ranging from a 1986 Lancia Delta S4 to motorcycles with sidecars to the incredible twin-turbo LS-powered Enviate Hypercar (which was designed with help from members of the Sauber F1 team).

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The race itself starts at 8:00 a.m. Mountain Time on Sunday, June 24. You can watch this year’s running from home through Matchsports’ pay stream here, which is $4.99 for the race. Alternately, KRDO will have radio coverage here, and you can keep up with the live timing screen here. And of course, we’re there, too, so if anything major happens, expect a post. I’ll be on the ground searching for the coolest builds and most interesting stories I can find.

Photo: Volkswagen