In the late 1970s, Pikes Peak saw an influx of small lightweight open-wheel Neaman-Dreager roadsters powered by Porsche 914 aircooled flat-fours with barely 100 horsepower. These little under-1000 pound cars were taking the fight directly to the larger and more powerful USAC-style front-engine sprint cars and Indy roadsters. In 1979, California dirt track racer Bruce Canepa figured more power would be the correct answer, and slung a Porsche 911 RSR engine off the back end of his Neaman-Dreager chassis.
The Porsche mill proved competitive, but it was a bit of a handful with all of that extra weight hanging out behind the rear wheels. The weight disadvantage somewhat negated the power advantage, and Canepa could do no better than 15th overall, behind one of the 914-powered examples.
For 1980, Bruce and his team developed a 911-turbo powered model. The idea here was not only to add power with a well-tuned 450 horsepower output, but to sustain more of that power at altitude with boost pressure. It was a novel concept at Pikes Peak in the early 1980s. A very forward-thinking technological advancement. The proof was in the pudding, however, as Bruce set the pace for the 1981 running of the event. His pole time in 1981 was a new qualifying record for the mountain, and the stage was set to run an astonishing time on race day.
Coming to grips with the new turbocharged powerplant, Canepa was flat out up the mountain. By the time he reached the mid-way point of the hill, he was well ahead of the record and had a nice gap to what Unser’s car was capable of. Canepa was well on his way to becoming the new Pikes Peak hill climb champion for 1981, and a new record.
Where the prior iteration of the car featured the loud and echoing bark of a straight-piped Porsche 911 RSR engine, the new turbocharged engine was much quieter. At the “W’s” section of the race course, Bruce came around a blind curve to see a race spectator nonchalantly crossing the road on foot. In a moment he was able to avoid the pedestrian, but spun the car and stalled in the process.
Bruce was eventually able to re-fire the ignition and get back underway, but he’d lost significant time in the process. He finished the climb to the clouds and was awarded second place overall for his efforts. A championship effort dashed by the unpredictability of humans.
For the following season, Unser lobbied the hill climb’s sanctioning body to increase the minimum weight of the open-wheel class, citing safety concerns. Or, as Bruce puts it, “The Unsers got that car outlawed after that year because they couldn’t run with us.” Taking his toy and going home, Canepa never again ran the turbocharged Porsche special, though he keeps the car in his personal museum at the Canepa Motorsports shop in Scotts Valley, CA.
This effort proves that, while Volkswagen may be the favorite to win this year in a new-technology German speed machine, almost anything can happen on the mountain. Here’s hoping it goes better for them than it did for Bruce.