The Germans aren’t exactly known for being laid-back on a good day, but the morning of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb was particularly stressful.
Harsh weather was moving in fast to the area, and the Volkswagen I.D. R team knew they needed to run early or they might lose their ability to lay down the record time they were after. Making matters worse was the fact that we were all waiting on an ambulance to come down the mountain.
I was there when it happened, and it was pretty unforgettable.
(Full disclosure: Volkswagen paid for food, travel and lodging for me to attend Pikes Peak as a guest of their team. To be fair, I will probably return all of this money and then some as I try to get my 411 race car running again. PRAY FOR ME.)
Rider Rob Barber from the early-morning motorcycle group had fallen, bringing out a lengthy red flag on course. Fortunately, Barber’s team Buckeye Current Racing confirmed that Barber should recover from the injuries he sustained in the fall.
No one likes long red flags, but it was especially stressful for the Volkswagen team. Rain was forecast for later in the day, and threatening looking clouds kept hovering around the peak of the mountain. Every minute spent not getting the car out on course was a minute closer to rain, and any kind of slippery conditions could mean that the car wouldn’t even set the electric record they were going after.
Data suggested that the team was on track to beat the overall record, but the team knew exactly how quickly and severely conditions could change at Pikes Peak, and shied away from saying they would gun for a new overall record.
I joined the crowd hovering around the Volkswagen I.D. R pits at around 9:15 a.m., shortly before they peeled one wall off the front of their pit tent to let the car out.
Team members kept looking worryingly at the sky as a fluffy cloud hovered around the top of the mountain and greying skies overhead. From the base, it looked like a friendly chunk of wayward Poly-Fil, but we all knew that the wandering cloud could wreck visibility and drop hazardous precipitation if it enveloped the mountain.
The car ultimately didn’t leave until around 10 a.m. Things tend to run behind at Pikes Peak without any incidents, and the ambulance delay here lasted around 45 minutes in total.
There was no relief in seeing the car finally leave, though. Not a single person who was involved with running the car seemed to be smiling. Some left with it to look at the starting line, and the rest of us following the team hovered around monitors showing live timing and the video feed inside. Volkswagen’s pits were almost completely empty as everyone was glued to a timing screen to see how it would do.
Eventually, Simone Faggioli’s Norma M20 SF PKP lined up to the starting line—a reminder that yes, other cars still were set to go up the mountain. It would go on to set the fastest lap of the day.
The same clouds threatening Dumas’ record run were blamed for communications issues at the base of the hill, hindering wifi signals and video feeds. The video feed, which showed Dumas barreling through encroaching clouds up top, kept freezing, but we all heard the announcers and saw the time as it logged into the timing screen: 7:57.148.
Even though it was impossible for any of us to see the whole thing, just realizing that someone did that insane uphill 156-turn, 12.4-mile run that fast felt unreal.
The mood of the room instantly changed from all nerves and terror to one of jubilation as soon as that time hit the timing screen. Cameras and phones were whipped out to shoot that lone piece of evidence that Dumas had done it.
Champagne glasses were quickly brought out by catering staff in a tent next to the Volkswagen pits. Crew members at the base were finally smiling for what felt like the first time in hours, if not days.
Interested onlookers swarmed to their pit area as the team cheered, hugged and passed around shirts that had a with a blank space to mark the time. Even the shirts only lauded it as a new electric record, as if they didn’t want to jinx the possibility of a new overall record there, either.
Part of me felt like I had a fun secret for a while because I couldn’t even text anyone that Dumas had pulled it off. There was no internet or cell phone signal, and any attempt to communicate to the outside world felt like screaming into the void. It’s hard to be a reporter in that situation.
I’d hiked a little up the mountain to a patch outside the spectator area early that morning where I somehow got cell phone reception to text in to our weekend staff to be on the look-out for a new possible record, and hoped they’d seen. That’s all I could really do at that point, given that the story was unfolding here, and the cell phone reception was a fair hike away from the starting line.
Immediately a herd of other journalists covering the race and I thought of other records the I.D. R should break—particularly the Nürburgring, as that’s the big one everyone obsesses over. When I asked team technical director François-Xavier Demaison about the possibility of a ‘Ring time being set with VW’s new electric beast, he didn’t rule it out but said that it’s up to their corporate overlords whether they’d get the approval to do it. The aerodynamics would have to change to run at a lower elevation, anyway.
At Pikes Peak, though, the Volkswagen team lucked out. A hailstorm paused the day in the afternoon as snow pelted the top of the peak, after most of Volkswagen’s media guests left. I opted to come back to the race after taking the media shuttle back to the hotel only to find big chunks of hail still on the ground. The race was paused for this and resumed with only a partial run for the remaining competitors up to Glen Cove, below the treeline.
Dumas’ car only had enough charge to make it up the mountain and the freezing temperatures at the top didn’t help, either, so he got his celebratory descent of the mountain—where fans come out of the trees to high-five and cheer on competitors who made it up the mountain—riding back down in a course truck.
Hey, if you only need to make it up the mountain to claim the record, mission accomplished.