2010 Pikes Peak International Hill Climb - Click above for high-res image gallery
I had a choice to make for the race day of this year's Pikes Peak Hill Climb. Do I stick to the more photogenic middle portions of the course or do I head to the finish line to potentially see history made? The decision was easy. If the infamous ten-minute mark was going to be broken, I wanted to be there to see the car at the checkered flag. After all, the chances seemed quite good. "Monster" Tajima had smashed the qualifying record the previous day and had looked incredibly fast during the practice sections. The track conditions and weather were ideal in the morning, and the first few groups showed plenty of promise. In fact, a few track records were broken in the morning groups of cars, including Rhys Millen's recent fastest time in the Time Attack 2WD class.
There was an atmosphere of excitement and tension near the finish line as it was announced Tajima had started his run, and we all waited impatiently to hear the shriek of his Suzuki's twin-turbo V6. It soon arrived, echoing around the surrounding mountains. Within 30 seconds Tajima came tearing around the last turn, the rear tires breaking loose momentarily as he fought to keep it pointed towards the finish line. The Suzuki came tearing across the finish line, and we all looked at one another, wondering if the record had been broken.
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Photos by Drew Phillips / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.
The time came in: 10 minutes and 11 seconds. There seemed to be a collective sigh among those us at the top of the mountain. With two more cars yet to come from the Unlimited class, there was still a chance of the record being broken, but in reality it would have to wait until next year. Our disappointment was shared by Tajima, who emerged from his car looking dejected. He was desperately to break the record, but to no avail.
Paul Dallenbach soon arrived in his Chevy-powered open-wheeler, and while he tore across the line seemingly just as fast as Tajima, the results were even more disappointing: 10 minutes and 39 seconds. So it was down to Millen. Unfortunately, some menacing clouds started to form, and we all wondered if Millen would be afforded the same weather conditions as the other two drivers. We waited. And waited. But no Millen. The storm clouds came closer. Finally the sound of Millen's turbo'd V6 Hyundai could be heard around the next few corners. Just as the snow started to fall, Millen appeared and took the checkered flag.
As I ran over with a crowd toward Millen's car, we immediately knew the run hadn't been a success by the grimace on Millen's face. He explained the delay in his run as well as the various troubles he experienced on the way up the mountain: "The transponder wouldn't work, so they were (having me go) backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, and they had to pull the whole car apart to put a transponder on there." He continued, "our shift mechanism doesn't like to shift at a high RPM and I was pushing the car harder than I had. It went into a neutral mode off the second corner. I literally had to come to a stop and restart again. That kind of frustrated me a bit. I spun shortly after that, and then we lost the brakes at the W's. So I just had to be really gingery just to get it up here in one piece." Millen's final time came in, a disappointing 11:06.
Despite his troubles, Millen managed to stay positive and looked forward to next year's event. "This year was the first year for the car up here, and I'm so happy for the crew for Hyundai and Red Bull. Exercise number one was push the engine to the limits, and we did that. It's been rock solid all week long. We didn't have enough time to tune the chassis. Now we've got 12 months. The competition better watch out next year."
Realistically Millen's troubles are the norm for a racecar's first run, especially one that had such little time for development and testing. Rhys estimated that twenty plus seconds were lost due to his "driver error", and while he didn't come close to beating Tajima, the ten minute barrier is still up for grabs. With more pavement coming next year and a full 12 months, Millen believes he has plenty of opportunity to "get it right for next year."
While the three cars in the Ultimate class had already made their runs, there was still plenty of excitement to come. After a half our break to allow the snow to pass by, it was time for the sidecars to make their runs. That's right, sidecars. There were two drivers and two incredibly trusting men crazy enough to go up a 14,000 foot mountain at full speed, all of which were greeted by freezing temperatures and a bone-chilling wind at the summit. Needless to say, these guys are completely insane. My only regret from the race was huddling inside a warm van as the snow came to a stop, just missing the opportunity to photograph the sidecars as they crossed the finish.
From there it only got more entertaining. I headed down to the Olympic hairpin, one of the final turns before the finish line, to watch the various quads and motorcycles tackle the mountain. The 180-degree right-hander proved to be an entertaining place to watch the classes blow by. Many of the motorcycles entered the turn in a rear-wheel-drift, while a few of the quads exited the turn on two wheels. The apex presented the motorcyclists with quite a challenge. Two riders took rough spills, and a spectating rider who had already completed his run commented that the inside of the turn was particularly slippery.
After the last of the motorcycles had crossed the finish line, I was in for a little more excitement. I had heard that a semi truck was entered in the race in the Exhibition class, but had not yet had the pleasure of seeing it take on the mountain. Soon the distant sound of a big diesel filled my ears. the massive truck appeared from around the corner and barreled down on the hairpin. Being at the end of the hairpin I prayed that the huge truck still had some brakes left, and I knew no guardrail was going to stop that amount of mass. Fortunately, the modified Cascadia Freightliner made a surprisingly nimble turn up the mountain, with massive amounts of black smoke billowing from the exhaust.
With the race over there was one more treat for the thousands of race fans that dotted the side of the road. Each of the racecars still has to make its way back down the mountain, and each of the vehicles coasts down while the drivers wave to the fans, most of whom are cheering or applauding as they go by. Inevitably, the racecars get mixed up with the hoards of cars driven by race fans making their exit towards the bottom of the mountain, making for an unusual scene as they sit in traffic together. As I rode back down the mountain in a shuttle, I looked over to see none other than Rhys Millen coasting alongside us. When traffic stopped, he opened up his door to chat and shake hands with fans on the side of the road. This truly is like no other motorsports event in the world.
It may have been disappointing not to see the ten minute mark fall this year, but one thing's for sure: I'll be back next year to see Tajima, Rhys and the rest of the drivers and riders take on Pikes Peak again. You should too.