2010 Pikes Peak Hill Climb Practice Day 3 and Qualifying - Click above for high-res image gallery

A few lessons learned from my second day on Pikes Peak:
  • If you don't like cold weather, then watch the race on the bottom part of the course. After experiencing the freezing temps at 14,000 feet, I came better prepared this morning with more layers and hand warmers. I needn't have bothered. Even at 4:30 in the morning I was comfortable in a light jacket. Who would've thought that being 9,000 feet above sea level would feel so good?
  • Don't forget sun screen at high elevation. The sun feels twice as harsh in the thin air. I'll be peeling for weeks.
  • You can't drink too much water in Colorado. Despite downing what seems like gallons of water, I still feel more dried out than a saltine cracker. I guess that's what happens when it's 85 degrees out and humidity is only at ten percent.
  • While I know why they split up the vehicles into three groups for practice, it's kind of a shame. You have to choose between seeing a different set of vehicles or seeing a different area of the track. I chose to stick with the same group since I wanted to follow the battle between Millen and Tajima.
  • The spectators here are insane. There are basically no rules for where you can or can't stand, so just about anyone can stand a foot off the road while the cars fly by. Sideways. Towards a cliff.
While it couldn't top my incredible experience the previous day, the third day of practice brought plenty of excitement. The lower portion of the course has huge stretches of pavement that provide plenty of space for the drivers to fully open it up, and even more importantly, it's this section that serves as qualifying for the race. The top qualifier in the Unlimited class gets to choose when he wants to start on race day, which can be of huge importance if weather comes into play. Follow the jump to learn how the last day of practice went, whether any of the drivers think they have a chance at breaking the elusive ten minute mark and a few choice words from Millen and Tajima.

Photos by Drew Phillips / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

I spent quite a bit of time at a 180 degree switchback, partially because it made for great photos, and partially because there was a course martial with a radio. It helps to know what's actually going on. Midway through the second session a report came back: "Monster" Tajima had broken the record for the fastest qualifying. Back at the press room I learned he had beaten the time by around eight seconds, running the bottom part of the course in 4:28.469. Is it time for the record to be broken? Well, given good weather conditions, it's almost guaranteed to be broken in the next two years, if not this weekend. The city of Colorado Springs will be paving the upper dirt portion of the road starting next month, adding an additional two and a half miles of pavement. Next year the remaining dirt portions of the course will be paved over, meaning that the 2012 race will be done on all pavement. More pavement means more speed, and less time.

I was fortunate enough to be able to talk to all three drivers of the Unlimited class, each of which had a unique perspective on today's practice session, this year's event in general, and the changes to come.

Nobuhiro Tajima:

Speaking only a little bit of English, Tajima is a man of few words, but what he does say is chock full of laughs. Who would have thought The Monster would be so funny? When asked whether he had a movable rear wing like Millen, Tajima replied "No, mine does not move. I move!" as he mimicked steering his car with a big grin on his face. How does he feel about the new competition in the Unlimited class? "I'm very happy, because this is motorsports. Sports! We need the competition." He's quite confident, as well. Another reporter asked him whether he would win on Sunday, and he exclaimed "Of course! 300 percent going to win!" That was followed up with his legendary 'thumbs up'. This guy is cool.

Rhys Millen:

Millen has had a tough few days, but that's to be expected. He's running a brand new car in a class he's never competed in. His crew had a few short months to build the car, and testing began only a week ago. He seemed quite confident when I talked with him during his initial practice runs in California, but deep down I think he had set some realistic expectations for this year. "You can't come here like the Ford team last year and expect to be on top of it," he said at the press conference. "I have experience with the hill, I know I can push harder, I know I can drive the car harder, but I just need to develop the car a little more." Millen suffered shifter problems yesterday, which significantly hindered the team's ability to fine tune the car on dirt. "We had transmission trouble yesterday, and it probably couldn't have reared its ugly head on a worse day. First time on dirt we were expecting to do a lot of changes, and we were just trying to get the car to shift so it would go up the hill."

With the limited time they did have on dirt, the Millen camp found that they need to make some significant changes to the suspension setup. "If we had one more week we would have tested the car on a dirt oval and we would have found that we were too stiff on spring rates. What we thought was good grip on pavement would transfer over to good grip on dirt, but we are probably fifty percent too stiff." Tomorrow the team will be spending the off day testing the car at a local dirt track in attempt to get it completely dialed in.

Today's testing session, however, was more encouraging. "The car felt fantastic on pavement," Rhys told me. "It's at home. We went softer on the the front springs and we actually removed the front sway bar. We changed the rear toe trying to get grip on the dirt and all of those changes only helped me on the pavement."

Rhys was also impressed with the performance of his Hyundai engine. The turbocharged mill can deal with the elevation changes very well, even though the car loses a little bit of boost pressure. "We had four psi on the table. One run I raised it two and a half psi and the car was spinning the tires everywhere. So I backed it down to less power to go faster. That's probably the first time as a driver in my career that I've asked for less power."

Despite the car's excellent performance on pavement, Rhys was still nearly fourteen seconds behind Tajima in qualifying. At the press conference following the practice session, Millen seemed to partially concede that his rival was the dominate competitor and picked him as the sole man who could beat the ten minute mark this year. "Up until the bottom section today I would have been skeptical (about the record being broken). After running it today and hearing Mr. Tajima's time I think he is very capable of breaking ten (minutes) this year."

Even so, Millen is quite confident about the future. In fact, it's obvious Rhys built the car to really race next year when the additional pavement comes, but wanted to be at Pikes Peak this year to get invaluable experience and time on the course. "If you look at a car like Mr. Tajima is running here, he has had six plus years in this particular car and 16 years in the Unlimited division. That car has a lot of development. Is it the car for today's road, this particular year? Yes. Is it the car for the future? No. We built the car this year for the future, and the car is very, very fast and very efficient on the pavement. Obviously there is the big shadow over the ten minute barrier, but that record will be continually broken for years to come. If ten minutes falls this year, and we believe that we have the strength and the package to continue to break that record." He concluded by saying, "I would like to have been more prepared this year to win, but knowing that we have been here this year and the car has been very good for its first time out, definitely next year I don't think there will be anything that can beat us."

Paul Dallenbach

Paul Dallenbach might be the least talked about driver in the Unlimited class, but he shouldn't be completely counted out. The Colorado native is a Pikes Peak veteran, having won the Open Wheel class six times and has won the overall event three times. For this year he's stepped up to the Unlimited class and arrived at the mountain with upgraded aerodynamics and more power. Unfortunately, he has had a rough week so far. "The first day we blew a motor, but we did get in six runs. We put the other engine in, and it's a little smaller, but it's an engine that I raced with last year and it's very capable." Dallenbach missed out on yesterday's practice, but managed to get the car ready for this morning, albeit with new problems. "The crew did two all-nighters and we just didn't get the timing set right. By the time we figured out that's what it was, we missed a run. When we went on our last run, a wire fell off of the fuel pump and it just died."

Despite the troubles, Dallenbach is still confident in the potential of his car. "The car actually handles wonderfully. It's a lot faster than what the times showed over the last two days. At the end of the day I think we'll all be fairly close. We all have our problems here and there. He (Tajima) had his problem on the first day, Rhys had his problem yesterday, and I had my problems all three days," he said with a chuckle.

Like Millen, Dallenbach is excited about the potential of the extra pavement next year. "My car is good on hard surfaces so it's going to benefit it, but I really need to come back with some factory help on an engine. That's my big thing that's hurting me right now. I'm running the same engines I've had for ten years. They're great engines, and they have great torque, but I really need something that's more reliable."

Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!

Talk is just that – talk. What really matters is what happens on Sunday. Will Tajima remain the king of the mountain? Can Rhys sort out his new car in time? Can Dallenbach pull a huge upset? More importantly, will the record fall? Tune in Sunday evening to find out.

Photos by Drew Phillips / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

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