The Pikes Peak Hill Climb - 100 Years
The Pikes Peak International Hillclimb began in 1916 when the Pikes Peak carriageway was widened and renamed the Pikes Peak Highway. The course was fully gravel and very technical, 12.4 miles (20km) in length and with 156 corners. The race was won in its first year by Rea Lentz, in an aero engined car in a time of 20:55.6. As the years went on the cars only got faster, with increasingly specialized open wheeled hillclimb cars dominating the event. The second longest continuously running auto race in America was born.
Starting in 1946 the Pikes Peak Hillclimb was continuously included in the AAA and USAC Indycar Championship. It went on and off between being a points paying race, and the cars were simply modified versions of the standard Indycars with dirt tires and beefier suspensions. The cars evolved as they did in most open wheeled racing series at the time, getting smaller, lighter, lower, and more powerful. Times tumbled, but eventually in 1970 the Indycar series chose to drop the event from the schedule.
In 1982 some Americans ran an Audi Quattro Group B rally car unmodified at Pikes Peak. After they won the race for two years in a row Audi sent a full factory effort, bringing a heavily modified version of the new Group B Audi Quattro S1. The car featured extreme aero and brought with it a new era at pikes peak. Gone were the open wheeled specials and in were the specially built factory backed production based monsters. Competitors of Audi in Group B, Peugeot wouldn’t let Audi’s newly set records stand unchallenged. They sent their own effort in 1987 to fight the Audi Quattro. Their 205 t16 was unsuccessful, so Peugeot went back to the drawing board for 1988 and brought a real fight with the Peugeot 405 t16. They took Audi’s crown and set the new record in the process at 10:47.22. The excellent skills of driver Ari Vatenen can be seen in Peugeot’s celebratory short film “Climb Dance”.
Peugeot won again in 1989 before the Americans took back their pride for two years. This was short lived however, because the Japanese came in 1992 to take over the mountain. Suzuki won in 1992 and 1993 and set a new overall record of 10:44.22. This record was very short lived however, as the arrival of Rod Millen brought with it a new era. In 1994 Millen drove a highly modified Celica to what stands as the fastest time on the fully gravel Pikes Peak. He got ever so close to the 10 minute barrier with a time of 10:04.06 in his turbocharged 1000+hp monster. He would relinquish the victory the following year on a shortened version of the course, but then would win the next four, first in the Celica, then in a Tacoma.
In 1999, the Sierra Club, an environmental organization in Colorado, sued the city of Colorado Springs to force them to pave the highway on the grounds that the gravel runoff from the road was damaging the environment around the road. Their suit was successful and the city began paving sections of the road every year in 2002. To allow the race to continue during this time the road was paved in sections, although not from bottom to top. The race began extremely dangerous and unpredictable in those years.
The teams had difficulty setting up their cars for the mixed surfaces and had limited practice in finding where the course changed surfaces and what the different parts were like. During this time Suzuki took over the mountain, winning the race from 2005 to 2011 and finally breaking the 10 minute barrier with a time of 9:51.3. The paving project was finally finished in 2012, allowing the race to take a huge increase in speed.
In 2013 Peugeot and Sebastian Loeb came to Pikes Peak with a mission. On the newly broken in paved Pikes Peak Highway they wanted to set a new record before the road began to deteriorate, and make sure that the record would stand for a very long time. They brought the Peugeot 208 t16 Pikes Peak, which weighs only 875kg and has 875hp, giving it the magical 1:1 power to weight ratio. The rear wing of the car was taken directly from the 908 LMP1 car, and fitted higher on the car for the hatchback body. Loeb’s record setting run crushed the previous record of 9:46.2 by over a minute and a half, putting down an astonishing time of 8:13.9. The record setting run was captured forever in onboard footage by Peugeot.
Since the paving of the course specially built electric hill climb cars have begun to race Pikes Peak. Power outputs have grown massive amounts and the cars have also become much lighter. The benefits of electric on the mountain are really quite obvious. Without the need for air the electric cars maintain their high power outputs all the way up the hill climb while internal combustion engines experience a decrease in power as they get to higher altitudes. The evidence of this benefit was fully revealed in 2015, when Rhys Millen won the hill climb in his electric powered eO PP03. In 2016 the successor to that car broke the 9 minute barrier with an electric record of 8:57.1.
The future of Pikes Peak may rest with the electric generation, but internal combustion will always have an important place there. I myself will be driving to Pikes Peak to watch this coming summer, so look forward to some pictures and video from the 101st running of the Pikes Peak International Hillclimb.