We were at 9,000 feet, at three-o-clock in the morning, and it was cold. Today wasn’t a normal day in the same way Pikes Peak toll-way isn’t your normal highway. Today was Sunday, today was race day.
We finally passed the toll booth, and our own sort of race began, in pursuit of the best spot to watch the hill climb. Shortly after the toll booth, the dense forest gives way and the driver is presented with sheer drops on both sides of the highway. To the east dawn was beginning to break: It was a beautiful sight. Had the race not been held in that part of the year during which the days are longest, I would have missed the Sun as it rose out of Colorado Springs to bathe the valley before me in a glorious, hazy light.
Andy and I settled on a spot at roughly the half-way point between start and finish: Cove Creek, just below the tree line. There had been some construction going on nearby – an indication of a continuous campaign to pave more and more of the highway. Over the years, the highway had undergone a transformation from mostly dirt surfaces to pavement. It was only a couple years later that the highway was completely paved, and race times dropped to levels previously thought impossible.
Andy and I, requiring a flat, level surface about waist-high to make breakfast, converted one of those large, programmable road signs into our own kitchen counter.
“Andy, I’ve made Pikes Peak Pancakes!”
“What’s different about them?”
“They’re made on Pikes Peak!”
After what seemed like an eternity, the race began. I heard the unmistakable growl of American muscle growing louder, and then softer, and then louder again, and then closer and closer. We turned our gaze to the south, in expectation of something loud edging around the corner at any moment. Suddenly, the heavy roar died down just as we were expecting the car to come into view. The driver had simply slowed through the turn, and as soon as he was through, dropped it back into first and opened-up the throttle. A red Oldsmobile Super 88 charged towards us in a manner I can only describe as triumphant; it’s big-block V8 righteously pulling itself up a mountain as equally and as quintessentially American.
After a progression of a dozen mustangs, an old Volvo, and a Studebaker, the rally classes began. Trusting the soundness of the vehicles in the Time Attack class a little more, I ventured closer to the track, to an extent with which most people would be uncomfortable: standing a mere two feet from the apex of our selected corner.
The race had been going-on for about two hours, and was drawing to a close. All that was left was the high-performance, aptly-named “Unlimited” class, in which the fastest drivers with the most outrageous vehicles would try to break Nobuhiro Tajima’s then-intact record of ten minutes and one and a half seconds. One would expect this to be the loudest portion of the race, but the chatter of helicopters filming potentially record-breaking attempts drowned-out any engine noise from the competitors’ vehicles. Andy and I switched our viewing post again, heading back to the other side of the course. Mistakenly, we picked a spot near the exit of the corner – that point at which the driver ventures furthest to the outside of the corner when accelerating out of the turn. While we were never in any real danger, it was frightening: the more professional and confident a driver is, the more he or she will push the car further and further, trying to get as close to the limit as is humanly possible.
From my vantage point, I could see the Unlimited Class vehicles creep into the middle of the turn at a very low speed. They appeared very lazy, and non-threatening. And then, instantly, the driver would make a determined snap back towards the straight. It’s only then that you understand the true meaning of “zero to sixty in less than two seconds.” It’s all very objective and proper to put figures on some measure of performance, but it doesn’t mean anything until you actually witness a car that appears stationary at one moment, is heading directly for you at 90 miles-per-hour in the next, and then pulls away from you just as you think you’re about to become a victim in some widely-publicized tragedy. There was no doubt in my mind that I beheld the fastest point-to-point vehicles that our current technology would allow for.
That day, no one broke the ten-minute mark. Many spectators said “well, maybe next year,” and nobody else gave it much more thought. The race was great in itself and everyone, from the lowly spectators like Andy and I to the seasoned competitors, enjoyed themselves. In the end, it was all about the fans. However corny that might sound, it was an accurate assessment reinforced by the driver’s parade back down the mountain. What had been a quick, evenly-spaced ascent turned into a slow, congested descent. Drivers greeted fans along the course, exchanging sentiments about the merits of the race itself.
The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is unlike any other motorsport event in the nation. It’s an oddity in that it’s more popular in other countries than it is within the United States. Anyone can enter the race – provided they fork over the entry fee and that their vehicles meet certain safety requirements. Fans can get closer than any lawyer would advise to develop a closer relationship with the competitors and a deeper appreciation of motorsport: An individual endeavor to push the boundaries of human and mechanical ability.