Frustration. That has been the word which came to mind every summer when visiting family in Buena Vista, CO. It must be the 9 (soon to be 10) crazed munchkins under the age of 11 converging on my parents’ home for daily meals and outings. Nope. My family is wonderful, and we have a great time in the mountains hiking and fishing. Then what is it? It’s a feeling that arises every year because the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb organizers refuse to plan the race around my vacation schedule. This year, however, was different. They listened to my pleas. I could finally make it happen. I was a little bummed I could not attend Fan Fest on Friday and that I didn’t plan ahead enough to camp out on Saturday night, but the prospect of watching competitors risk it all for 12.42 miles and 156 turns was enough.
Caffeine is the order of the evening as I fill up in Buena Vista aiming to arrive on Pikes Peak around 1am early Sunday morning. I fully expect to sleep a bit in the Explorer until the gates open at 4am. Yeah right. My excitement won’t allow it. Plus, the line already forming was one long tailgate party, and at around 3am the officials and race teams were heading up the mountain.
3:55 am. The line is getting anxious. People are getting in their cars, ready to drive up into the darkness. I’m not kidding about it being dark up there. I spotted a mountain lion using a flashlight. It took a 30 second exposure to get a smidgeon of light for a skyline photo.
Off we go. I’m one of the first 20 or so to the toll gate where they are checking tickets. They’re flagging people by so fast I don’t have time to get a picture. I go by the race team pits and starting point even faster. I’m heading for Devil’s Playground above the timberline at almost 12,800 ft. I want the good view and to be exposed if the lightning and hail comes. My metal camping chair, tripod, and a couple bags of electronic camera gear should keep me safe.
Halfway Picnic Grounds goes by in the darkness, then Glen Cove, and then the 16 mile marker. I pass each landmark moving a little more slowly than the last as the elevation increases and my V6 struggles for air. One more turn. Finally. Devil’s Playground. I park and claim my tiny spot on a frighteningly thin, slippery ridge. It’s dark, but pair after pair of headlights zigzagging through the darkness indicate I’ve picked a good spot. Finally, just before 5am, some shadows begin to emerge. As the mountain begins to come out of darkness, the view of the course is impeccable. I can follow the course 4.5 miles to the Ski Area and beyond. It’s getting bright surprisingly quickly. My view of Glen Cove is remarkable. I’ve chosen well. I’m directly above the 16 mile snow drifts.
9 am seems to be taking forever. It’s barely 5:30 am. I feel like I’ve been here for weeks, grown a beard, and need to find fresh water. Instead, I grab a Gatorade from the cooler. Since I have some time to burn, I explore the hillside a little. It’s absolutely gorgeous. Some people have come quite prepared to enjoy the day.
Being a car guy, I can’t resist exploring the Devil’s Playground parking lot as well. Obviously a 4×4 is the spectator vehicle of choice. There is a respectful showing of WRXs and Evos too, although they are completely dominated by rental cars wheezing what seemed like their last breaths to get into the lot.
SIRENS! It’s the race safety vehicles clearing the course. Not much compares to the beauty of standing on the side of a mountain above the timberline aside from doing so while the National Anthem plays. Then we wait. Some drink. Some have been drinking for hours. The drunken commentary is quite funny at times as spectators cross the course for one last visit to the port-a-potty. A good portion of the morning is spent people watching and listening to one particular drunk guy who obviously retired from Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Finally. The distinct, quiet sound of a flat six reverberates up the mountain. I’m excited, but MST3000 guy might have actually peed himself a little. Here comes Max Papis in the Porsche 911 Carrera 4 pace car. It’s a bit sad to see the AWD beauty struggling at this altitude and Papis using the handbrake generously to give the crowds a little tire smoke action. Was a 4S or Turbo not available? Porsche, are you listening? We know now it’s just a matter of time now before the Vintage Racers start up the mountain. The vintage cars are amazing. And by amazing, I mean slow. They are beautiful cars though and still a lot of fun to watch.
Next up is Mark Rennison in the Mach 2 Racing Ford RS200. Wow! Talk about jumping right to the big boys! This car is fast…stupid, silly fast. Compared to the vintage cars, it absolutely flogs each straight only to immediately beat each turn into submission. 2300 lbs. 950 bhp. 750 lb-ft torque. It gets better. Three minutes worth of nitrous is good for another 200 bhp. Those numbers make me giggle like a little girl. He runs a 12 min 11 sec time, good for 3rd place in Unlimited.
I know something good is coming as we watch the helicopter following along the course. The next thing I know, Marcus Gronholm is closing fast in his Ford Fiesta. I thought Rennison was fast, but this Fiesta definitely picks up the pace. The Fiesta is one good looking car too. Gronholm clocks 11 min 28 sec, good for 2nd place in Unlimited.
Now the moment even the marmots have been waiting for. Nobuhiro Tajima. His name alone frightens Chuck Norris. It’s obvious he is on his way up. Helicopter? Check. Dust clouds wafting through the W’s far below? Check. The crowd roars as he approaches and blows by 16 mile? Oh yeah! The man is a machine. It’s truly an unbelievable thing to watch. Unfortunately a really slippery course this year prevents a new record on the mountain, but he still tackles the mountain in 10 min 15 sec, easily taking the overall win and 1st place in Unlimited.
Here comes an old-school motorcycle with a sidecar. It may be the only point in the day when I have the urge to try and dive in or on a vehicle. The opportunity passes by as I realize the attempt wouldn’t end well. Many other quads and motorcycles follow and are quite impressive to watch negotiate a tight, paved turn.
Now there are some Exhibition cars and then Time Attack. All are great, but as I hear each car coming, I hope each time it is Rhys Millen in his new Hyundai Genesis Coupe. Something echoes up the mountain. It’s definitely the loudest I’ve heard today. It’s Randy Schranz in his propane powered ’66 Shelby Cobra (#17). Next, I don’t hear a car but the distinct blat, blat, blat of helicopter blades once again. It has to be Millen. The next thing I know he’s counter-steering the Genesis Coupe, rear wheels spinning wildly, all the way by me. It’s fast. It’s beautiful. In fact, Millen wears a tires down to the cords. He sets the 2WD record up the mountain with a 12 min 9 sec time. Next, I watch as the Open, Super Stock, Open Wheel, and Pro Truck vehicles slip and slide their way to the peak.
Now it’s time to start loading up as I wait for the progression of brave souls to parade their vehicles back down the mountain. It’s a beautiful sight seeing them all in line, high-fiving the crowds as they descend. Fans, family, and friends often stop drivers/riders to congratulate them. Many express relief that the drivers and riders didn’t end up at the bottom of a cliff or gulch.
It’s been an amazing day. There has been sunshine, clouds, rain, sleet, and lightning. There have been countless gallons of fuel burned. Most succeeded in attacking Pikes Peak but unfortunately some did not. Another year has passed, and the mountain has yet to allow a sub-10 minute ascent. Maybe the Peak will be more kind next year. I hope to be there.
Click Here to browse my photo gallery for this event.
After no sleep for 30 hours or so and hiking around with camera gear at 13,000 feet all day, there’s nothing like a flat tire to brighten the mood! A spare with really low tire pressure is even better!