Last May I happened upon a video of Sebastian Loeb’s record setting run up Pikes Peak in 2013. Now, ever since I was a kid, video’s of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb had tantalized me. The Indy cars that used to drive it in the 60’s, Ari Vatanen’s runs in the Peugeot 205 T16 and 405 T16 during the 80’s, and Monster Tajima’s string of records during the 90’s. So I’d always had it on my bucket list of motorsporting events that must be attended at some point in my life. After watching Loeb crush the record, I decided that this needed to be the year.
Thus, on June 24th-27th of 2016 my Dad, my buddy Chris and I went to the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. We left Salt Lake at five in the morning on Friday and drove straight through with only a stop in Fort Collins for lunch. We got to Colorado Springs around three in the afternoon, checked into our hotel and then drove up to the entrance of Pikes Peak. We didn’t feel the need to pay to get in, since we’d be up there most of the day on Saturday, but we wanted to get an idea of how to get there. After that brief excursion, we headed into Colorado Springs to check out Fan Fest, basically a big vendor show spanning several blocks in the heart of the city. As with most vendor shows, there was a lot of crap, but it was entertaining enough. Most of the cars competing were lined up there and it was interesting to see many of them up close. The coolest of them all being a 1983 Audi Quattro. Such and iconic car, and amazing to be able to see up close and talk to the owner about.
Heading across I-80 in Wyoming.
Scenic US-287 in norther Colorado.
The fully restored Broadmoor Special, which ran in the inaugural 1916 Hill Climb. They ran it in 2016 up to the halfway point to commemorate the centenary.
Interesting custom hill climb car.
Mazda rotary powered LMP2 style car.
Garage built franken-E30. This really was just a hackjob of a car, but pretty cool to see!
Rod Millen’s record setting 1994 all-wheel drive Toyota Celica.
One of the most epic production vehicles in history, the Audi Quattro. This vehicle changed rallying, road racing, and passenger cars forever; and ranks as one of my all time favorites!
After a few hours of wandering Fan Fest we’d seen pretty much everything there was to see. As with all vendor shows, about 10% of what’s there is interesting and the rest is just garbage. Around the time the Red Bull motorcycle stunt show was getting underway, we decided to mosey on outta there and grab some dinner. We found a nice place called the Odyssey Gastropub which satisfied Chris and mine’s thirst for some quality Colorado microbrews. Then we headed back to the hotel to get some sleep before the real events of the weekend came upon us.
Saturday morning dawned early for us, but after a decent breakfast and a bit of walking we were ready to embark on the adventure that is Pikes Peak! The mountain was to open for campers at noon, so we packed up the hotel and headed up towards the entrance at about 9:30, and boy was that a good idea! The closer it got to noon, the more people started lining up. By the time they let us head up, several hundred vehicles were packed into the parking lot for the North Pole Amusement Park (which is the creepiest amusement part I’ve ever seen!).
Not exactly an inviting sign…
Sure looks fun!
…until you glimpse the terrifying Santa atop the candy cane slide.
Once the gates opened, we raced up the mountain to our designated camping spot at 9-Mile, which, as the name suggests, is nine miles up the mountain. We quickly set up camp and took off for the summit. The road is truly epic! From a spectator’s view, it is sad that it is now paved all the way to the top. No more Group B rally cars blasting along the gravel with giant clouds of dust billowing behind them. But from a tourist driving a sedan’s perspective, it makes it much more enjoyable!
Due to traffic, there were few sections that I was really able to really open it up. But when I could, it was great and my Kizashi Sport was a pleasure to drive as we carved the through the corners and ate up the tarmac on the straight sections. Truly an amazing road to drive!
We reached the summit at over 14,000 feet and were greeted by spectacular views. Sadly, it was packed with tourists, many of which had taken the iconic cog railroad up to visit the gift shop and restaurant at the summit. Tourist always annoy me, even when I’m one of them. I suppose it might be because I generally try to inform myself about the places that I’m visiting. So, when a group of Easterners are walking around wondering why there are no trees, or are surprised that there is still snow in late June, or make comments about how the railroad is ‘hundreds of years old’ I just wonder how they can been so stupid, frankly.
We wandered around the summit taking in the views for a bit before we descended back down the 14.7 miles to the pits. At the halfway point on the mountain they stop all traffic and rangers check the temperature of your breaks using laser thermometers. If you’re breaks are over 300 degrees, they require you to pull off for a while and let them cool down. A smart safety move, to say the least. When they checked mine, the ranger said, “Oh, wow! Um, your breaks are almost 600 degrees! You need to pull off and wait for like half an hour for them to cool down!” My slotted, cross drilled rotors were probably fine as I felt no fade, but it’s a smart service to provide for the average driver and gave us an excuse to stop for lunch and enjoy some car watching.
When we finally made it to the pits, there was nothing going on. With qualifying having happened on Friday, I’m not sure what I was expecting, but having been to a number of other motorsporting events in the past, I figured that there would have been some action for us to wander around and inspect, but that wasn’t the case. There were a few teams working on things, but for the most part it was pretty empty down there. So, nine miles back up the road to our camp we went!
We rolled into camp to find many, many more people stuffed into our little area than had been there at noon. We wandered around a bit to see if there was anything interesting going on, but it was mostly groups getting the pre-race partying going early. Our plan was to get to be pretty early and then wake up at 1:30 in the morning to make our way up to Devils Playground to get a good spot at one of the most iconic corners on the mountain.
Where it all begins!
Spectacular view to the northwest!
The iconic cog railway from Manitou to the summit.
An abrupt end to the railway…
Plaque commemorating Zebulon Montgomery Pike, the man who discovered Pikes Peak.
View back down towards Colorado Springs.
And that’s just what we did. We groggily rolled out of bed at 1:30, packed up our camp and got on the road at 2:15. The benefit of camping on the mountain is that the road is closed to spectators until three in the morning; but if you’re camping you’re already up there so you can get a head start! So, when we rolled into Devils Playground, there were only a few other people there and we were able to stake out probably some of the best seats along the entire course! As we tried to stay warm in 20 degree temperatures at 13,000 feet, Chris and I scouted out spots to take pictures of the race and got some beautiful shots of all the spectators winding their way up the mountain.
As the sun came up, you could feel the warmth. You could also see the hundreds of people who had swarmed Devil’s Playground. It was quite a sight to behold, everyone clustered around us in an attempted to the get best view that they could. Made me happy that we’d sacrificed sleep in order to get the spot that we did!
Hundreds of spectator vehicles making their way up the mountain in the early morning.
Dawn breaking at Devils Playground
A look down at the course.
The race got underway at eight in the morning. First up were the bikes, which quite frankly were pretty boring. I’ve never really had an interest in motorcycles, so even watching them blast up the hill at incredible speeds did little to excite me. If that’s your gig, then I’m sure it’s pretty cool, and the sidecar bikes were odd and kinda neat to see with the second guy climbing all over the vehicle as it weaved its way up the track. But at the end of the day I was there for the cars, so the bikes were basically the tasteless breadsticks you munch on while waiting for the main course.
First bike up the mountain.
About to head into the turn.
Letting it all hang out on the sidecar!
Quad. Which was just odd.
Exhibition truck “clearing” the road after the bikes were done.
Finally, at around 10am the cars started this year’s attack on the mountain. The record run up Pikes Peak was set in 2013 by nine time WRC champion Sebastian Loeb at 8:13.878 in a Peugeot 208 T16. The goal of every driver is to beat that record, which is a tall order. From our spot, we could see all the way down to the halfway point on the mountain and watch the cars wind their way the mountain to the hairpin corner right in front of us at Devils Playground. First up was Romain Dumas, who had won the 24 Hours of Le Man just the prior Sunday. His gas powered, turbocharged Unlimited class car blazed up the mountain in 8:51.445. Absolutely incredible to watch! Dumas was followed by one of the legends of the mountain, Rhys Millen. Between he and his father Rod they have set the record six times over the years. Now they are trying to set the record in a new way, with an all-electric vehicle. His time was 8:57.118. The fastest ever by an electric vehicle. It was very cool to see how quick it was, but without the engine noise, it lacked a bit of the “wow” factor as it made its way up the mountain. But this is the future, and it’s incredible to see the technology that they are employing here.
Rhys Millen with a slight overcorrection.
Acura NSX exhibition vehicle.
The ubiquitous Porsche 911. Undoubtable the most common vehicle competing.
They do more than just left turns!
Very racy looking Ford Focus!
Behind the 911, WRX’s were probably the most common vehicle.
The awesome hackjob E30!
At some point in its life, I think this was a Porsche 914.
Hoping it turns!
And it did!
They run fastest to slowest, allowing the cars attempting to break the record to have the clearest, freshest track possible. But as you go down order, the cars got more interesting. Older cars like the ’83 Audi Quattro, a ’79 Toyota Starlet, garage built hackjobs like an E30 BMW frakencar. So, while the Unlimited class was insane to watch rocketing up the mountain, the later stuff was intriguing to watch.
A very mean looking GTR.
An unfortunate end to this guys day.
Another NSX, these were pretty cool to see.
Beautiful 911 in classic Martini livery.
That had a bad day.
And had to turn around.
Beautiful afternoon view!
An old school looking kit car.
Chris and I hopped around on the hillside trying to find the best shots we could get, eventually making it down to the road itself. I can’t think of another event where that would be possible. I literally was able to lay on the shoulder taking pictures of cars going flat out headed straight for me before turning into the corner. Which is why, inevitably, we were chased off by a track steward.
One of the coolest car on the mountain, a 1979 Toyota Starling.
The crowd at Devils Playground.
The rotary powered LMP style car. Very slick looking.
The Quattro making it’s run. Sadly, that smoke proved terminal farther up the track.
Hyundai Tiburon lifting a wheel.
Classic Plymouth making its run.
Another LMP style car. These just look fun to drive.
Last car on track
Only to be followed by this beast!
The race continued until about four in the afternoon, and as it was drawing to a close there were more and more red flags due to vehicle issues. Of the 97 cars that entered, 20 failed to finish either due to breakage or crashing. This extended the race by an hour or so. On top of that, the beautiful weather that we’d been having took a turn for the worse, started raining and dropped the temperature by about 20 degrees. As the rain got worse, we packed up all our gear and headed for the car.
The gathering storm.
As we waited in the car, the rain turned to hail. And we’re not talking light hail, but big, painful hail! It was hard enough that I was nervous that it might actually damage my car! Fortunately, it didn’t, though it seemed touch and go for a minute. Once the hail stopped, the competitors came down from the summit in what is called the “Parade of Champions”. We all stood on the edge of the road and watched them come down, which was pretty cool.
Waiting for the Parade of Champions.
The race program had said that once the parade had passed and all the support vehicles from the summit had come down, they would release all the spectator vehicles from Devil’s Playground. Apparently, no one had communicated this to the police on site, as they seemed confused as to when they should allow us to go. We were held up for a good half an hour before finally being allowed to start heading down. I had anticipated getting off the mountain around 5pm, then driving through the night back home. But, due to the delays on track, being released from the parking lot late, and just the massive traffic jam on the mountain, we didn’t end up hitting the highway until 7pm.
We decided that we’d find a place to stay that night and make it the rest of the way home on Monday instead. Watching all the traffic heading back towards Colorado Springs, we opted to head northwest and avoid the Denver area altogether. We made our way along beautiful, winding rural roads to Frisco. It had been a very long day, so we booked the closest hotel and crashed.
Beautiful western Colorado.
The next morning, we were on the road again early heading west along I-70. Despite being freeway driving, it was beautiful country (aside from Vail, which is quite ugly and overbuilt). I was particularly impressed with Glenwood Canyon. The canyon itself was beautiful, but the roadwork built to complete I-70 through there is spectacular. Truly and engineering marvel!
We powered through, only pausing in Green River for the obligatory stop at Ray’s for lunch. When we finally rolled into Salt Lake, we were tired, but fulfilled. It’s not every day that you get to check something off your bucket list, but when you do it is a great feeling!
If you have never seen it before, here is the classic short film “Climb Dance” featuring Ari Vatanen’s 1988 record setting run in a Peugeot 405 T16:
And for contrast, Sebastian Loeb’s blistering 2013 run in a Puegeot 206 T16: