Race to the Clouds
Harsh Terrain and Break-Neck Speeds Make Pikes Peak Event Different
Date: June 30, 2001
Location: Pikes Peak, Colorado
Purpose of Trip: Race to the Clouds
4:40 a.m. – The wake up call comes and I’m not ready for it. We’re meeting in the hotel lobby at 5 to start up the mountain. They’ve been doing this for 80-whatever years now, rally racing to the top of Pikes Peak. I don’t know why. I could barely handle driving up there at 20 mph, let alone the 80 to 90 mph the racers are going to hit on that winding dirt road. There’s no way anyone should have to be up this early.
5 a.m. – At least there’s coffee in the lobby. Apparently there’s seven of us going up the mountain. "If we want to get a spot on the course, we have to get there early," I heard one of the Falken Tire coordinators saying the night before. That was last night and this is now. Her enthusiasm is tempered only by my wanting to pick out a good spot on my bed. But we’re in the car, so I guess I’m going. Falken is the sponsor of this year’s race, by the way.
5:45 a.m. – Just passed the starting line for the race at the 9,000-foot mark. There are people everywhere – in the trees and along the road. Motorcycles, ATVs, racecars, super stock cars, and even two semi rigs are all making final preparations for the trip up the mountain. Engines revving, mechanics scrambling, drivers sitting quietly, all of this on the side of a 14,110-foot mountain that Zebulon Pike "found" in 1806.
6:15 a.m. – We’ve reached our spot, about a mile and a half into the 12-mile course. It’s on an incline above a rare straightaway, and below us, in the distance, two hairpin curves can be made out. It’s a beautiful view from around 11,000 feet. The sun’s just about eye level, the clouds are rolling in and the air is clear. Amazing country.
6:45 a.m. – Beautiful view or no, I confess I’m tired of just sitting around here. What I need is a walk, so I’ve decided to hike back down the road to the starting line. I can take my time, admire the scenery and still be able to watch the start of the race.
7:15ish a.m. – I’m already tired and out of breath from the altitude.
8:45 – Just got done watching the driver’s meeting, which was held around a pickup truck. The running order was shuffled because qualifying was cancelled due to the death of one of the racers. He hit a tree two days ago. Interestingly, he’s only the third to die in the history of this race.
9:15 a.m. – I’m sitting eye-level with the road, four feet from the starting line. The first engine roars up from around the bend. The starter drops the green flag and this orange car comes streaking around the corner, past me in a cloud of dust and off around the corner. Spectacular! All that power and precision driving thundering up the mountain. He’s a better man than I.
9:28 a.m. – Two more cars are on the course as the first driver crosses the finish line. It took me 13 minutes to decide to go up the mountain and he’s already made it to the top. The ATV heats are starting now, with these guys racing three at a time, jockeying for position around curves with shear drop-offs and no guard rails. Not me.
9:30 – 11:30 a.m. – The ATVs were followed by the motorcycles, sidecar motorcycles and now all classes of racecars. The skill and nerve it must take to negotiate the road up the mountain. The race is behind schedule a little bit. One car blew an engine and another spun out, but nothing that serious (for the drivers, anyway). At least five cars hit a top speed of over 100 mph, with the highest being 113. I can’t even imagine. There’s a lunch break coming when all the racers already at the top of the mountain will come down, and then six more heats will start.
Noon – It’s starting to rain. Hard. The temperature dropped 30 degrees into the 50s. There’s snow falling on the top of the mountain, along with massive lightning that’s fried the radio equipment. But they’re still going to race in this stuff. Fortunately, I’m under a tent with a catered lunch (advantage of being in the media).
12:30 – 3:30 p.m. – The rest of the cars have gone up the mountain, including the two semis (one spun out and flipped on its side in the mud). It’s been a great day and I’m still in awe over the shear guts these guys have. ESPN2 is supposed to air the race, and while it’ll probably provide better viewing angles, there is nothing like being here. It definitely ranks pretty high on my "Things I’m Glad I’ve Done" List.