Race to the clouds

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This month marks the latest running of the world’s most challenging hillclimb. But what does it take to conquer Pikes Peak? We asked former winners to explain how they did it. Writer: Clyde Brolin

The American writer Ernest Hemingway famously rated motor racing as one of only three “real” sports alongside mountaineering and bullfighting; the rest are merely “games”. If so, the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb offers a unique blend of the first two – as drivers speed up a 14,000ft mountain via a 12.4-mile course snaking around sheer Colorado cliffs, where mistakes can lead to an all-too-real end of the road.

This legendary “Race to the Clouds” first took off more than a century ago, and has been attracting some the greatest drivers ever since. But in recent years it has also attracted some serious teams. Keen to make their mark on the hill and bathe in the subsequent publicity that victory brings, these big budget attempts have changed the character of the event. Even so, the basics remain the same: drive upwards as fast as you can until you can’t go any further.

So what does it take to be the fastest? The current record is held by former rally world champion Sébastien Loeb. Five years ago he piloted a 875bhp, 875kg Peugeot 208 T16 up the course in 8min 13sec. According to Loeb, the key to his success was the planning which ensured all cylinders were firing – inside both the car’s 3.2-litre, twin-turbo V6 engine and the mind of the man behind the wheel (not easy in the thin air of the mountain top).

“At Pikes Peak you have to be 100 per cent sure that you don’t confuse two corners,” Loeb deadpans. “So you need to work very hard on it. I started by watching videos, like I used to do in rallying. Then we went there and began our recces.

“I used my co-driver Daniel Elena to start: on the first pass he’d write my notes, then on the second pass he’d tell me the notes and I’d either confirm or modify them. From that point I would tell him the notes while I was driving and he would correct me. I’d say ‘this is 120’ and he’d reply ‘no, 120 minus’. Once I knew my notes were good, I started memorising all the corners.

“For me notes are the best way to know how hard to push. If a corner near the bottom is ‘140’ I know to use sixth gear. Then if there is another ‘140’ five kilometres later I know it will be the same, because my notes are precise. We did the road nine times like that until I could relay all the notes by heart…”

To complete this Peak practice the Frenchman then studied videos of all his recces, plus onboard footage from the previous year’s competition, which he analysed with Elena.

But Pikes Peak doesn’t simply give away its riches; next came the last-minute hitches and the threat of rain.

“When I was on the start line waiting to go I could see the clouds closing in at the top of the mountain,” says Loeb. “I remember thinking that if we didn’t get going soon, it would be really difficult. There was pressure because I knew there had been so much work and investment from all the partners.

“Finally, after all the practice, it was just down to me and I had to perform. I didn’t know if I should push absolutely to the maximum or to a comfortable pace to make sure of victory. In the end, I decided to push to the limit…”

Not half. Loeb’s 8min 13.878sec not only broke the previous best by a staggering minute and a half, it was a couple of seconds faster than the theoretical ideal time Peugeot’s computer had calculated was possible.

“It was a very good run,” smiles Loeb. “It was certainly not over the limit; I wanted to go fast but without big risks – because I knew I wasn’t allowed to go over the limit… So I was right on my limit but the feeling in the car was good.

“In rallying I needed this sensation to be able to push hard, too. When it goes like that, it’s just perfect. You feel well yet safe because you don’t feel you’re taking risks, you just push hard and do exactly what you want. That’s the best feeling you can have on a rally stage.

“At Pikes Peak it was a car you didn’t have to slide because with all the grip and the downforce it was important to drive smoothly. So the feeling wasn’t quite as easy or at one with the car as I had been in rallying, but it wasn’t bad.”

LOEB MIGHT BE the fastest but American motor racing legend Bobby Unser, a triple Indianapolis 500 winner, is also the most successful driver to have competed at Pikes Peak with 13 overall wins. And this was back when it was gravel, rather than the comparative luxury of the tarmac enjoyed by Loeb and his fellow real-sports lovers since it was fully paved in 2011.

Unser now attributes his success to a peculiar dedication to the cause as a kid – not out on the mountain but in the comfort of his bed.

“When I was eight years old I’d go to sleep every night thinking about Pikes Peak,” says Unser. “This is how I learned all 156 turns. Later I read that scientific tests had shown the subconscious mind works all the time when you’re sleeping. I was already doing that so I thought: ‘I was right.’

“If you think about anything before you go to sleep, your subconscious mind carries it on. It’s a free thing with its own energy. Your body gets its proper rest but your brain doesn’t have to sleep. The subconscious mind is one of the most powerful things there is for a driver. I did that throughout my career and I still do it today.”

The Unser family had long dominated Pikes Peak – Bobby’s ‘Uncle Louie’ first won it in 1934 – and Bobby’s own personal era of glory lasted from the Fifties right up to the Eighties, during which time he also inspired countless kids to dream big.

A 15-year-old Paul Dallenbach went to watch at Devil’s Playground in 1983 and recalls being “blown away by just how crazy it all was”. He was hooked.

Six years later Dallenbach raced at Pikes Peak for the first time. In those days before YouTube his chosen method of learning the course was simply to keep driving up and down, even if he quickly discovered how the view can vary…

“The best way to learn Pikes Peak is in thirds,” says Dallenbach. “You do the bottom third, middle third and top third. Then you piece it all together. Pikes Peak has a lot of things that happen in twos as well. It goes somewhere, then it will do almost the same pattern. It does that a lot, all the way up. But the mistake I made in my first year was picking landmarks on the road. Then on race day there were people standing in front of them! I was like, whoaaa…

“The hardest part is when you get above the tree line [about 12,000ft]. There are some guardrails up there now, so if you see a guardrail you know a sharp turn is coming up. But back then there were no guardrails. All you saw as you went up was sky and you didn’t know if it was a hairpin, a kink or what. That’s where experience helps.”

Dallenbach insists it took him a few years to fully figure it out – but in 1993 he took the overall title and broke the all-time record with a 10min 43.630sec. He repeated the feat 10 years later and he’s been competing ever since, racking up class wins and usually finishing near the top of the tree.

Except, that is, for 2012 when his dreams of victory turned into every Pikes Peak driver’s worst nightmare…

“It happened so fast but I recall every second of it,” he says. “I remember realising the throttle was sticking, then the trees were like Star Wars when they go into hyperspace. I closed my eyes – and as I was hitting the trees and knocking them down it felt like a machine gun: duhduhduhduh… I was just waiting for one to completely impale me or hit me in the head.

“Everything goes through your mind: ‘Oh God my throttle’s stuck, oh my God I thought I was going to win, oh my God I’m going to die…’ The whole thing. All that work was disappearing right there. And all this time I was still holding on and trying to turn. Both my hands were completely swollen when I was done.”

The video is terrifying but mercifully Dallenbach went off barely 10 seconds after the start of the race, so help reached him fast. He had flipped upside down so the response team righted his car, pulled him out and threw down dirt to limit the chances of his 22 gallons of methanol bursting into flames.

Miraculously, Dallenbach escaped intact apart from a bloody nose, some wounds to his hands and a six-week-long headache. “When I woke up my best friend was standing there and my wife was close by saying ‘Wake up, wake up!’ I was like: ‘Where am I? Did we start yet?’ I was confused with what was going on. I had tunnel vision and everything around me was grey.

“They airlifted me out and it wasn’t until I was in the hospital that I realised: ‘Oh, my throttle stuck.’ They went back the next day to get the car and the throttle was still stuck right open. So there was no escape…

“There’s an eerie picture of when I’d just woken up and it’s quite haunting. My eyes are crossed and I’m completely out of it. I look back and realise if the car had been angled even slightly differently I would have been dead. It just wasn’t my time to die.”

Apparently it also takes a hell of a lot for the love of this place to die: Dallenbach was back in action the following year.

Like many veterans he bemoans the fact that Pikes Peak is no longer a dirt track – even though Colorado does still have a few such hillclimbs. But the decision to start paving the track in 2002 came about when the Sierra Club environmental organisation sued the city of Colorado Springs for problems caused by decades of stray dust.

Dallenbach is a fan of Loeb’s glory run, too, and the publicity it regenerated, even if the $10m Peugeot spent does rather dwarf his annual $35,000 budget. Next up comes Volkswagen’s bid for a record with an electric car in the hands of reigning champion Romain Dumas. So it seems Pikes Peak still has enough of an aura to tempt everyone from the grass roots to the biggest manufacturers across the pond.

CURIOUS, THEN, THAT this event was off the beaten track for the rest of the world until as late as the Eighties; the first European competitor was Michèle Mouton, who competed alongside co-driver Fabrizia Pons in 1984 before running solo in 1985.

That year the Frenchwoman drove a modified Group B Audi Quattro S1 with 600bhp (70bhp more than her WRC-spec car), but fell foul of the authorities after she was caught speeding by 5mph during a practice start. She was hit hard by penalties and given the firm impression no one over there wanted a foreign winner, let alone a female one. As she headed cloudwards, the red mist duly descended…

“Because the organisers gave me such a hard time, I really decided to go for it,” she smiles. “There’s a section near the top with four left-handers, all flat except the second one. But I was so mad I decided to go flat out in the second corner as well, instead of lifting.

“From up there it’s a drop of hundreds of metres. The car was sliding and it felt like I’d end up all the way down. I didn’t want to go straight off so I pushed more to turn – because at least I wanted to go off with the back of the car first. So I pushed, I pushed, I pushed, I pushed… and the car stayed on the road. From then on instead of being afraid I was decided, and I knew I would take the next corner even faster than I’d done in practice.

“It shows the mental side makes a huge difference. It’s all in your head: motivation, determination, when you want something so much… You don’t even think about the corners and you start believing you can go faster than the notes are telling you. I think that’s what happened to me when I won Pikes Peak. It’s like dancing.”

When Mouton waltzed to the overall prize and the new course record, it was the first time it had gone outside America. This was all too much for Bobby Unser, who came out of retirement at the age of 52 and used all his years of experience – and all those dreamy nights – to take the same Audi Quattro that little bit faster a year later.

But the tide had turned: in the following years Group B greats Walter Röhrl and Ari Vatanen took to the hill and returned with silverware – and more records. Since then those pesky foreigners have proved hard to beat. New Zealand’s Rod Millen dominated the Nineties, then the Noughties were largely the preserve of Japan’s Nobuhiro Tajima. Then came Loeb and now Dumas.

In fact, Paul Dallenbach’s two wins are the only home-grown outright victories of the last 25 years.

Whether that changes on June 24 remains to be seen.