Stairway to heaven

Half the height of Everest, Pike's Peak is ten minutes of motorised uphill madness. John Davenport looks at the craziest hillclimb of them all.

The American West is a place where legends walk the earth, and the unbelievable is commonplace. Even today when the Internet holds stories enough to save the lives of a million Scheherazedes, the sense of wonderment and awe of events that take place there is as strong as ever. This helps to explain the fascination of a hill climb on the eastern side of the Rockies whose name is as evocative as the OK Corral: Pike's Peak.

It is sad that the story of Pike's Peak should start with a failure, but in 1806 Lieutenant Zebulon Pike and his companions were forced to turn back before reaching the summit They had been commissioned by General James Wilkinson to carry out a survey of the headwaters of the Arkansas River and then follow the Red River south. During the expedition, which was not really equipped for mountaineering, the Lieutenant decided to investigate the massive lump of pink granite that looks across the valley of the Arkansas River and south towards the source of the Red River in New Mexico. Pike reported back that the mountain stood over 18,000 feet high and would never be climbed...

His scoring rate was low since its true height was just over 14,000 feet and within ten years it had been ascended by an expedition headed by Major Stephen Long. Lieutenant Pike's expedition also failed to find the Red River and, while following the Rio Grande in January 1807, he strayed onto Spanish territory where he and his men were arrested and returned across the border.

Sadly, Pike was killed fighting the British in the war of 1812 but not before he'd written two volumes describing his travels and had the mountain he had called North Mountain renamed after him.

In the 1850s, gold was discovered at Cripple Creek just to the south of Pike's Peak and suddenly the whole area to the west of what is today the city of Colorado Springs became much more lively. And since man likes to stand on high places, by 1873 there was a weather station on the summit with a makeshift road winding up to it. A rack and pinion railway whose purpose was to run tourists to the summit and back shortly joined this. The road was improved in 1890 so that in 1901, two gentlemen were able to reach the top in a Locomobile steam powered car, taking just under ten hours for the 20-mile trip.

But the major change came in 1915 when an entrepreneur called Spencer Penrose obtained the right to build a proper highway up the mountain to the summit. This was completed by 1916 and was opened that year as a toll road, a situation that exists today. Like any new enterprise, the toll road needed publicity and Mr Penrose decided there would be a hillclimb that August for cars and motor cycles. Little did he know what he was starting.

That first event in 1916 attracted an excellent entry even by today's standards. Of course it was much cheaper to run a factory team in those days since special preparation of the cars was minimal. But it was still impressive to have teams from Studebaker, Hudson, Buick, Cadillac, Stutz, Chalmers, Mercer, Saxon and half a dozen more. There was even a team from France: Delage sent a couple of cars from the previous Indianapolis 500, one driven by the great Barney Oldfield.

In fact, the scale and breadth of the entry in 1916 reflected pretty much the unique status that Pike's Peak was to attain during the 1960s and '80s. It is an icon of American motorsport. Over the years, it was here that the racers from the dirt tracks competed against the stars from Indianapolis, where the open-wheel cars went up against the stock cars, where East met West, and where everyone could compete against everyone else and, in true American tradition, aspire to win.

Never was this more true than in that first event.

The racing was spread over three days, as they had to accommodate four motorcycle events as well as all the cars. These were no less well supported, with teams from Indian, Harley Davidson and Excelsior. The fastest of these was an Excelsior ridden by the legendary Floyd Clymer who lived up to his name by recording a time of 21min 58sec for the 12.42 mile climb. Motor cycles were not seen again in competition until 1954 and then only for two years. They reappeared in 1971 but never got the same public interest as the cars and finally stopped in 1982 after a fatal accident in which Bill Gross Junior came off and was run over by the following rider. Despite the precipitous drops and almost total lack of barriers, that was the only fatality in all the years of bike racing at Pike's Peak.

A car driver, Wallace Coleman, was killed in 1921 during the time trials. These were a short blast up the first few miles of the hill against the clock to decide the starting order for the main event. His car went off the edge and rolled, only six feet but it did so on top of the driver. Safety was always an issue on Pike's Peak and it is a tribute to the organisers that over the years, the accident rate has been small.

Back in 1916, on the Friday, Ralph Mulford took advantage of superb conditions to go up in 18min 24sec in a Hudson Super-Six. He won the limited capacity class (less than 5 litres) by almost five and half minutes from a Duesenberg, despite stopping for over a minute some 11,000 feet above sea level at Glen Cove to alter the jets on the carburettor.

Come the Saturday, the finale for the Penrose Trophy and the money, the weather was not so kind. The Race To The Clouds became the Race Through The Clouds. The cars competing here had no cylinder capacity limit and the outright winner was not one of the works teams but a private entrant from Spokane by the name of Rea Lentz. His car was a home-made Romano Demon fitted with a 6.6-litre aeroplane engine which took the prize with a time of 20m 55sec. Second overall was Mulford in his Hudson but, in the less-than-perfect conditions, he could only ascend in 21min 40sec.

The first Pike's Peak Hill Climb had been a roaring success, particularly for the State of Colorado whose hoteliers had never had it so good. Unfortunately, the next year the German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann had his telegram to their ministry in Mexico intercepted by British Intelligence and, on April 6th, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson announced that America was at war with Germany. All competition activity was immediately curtailed for the duration. It was not until 1920 that motorsport returned to Pike's Peak.

Even so, it seemed that while the Roaring Twenties brought enormous development and innovation for the motor car with the promise of faster hill climbing with superchargers, treaded pneumatic tyres and even four-wheel drive, the interest was just not there. Entries in some years were in single figures, and even an attempt to lure back the car manufacturers with a new showroom category for Stock cars only had a minor effect.

Still, the hill climb survived and saw, in 1926, the first participation of Louis Unser. Now, the Unser name is very important in the history of Pike's Peak since no less than ten members of the family spanning three generations have competed over the years, and have a distinguished record of wins and fastest times. Louis was one of the three Unser brothers who were among the first to make a motorised ascent of the mountain. This was in 1915 on the old carriage road and Louis, Jerry and Joe used a motor bike and a motor bike and sidecar to get to the top in 2hrs 15min. Louis competed on the hill right up until 1967 at the age of 71, but Joe was killed while testing for the 1929 Indianapolis 500. Jerry carried on competing during the '30s but it was their sons, Jerry Junior, Louis Junior and Bobby who carried the Unser name into the post-Second World war era and brought so much fame to Pike's Peak.

Through the 1940s - with a short break after Pearl Harbour - and the '50s, the Pike's Peak Hill Climb continued to grow with the strengthening of the Stock car classes and the introduction of sports cars. The kings of the hill were, however, still the open-wheeled racing cars whose times gradually improved until, in 1959 Bobby Unser, set a new record of 13m 36sec at the wheel of the Grandview Hotel Special. Already some famous names had been to Pike's Peak to challenge the Unser clan, among them a youthful Phil Hill in 1950. But there were two major explosions of interest to come.

First of all came sponsorship. The flamboyant businessman, J C Agajanian, a long-time supporter of Indy racing, became a promotions consultant to Pike's Peak and, before you could say "Gee, what a Stetson" he had a whole string of East Coast racers flocking to the hill. These included top names such as Parnelli Jones and Mario Andretti performing in everything from top Stock cars straight off the NASCAR circuit to open-wheel cars. Jones racked up two outright wins in the Stock car class plus a host of placings, while Andretti won the open class in a Chevrolet-powered monster in 1969.

If the 1960s were boom time, it became quieter in the '70s. Firstly, the front-engined, open wheel Sprint cars were being eclipsed by the rear-engined revolution. The better traction of designs based on the racing cars of John Cooper and Colin Chapman proved irresistible. In an attempt to keep numbers up - there were a lot of Sprint cars in the USA - the organisers ran classes for the dune buggies and 4WD vehicles that were proliferating in the Californian climate. It was the time of the Ford Bronco and the Volkswagen, when the fastest machine up the hill was a buggy driven by Rick Mears. Throughout the 1970s, the fastest times were generally slower than those of the 1960s. For example, it was not until 1979 that Richard Dodge Junior bettered the 1968 time of Bobby Unser, clocking 11 mm 54.18sec, just 0.72sec quicker.

But the second explosion was on the way. For 1981, noticing that there were a lot of rally cars around, the organisers introduced a rally category. They were not at first knocked over in the rush to enter. Indeed, those rally men that did come, such as John Woolf in a Mazda RX-7 and Jon Woodner and Clive Smith in Triumph TR8s, got railroaded by a local lad, Dan Hoffpauir, who had built a special to fit within the rally car rules.

For 1982 the rules were tidied up to prevent outrageous cars, and John Buffum arrived with his Audi Quattro. It is easy to see now, but turbocharging married to 4WD was always going to be in with a shout on 12 miles of gravel road ascending through sun, rain and hail some 4000 feet into the clouds. Buffum won the rally class in a time of 12min 21sec, over two and a half minutes quicker than Scott Harvey in the factory Dodge. He had a long wait at the finish to know his time; officials had to check it several times as they frankly did not believe it. Significantly, the Quattro was 30sec quicker than the best Stock car and a minute slower than the outright winner, Bill Brister in a Wells Coyote Special.

Buffum returned in 1983 and won again with a faster time, but Al Unser Jnr in another Wells Coyote was still that magic minute ahead of him. But in 1984 it all happened. Audi were so pleased with the publicity that Buffum's efforts had brought them that they decided to send a full factory car over for Michele Mouton to drive. She had Fabrizia Pons as co-driver to read the pace notes during the practice sessions and Buffum as advisor. She was considered a bit of an upstart by the locals and, when she did a practice start in the paddock complete with exhaust flames and tyre smoke, she nearly got banned. After that, they'd only let her drive on the hill itself and John had to drive the car from the paddock to the start line where they swapped over. Despite the presence of Rod Millen in a 4WD Mazda RX-7 and Martin Schanche in an Escort Turbo 4WD, Michele went to the top in 12min 10sec, just half a minute behind Bill Brister in the inevitable Wells Coyote.

The following year she came back and ruined every male chauvinist expectation when she scored 11 min 25sec to be the fastest driver up the hill ever. For 1986, some semblance of order was restored since Audi assigned one of their short wheelbase S1 Sport Quattros to none other than Bobby Unser and he did the business by reducing the outright record to 11 mm 09sec. Unser had been over to Europe getting tuition in rally driving from Walter Rohrl and it was Walter whom Audi sent for the following year to meet a new challenge from three Peugeot 205 T16s, recently made redundant in the great Group B genocide. Rohrl came out on top and brought the record below 11 minutes for the first time with 10min 47sec. His rivals finished in line astern with Ari Vatanen and Andrea Zanussi both getting under the 11-minute barrier.

This was Audi's last works appearance at Pike's Peak, but not Peugeot's. The French team were back the next year with Ari Vatanen and Juha Kankkunen using 405 T16s. Vatanen won, lowering Rohrl's time by just 0.63sec. In 1989, he was back with a further evolution of the same car, his team-mate this time one of the latest generation of Unsen, Robby. Vatanen set the fastest ever time on the qualification run and looked set to knock his own record for six, but a small mistake three miles from the top saw him clip a rock and have a puncture. At 11min 12sec it was a good time, but not as good as young Robby at 10min 48sec or his own previous best of 10min 47sec.

During this struggle of Titans, Rod Millen had been beavering away with various Mazdas, mainly in the Rally Production class. When Mazda virtually stopped supporting any form of competition, he changed his allegiance to Toyota and in 1994 driving a highly modified Toyota Celica Turbo, he moved the record down to 10min 04sec. Since then, he has tried every year to crack that elusive ten-minute barrier; so far, he has failed. His latest vehicle is a Toyota Tacoma 4WD truck with a mid-mounted 2.1 litre turbocharged engine behind the driver.

To try and put the thing in perspective, the Pike's Peak course is exactly 12.42 miles long, so that a time often minutes represents an average speed of 75mph. From the start to the 14,110 foot summit, more than half as high as Everest, the cars rise 4708 feet — greater than the height of Ben Nevis. Millen reckons that he hits speeds in excess of 125 mph during his ascents. And if you need another slant on it, a marathon runner called Mart Carpenter from Colorado Springs has run up Pike's Peak, taking 2hr 01 mm to the summit. That is slightly faster than the original trio of Unsers on their motorbikes.