Climb every mountain

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Paul Evans

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They call it Unser Mountain. This gigantic chunk of pink granite in the southern part of the Rocky Mountains inhabited by Bigfoot, home of the world’s longest cog railway, inspiration for Katherine Lee Bates’ America The Beautiful and also known as Pike’s Peak is an indelible part of America’s vast motorsport history. On July 4 this year, held as is traditional on Independence Day, the world’s biggest and most famous hillclimb celebrated its 70th birthday. Only the Indianapolis 500 has a longer heritage, founded just five years before its Colorado cousin.

Captain Zebulon Montgomery Pike would be proud of the notoriety his discovery has earned over the years. As an explorer, his find on July 4 1806 was to be his finest for, although he didn’t know it at the time, his name would not only become linked to a motor racing legend but also become something of a household name in the States. Pike found the mountain on his second expedition into Amenca’s wild west, gazed up at the summit, 14,100ft above sea level, and pronounced it unclimbable.

But it was ‘only’ half the size of Mt Everest, and Dr Erwin James subsequently proved him wrong by making the first successful ascent in 1820. Had Denver featured skyscrapers then, he’d have been able to see them from his vantage point some three miles above the sea, despite being 75 miles away. Clouds permitting, Dr James would almost certainly have been able to see the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, some 100 miles away towards New Mexico.

Had the Unsers, from that state, stood on the Sangre de Cristo range, it would have been impossible for them to miss Pike’s Peak, which dominates the horizon. Who knows, that very sight might have ignited the desire within one of America’s greatest racing dynasties to scale the Peak faster than anyone else, a spark which has burned fiercely ever since. The passion to do just that has, from that moment on, been hereditary. In the wheeltracks of Louis Unser, 10 of his family from three generations have started a total of 97 hillclimbs in different classes. Trying to keep up with the Unsers is something most of their neighbours have long since ceased to do.

The fascination of driving up the mountain began in earnest when the US government built a weather monitoring station at the summit, in 1873. It was a hazardous means of ascertaining whether an umbrella would be required the next day, for not only were the peak’s pioneers ill-prepared for the viciously high winds and freezing conditions at the top, but the giant rats which inhabited alpine zones above the timberline had taken a liking to the raw meat that man brought with him.

The sole grave at the top of Pike’s Peak is a sombre reminder: it is that of Erin O’Keefe, the two month-old daughter of Sergeant John O’Keefe, who was eaten by the unfeasibly large carnivores in May 1876.

In 1915, soon after the opening of Pike’s Peak Highway, 19 miles long, three brothers Louis, Jerry and Joe Unser reached the summit on a motorcycle and sidecar. It was a small step for mankind, but a giant step for the Unser family, whose first ‘Race To The Clouds’ (as the Pike’s Peak Auto HilIclimb is now affectionately called) had just been completed. Mind you, it had taken them two and quarter hours, much of which was spent pushing the machine up the steep incline!

To publicise the new road, and attract people to pay to drive up it for a small fee, the inaugural race was scheduled for August 10 – 12. The three-day meeting attracted a huge entry, with some factory teams and well-known drivers. Cadillacs, Stutzs, Buicks, Chalmers, Hudsons and even a Delage driven by the eccentric, cigar-chomping showman Barney Oldfield gathered at Crystal Creek Dam for the start of the 12-mile race.

In practice, Indianapolis racer Ralph Mulford had reached the ‘unclimbable’ summit in just 18m 24.6s, at the wheel of his Hudson Super-Six; his time was made all the more remarkable by the fact that he had been obliged to stop for 90s when halfway up (just past the famous Glen Cove, 11,425 ft above sea level), so that his riding mechanic could adjust the carburettor! The high altitude reduces engine performance by 20 per cent, but nowadays the carbs are adjusted manually from inside the cockpit, without the driver even having to lift off the throttle.

Come race day, thunder and lightning made driving even more perilous. Rea Lentz was the bravest, writing himself into the history books as the winner of the first Pike’s Peak HilIclimb with a time of 20m 55.4s in a home-made Romano Demon, which was powered by a Curtiss aeroplane engine. The race’s continuity was interrupted by World War One, and by the time the goggled gladiators returned in 1920 things had altered dramatically. Not only had the war accelerated the development of engines (by 1929 for instance, multi-valve and supercharged engines had appeared), but the emergence of aeroplanes had stimulated awareness of aerodynamics, and this was reflected in the hillclimb cars.

As the somewhat crude early racers were overtaken by more sophisticated equipment, so speeds increased. Despite heavy snowfalls, the 1920 race was won at an average speed of 88.16 mph.

In those swashbuckling days of high spirits and breathtaking bravado, safety standards struggled to keep up with speed, and in 1921 the event was marred by its first fatality. With sheer drops of up to 3,000 ft near the summit, it was ironic that Wallace A Coleman should be in such a poor state of health, as he lay just six feet off the road in a ditch, having inverted his car. “It won’t keep me out of the race Monday,” he said, with premature optimism.

It did, for he died from his chest and back injuries shortly afterwards.

Remarkably, there has only been one other fatality since. In 1982, Bill Gross Jnr fell off his motorbike at Engineer’s Corner, and was run over by another competitor. Several have cheated death in most improbable fashion. One such was Slim Roberts, who took a celebrated 300 ft plunge down a rocky slope in 1962, after putting a wheel of his Conze Offy Special over the edge near the notorious Devil’s Playground. Although seriously injured, he survived what was until July 1992, the hill’s most spectacular accident.

Then that dubious honour was challenged by Koichi Horiuchi. He’d already flown off the road during practice, and come raceday his monstrously powerful, fibreglass Mitsubishi prototype had been patched up with tank tape. However, it became apparent that the initial earthly contact had merely been a dress-rehearsal as he disappeared backwards over the edge of the world, two corners before the 16-mile board. As the car split in three, the hapless Oriental was thrown clear as wreckage was spread far and wide across the cratered landscape. Miraculously, he was able to walk unaided back to the road, where a helicopter was waiting to whisk him off to hospital.

But back to the Unsers. It wasn’t Louis but his younger brother Joe that showed the most promise when the family’s name appeared on the entry list for the first time in 1929. In the week following Rudolf Valentino’s death, he finished second but, despite several attempts, the Unsers had to wait until 1934 before ‘Uncle Louie’ recorded his first outright victory. He’d borrowed a car from Glen Shultz, who had already won the race five times, and took the first of at least three victories in that particular car.

The combination’s precise record of achievement is unknown. In 1953, ‘The Old Man of the Mountain’ as Louis had by now been dubbed notched up his ninth Pike’s Peak win. Aged 57, he not only trounced the opposition, but broke his own hill record with a time of 15m 15.4s. He continued to compete at Pike’s Peak until 1966 when, as a mere 70 year-old, he tackled the mountain with a stock car and recorded a highly respectable 15m 51.7s. Having entered every Pike’s Peak since 1926, his extraordinary run eventually came to an end when doctors forbade him from starting in 1967, citing his old age. He was back again in 1972, however, when he accepted an invitation to drive the course car. From then until his death in 1979. he was known as the ‘Pace Car Ambassador’.

By then of course, subsequent Unser generations had long been attacking the hill; no fewer than five kinsmen took the start in 1964, when Al Unser Snr triumphed. However, it was Bobby that would carve his name in the granite alp for eternity. He went on to win the open-wheel division nine times, and set nine new records between 1956-68. Not only did he finish every run he started, but he dipped below the 12-minute barrier in 1968 and his time stood unbeaten for the next 11 years. Furthermore, the stock car record he set in 1964 still stands today!

In 1974, Bobby made what was scheduled to be his final ascent, but 12 years later he was back again, the thrice Indianapolis 500 winner returning to Colorado with the crack Audi Sport Team. “That year I had everything to lose and nothing to gain, except my very important ego,” says Bobby. “I told my wife, Marsha, ‘I can win. I not only can, but I will.”

Bobby hadn’t driven anything competitively for five years, but jumped eagerly into the Audi Sport Quattro with which Michele Mouton had set a new course record the previous year. True to his word, the emotional 52 year-old veteran reached the summit to win what he describes as, “Probably one of the most important ego things in all my life!”

In a country where statistics are an obsession, Bobby had become a national hero. In an unprecedented 18 runs at the mountain he never failed to finish, notched up 13 victories and set as many records. It’s unlikely that he’ll ever lose his throughly merited ‘King of the Mountain’ title.

Unser’s accomplishment brought Audi a fifth Pike’s Peak success, a run started by John Buffum back in 1982, a year after the Pro Rally Division was introduced. The latter marked the dawn of a new era on the hill, though not everyone thought that this was for the better. Opinion about the arrival of the European technocrats varied sharply.

The category for rally cars, instigated by successful competitor Rod Millen, an expatriate Kiwi, was initially popular. When Audi Sport arrived, however, the laid-back locals found themselves swamped by an army of transporters, engineers and computers, all imported from Germany at considerable expense. Audi also hired the mountain — at a cost of $6,500 — for tyre testing, something which had never hitherto been seen in the vicinity.

It’s not that the locals are particularly averse to new faces. They were delighted when Mario Andretti won the race in 1969, at his third attempt, and welcomed non-Americans, such as Norwegian rallycross star Martin Schanche, with open arms (though Schanche made a somewhat inauspicious debut in a four-wheeldrive Escort in 1984, and never returned).

Audi was different, though. Its ultra-professional approach provided a striking contrast to the traditional ‘when in Rome’ philosophy. Its determination to show the regulars how best to drive up their own mountain wasn’t well received. Not that Audi was actually breaking any rules, but the manner of its participation was felt to be against the spirit of Pike’s Peak.

It wasn’t the fact that Michele Mouton was a lady that rattled the larger-than-life Good Old Boys (women had successfully reached the summit before), but she was the first to have carried a passenger since drivers abandoned the concept of the riding mechanic a few decades earlier. Although she won, her time suggested that she had profited little from the presence, alongside, of Fabrizia Pons and her pace-notes.

Mouton returned, unaccompanied, the following year, but after a quarrel with officials, who’d taken umbrage when they were almost run over by her speeding Quattro in the service area, she was banned from driving it anywhere but on the course itself! Nevertheless, she set a new all-time best of 11m 25.39s — the first time anything other than an openwheeler or championship hillclimb car had held the outright record.

In 1987 Audi Sport, running cars for Mouton and twice world rally champion Walter Rohrl, was challenged by Peugeot, represented by An Vatanen, Shekhar Mehta and Andrea Zanussi. Although Rohrl won — in a staggering new record time, 10m 47.85s — it marked the final official appearance by the German marque. The sledgehammer approach lived on, however, as Peugeot wasted no time adopting Audi’s mantle.

Vatanen was back the following year, with Juha Kankkunen as his team-mate, and produced a splendid performance to win in 10m 47.22s, knocking 0.53s off Rohrl’s benchmark. Of perhaps greater significance, Peugeot scored something of a PR coup, and mellowed local opposition, by signing an Unser as Vatanen’s new team-mate in 1989.

Robby Unser, son of Bobby, was invited to drive a 405 T16. The two partners already shared something in common, having both tackled the event for the first time two years earlier. Today, Robby is under no illusions about who enabled him to get his big break with the French team, when he was just 21. “An Vatanen probably helped me the most,” he admits. “In ’88, Kankkunen and he were up here and we kinda became friends. They were pretty impressed with the way we ran our two-wheel-drive car and one thing led to another. When Peugeot came back it decided it would be a good idea to have an American driver. An had a lot of influence with Jean Todt and got me in.”

It was a dream works debut. About three miles from the summit, Vatanen drifted wide, hit a rock and punctured a tyre, limping over the line over a minute outside his own record. Robby was next up, made no mistake, and, in the manner of his forebears, scored an accomplished victory. If the Unsers, more than any other family, have helped to make Pike’s Peak what it is today, they have also helped to nurture less grudging acceptance of the European invasion. Like his father, Robby certainly helped to break down the natural barriers of misunderstanding between the locals and big-budget teams from across the Atlantic. He speaks with nothing but praise for his European friends, particularly Vatanen.

“I miss him, he’s neat,” says Unser. “The Peugeot – I don’t think anyone can appreciate how difficult that car was to drive. The respect I have for An is amazing. That man is bad, he’s one awesome human being. He’s also a genuinely nice person, and we became friends. He’s such a gentleman. When you consider what happened to him he didn’t break the record that day, but he was still a class act, always a class act.

“I mean the Peugeot, I needed a lot more miles to get used to it. Eventually I could have been as good, but it was going to take me miles. The four-wheel steering and stuff, it just takes such a knack the car was so complicated and difficult to drive. It’s the only car that actually scared me every time I got in it, I mean, it freaked me out! Each day I’d get over it, find a new way to approach it, come back and it’d freak me out again. I’d figure out why, say ‘OK’ and go to sleep and I’d be hungry, and ready, and it just went on like that every day. It was tough, you know? I learned a lot about driving and I learned a lot with the team, it was magnificent. And Jean Todt, he was so supportive. I’ll remember that forever.”

Vatanen’s record remains unbeaten, and Peugeot’s withdrawal has seen Pike’s Peak drift back to its roots. Americans, driving home-built, Chevy-engined open-wheelers, have ruled since Todt’s team bade a fond farewell, though it is somehow appropriate that an Unser made his mark during the years of domination by Audi and Peugeot.

Naturally, the man who is most determined to reclaim the record for America is an Unser. Robby continues to make an impression whenever he enters.

He won the open-wheel division in 1990, but his car was two years old and the outright record was not a feasible target. However, after a sabbatical in 1991, he returned this year with a new beast a 750bhp Chevrolet-engined single-seater, the like of which had never been seen on the mountain before. Although handicapped by the tractive limitations of rear-wheel drive (compared to the integral transmissions of the departed rally supercars), Robby reckoned only a strong crosswind could deny him the record.

Why such confidence? Because pre-event testing had revealed a chronic absence of downforce, to such a degree that a massive front spoiler had to be employed to remedy unpleasant understeer, and an even larger rear wing was bolted on to counter gargantuan oversteer. Straightline speed was sacrificed in favour of grip but, given the serpentine nature of the course, this was not perceived to be a significant handicap.

The methanol-fuelled TCI Special had only been created three months before the event, and, despite its limited mileage, it proved to be the class of the field in qualifying. However, in an effort to stop the surface cutting up, the organisers had coated it with calcium. This made it smoother, and consequently more slippery, than it had been in previous years. With an unwanted strong sidewind to contend with as well, Unser soon realised that the record was beyond his reach. “You know, the sad thing is that I know the car can do it. An would have been proud of me today,” he reckoned, having set a new open-wheel record at 10m 53.87s, 19s clear of his closest adversary.

“It’s a fast race car, but the wind and a little bit of the road surface stopped me… Coming up through Glen Cove I realised it just wasn’t easy. It wasn’t like qualifying, and I said, ‘Okay Robby, don’t get excited, don’t do nothing stupid. You’ve got a car that can at least win the race, don’t disappoint the team.” Thus he can still boast that he’s never been beaten on the mountain. For his first race, the fresh-faced 19 year-old borrowed a GpA Mazda from Rod Millen to score a class win, and he has followed that with outright victories in 1988, 1989, 1991 and now 1992. It’s an impressive record, but perhaps nothing less than one would expect of an Unser.

His present pre-occupation with becoming the fastest man ever to scale Pike’s Peak is redolent of his forefathers’ ambitions. “Hey, we’ll come back again next year,” Robby stresses. “We started building this thing in April and it’s in the 10-minute bracket, so we’re alright. A little bit of development and we’re going to come back and smoke ’em!” P O E

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