It’s the fearsome Pikes Peak this weekend, where Dickie Meaden fulfilled a life-long dream not long ago
I’m not sure exactly when I first became aware of Pikes Peak’s legendary Race to the Clouds, which is now in its 95th year, but the annual charge up the perilous and vertiginous public toll road leading to the 14,110ft summit has long been a source of fascination for me.
As a young Brit growing up in a pre-internet world the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb was a distant and mysterious event. That is until Peugeot and Audi dispatched highly-modified versions of their Group B rally monsters to Colorado, strapped in their best drivers – a mix of factory rally stars like Walter Röhrl, Michele Mouton and Ari Vatanen, bolstered by local Peak specialists – and beat the home side on their own mountain.
It then slipped back into relative obscurity until New Zealand’s Rod Millen and Japan’s Nobuhiro ‘Monster‘ Tajima captured our collective imaginations with one of the longest-running grudge matches in motor sport history. For more than a decade this pair waged a titanic battle in Pikes Peak’s ‘Unlimited’ class: Millen in a succession of increasingly ferocious self-built Toyota-powered machines; Tajima in some equally lunatic silhouette Suzukis.
Millen’s hill record of 10min04.06sec (set in 1994, before any of the course was paved) stood for 13 years, until Tajima – still competing long after Millen retired – finally broke it in 2007 with a 10min01.41sec. It should be noted that by this point around half the length of the course was paved, thereby immortalising Millen’s all-dirt record. The course was fully paved in 2012.
I was on the mountain myself in 2007, fulfilling a dream by securing a drive in the original Pikes Peak ‘Open-wheel’ class. ‘My’ car was a 6.6-litre, 750bhp Methanol-burning monster weighing 800kg, running barn door wings and a set of knobbly tyres to cope with the dirt. Heartbreakingly, clutch failure meant I didn’t make it to the summit in ’07, but I returned the following year in the same car and managed to finish 3rd in class and 6th overall. In 25 years of racing I’ve never done anything more challenging or taken greater satisfaction in the result. It still makes my heart thud (and buttocks clench!) to this day.
So that’s why I get wistful about Pikes Peak at this time of year, and why I’ll be following the event live on Sunday via the PPIHC website. Just go to www.ppihc.com and sign up for your livestream activation code and get ready for the action.
To whet your appetite in the meantime, take a few minutes to watch Ari Vatanen in Climb Dance (still one of the best motor sport films ever made), then ride with Sébastien Loeb on his blistering 8min13.878sec run to set a new hill record. Both are exceptional, but I’ll leave you to decide which era of course and car presented the greater challenge and offered the most mesmerising spectacle…