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Mountain climbing on 2-4 wheels

Trucks, cars, bikes and sidecars come to challenge Pikes Peak and its 156-turn, dust-choked challenge.


© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 30, 2001

Compared with, say, the Indianapolis 500, it's not much of a race. Only 4,708 feet as the crow flies. Then again, no crow could fly it without afterburners and an oxygen mask.

That's .8916 of a mile straight up. For the earthbound, the vehicle-bound, it will take 12.42 miles, 156 turns and probably a bit more than 10 minutes today to slip, slide and swerve up from the starting line to the 14,110-foot summit of Pikes Peak.

"It's a different type of challenge. It's really a drivers challenge, all those twists and turns," said Bobby Unser, 13-time winner of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. "And they're defined turns, not just little curves. And there's no two alike. Not like running Indianapolis (which he won three times), where you're doing the same thing time after time. From the moment you leave the starting line, you're never going to do the same thing twice."

The scariest part of the race?

Going slow.

And going down.

That's when you have the time to actually look around at where you're driving.

And where you've been.

"Going fast, going up, you don't focus on it," said Blake Fuller of Sarasota, who has run Pikes Peak twice. "It gets to you more when you're driving back down the mountain, when you can see what you passed going up. Or when you watch other cars going up and you think, "Man, they are going so fast,' and then you realize you've been doing the same thing. It's surreal."

Racers are sent off one by one a couple of minutes apart, based on qualifying times (one exception: motorcycles go in packs of five). Since racers compete against the clock instead of each other the order doesn't matter, except to give the faster ones more room in front of them. Still, a racer will occasionally catch a slower one.

"I'll tell the guys (starting) in front of me, "If you have a problem, watch your mirror 'cause I've got no time to screw with you when I catch you,' " Unser said. "That's a terrible thing to say, I know, but it's a part of life. I hate to say it, but I'm a professional hit man during the race. I'm not there to have coffee with the guy."

Blind curves

In 1806, Zebulon Montgomery Pike, a 27-year-old army lieutenant dispatched to explore the southwest, discovered the peak that would come to bear his name.

When Pikes Peak or Bust became the rallying cry for an 1859 gold rush, the name stuck. The road was built in the 1880s for horses and carriages. The first car to drive it was a Locomobile Steamer in 1901. It took more than nine hours to reach the top.

In 1915, millionaire Spencer Penrose spent $250,000 to improve the road to attract tourists. The next year he created what became the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.

It is the second-oldest regularly scheduled automobile race in the United States; only the Indy 500 is older, by five years. Pikes Peak has attracted its share of Indy drivers, including champions Bobby and Al Unser, Al Jr., Rick Mears, Mario Andretti and Parnelli Jones.

Bobby Unser calls Pikes Peak "one of the most beautiful places on earth. I drive it constantly, every time I go up there. ... I'm an American. I look at that and say, "Wow, this is beautiful.' Where else could you find such a place?"

In fact, Katherine Lee Bates, an English professor at Wellesley College in Boston, wrote America the Beautiful after an 1893 visit to Pikes Peak's spacious skies and purple mountain majesties.

This is the 79th time -- with timeouts for two world wars -- drivers have been cannonballing up Pikes Peak in the "Race to the Clouds." Rea Lentz won the first one in 20 minutes, 55.6 seconds. Five-time winner Rod Millen of New Zealand set the record of 10:04.06 in 1994.

Except for the times and the variety of categories -- there are 13, including cars, trucks and motorcycles -- the race hasn't changed all that much. It's still run on a narrow two-lane, mostly gravel road, blind curves with names like Devil's Corner, Ragged Edge, Blue Sky Corner and Bottomless Pit. And without guard rails. And in weather that can range from scorching sun to serious snow, sometimes both.

"The whole event is scary, really," said racer Jason Deal of Sarasota, Fuller's best friend and partner in a bicycle assembly company. "It's not like a race track where you have run-off space or, at worst, will hit a wall. Some corners, there's a real big drop. ... Last year it was like, "Oh, my God!' every other corner."

There have been only three fatalities, the most recent during Thursday's time trials. Ralph Chandler Bruning Jr. died of massive internal bleeding from neck and chest injuries after his 1999 Chevrolet Monte Carlo missed a turn at 80 mph, went airborne and was impaled on a tree that tore through the driver's compartment through a side window.

During the 1921 time trials, Wallace Coleman rolled his car. It crushed his chest and broke his back. He is supposed to have said, "It won't keep me out of the race Monday," then died. And in 1982, motocyclist Bill Gross Jr. wrecked in the middle of the road, stood up and, obscured by a cloud of dust, was hit and killed by another cyclist.

The most spectacular crash is considered to be Slim Roberts' in 1962. He was on the switchbacks at the Devil's Playground, above the timberline, when his Conze-Offy Special went over and tumbled several hundred feet down the rocks. Roberts was taken to a Colorado Springs hospital. He wasn't there long, leaving when no one was looking. X-rays showed he had been injured seriously. He was tracked down at a local bar, knocking back drinks.

'It's in our blood'

Call this the uncommon race for the common man. Racing at Indy or Daytona is a multimillion-dollar project. Deal and Fuller, each 21, did it at Pikes Peak with a few thousand -- and hope to do it again today.

"Jason and I were driving to California in the summer of '98," Fuller said, "and got as far as Colorado and watched the race. It was like, "This is awesome!' " In '99 Fuller was in it. He finished sixth in High Performance Showroom Stock. Last year he was fifth, with Deal right behind him. "We were on a shoestring budget. The cheapest," Deal said. "We both finished. Rod Millen didn't."

Pikes Peak Highway is arguably the most famous mountain road on earth. Bobby Unser said he is better known in Europe for his conquests of Pikes Peak than for his Indy 500 victories.

"They look at it as rally racing," he said, "and rally is second only to Formula One in Europe. ... Pikes Peak (driving), its a lifestyle in Europe. They've got all those skinny, winding roads going up and down mountains everywhere."

Unser, who was born in Colorado Springs and grew up in the shadow of Pikes Peak, said he didn't dream of winning the Indianapolis 500. The Peak was all he knew then; his father and two uncles were already running it. He first raced there in 1956; Indianapolis came seven years later.

"Pikes Peak probably was the best place for learning chassis and cars, learning the road," Unser said. "I became very aggressive in my driving and through that I met Parnelli Jones. He was the golden-haired angel of Indianapolis in those days. Because I'd learned how to do Pikes Peak and how to read a road and set up a car, we became friends. And from that he found me a car to drive at Indianapolis."

It is affectionately called Unser's Mountain. Three generations of Unsers, a dozen in all -- Jerry Sr. and Jr., Louis Sr. and Jr., Joe, Bobby Sr. and Jr., Robby, Geri, Al Sr. and Jr. and Johnny -- have combined for 109 races and 37 titles since 1934, setting 28 records.

"The mountain has been very close to the Unser family, and we treat it with the respect it deserves," Robby Unser said. "It's in our blood."

-- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

Want more?

The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb Divisions

HIGH PERFORMANCE SHOWROOM STOCK: The only modifications allowed to these cars and trucks are heavier tires and tubes, plus a roll cage, race seats and fuel cell.

SUPER STOCK: Standard model cars no more than 10 years old, much like NASCAR race cars.

PIKES PEAK OPEN: Similar in appearance to High Performance Showroom Stock, but major modifications can be made to engines, transmissions and suspensions.

UNLIMITED: The most exotic vehicles, most built specifically for this race. They have the best chance of setting an overall race record.

SUPER TRUCK AND SUV: Specially modified trucks and utility vehicles similar to NASCAR trucks. They may use two-wheel or four-wheel drive setups and must have a body style produced within the past six years.

OPEN WHEEL: The traditional Pikes Peak racer, ranging from Indy cars to dune buggies. Open wheel cars have competed in every race since the first one in 1916.

BIG RIG: Big diesel racers (without big rigs behind them) reach 80 mph along the way. Single- and double-axle tractors eligible.

250 PRO: Motorcycles, usually factory built for racing with two-stroke single-cylinder engines.

500 PRO: Two-stroke and four-stroke motorcycles, both older design machines and those off the showroom floor. Single- and twin-cylinder engines allowed.

750 PRO: Some riders prefer a lightweight, single-cylinder, four-stroke 600cc engine, but twin-cylinder engines may be as large as 750cc.

SIDECARS: Three-wheel, two-rider (driver and passenger) motorcycles.

VINTAGE: Amateur class, open only to 650cc to 750cc twin-cylinder machines, classic "TT" bikes, most with custom racing frames and modified engines.

EXHIBITION: Vehicles that don't fit into one of the race's regular divisions.

-- Source: Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.

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