To fully appreciate the enormity of Pikes Peak you should watch ‘Climb Dance’, drive up it, or, better still — do both.
The award-winning short film vividly documents Ari Vatanen’s record-breaking 10m 47.77sec run at the 1988 Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.
Created by Jean Louis Mourey, this action-brimmed, celluloid clip captures the Finnish rally ace soaring to the summit in a bespoke four-wheel drive, four-wheel steer Peugeot 405 T16.
Cameras inside, front, underneath and above the car, take you along for a white-knuckled, heart-pounding ride, underscored with full-blooded slides through hairpins, flat-chat along straights and tail hanging out within a metre of plunging to infinity from 4267m (14,000ft) up.
One of the most-viewed and talked about car films ever, ‘Climb Dance’ is right up there with that other French cult classic, ‘Rendezvous’.
Records, of course, are there to be broken and, in 2012, all-time WRC champion Sébastien Loeb set a scorching 8m 13.878sec in another Peugeot, the 208 T16 Pikes Peak, the flying Frenchman consuming the 156 corners at an average speed of 145km/h.
The outright record currently stands at 7m 7.148sec., a time set by Romain Dumas in the Volkswagen all-electric I. D. R Pikes Peak in 2018.
It should be said that the ever-increasing pace of the race has not all been because of technology, skill or derring-do, but also improvements to the road surface.
In late 2011, final sealing of what had been historically a decomposed granite surface – salted with magnesium chloride and/or calcium chloride to bind the dirt and keep the dust down – was completed.
Stage-by-stage, the sealing started in 2003 in response to environmental concerns that damage to watercourses and forest floor was being caused primarily by some 70,000 tonnes of gravel that washed away annually.
To race purists, it wasn’t quite paving paradise and putting in a parking lot, but close.
The official course comprises the final 20km of Pikes Peak Highway, a 30.6km toll-road from Cascade to the 4302m summit.
The fun begins at the start line, alongside a telegraph pole at the 11.3km marker.
To get the most out of your drive, you’ll probably want to use launch control and push on as hard as you’re prepared to risk.
But, first, a few tempering facts. The speed limit is 25mph (40km/h), so hitting 200km/h like the fastest of the fearless on race day is a little unrealistic.
And, while uphill traffic has right of way at all times, best don’t take it for granted and use any more than your side of the road.
Of course, in the days of part-dirt – back when I drove it, in 2009 – which did not facilitate any kind of road marking, differentiating what was your side proved something of a challenge.
There were others. Even allowing for such constraints, this was a cracking strip of dirt; well-packed down in the interests of safety, but accommodating a little slippage to engage and entertain.
Pikes Peak plays a full hand – blind crests, corners and curves of all radii and degree of difficulty, places you go ridge-rimming, and where it’s possible to fall 600m to earth and barrel-roll halfway to Colorado Springs.
The tree-line ends abruptly beyond Glen Cove, then comes the evocatively-named Devil’s Playground, Double Cut and Bottomless Pit, where it’s easy to trip up.
But the single, most amazing feature is the ‘W’s, a series of no less than eight switchbacks on the north-west side of the peak.
Of course, higher altitude means thinner air. For every 350m above sea level, a rule of thumb is you can expect to lose around 3 per cent of engine power.
Which explains why, the closer to the summit, the Charger with its 2.7-litre V6 fell short of living up to its name.
But we made it.
Coming down means driving on the side closest to the edge.
Wonder how many right-side passengers close their eyes?
There have been instances where people have ridden the brake pedal – with often predictable consequences.
So, at the ranger’s booth near the 13km mark, it’s mandatory to stop and have the temperature of your stoppers read with a pyrometer.
Anything above 150-degrees C and you’re required to pull over.
Put Pikes Peak near the top of your drive bucket list. You won’t get to go fast enough to threaten Vatanen or Loeb’s times, but the sheer scale of the place and sense of occasion and history should suffice.
The Story Behind the Story
Commissioned by US President Thomas Jefferson to explore the Great Plains, Lt. Zebulon Pike first saw Pikes Peak from the eastern portion of today’s Colorado in 1806.
As he approached the magnificent peak, rising abruptly from the plains, Pike swore this mountain would never be climbed by man.
By the mid-20th century, Pikes Peak had been conquered by tourists from all over the world – by car, motorcycle, bicycle, train, mule, horse, and on foot.
The spectacular view from the summit inspired Katherine Lee Bates to compose the famous lyrics to ‘America the Beautiful in 1893’.
Pike could never have imagined the vehicles or the automobile race which would conclude at the summit of his peak a little over a century after his first sighting.
By 1900 a carriage road had been built.
Spencer Penrose, one of Colorado Springs’ city’s major benefactors, realised the tourist potential of such a beautiful landmark and in 1915 he finished converting the narrow carriage road into the Pikes Peak Highway.
In order to publicise his new road, and draw visitors to his Broadmoor Hotel, he devised a simple plan; run an automobile race to the summit of Pikes Peak.
The Pikes Peak Auto Hill Climb was first held on August 10, 11-12, 1916 with Rea Lentz crowned the winner in a time of 20min:55.600sec.
The harrowing course has long served as an automotive proving ground – for automatic transmissions, brake fluid, front-wheel drive, and electric vehicles.
Halted only during World Wars 1 and 2, the race has become known as the second-oldest motorsport race in America.
In 2016, a 100th anniversary celebration took place. On June 26, 2022, the Race to the Clouds, notched its milestone 100th running.
American racing families from across the country have championed the course – names like Mears, Pastrana, Zwart, Vahsholtz and hundreds of others — but none more so than the Unsers.
International competitors have also etched their mark including Nobuhiro ‘Monster’ Tajima, Ari Vatanen, Walter Rohrl, Michele Mouton, Rod and Rhys Millen, Sebastien Loeb and, most recently, Romain Dumas.