Racing is all about being the fastest, and it’s been that way since the dawn of the car. Whether it’s just racing from A to B, a multi-stage rally or a 24-hour endurance race, it always comes down to who’s the best. It’s a cliché, but coming in second is often described as “the best of the rest” or being the first loser. This fuel-driven desire to be the best has driven people to extremes, both on-road and off-road. One of the most legendary events on the off-road calendar is the Pikes Peak Race to the Clouds, a hill-climbing event that sees drivers race to the highest peak in the southern reaches of the Rocky Mountains. Initially, I seriously wanted to include Hoonipigasus in this episode of The Patrolhead’s Corner, but changes had to be made when Ken Black pulled out of the race a few weeks before the race due to technical problems with the car. However, here are three great stories to show why the annual Pikes Peak hill climb is such an iconic race.
The first edition of the Pikes Peak Hill Climb Climb event was held in 1916, when entrepreneur and philanthropist Spencer Penrose staged a race to the top following his work to convert the Carriage Trail into the Pikes Peak Highway. But don’t mistake it for the well-paved multi-lane highway we know these days. From bottom to top, the course was mainly on dirt roads with some paved sections here and there. Gradually more sections were repaved with tarmac and by now the entire 20 km course is basically a normal road. With 156 twists and turns.
For the most part, the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is a multi-class event, with cars and bikes competing in separate divisions in the first run. Later, things moved into more diverse categories, including stock cars, open-wheelers, turbine-powered cars, hybrid power and, in recent years, fully electric race cars. And perhaps the most interesting class of all is the unlimited class, where you can race pretty much anything you want as long as you stay within the safety limits.
One of the biggest challenges is that you start at 1,440 meters above sea level and run up to 4,302 meters. The total course length is 20km and has a total of 156 corners. A drop in air density and oxygen levels means that a car engine loses about 10% of its power with every 1,000m gained in altitude. Since the course has 3km of elevation gain between start and finish, you lose 30% to 35% of your energy during the climb. Electric motors are also affected by the reduced air density at altitude, which mainly causes cooling problems when not addressed in the car’s construction.
Over the years, many legends have been created at Pikes Peak. The American Unser family, through brothers Louis, Bobby and Al Unser and other family members, has won the event a monumental 25 times outright. It wasn’t just limited to American entries as multiple rally and racing legends Walter Rohrl, Sebastian Loeb, Rod Millen and others took victories in the legendary event.
1988/1989 – Ari Vatanen in “Climb Dance”
Certainly, one of the most famous editions of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb was the 1988 edition, released mainly for a short film run by Ari Vatanen in his Peugeot 405 Turbo 16. Three years after the first non-US driver to win the event (French female ace rally driver Michelle Mouton in the legendary Audi Sport Quattro S1), Ari Vatanen took the overall victory.
An award-winning video released in 1989, directed by Jean-Louis Maury, was aptly titled Climb Dance and saw Vatanen driving his 600+ horsepower Peugeot up a mountain during a 1988 race. He set a new course record of 10 minutes 47.220 seconds in the process, beating Walter Rohrl’s 1987 record by just 0.63 seconds. I digress too much, because it’s best to sit back and enjoy the clip below and marvel at the one-handed shift as the sun sets over the edge of the mountain.
1995/1996 – Nobuhiro “Monster” Tamiza and his Suzuki Escudo
Although the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb has given birth to many icons, few have been of the magnitude of Nobuhiro “Monster” Tamiza. He participated in Suzuki’s rally program for years and was the first and only Japanese driver to win the Pikes Peak race. His first attempt was in 1989, and by 1993 he had won the Unlimited class in a twin-engine Suzuki Cultus (or Swift in most markets). In 1995 he lined up again with two engines in the 900 horsepower and 900 kilogram Suzuki Escudo. He won the event outright and it shot Nobuhiro’s reputation into the stratosphere. This clip shows Nobuhiro on the dual-engine Suzuki taking on New Zealand’s Rod Millen in his specially prepared Toyota Celica:
In the following years, the updated Suzuki Escudo V6 finished second three more times, before “Monster” Tajima took consecutive wins from 2006 to 2011. In the 2011 edition, he also became the first driver to complete three now. – Quarter paved course in 10 minutes. As the Gran Turismo franchise on Sony’s PlayStation console featured the 1998 Suzuki V6 Escudo Pikes Peak car in several iterations of the game, the car and driver would become somewhat of a gaming legend.
2018 – Romain Dumas in Volkswagen ID R
As with many classes in racing, the rise of the electric powertrain has led to the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. The first all-electric car to hit the hill was Joe Ball’s Sears Electric in 1981, which set a time of 34 minutes, 7.410 seconds. By 1994 that time had fallen to 15 minutes 44.710 seconds by Katy Endicott. In 2013 Nobuhiro “Monster” Tamija once again broke the 10-minute barrier, this time in the Electric E-Runner Pikes Peak Special. Although all of these excursions were record-breaking runs for electric vehicles, until 2018 the total record time of the Pikes Peak Crows was broken on battery power.
The 2018 Volkswagen ID R absolutely smashed all previous records as Romain Dumas pushed it to a time of 7 minutes and 57.148 seconds, nearly a minute and a half faster than any other current class record. The Volkswagen ID R is basically a factory testbed for future technology, the 718 Cayman GT4 ePerformance for Porsche. It uses twin-electric motors, one per axle, with a combined power output of 680 horsepower. That’s a lot less than other classes of cars, but the advantage of electric power is instant availability and terrific torque levels. The car is also fitted with extensive aerodynamic features to help it stick to the ground in corners. And when it doesn’t the sound The ride up the mountain is impressive, it’s absolutely psychedelic from an onboard perspective.
2023 – Ken Black’s Hoonipigasus (Bonus)
Just for fun, since the same car inspired this episode of The Patrolhead’s Corner, let’s take a brief look at Hoonipigasus. I know it’s a funny name, but it originated from Ken Black’s Hoonigan Racing division and the legendary Pink Pig Porsche 917. This wild-looking Porsche-based racer produces a mind-boggling 1,400 horsepower from a twin-turbo 4.0-liter flat-6 engine. From the 2016 Porsche 911 GT3 R race car. It would have been a wonderful sight to see this monster running to the clouds, but it was not to be.
During a test session with the car, there was a problem with one of the valve cylinders, which resulted in the engine blowing up. The damage was so extensive that it could not be repaired, tested, dismantled and prepared in time for the event. The thing is done with highly tuned racing machines and the team has already said they will be at the 101st running of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb!