It’s a good season for race fans. Le Mans and the Isle of Man TT just wrapped up last weekend, and the Formula One season is running at full tilt. But what about stateside? Aside from the actually broadcast NASCAR events, where else is rubber being burned within our borders? Ladies and gentlemen, eyes to the Rockies.
The Pike’s Peak International Hill Climb, known by many as the Race to the Clouds, is a rally-style time trial running between the foot and summit of Pike’s Peak in Colorado. Eleven classes of vehicles enter, from open-wheel to production 4WD to unlimited. The ascent is almost 4,000 feet, enough to give pause to fuel/air experts, and the track is 12.42 miles and 156 turns of tarmac and gravel, so Pike’s Peak can be considered the ultimate test of versatility engineering.
Drivers yearly seek the Holy Grail of Pike’s Peak, a 10 minute run. It has never been done, though in 2007 Nobuhiro Tajima came close with a record-setting 10:01.408 ascent in his Suzuki XL7, which had been modified. He’ll be back this year with the same car, but he won’t be the only one gunning for the win or the record. Here’s a few of the other rides that will grace the slopes of Pike’s Peak this year.
Kiwi Rhys Millen has an interesting story. A rallyist in his own right, he’s also the son of Rod Millen, who set the previous Pike’s Peak record in his 800 hp AWD Celica in 1994, before parts of the course were paved. The record stood until 2007, when Tajima claimed it. So I won’t Don King this and say that it’s personal for Rhys, but he might have a little extra incentive to capture the win.
For that he’ll need a special machine, something specifically designed for hill climbs, and for Pike’s Peak in particular. Enter the RMR PM580, an AWD beast powered by a 4.1 liter V6 that’s been turbocharged to 775 hp and 750 ft-lbs of torque. It should be more than “peppy” for a car weighing just under 1,900 lbs. The engine (and sponsorship) come from Hyundai, who swear that the PM580 is based on their Genesis, though it looks more like a Le Mans prototype than a Korean coupe. Rhys drove the same car last year, but faced suspension issues. And this year during testing, the flappy-paddle semiautomatic gearbox quit, so the team switched it for the good ol’ stick shift out of Rod’s previous Pike’s Peak Toyota Tacoma.
The PM580 is part of the unlimited class, which means that as long as it passes a safety inspection, anything goes. So it will have some competition.
Among that competition is a new entry from a car firm that may be entirely new to you. Dacia is a Romanian outfit, part of the Renault empire. They’re probably best known in our part of the world as the butt of a joke on Top Gear UK, but they’re out to shed their James May reputation as a producer of dull, soulless econoboxes.
And since Renault is in partnership with Nissan, their new Pike’s Peak Duster has been loaded with the 3.8 liter V6 from none other than the Nissan GT-R, locally nicknamed Godzilla. It has a pair of turbos that spool up to help the mill reach a staggering 850 hp. The car weighs just under one ton. The Duster racing project (not to be confused with the awesome Plymouth Duster of 1970 or the not so awesome Plymouth Duster of 1992) started with the Andros Trophy, a European ice racing series, so it should handle the slick-as-a-salesman dirt sections of the course with ease. This is their first year at Pike’s Peak, but the way things are looking, driver Jean Philippe Dayraut won’t disappoint the sponsors.
Siddens Polaris RZR-X
There’s also plenty of action outside the unlimited class. And some of it comes from unexpected places. Doug Siddens grew up in New Mexico and has been making the yearly pilgrimage to Pike’s Peak for as long as he can remember. He bought his Polaris RZR UTV in 2008 and was immediately smitten. A UTV is basically a more powerful ATV. Just picture one of those four-wheeled, golf-cart width buggies you always see outside your local motorcycle dealership. In his efforts to spread awareness of UTV racing, he managed to convince the Pike’s Peak commissioners to create an entire new category last year – the Powersport Exhibition class.
Siddens’ customized RZR puts down an astonishing 300 hp, which is far more than most commuter cars on the market. Accomplishing this is a 998 cc turbocharged snowmobile engine. The whole setup weighs right around 1,100 lbs.
Doug is leaving the 10 minute mark for the unlimited class, but last year, on his first try, he finished at just over 14 minutes, which was better than 40% of entrants in all classes. Not too shabby for a weekend toy. This year he has four competitors in his class, including a unique Can-Am Spyder-like three wheeler and an electric superbike.
Over the years, Pike’s Peak has attracted some unusual and unusually awesome machines. In 1986 the FIA outlawed the illustrious classification of Group B rally machines for being too fast and too dangerous. But, like ancient ronin, disenfranchised but unwilling to compromise, Group B drivers made the pilgrimage to the only race that would accept them- the Mountain. The legendary Walter Röhrl won the 1987 event in his 600+ hp Audi Quattro S1. And in 1989, Ari Vatanen drove a Peugeot 405 Turbo 16 GR, a 650 hp leviathan which technically wasn’t a Group B car, but might have been had the class survived. Vatanen won his class, and film maker Jean Louis Mourey was there to film it for his award winning verité short, “Climb Dance.” The Frenchman describes the Race to the Clouds much better than I can. Enjoy.