America’s Most Dangerous Race: 100 Years Of Climbing Pikes Peak
Counting a century since its very first run, the Broadmoor Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is one of the country’s long-standing extreme automobile races, drawing fans deep into the Rockies to witness the action. Brought to the public by Gran Turismo, the event happens annually and is known as one of the most dangerous racing challenges in the United States. It is also the second oldest auto race in the United States, second to only the Indy 500. In less than fifteen minutes, drivers take on 12.42 miles of narrow highway, switchbacks and unpredictable weather to reach the 14,115 ft. summit finish line, a route that takes regular visitors nearly three hours to complete. To get a firsthand perspective on just how much preparation goes into the race, I was able to join professional racer James Clay thanks to his sponsor, OPTIMA Batteries. With twenty four years of experience in the industry and his own BMW performance parts company, BimmerWorld, James was an insightful guide to the effort that goes into making the Hill Climb possible and successful year after year. This year marks BimmerWorld’s 25th anniversary, as well as the 100th anniversary of the climb.
With the race taking place on Sunday, June 26th, I made my way to Denver just before the weekend, giving me enough time to watch practice runs of the race sections starting at dawn. By 9:00am, practice had concluded, and the drivers took advantage of some much needed down time in anticipation of the real thing. The runs were my first in-person taste of Pikes Peak, which happened to be clear and sunny on Friday morning. Steep drop-offs, loose rock and expansive views line the two-lane highway running up the mountain, which is more often enveloped by low-hanging clouds. Often foggy and shrouded in unpredictability, the mountain cultivates a personality of its own, especially when you realize just how daunting the race can be to drivers with years of experience, let alone casual visitors. Starting at over 9,000 feet of altitude, the environment, combined with the anticipation of competition can have a significant physical effect on both drivers and those rooting for them.
Determined to keep coming back better, faster, and stronger, James and his team had been building the car they used in the race for nearly five years. “The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is the most challenging event we run every year and the most difficult event I have ever run in 25 years of motorsport,” James said as he reflected on his relationship to the event. “While a tremendous amount of the result depends on that development and preparation, we are all racing the mountain and weather conditions thrown at us on race day.”
Later that evening, I headed to Downtown Colorado Springs to the Pikes Peak Fan Fest, a yearly tradition that brings extreme sports lovers together to talk racing, compare notes and enjoy local food and drinks over the course of a night dedicated to the Hill Climb. The atmosphere was all about letting loose, rooting for favorites and looking forward to watching the race live knowing everyone was ready to brave the long wait on race day for the same reasons.
Saturday, June 25th was all about final prep, and I visited the track to see the paddock being prepared for the race. These were just the finishing touches: many teams arrive at the mountain a month in advance to dial in their vehicles and host official test days. I wrapped up the day early knowing that getting to the race gate early would be a priority the next morning; Pikes Peak fan traffic is notorious. I planned to get to the race gate by 2am to avoid traffic and weather delays, but there were still plenty of cars lined up on the road leading to the raceway. The weather had been temperamental the day before, and was already causing delays hours before the racers’ 7-7:30am start.
As a media guest, restrictions were much more limiting for this event than other races I’ve covered, speaking to the logistics of planning one of America’s most dangerous races. The highway leading up the mountain becomes a one-way road during the race, meaning anyone who is hoping to watch has to make it to a designated viewing area before the entry gates close. Once you’re at your viewing area, you’re expected to stay there until the conclusion of the race meaning you have to bring plenty of layers, hot drinks and whatever else you need in the hours leading up to the morning. As people filtered in, I could tell these were the fans who didn’t mind a bit of inconvenience and cold weather if it meant they could witness racing history unfold. After all, this year’s event was a centennial celebration as much as it was a tradition.
I watched the competitors fly by from the starting line with the rest of the OPTIMA team. An ideal vantage point, the starting point gave me time to admire every vehicle up close as it took its place before taking off towards the summit. The paddock had a few wide screens streaming the action from the starting line and at various points along the track all the way back to Colorado Springs for those who couldn’t make it to the event in person. While the race sees everything from snow to hail and rain, the morning of the 26th was especially foggy, rendering some of the cars all but invisible as they sped through the mist.
In what seemed like a split second, the race was over as quickly as it began, bringing two days of preparations to a climactic finish. Overcoming exceptionally low visibility, and slippery conditions, James Clay took 11th place overall and 2nd place in his division. Robin Shute took 1st place both overall in a 2018 Wolf TSC-FS, with David Donohue and David Donner following close behind in a pair of Porsches. Rolling his vehicle once on a dicey corner and getting right back on the road immediately after, Levi Shirley broke the race’s record for the fastest car to both roll and finish the race. Other honorable mentions include Henry Hill’s Rookie of the Year award, and Rhys and Rod Millens’ tied division win, which carried on the father-son duo’s family legacy on Pikes Peak. “It was an honor to have OPTIMA Batteries as the official battery of the legendary Pikes Peak International Hill Climb this year,” stated Cam Douglass, the OPTIMA Batteries Director of Marketing, in a closing statement. “The conditions on the mountain are rarely favorable, and this year was no exception. We are happy our racers finished safely and are already looking forward to next year.”
By that evening, I was saying goodbye to both Pikes Peak and Colorado Springs, but the scale of the race stayed with me. Wrapping extreme sports, showmanship and the uncertainty of the mountain into a few heart stopping moments, the race draws diehard and attracts new ones every year. Woven into the fabric of Colorado’s outdoor adventure community, the Hill Climb will return home to Pikes Peak next summer. For an in-depth list of overall results, competitor profiles, merchandise and more, visit the Hill Climb’s official website.