AT the Pikes Peak Hill Climb: High weirdness and Japanese Monsters
summit daily auto writer
Pikes Peak – Mix the final chase scenes from “The Road Warrior” with a day of NASCAR tailgating, set it all in the lightning-saturated thin air at the top of a Fourteener, throw in a Japanese monster riding a 910-horsepower chariot – and what do you get?
Easy. Colorado’s oldest uphill automotive race, the venerable Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, celebrating its 88th year last Sunday with an insane variety of vehicles, drivers and perhaps the most challenging test of mechanical prowess and rally racing on the planet.
For one very long day, with the ultra-high-alpine weather oscillating between blue skies, sideways snow and lightning strikes, more than 160 motorcycles, race cars, stock cars and even modified diesel trucks made their own mad dash for the summit, careening along a 12.42 mile path that’s changed considerably since the event was first run, back in the middle of World War I.
This year’s race, in fact, was the last to be run with huge stretches of gravel, as a complete paving job began just a few days after the event.
And while the action takes on all the multidisciplinary weirdness of the legendary Mint 400 race described in Hunter Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” it’s perhaps fitting that the uphill marathon has been conquered by an affable, large-headed Japanese racer known simply as “The Monster” – who grabbed his fifth title during action in the unlimited class last Sunday.
Nobuhiro Tajima, known in his native land as a mythic blend of driver Richard Petty and super-tuner Chip Foose, blasted to the 14,110-foot summit in an astounding 10 minutes 11.49 seconds, devastating the pack but not quite beating his personal record (or breaking the 10 minute mark, as was expected to happen this year).
Tajima’s racer was an incredibly modified Suzuki SX4, transforming the company’s austere but sturdy AWD automobile into a 3.1-liter, twin-turbo, ultra-aerodynamic machine producing 910 absolutely screaming horsepower.
With a dragon’s tail-styled plume of dirt following him as he careened up the mountain, Tajima’s fearless driving style couldn’t quite push him past his own record. The extremely choppy road knocked loose an electronic transponder, and Tajima’s crew initially hoped they had cracked the 10-minute mark, but the racer eventually and quite humbly accepted his time and … will now begin work on a record-setting run in 2011.
While Tajima’s uphill battle against Red Bull and Hyundai-sponsored racer Rhys Millen – edged to third place by driver Paul Dallenbach – was the main attraction, the Hill Climb thrives on a culture of little guys tackling and beating the mountain.
From the stock car-inspired Fan Fest that precedes the race to the inconceivable devotion of enthusiasts who arrive at dawn to perch on rocks and hang from cliffs to watch the race, the Hill Climb’s real winners are the legions of local and visiting part-time racers who hurtle up the mountain in a wild assortment of vehicles.
From full-blown stock cars to rally ready WRXs and Mitsubishi Evos to the gang of Californians who very loudly run 1950s and ’60s vintage racers to the top (“This thing is the Woodstock of auto racing,” explained Pleasanton’s Charles Breed, driving a 1958 Lister roadster), the well-organized chaos of the event is a little hard to fathom.
Even more so after spending a whole day at the top of Colorado’s most famous mountain, with slightly oblivious gangs of shorts-wearing tourists pouring out of the Cog Railway to scarf down doughnuts and rub elbows with the bikers and racers.
J.T. Taylor, a Fountain-based driver who competed in his 500-plus horsepower rockcrawler, says the biggest change in store for the event is the news that nearly all of the mountain’s high-alpine route will be converted to blacktop.
That will render the half-dirt event into a very high-speed race open to the fastest of road rally cars and even superbikes, a change he predicts will quickly transform the longtime family nature of the event.
“It’s hard not to be involved in the Hill Climb – every time I walk from my house to my shop, I look up and I see the mountain … and I’m willing to burn a half a year’s sponsorship just to enter,” he says. “Things are going to be very different.”
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