At Pikes Peak Hill Climb, a Drive to Win and to Put the Race on the Map

At Pikes Peak Hill Climb, a Drive to Win and to Put the Race on the Map

Across the world, the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is known as one of the most prestigious car races, a treacherous 12.4-mile sprint up one of the highest summits of the Rockies. But for many people in the United States, and even some in its host city, Colorado Springs, the race is hardly known at all.

“There are people who have lived here their whole lives — they even like motorsports — but if you mention the hill climb to them, they’ll say, ‘Oh, is that the thing where you run up the mountain?’” said Tommy Boileau, a 28-year-old Colorado Springs native who will drive in this year’s race. “Then you meet people from Japan, Germany and France who absolutely idolize this place. It’s crazy.”

As the hill climb celebrates its 100th running this weekend, it finds itself in a peculiar situation: a celebrated global race that remains a niche curiosity in the U.S., where hill climbs and rally racing — in which drivers set fast time trials on dirt, gravel and paved public roads — have never quite caught on at a mainstream level.

“In the world of motorsports, rally is second only to Formula 1,” said Ken Block, a 54-year-old American rally driver. “Unfortunately, in the U.S., we only have NASCAR and drag racing as our staples.”

This weekend was going to be Block’s first time competing at Pikes Peak, though an engine failure during practice runs forced him to withdraw from the race. He has vowed to return next year, however, and said that motorsports fanatics like himself consider the hill climb akin to Formula 1’s famed Monaco Grand Prix.

“Just like F1 has Monte Carlo, rally and hill climbs have Pikes Peak, with its own unique story and tradition,” he said. “It’s what first got me into rally when I discovered the race as a teenager back in the ’80s. There’s simply nothing like it in the world.”

Founded in 1916 by the entrepreneur Spencer Penrose — and originally conceived as a tourist attraction to promote his hotel, the Broadmoor — Pikes Peak is the second-longest-running race in the U.S. behind the Indianapolis 500. While it gained some acclaim in the 1960s, when Mario Andretti and Bobby Unser earned victories, it became internationally renowned in the 1980s as global rally champions caught wind of its immense challenge.

The race is certainly not for the faint of heart: Drivers can reach speeds of more than 140 miles per hour as they climb 4,725 feet up to 14,115 feet, negotiating 156 turns, some along steep cliffs with no guard rails. There have been seven deaths in the event’s history, and race organizers discontinued the motorcycle division in 2021, two years after a rider died.

“Obviously there’s a fear factor,” Boileau said. “When you strap that helmet on come race day, it could be the last thing that you ever do, and that’s a tough pill to swallow.”

But that challenge is precisely what attracts international drivers and manufacturers. Since the 1980s, car companies like Audi, Peugeot, and Suzuki have built custom vehicles for the race, and international rally stars like Sebastien Loeb of France and Nobuhiro Tajima of Japan have won — and set records in the process.

While the race does feature a number of car classes, including open-wheel and stock car divisions, it is best known for its unlimited class: exotic cars built specifically for Pikes Peak with essentially no regulations aside from basic safety measures.

“It’s a proving ground, and one of the last races that’s unruled,” said David Donner, a 57-year-old driver from Colorado Springs and three-time Pikes Peak champion.

“One person a couple years ago told me, ‘It’s like Formula 1 meets monster trucks,’” Donner added. “You’ll get professional-level teams showing up with all the top-notch preparations. Then you’ll see a setup that looks like it was made in some guy’s backyard — but it’s just as quick.”

The course consists of public roads typically used by tourists throughout the year to reach spectacular vistas. It was fully paved in 2012, which led to an increase in non-rally vehicles competing in the hill climb. Electric vehicles have become particularly popular in recent years, since they typically have an edge — unlike cars with combustion engines, they suffer no power loss at higher altitudes and can generate instant torque to accelerate quickly out of hairpin turns.

Underscoring that point: In 2018, Romain Dumas of France set the current overall Pikes Peak record of 7 minutes 57.148 seconds in a fully electric Volkswagen I.D. R. And last year a Tesla made headlines by winning the exhibition class.

“Now that the course is all asphalt, I’ve loved the growth that’s come with it,” said Chris Strauch, one of 10 drivers from Colorado Springs in this year’s race, who will be competing in this year’s race for the 16th time. “It’s not the same roar of the engine that some people are used to, but to watch these guys do such phenomenal things in electric cars is exciting.”

According to Donald Sanborn, president of the Pikes Peak Hill Climb Historical Association, this year’s race will likely draw more than 5,000 spectators, and he estimates that more than one quarter of them could be international fans. The new emphasis on electric vehicles, he said, has drawn more interest in recent years — particularly from manufacturers and media — though gaining mainstream attention in the United States remains difficult.

“It’s always in the back of our minds: Wouldn’t it be great if we could make this more popular?” he said, adding that the event’s format makes it nearly impossible to provide television coverage. Competitors race up the mountain one at a time, so a live broadcast would last nearly all day and feature no wheel-to-wheel action.

“At some point, we’ll hit on the right combination to make it work,” Sanborn said. “But it’s definitely difficult.”

Drivers like Block are convinced that social media is the answer. Since he began rally racing in 2005, Block has gained about 10 million followers across Instagram, Facebook and YouTube, thanks in part to viral videos, clips of his races, and an Amazon Prime series he produced, “The Gymkhana Files.” He believes the added exposure has helped to increase the amount of rally fans in the U.S. in recent years.

“Before social media, there was nothing for Americans,” Block said. “You’d actually have to go buy a VHS tape from England if you wanted to watch any rallies or hill climbs.”

Despite having to withdraw, Block will be appearing at Pikes Peak this weekend to showcase the car he would have been driving, a custom-built Porsche 911, featuring a striking, artistic livery that seems tailor-made for social media. He calls his participation in the hill climb a multiyear effort, and he plans on using the same car in next year’s race. And while he is hopeful he can help raise the profile of Pikes Peak, he admits that it is not quite his top priority.

“I’m happy to be getting people more aware of this legendary race, especially for its historic 100th running,” he said. “But at the end of the day, I’m a racecar driver. So like all the other competitors, I want to race — and I want to win.”

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