Pikes Peak: The Road to Petrol-Head Heaven

Very few American sporting events escape the salacious glare of corporate attention. The NFL, the NBA, NASCAR, even the Masters have been splattered with logos and slogans as marketing departments seek to bask in the reflective glory of heroes on a field of dreams. But in the land where sport is a slave to business, one great national event has remained true to itself. The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.

The Prairies roll for hundreds of miles across America beneath a huge sky that pins the featureless farmland low and flat. Two thirds of the way West the Earth throws up a wall. No foothills, plains become peaks in a stride, a jagged North-South horizon that forces the eyes to look up, the ego to shrink down and the spirit to soar. Flatlands lead to flat thinking. Mountains bring out the desire to climb. King of this wild frontier is Pikes Peak. Its 14,100-foot summit sits at the end of a long, high ridge that commands the frontal range. It inspired Kathryn Lee bates to call it “Purple mountain majesty” in the patriotic song “America the Beautiful”. It is home to the second oldest motor race in the US, a bottom to top time trial, the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. Fastest one up wins.

The road that runs up Pikes Peak has been there for eighty years. It starts at the lake cupped at foot of the slopes and winds up, up, ever up, through tight packed Ponderosa Pine woods. The trees thin out as the land climbs. Light seeps between their branches to bounce off boulders that hide like trolls amongst the trunks. The road switches back and back, forth and back. The trees disappear, only the rocks remain. Curves, bends, turns and hairpins, one hundred and fifty six of them. Half of them safe with their sweeping outside circumference turned protectively towards the hill. The others with a one — two — three — six thousand foot near vertical cliffs dropping straight down from the edge. There are no guard rails on any of the turns. And there is no tarmac. This is a dirt road. An uncompromising goat track just wide enough for two cars to gingerly pass each other. All through the year, tourists in cars and sight-seeing vans creep slowly and carefully up its length, to visit the top, to see the view, to pant heavily in the thin air for a few minutes then crawl back down.

On one day each Summer, seventy or so drivers scream up its twelve and a half mile length as fast as they can, slipping and squirming on the gravel as the power from enormous race honed engines forces bulbous tyres to grip. Ignoring the drops, sliding through the turns, spraying dust and gravel over cliffs, skimming past trees hard charging. One after another, vintage motorbikes, new motorbikes, motorbikes with side cars, quads, home-made Champ cars, open wheelers, stock cars, suped-up pick-ups, professional rally cars, specially-built-for-this-hill-by-the-best-in-the-business-one-off-rally-cross-cars and even trucks; massive two or three axle rigs that should be pulling a trailer load of pig iron from Pennsylvania but instead they are powering up a tight woven slippery dirt track with the rev counter locked in the red. HELL! What a race! Watch the break-neck procession. Taste the dust. Smell the gasoline fumes. Hear the noise of a pissed off, unfettered V8 doing what it should; sucking down as much gas and air as it can, exploding it in its guts and charging forward in a blind bull rage.  Watching it gives you vertigo; listening to it forces your heart to pound faster and thinking about it makes you realise —- that you are a coward and a bad driver.

“You can’t get a rush like it. It gets your blood boiling, all those trees, rocks, cliffs. All that stuff you can hit or fall off…. And then there’s the HILL MAN! It’s you against the mountain! It ain’t even about racing the other cars. IT’S THAT HILL!”

Jimi Heyder loves the Pikes Peak Hill Climb. Jim spent three days in hospital and months in rehabilitative therapy after the last time he tried to race The Hill. He was riding his motorbike, came way too fast into a corner, got catapulted off and landed full on his knee. The force drove his thigh up and shattered his hip. But he’s back to take on the hill again this year.

Lots of people keep coming back to The Hill. Pike’s Peak is a race that gets under the skin of most drivers that try it. The Vashultz family have been racing it since 1977. They run a small motor repair business in the small Rocky Mountain town of Woodland Park. The workshop is up a dirt road off Highway 24, within sight of the mountain. Leonard started racing up it first. He was offered a drive in a Torino “The Red Sled”, just like the Starsky and Hutch car. He came in fifteenth, won the Rookie of the year title but he knew he hadn’t been going flat out, knew he’d lifted off the accelerator on some of the corners. When he got home he looked in the mirror and said,

“I will never, ever drive a race like that again.”

Ever since that Leonard has been charging hard. The Hill isn’t going to beat him easily.

“What you might not have in talent you can make up for in determination. That’s the way I drive. Let your right foot do your talking and don’t make any excuses when you get your butt kicked. I’m not going to put in a secondary effort.” Second isn’t something he’s had to put up with very often on Pikes Peak, he’s now up to thirteen wins since that heart to heart with himself. Leonard is silver haired, a straight talking man, “You don’t have to beat the truth out of me”. He enjoys driving a race car but it’s been a means to an end, a way to provide for his family. Early on he found that he could earn more money racing than he could at his day job. Then he found that building and fixing racing cars taught him so much about motors that the mechanics in town were asking him for advise on how to fix engines. So Leonard set up a motor repair shop. When he won Pikes Peak for the first time in 1981 he used the eleven thousand dollars prize money towards the cost of building a family home. For years they’d lived in a trailer next to the workshop. His success on Pike Peak has paid off; the winnings yes, but mainly a reputation for his businesses. He doesn’t get any financial help from Ford but when he rings Detroit they certainly know who he is and what he’s capable of.

“I get a huge satisfaction out of the knowledge that I am the only man I know who builds his own motors, sets his own race car up, pays for it, drives the car and wins in it. Now we’re doing that with two vehicles.”

Clint drives the other Vashultz vehicle, a Mustang stock car. Leonard and Clint are the most prolific Pikes Peak father and son team ever. The hill used to be nicknamed “Unser Mountain” after the famous American race driving family that won on the Peak twenty one times. Not any more. This year, in the eightieth anniversary race, Leonard and Clint pulled in front with twenty-three wins between them. The Vashultz have claimed the mountain that they’ve been using for years. Leonard has used the huge pile of rocks to build his business, for Clint it’s a stepping stone. He started out on dirt bikes, was State Champion, raced nationally, won Pikes Peak three times on a bike and then stopped riding.

“I was hurt more times than I was healthy.”

The first year he stepped into a car to race the Peak he won, and he’s done it another six times straight since then. Clint is an intelligent, calmly spoken man. Tall, good looking, polite and unassuming.

“I get a huge satisfaction with a car because you have to mentally manipulate it, with a bike it’s far more physical. It’s a mental game and I kinda like that rather than it being down to just the roughest toughest guy. You have to do a lot of thinking on the Peak, you have to feel the car and plan how you drive, how are the brakes doing, what’s the temperature like, do I need to baby sit it or can I continue to Dog it.”

That’s not to say that Clint goes slowly.

“You go into the corner totally blind, all you can see is sky, you can’t see where to turn till you’re right on it. The drop off is big, couple of thousand feet maybe more, and you’re going fast. Miss the corner and you’re going to fly out a long ways before you even start descending. If you let off the gas you are going to be slow. They are gonna beat you if you don’t have the balls to step on it.”

Clint’s philosophy on how to beat the mountain is to be a Zen climber. Don’t look down, don’t look up, be in the moment.

“Once you’ve done a corner soft you can’t go back and do it again. So the temptation is to go into the next one harder. The best trend to get into is never to think about where you’ve made mistakes or where you’ve made time. Just what’s happening right now. You can emotionally get involved with time lost and try and get it back and then end up spinning out. I’m a firm believer in a lot of morals like that, what comes around goes around, live with what life deals you and do the best that I can do.”

Clint wants a new challenge. He’s proved to himself he can beat The Hill, him and Leonard have made it their own, claimed it back for the locals. Now he wants to be seen, wants to be recognised as a driver who can race, who deserves to be paid to race. The Peak has served its purpose.

The first Pikes Peak race took place in 1916. A local businessman built a hotel at the bottom of the mountain and had the winding road to the summit constructed as a way of attracting guests. Back then the cars took over twenty minutes to get to the top; the modern record stands at ten minutes four seconds. The times have changed but the race is still an old style event. Spectators line the course, perched on cliffs and boulders like multi-coloured mountain goats. The atmosphere is relaxed, sponsors and television crews have joined the throngs but corporate America takes a back seat. The format has remained the same in eighty years; the cars are divided into categories like open wheelers, stock cars, or trucks. They set off one at a time, with a minute gap and keep going till they crash, break down or reach the top. Each class has a winner and the fastest off all gets the “King of the Hill” title. The course has been the same for seventy-nine years but this year the first mile or so has changed. Environmentalists argue that a dirt road causes too much dust that kills trees and clogs up streams. Local arguments rage over whether this is true or not. The Environmental groups want the whole road paved, the drivers and race fans say that would kill the Pikes Peak Hill Climb, they say that it’s the dirt and the fact that it’s always been on dirt are what make it unique. They love and guard its a pure frontier spirit tradition. In a country that idolises that pioneer attitude yet manipulates, distorts and markets it beyond recognition, something that remains true to its origins is a rare prize.

The competitors who embody this tradition most are the Champ drivers, local boys who build and run cars reminiscent of a bygone age. The day before the race they gather at the Start line for a practice session. The Driver’s meeting is set for Five am, but they are slow to congregate. Wrapped tight from the cold, grouped around a burger van. Cowboy hats, beards, baseball caps, oil stained overalls, cumulus breath clouds and thin, bitter coffee. The sixties style van is small and white, it’s roof lined with red and white light bulbs like the vanity mirror of a silver screen star. In its glare there is no glamour, this is not Formula One. Around the huddled group, Arc lights cast cadmium shadows over service trucks and trailers, dotted amongst the trees like oversized motor homes in a picturesque campsite. As dawn comes creeping over the jagged tear the mountains have made in the sky, they split up and wonder back to their cars. The morning hush is crushed by the bear baited growl of big bare engines being fed their first fuel of the day. Champ cars are a little like those cute 60’s dune buggies but without the peace or love. Instead, are adorned with sponsor logos like “Rowdy’s Bar” and Dave Woods Bail Bonds – The Bail Doctor, Your Prescription to Freedom”. Scaffold-pole thick roll bars are woven over an exposed cockpit, fuel tank behind the seat and huge paired down, pumped up engine in front. Eight short stubby exhaust pipes stick vertically up like chimneys at a Soviet steel works. Massive aluminium wings mounted on the back, six foot off the ground, three foot clear of the bodywork. Four open wheels, one in each corner, shod with huge off-road tyres. The whole thing built at home by some petro-psycho with under-sated engineering skills and latent suicide tendencies. No prayer beads, no beach boys. No prisoners. The men that build and drive Champ cars take their inspiration from a time before big business, a time when the West wasn’t won.

But Pikes Peak isn’t just a day out for the local boys. The Hill has drawn others fascinated by its challenge. Like Clint Vashultz, Shaun Palmer also started on dirt bikes. He was a winner on two wheels, but then Shaun wins at most things. He’s a Renaissance man for the modern age; speed is his science, racing his art, winning his philosophy.  He’s a champion on dirt bikes, mountain bikes, snowboards, skis and snowmobiles. He is the embodiment of extreme sports. His hair is dyed, his muscles are ripped, his skin covered in tattoos. He has a reputation as a wild man.

“I’ve been a bad boy ass-hole for a long time”.

But Palmer’s chilling out. He’s getting older and wiser.

“My attitude has brought me where I am today. I just want to change it now to make me a happier person. When you are positive and happier life’s better, rather than being an angry fucking dick. I’ve been there before. I could get some beers in me now and start going ape shit, but when you’re sober and thirty three you think a little differently than you did at twenty five. That doesn’t mean I won’t get on a snowboard or motor cross bike or get in a car and hold it wide open. That hasn’t changed.”

Cars have been a passion all his life. Every one of his tattoos is of a Cadillac logo (apart from one, “Never” on his ring finger – “I don’t need a contract for love.”) He owns twelve of these iconic cars, most of them from the fifties and sixties. He loves the lines.

“Classic, clean, fucking beautiful looking fucking Cadillac. That’s just what I’m into. And a lot of them are bad looking mother-fuckers.”

Now cars are taking on a different meaning. He’s starting to realise that all the other sports he excels at take a toll on the body. Motor sport still gives him the adrenaline drug he craves but it’s something he can keep doing for years. For Palmer Pikes Peak is road to a new stage of his career.

“It’s real driving, it shows that you can really drive a car if you are up here. It’s fun driving. It’s in the dirt and you can pitch it out. It’s crazy. You are on the edge the whole time, if you make mistakes up there you’re paying, that’s why it’s so exciting to race it.”

He wants to be a rally driver.

“I think World Rally drivers are the best drivers, even better that the Formula One guys even. It’s amazing what those guys do with a car. The conditions, it’s spontaneous reactions to all the things that come their way on a stage. I’d be well into doing that.”

Swede Per Eklund has been doing just that for forty years. He’s raced in over a hundred World Rallies. He’s in Pikes Peak driving a specially modified Saab 93 turbo, candy red with huge black carbon-fibre wings and a massive 750 horsepower engine. Pikes Peak is Saab’s only involvement in motor sport.

“They’d never have a World Rally up here without crash barriers. You must have respect here. You have to lift your foot a little in some places. Foo-King Hell it’s a long way down. You make a mistake, you never race again.”

He loves the event, it’s the highlight of his year.

“It’s been a dream to race it for years. Among Rally people everyone knows about it but not many people get the chance.”

The problem is getting a car that can do the job. It can be sunny at the bottom, raining half way up and snowing at the finish, in July. Just getting tyres right is a headache but then there is the altitude, engines can just stop because the air is too thin. This was Per’s third time on the Peak, last year he finished with three wheels and two gears, this year he did the top quarter with only a hand-brake.

“There’s no where like it in the world and no race left that has the atmosphere. I’ve been in Rallying so long it’s great to do something different. All the classic rallies have been destroyed. This hasn’t. It’s like the old rallies in England years ago. Pikes Peak is still original, it’s like being in a film, like Clint Eastwood Huh?”

Intersection Magazine, Issue 02

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