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Taming Pikes Peak
Pikes Peak hillclimb offers a raft of challenges that are rarely found in other motorsport. What is needed to succeed?
Note: This article is from August 2012
Since 1916 competitors have sought to climb the 14,110ft summit that is Pikes Peak. High up in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains is a new, all-pavement course that starts at 9,390ft covering 12.42 miles to reach the top. It’s steep, the average incline is 7% over the 20ft wide track that includes over 156 turns.
The rulebook enables a wide variety of vehicles to enter; this year, the 90th Race to the Clouds had 16 classes and featured cars, motorcycles, quads and trucks with a field of over 170 competitors.
Whatever the vehicle, the mountain places huge stresses on car, driver and crew. High altitude can reduce power output by up to 30% for internal combustion engined cars causing leaner running that ultimately pushes up engine temperatures. Romain Dumas, in a Porsche 997 GT3 R, was one of a number of competitors that required remapping after their first foray up the mountain. The altitude affects boiling point of water, which occurs at around 86˚C. The altitude causes the driver to work harder to breathe and the thinner air can sap energy from their muscles. For the teams and support crew who ended up on the mountain from 4am until around 7:30pm, the headaches, dizziness and nausea of altitude sickness are just as unpleasant. And with no other way down (except for the helicopter or tourist train, it can seem a long way and wait to get to the bottom).
Now fully paved, the hillclimb offered a chance to see the records tumble. It also enabled the motorcyclists to record times much closer to the cars with Carlin Dunne on his Ducati dipping below the 10-minute barrier, knocking close to 1.2 minutes off the existing record. With a consistent surface, more aggressive tire choices were made, with a number of teams opting for slicks with a single or twin groove. Full race slicks are not allowed and it was felt that running a single cut groove was not in the spirit of the mountain regulations. The mountain however had its revenge. Everything from snow, hail and thunderstorms fell on the upper reaches of the course leading to a number of crashes. At one point three competitors were missing, highlighting the scale and challenge of running this event.
For Japanese tire maker Falken, it was a weekend of promise but this year there was no reward. Together with its involvement in the Nürburgring 24 Hour race, the subsidiary of Sumitomo Rubber Industries is seemingly attracted to some of the most difficult motorsport events held. Unlike the N24, Falken is a previous winner at Pikes Peak, its road-based tires securing the first outright run in under 10 minutes with ‘King of the Mountain’ Nobuhiro ‘Monster’ Tajima. An eight time winner, this year Monster had a pure electric car. The key advantage of the lithium ion battery powered car is its immunity to power loss at altitude, but hauling the battery packs requires a substantial chassis and the associated gain in weight. As in previous years, Falken only supplied tires to Monster. Tire construction and tread pattern remained loyal to the ZIEX S/T Z01 with Falken only deviating from standard through the creation of specific soft and medium compounds. The tires were produced in Japan. Stefanie Olbertz, Falken’s motorsport marketing manager, says, “Like the Nürburgring 24 Hours, the unique challenge of Pikes Peak really appeals to Falken. It gives us a chance to learn and show what we can do with a direct relevance to our road car products”. A small batch of the 295/40 20 tires were created, for practice in Japan (on a racetrack), and the qualifying and race in Colorado. Whilst a full slick could see further time reductions, Falken stresses it is using its presence to learn about high performance tire development on one of the most challenging routes available. Olbertz comments, “Of course we could just run slicks but we have acquired a lot of data. You can see a number of performance oriented tire brands here. It is a unique event.”
Ultimately, Monster was to lose his crown. An electrical failure just a mile into the event put pay to a seventh consecutive win. Tajima says, “This year we have showed real pace. We’ll be back.”
For the first time Monster Tajima ran a pure EV car. Designed and built by his Tajima Motor Corporation in Japan, it was built to retain the crown. “Many still view these vehicles as having a short driving range, less power, and a high price. This image is poor for innovation and electric vehicle development and I want to make the statement that’s the old and wrong way of thinking,” says Tajima. “This car has more torque, and it’s easier to control than last year's car. Last year's engine had a lot of power and torque, but with a limited range. This year's car has a torque curve that is much longer and flatter that I can use everywhere, so it's very nice.”
Romain Dumas Porsche 997 GT3 R
Multiple 24 hour race winner Dumas had little preparation time ahead of his first visit to Pikes Peak. It’s a GT3R spec, like you would see at VLN races,” says Dumas. “We have created our own aero package, softened the suspension and remapped the engine to cope with the environment.” Extremely quick, it lost out by one hundredth of a second to Rhys Millen. Later in the year the car will be shipped to Macau for the GT race there.
Jeff McPherson Porsche 914-8
Former Indy 500 and F3000 racer created the 'Porsche' from a chassis bought on ebay. “The car with the closest wheelbase was the 914 so we based it on that,” says McPherson. The car has an LS6 V8 with a heady mix of fuel, oxygen and battery alongside the driver in the cockpit. “The only Porsche part is actually the windscreen.”
Hollywood stuntman Mike Ryan is a crowd favourite, competing in his Freightliner Cascadia. Upgrades this year offer a potential maximum speed of 123mph from the 2000bhp engine. The truck has over 3400lbft of torque from the turbo-compounded Detroit Diesel engine.