Here’s What You Need to Know About the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, One of Motorsport’s Craziest Races [Op/Ed]

I recently attended the 96th running of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, the second oldest race in the US. This year was especially significant, as Volkswagen entered an all-electric race car, the I.D. R Pikes Peak, to try and break the electric record set by Rhys Millen in 2016. I had never been to the race before, so I documented my experience from the perspective of a first-timer.

Are you thinking about heading to Pikes Peak next year? Here are some things you need to know in this TFL newbie’s guide to the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb!

Newbie's Guide to Pike's Peak
Cars have been racing up Pikes Peak since the inaugural race in 1916. [Photo: Flickr]

The Storied History of the Pikes Peak Hill Climb

The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb first ran in 1916, and has only stopped twice since, once for WWI, and once for WWII. For a majority of its life, the mountain was unpaved. All 12.42 miles, all 156 turns, all 4,000+ feet of elevation change were on dirt roads. However, after a legal battle with an environmental protection group, that was forced to change. The city of Colorado Springs began paving the road, one mile at a time. Each mile cost the city $1 million, so the project took quite some time to complete. Though, the race didn’t stop just because of the mixed surface. Instead, drivers and teams took this as an opportunity to prove themselves further.

Making a car fast on one surface is difficult enough, making fast on two is even harder. Colorado springs paved the first segment in 2002, finishing the project in 2012. This project upset many long-time fans of the race who claimed that the dirt is what made it special. The paving has certainly removed some of the flashiness from the driving style. On dirt, sideways is usually the quick way to go. On pavement, sideways is slow. However, the race has gotten significantly faster as a result of the pavement. Since drivers are traveling at higher speeds, you could also argue the climb has become more dangerous.

Newbie's Guide to Pike's Peak
The Suzuki Escudo (Grand Vitara) Pikes Peak competing in 2006, before the whole course was paved. [Photo: Wikimedia Commons]

A Race Against the Mountain

In most racing formats drivers race one another. In the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, they race the mountain. Many teams consider their day a success if they simply complete their run up the hill. The race is 12.42 miles long, which is quite long for a hill climb event. There are 156 turns on the way up the hill. The start line sits at 9,390 feet in elevation and finishes at 14,115 feet, a total elevation gain of 4,720 feet.

All of these take a huge toll on a car attempting to drive fast. Air becomes significantly less dense at altitude. This makes engines less powerful, downforce less effective and cooling an absolute nightmare. There’s one more thing that separates Pikes Peak from many other races. In this race you only get one shot come race day. Most race formats allow for many runs on a race course. With the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, you get one run.

Newbie's Guide to the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb
Romain Dumas starts his record-breaking run up Pikes Peak. [Photo: TFLcar]

Involved Spectatorship

The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is one of the best races to be at as a spectator. Your ticket to the race gets you access to all of the spectator areas on the mountain, but it also gets you access to the pits, which are open. The whole day drivers are prepping their cars in pit lane and spectators are free to get right up next to the cars and even talk with the drivers. Over the course of the day I got to talk with the likes of Randy Pobst, Travis Pastrana, and many other motorsport champions. As a fan of racing, it may be one of the coolest events to attend.

Volkswagen I.D. R Pikes Peak all-electric racer
The future of Pikes Peak runs could lie in electric cars.

The Future of the Race

The aforementioned paving of the mountain has caused much controversy, but it has also caused the race to become much faster. Before paving was completed, the fastest time up the course was set by Nobuhiro Tajima with a time of 9:51.287 in 2011. Two years later, Sebastien Loeb set a time of 8:13.878, smashing the 9-minute barrier. That record stood for five years until another French driver, Romain Dumas showed up in an electric Volkswagen.

This year Sebastian’s incomprehensible record was obliterated with a time of 7:57.148, 16 seconds faster than his fellow countryman. The I.D. R Pikes peak, Romain’s chariot this year, is a 500kW, 680 horsepower, 479 lb-ft aerodynamic monster that was built by Volkswagen over the course of just 9 months specifically for Pikes Peak. Other than proving that Romain is insanely fast, the I.D. R Pikes peak probably just proved electric power as the choice method for setting records in the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.

Advantages of Electric

I think fans of the race knew that electric power would eventually champion Pikes Peak, but it was a matter of time until the technology became good enough. Electric motors suffer zero power loss from altitude. Torque is available instantly. Batteries can be placed as low as you want, making for an inherently stable chassis. Plus, you don’t have to worry about an engine taking up loads of space, which frees up room for aerodynamics, helping produce downforce. One of the biggest downfalls of electricity is range, which is not a problem over a 12-mile course. Combine all of these advantages and electricity becomes a clear choice for winning Pikes Peak.

The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb offers views unlike most other races on the motorsport calendar. [Photo: Acura]

If you can, GO!

I had an amazing time at Pikes Peak. The atmosphere is unlike any other. As a spectator, the level of interaction far surpasses any other major racing format in the world. Oh yeah, the scenery isn’t bad either. My only advice about Pikes Peak would be to go if you ever have the opportunity. The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is a spectacle of racing unlike any other.

Thankfully, Pike Peak is in our home state of Colorado, so we get to attend the race almost every year. Be sure to come back next year to see if anyone can surpass Romain’s incredible new overall course record. Stay tuned to TFLcar and TFLnow for future coverage of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb!