AMERICA'S SECOND OLDEST RACE
by Larry Roberts
August 8, 1997
Almost everyone who watches auto racing on TV knows that the Indy 500 is the oldest ongoing motorsports competition in the U.S., and that its first running was in 1911.
But you have to be something of a motorsports historian to know that the second oldest motor racing competition in the country is the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. The event was traditionally run on Labor Day, but over the past eight decades, the date has been changed a couple of times. The latest version was run on the Fourth of July.
Originally conceived as a test of power, stamina and reliability for production automobiles, in the early years it was a feat to simply make it to the top. The climb runs over a 12.42 mile dirt road to the summit, the same road traversed the rest of the year by busses bring tourists up to enjoy the view from the top of the 14,110 mountain. The first self-propelled vehicle to reach the top was a Locomobile steamer that took 10 hours to finish the job. The first competitive meet was held in 1916 to commemorate the building of a new (and current) road, which was won by Rea Lentz driving a Romano Eight (according to Guinness) in a time of just under 21 minutes.
By comparison, the fastest time for the 1997 running of the Pikes Peak Hill Climb was set by Rod Millen, an expatriated Kiwi, driving a turbocharged Toyota Celica-based race car. Millen recorded a disappointing 10 minutes, 4.5 seconds, disappointing in that Millen had set his sights on cracking the so-far unbreakable 10-minute mark, about half the time it took Lentz 81 years before.
For the majority of its lifespan, the Pikes Peak event was sanctioned by the American Automobile Association (the AAA of tow truck fame) and then by its successor, the United States Auto Club (the same USAC that was recently unceremoniously blown out of the Indy 500). The Peak fell on hard times for a while (even the Sports Car Club of America sanctioned it for a few years) and it almost went the way of all other unprofitable motorsports events until rescued in the '80s by the city fathers of Colorado Springs. They self-sanctioned the event and for a short time had it on the European Hill Climb Championship schedule.
Currently the event is open to almost anyone who has the entry fee, a vehicle that is capable of making it to the top and the required safety gear. Leonard Vahsholtz won the Super Stock Truck division in a highly tuned Ford Explorer 4X4, beating out Robby Unser who was driving what was ostensibly a SCCA Trans Am Camaro which had a fiberglass replica of a Chevy pickup truck mounted on it. The defeat of Unser (whose Indy legend uncle Bobby won the climb 13 times) must have stuck in the craw of the Bow-Tie Boys since they underwrote the event.
The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is eclectic if nothing else. There are several classes for motorcycles (including antiques), large and small Open Wheel single seaters, Showroom Stock, tiny Legends "spec" racers, dune-buggies and even a class for electrics. The most unusual and awe-inspiring class is for diesel tractors and it was won by a Southern Californian driving a 9500-pound Freightliner. And to point up just how all-encompassing the event is, Elliott Forbes-Robinson, current points leader on the World SportsCar Championship endurance circuit driving a Riley & Scott Mk III sports-racer, was chauffeuring a modified '37 Chevrolet up the hill and turned in a time of 13:24.50. Not great - but good enough for a second-in-class behind Millen. Needless to say, they were officially the only two to contest the Modified class.
Despite its auspicious title, the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is a folksy kind of affair with room for everyone. So if you happen to be in the neighborhood around the Fourth of July next year and you have your racer (any kind will do) in tow, drop by for a few days and see if you can set a couple of records yourself. If your machinery doesn't fit a class, maybe chief steward Phil Layton can set one up to fit. He'll leave the porch light on for you.