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Pikes Peak International Hill Climb: Eklund's The Run in the Clouds

AllRace Magazine
Feature by Jukka Sihvonen - Allrace Magazine

Pikes Peak International Hill Climb

Eklund's The Run in the Clouds

Pikes Peak is a fascinating event. The course starts at 9,390 feet and ends 12.42 miles, and 156 turns later, at 14,110 feet on the summit. But, those are just statistics, you have to actually be there to feel the salsa in its own essence. There isn't any other race, or any other competitors in the world with same flavor. I know, because I was lucky enough to attend the event in the company of Swedish and European Rally Cross champion Per Eklund, who also holds the hill record in the famous hillclimb's Open class.

It is a weird experience, this race. To get up at three o'clock in the morning and put on layers and layers of clothing against 40-degree temperatures which, in a few hours, climb to nearly 90 degrees in air so thin you feel dizzy, makes the whole evolution seem insane. But at Pikes that's part of the flavor. And, once you go up to "The Road," you have to stay until the action is over. There is only way to the summit and when it is closed for racing, you stay where you are. Rain, hail, snow or shine. But that's OK. This is Pikes Peak.

The first automobile to make it to the top of the mountain was a Locomobile Steamer in 1901. It took nine hours to drive and push the vehicle to the top. The first Pikes Peak Race was run in 1916 - making it the second oldest car race in the United Sates after Indy - and the fast time was 18 minutes, 24 seconds.

The current hill record is 10 minutes, 04.06 seconds by Rod Millen set in 1994 in a Toyota Celica Super Sport Turbo. The veteran Millen wasn't there this year because Toyota pulled his hill climb funding. Initially, he'd decided not enter at all, but subsequently changed his mind, planning to paint his winning 1999 Toyota Tacoma racer black and race it out of his own pocket. Unfortunately, however, his bid to enter was late and the organizers rejected it.

Per Eklund, in a Saab 9-3 Viggen, wasn't aiming for the overall hill record this year, however. His focus was simply to better his current Pikes Peak Open class record of 11 minutes, 21.58 seconds to under 11 minutes. He had brought his Saab from Sweden along with a crew of five mechanics, one of which was his son Per Anders, plus his wife Kerstin and daughter Karen. Any necessary spare parts were also brought from Sweden - sans oil. Finding good quality racing oil in Colorado Springs appeared to be a bit problematic, but with a fair dose of racing luck they managed to solve the problem.

Eklund's practice times were good. He was fastest, along with another Pikes Peak Open wheel veteran, a Frenchman Jean Pierre Richelmi. The year before, then-rookie Eklund had taken the class record away from the Toyota driver and it appeared that their team was mentally ready to be defeated again this year, or as Richelmi's chief mechanic's put it, "The only way Richelmi can beat Eklund is, if he makes a bad choice with tires, or something mechanical goes wrong in the car". He didn't trust his driver's chances at all!

Race day dawned warm and beautiful making "The Road" very dry. Maybe too dry since the harder the surface is the more slippery it becomes. There was also a lot of loose gravel on the surface, but Eklund wasn't worried, since his starting time was in the early afternoon and many cars would race before him to sweep the surface clean. Before noon, he briefed his crew on how he wanted the tires cut for the day and headed up the hill a bit to watch how other competitors were taking the first corner. Saab's PR crew had already put the champagne on ice and everything looked great and ready for a celebration.

Then things went bad. First black clouds rolled in rapidly. Then the summit crew reported that it was raining cats and dogs, then snowing and at the same time thundering and lightning. I'm sure Eklund uttered some chosen jävlas , Swedish swear words, but there wasn't much he could do about the weather. When racing resumed, the start was under an inch or two of mud, although at higher levels the wind had dried the surface considerably.

Eklund was fast and he knew how to toss the Scandinavian flick to maintain smooth driving lines. At some corners he used a much wider line than other competitors but was still faster at the next turn. He also looked fast on radar. But then Per's luck ran out. At about half way up the hill there was large rock in the road, dug up by an earlier competitor. Eklund explained later, that he thought he'd just managed to avoid it but, unfortunately, his front left tire hit it.

The rock hit the bottom of the car and punctured the left rear tire. Soon after the gearbox packed in - probably because of the same rock - and he lost use of third and fourth gear, leaving him with only first and second to make it to the top. The next thing to go were the drive belts, taking the alternator and the power steering as well. Eklund nursed the poor, battered Viggen to the summit in12 minutes 08.30 seconds. In the end Richelmi beat Eklund by more than half a minute.

"Things happen," said a stoic Eklund who will definitely be back next year. Ever optimistic, however, the team had a glass of champagne. After all they're still the record holders....AR

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