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End Zone: New life on Pikes Peak 

Last year, Pikes Peak International Hill Climb observers felt it was on its deathbed

Just from the fatalistic tone of media coverage last summer, one had to fear the worst for the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.

Many observers felt compelled to announce the nation's second-oldest auto race was on its deathbed, taking perhaps its final gasping breaths, with the bad economy as the final poison pill.

Such was not the case. As Mark Twain said in 1897, in a simple quote much embellished since: "The report of my death is an exaggeration."

Just four weeks away from the 87th running of the legendary Hill Climb (America's No. 2 motorsports event in longevity, younger only than the Indianapolis 500), race director Phil Layton feels more excited about the Race to the Clouds — and its future — than he has in years. And of all the good reasons, perhaps the best is the handful of fresh marquee drawing cards for the July 19 occasion.

For years, the race's main attraction has been one or two drivers — but usually just one, most recently Nobuhiro Tajima of Japan driving a high-powered Suzuki — trying repeatedly to crack the elusive 10-minute barrier for the 12.42-mile journey to the summit. With thinning numbers in other classes, the race had lost some of its luster.

This time is different. Tajima, who set the current overall record of 10:01.408 in 2007, will be back — but not alone in the Unlimited division. He'll have three challengers from Europe, all driving specialized Ford racing vehicles, all capable of beating Tajima and rewriting records.

"I can't remember when we've ever had four in Unlimited," Layton says. "And for people who remember when we had drivers like Michele Mouton, Ari Vatanen and John Buffum here in the '80s, these guys are more accomplished than they were, and all of these cars have a full-blown effort behind them."

The new group includes two Swedish rally superstars, Andreas Eriksson and Marcus Gronholm, piloting factory-supported versions of the reborn and ramped-up Ford Fiesta, which will make its arrival at American dealerships next spring. Both drivers have extensive international credentials, and Gronholm has two world rally championships. Joining them will be Mark Rennison, the British Rallycross champion.

Four legitimate world-class stars should produce more pure drama than Pikes Peak has seen in ages. It's not just a one-shot bonanza, either. That's because, as soon as the entire road is paved with an interstate-grade surface (in either 2011 or 2012), Layton says other major manufacturers such as Porsche, BMW and Audi are ready to step in with more cars, big-name drivers and competition.

"When the paving is done, it won't be a dirt race anymore," Layton says. "We'll see a different kind of vehicle, and they'll take us to a new level. It'll be road racing instead of dirt-car racing. We'll see rally cars like never before."

Next week, the mile leading to the summit will be paved. (The long-term paving project has focused first on areas that have had the most erosion issues.) After the top segment is done, the 2009 race will be closer to two-thirds on asphalt, the rest dirt.

Many Pikes Peak racing followers initially opposed the paving, but Layton and others are making the most of it. Those high-profile carmakers mean more worldwide notoriety, better crowds and obviously more money coming in from the outside. At some point, perhaps soon, Layton envisions a two-day program with the popular motorcycles and some exhibitions on Saturday, then the rest on Sunday.

In the meantime, the 2009 race (tickets start at $40 at ticketswest.com or 866/464-2626) has 10 of 11 defending division champions, counting motorcycles. Open Wheel favorite Paul Dallenbach hopes to challenge that elusive 10-minute barrier as well, Clint Vahsholtz of Woodland Park will try to add to his 11 Super Stock Car titles, and Rhys Millen returns in Time Attack. Throw in the vintage cars and pro trucks, and the plate should be sufficiently full.

Sadly, only a handful of the stockers and open-wheelers remain, many chased away by the rising costs of a once-a-year hobby. But that doesn't mean the Pikes Peak Hill Climb has to go away.

Instead, that Unlimited class should be a preview of years to come.

routon@csindy.com

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