In other years, the news might have caused heart palpitations for organizers of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.
Just a few months before the 90th Race to the Clouds on July 8, word came out of Japan that Nobuhiro "Monster" Tajima, who made history last year as the first driver to crack the 10-minute barrier in the 12.42-mile race, would be returning once again to Pikes Peak — but driving an electric car.
At first, that sounded crazy. Like perhaps The Broadmoor hosting a pro golf tournament — but making stars like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson play with no club bigger than a 5-iron. Or having a major figure-skating event at Colorado Springs World Arena — but not allowing anything more than double (two-rotation) jumps.
Then came another surprise. Nobody panicked, or was upset with Tajima. Not in the slightest.
That's because the nation's second-oldest auto race (behind only the Indianapolis 500) isn't just barely clinging to life anymore. In fact, its future has never looked brighter.
The reason is simple: This year, for the first time, the Pikes Peak Highway is paved all the way to the 14,110-foot summit. No more driving on asphalt for stretches, then hitting the treacherous, dusty unpaved sections.
Yes, the Hill Climb purists fought long and hard against paving that road. They lost that battle. And you won't hear any of the organizers complaining now; instead, they're thrilled at the prospect of new possibilities for the race.
Seemingly everyone wants to be a part of Pikes Peak now. Manufacturers are becoming more interested, and factory-backed operations bring much more money (not to mention teams and entourages) to the area.
At this point, the 2012 Hill Climb has a whopping 210 entries — 99 in the various car divisions, 111 in the motorcycle groups. Just as important, the entry list already includes 73 first-time Pikes Peak competitors (39 in cars, 34 on motorcycles).
Given that, and the prospect of much more interest in years to come, Pikes Peak organizers already are talking about spreading the race over two days starting in 2013. (Several decades ago, entrants had to qualify in order to run in the race itself.) Just from looking at the huge entry list, I'd guess that the drivers as well as fans will push for a two-day schedule after this year's event, because it could stretch through the entire day.
Of course, the big theme for 2012 will be records. Last year, appropriately, Tajima took the overall race record at 9:51.278 in the grand pre-paving finale. Now, with a consistent asphalt surface from bottom to top, the general assumption is that most — if not all — of the Pikes Peak records will fall. And yes, that's without Tajima in the Unlimited field, which still has nine hungry entrants.
Consider this one: Three-time race champion David Donner of Colorado Springs will be driving a sleek, stunning Palatov D4 Turbo (see it at palatov.com), engineered and manufactured in Portland, Ore. It's a small, much-lighter vehicle, so having mega-horsepower isn't as vital. Already, the Palatov folks have used computer technology to create a simulator for the Pikes Peak course, and they project a clean run to the summit perhaps dipping under the 9:30 mark.
We won't know for sure until July, but it's not too early for the Hill Climb board to make a smart move toward preserving the race's history.
The organizers should decide to start over with new records in every class, cars and motorcycles, now that the road is totally paved. The records through 2011 would stand on their own forever, from stock cars and open-wheelers to the electrics, vintages and motorcycles, without any kind of asterisk that might lessen their stature.
There's no sense in diminishing nearly a century of racing history.
Instead, with the Race to the Clouds clearly on the brink of new heights and horizons, let's make sure the past isn't forgotten.
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