As the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb's race director, Phil Layton has been watching for years as superb drivers with amazingly powerful vehicles have tried — and failed — to break the elusive 10-minute barrier in the oldest motorsports event west of the Mississippi River.
Throughout the past decade, Layton and the hill-climbing world have felt that Nobuhiro Tajima, Paul Dallenbach, Rhys Millen or somebody among the revolving door of international challengers might obliterate the overall record for the 12.42-mile course. Tajima owns the mark now, at 10:01.408 in 2007, but nobody else has come close to Rod Millen (Rhys' father) and his 10:04.06 in 1994.
Now, as the Race to the Clouds nears its 89th running on Sunday, June 26, Layton isn't holding his breath for the Unlimited class. "I think the biggest problem now is that those top guys are trying too hard to break the record," Layton says. "Instead, they should just be trying to beat the mountain first."
In other words, instead of attacking the road as aggressively as possible, perhaps they should focus on being smooth and not taking as many chances. Layton says a few driving mistakes have cost Tajima, Dallenbach and others far more than mechanical troubles.
"They need to remember that it takes a perfect day, a perfect or near-perfect run, and then you have to get it all to the top with as much [power] as possible," Layton adds.
Another factor is in play for 2011. This likely will be the final Pikes Peak race with a mixture of dirt and pavement, as Layton expects the final unpaved segment (about 3 miles, from the picnic ground to Glen Cove on the lower half) to have asphalt in time for 2012. That's when the race truly will change, with the same paved surface from bottom to top, and when records surely will begin to fall. So perhaps it would be only fitting for the 10-minute standard to survive one last year with the final stretch of dirt still remaining.
The most recent resurfacing on the Pikes Peak Highway has finished the paving from Glen Cove up past the timber line and onward to the summit. And that has changed the road, as 14 cars and 32 motorcycles discovered in two mornings of testing last weekend. As Layton puts it, the pavement has tweaked many of the corners; some have shrunk from 45 feet wide to just 30 feet, "and some of those fast, sweeping turns on dirt are now just right-handers."
It'll mean less sliding and more traction, but the test will be maintaining speed through those corners and accelerating out of them. Come next year and beyond, with no more dirt to contend with, more Pikes Peak entrants will be equipped for what Layton calls "a whole different challenge."
So maybe we shouldn't obsess too much now about the Unlimited division, when several others might be even more dramatic. One is the Super Stock Cars, with perennial contenders Clint Vahsholtz and Bobby Regester already showing last weekend how evenly matched they might be, plus Layne Schranz and Steve Goeglein also capable of winning. Then there's the Time Attack class, a more recent innovation, with Rod Millen hoping to push defending champion Jeff Zwart.
As a whole, Layton feels confident about the race's health and outlook. Nearly 70 cars are entered, along with 130 motorcycles (entries were closed in February), and many of them will be in downtown Colorado Springs on Friday afternoon, June 24, for the Fan Fest event that quickly has grown to 30,000 or more attendees.
Perhaps someday the all-paved road will attract the kind of new attention and corporate backing from car manufacturers that might lead to live TV coverage and creative new ways to get more than about 5,000 fans on the mountain.
For now, though, as this Race to the Clouds probably will close the book on more than eight decades of history, let's not worry so much about whether records will fall. Because they probably won't.