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Defying common sense for a road race 

Let's see if I understand this: The Pike National Forest is closed. That means no hikers, no campers, no fishermen, no runners, no mountain bikers, no one at all.

The Rampart Range Road is closed to all vehicles -- no motorcycles, no trucks, no SUVs, no geezers in expensive sports cars compensating for the remembered misery of their teen-age years.

So if you were to go to the U.S. Forest Service, and casually tell 'em that you were going to have an automobile race on the Rampart Range Road, complete with 60 or 70 entrants, several thousand spectators along the course, complete with their own cars, cases of beer, packs of cigarettes, and maybe even a doobie or two ... well, I think they'd tell you no.

But if the race you're promoting is the Pikes Peak Hill Climb, and if you only have to ask the City of Colorado Springs for permission ... no problemo!

You see, the City controls the so-called Pikes Peak Highway corridor, that being the highway and a narrow strip of land on either side. And as far as the City's concerned, the needs and desires of the Hill Climb trump any petty considerations of fire safety.

After all, these folks are important people! And the race has an economic impact of $6 million! We can't cancel the race on the off chance that a few thousand acres of scraggly-ass forest might burn!

Well, I dunno. I've been following the saga of the Hill Climb, and its death grip on our local political class, for 12 years now, so I'm not surprised by the City's latest suck-up to the auto race. Let's take a little trip down memory lane ...

As some may recall, the Hill Climb insisted for 50 years that the Pikes Peak Highway not be paved, despite the massive, highly visible environmental damage caused by the dirt road. Maintaining the road requires frequent applications of gravel, which promptly washes off the road, and into the forest, killing trees, burying tundra, and choking streams.

The City ignored/denied/refused to fix the problems. The Sierra Club finally sued, alleging multiple violations of the Clean Water Act. The City caved, and agreed to pave the highway and build effective drainage structures. Given that it costs the City over $1 million annually to maintain 11 miles of dirt road -- about 10 times as much as a paved road would cost -- you'd think that they would have paved it 50 years ago.

But politics sometimes trumps common sense. The politics are simple. Take a look at the Hill Climb Board, not to mention the race's supporters/organizers/participants. Lots of votes, lots of money, lots of clout. That's why usually sensible city officials, like Deputy City Manager Dave Nickerson, can refer to the Hill Climb's $6 million economic impact with a straight face.

Sure, there's a mild economic impact from the hundreds of people who actually come here from elsewhere to attend/participate in the race. But most of the $6 million consists of local entertainment dollars that, if not spent at the race, would go to Pikes Peak International Raceway, or Tinseltown, or the Skysox. Conventions bring new money to town; the race does not.

Meanwhile, the City is still trying to avoid doing/paying for the court-mandated repairs to the Highway. Since the City leases the corridor from the Forest Service, they sued the Forest Service, using the novel theory that the landlord should pay if the tenant trashes his property.

Judge Matsch (yup, Tim McVeigh's judge) tossed out the City's claim last month. So a few days ago, the City asked for a one-year delay of the entire project, on the transparently specious grounds that "there remain several significant unresolved design issues."

There's only one significant issue here: The City, because of decades of pandering to the Hill Climb, is on the hook for $20 million or so, and they don't want to pay.

But maybe the Hill Climb has just about run its course. As Lee Johnson e-mailed the other day: "I am concerned ... a fire could be started by a car going off the road... the fans are very much at risk. I think the race has outlived itself. It is no longer viable. It has lost money every year since 1996. I think the risk of burning America's Mountain is very high ..."

And who's Lee Johnson? He was chairman of the board of the Pikes Peak Hill Climb from 1993 to 1995.

-- jhazlehurst@csindy.com

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