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Hill Climb Isn’t Your Typical Sunday Drive

Since 1916, drivers have pushed their limits to the edge by racing in the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, which features 156 turns on the 12.42-mile trek up Pikes Peak Highway.

Since 1916, drivers have pushed their limits to the edge by racing in the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, which features 156 turns on the 12.42-mile trek up Pikes Peak Highway.

It covers exactly 12.42 miles, has a 4,720-foot elevation change and, at certain points along its winding route of 156 turns, offers no guard rails for support. The Pikes Peak Highway isn’t your typical Sunday drive. Then again, the Broadmoor Pikes Peak International Hill Climb isn’t your typical race, either.

Despite the obvious danger, the bravest – and perhaps craziest – motorcycle and automobile drivers annually venture up the public toll road at break-neck speeds, all with the goal of reaching the summit in the fastest time possible. As the venture takes place, the air thins, reducing reflex times for drivers and also draining energy from vehicles to add yet another dimension to this iconic race.

Since 1916, drivers of motorcycles, a variety of four-wheeled automobiles and even semi trucks and sidecars have attempted to tame Pikes Peak, America’s Mountain. For some, just reaching the summit upright is a win in itself. For others, victory isn’t achieved unless one has the fastest time.

On June 26 – always the last Sunday in June – the 94th installment of the Race to the Clouds will take place, 100 years after Spencer Penrose inspired the first pioneers on this quest, that has become legendary in its own right.

“It’s really special to race here, and something very few people actually get to do,” says Codie Vahsholtz, a motorcycle division champion in 2013 and 2015. “It’s an invitation-only event, and for me to be invited and to be able to race, it is special. It’s a one-of-a-kind race.”

For the most part, the race’s course and format have been altered little over the years. Car and motorcycle divisions have been tweaked over time, and the most noticeable difference, at least for the racers, was the 10-year paving project that, by the 2012 race, had transformed the surface from dirt to asphalt.

This year, fewer riders will get that chance to make history on Pikes Peak. After years of discussions, race officials made the tough decision to reduce the field to 100 drivers – 33 motorcyclists and 67 drivers.

A selection committee was tasked with choosing the field.

“Somehow, someway, we needed to figure out a way to make race day shorter and get more practice time for the competitors,” Hill Climb Executive Director Megan Leatham says. “Every year, we always get together and get feedback, and year after year, they want more practice time. The only physical way to do that is to limit the field. It was really difficult to turn away so many qualified competitors, but we don’t regret limiting the field to 100.”

That makes it even more exclusive for those selected to race in the 100th anniversary.

“It’s an honor to get to race,” says longtime contestant Paul Dallenbach, an eight-time champ and previous all-time record holder. “It’s a big challenge. We all like a challenge. The nice thing about it is that people come up with their own ideas about what they think is fast and race against factory-type cars. It’s such a unique race in that regard.”

Back in 1916, Rea Lentz, in his Romano Special, covered the distance in a winning time of 20 minutes, 55.6 seconds.

Over the years, knowledge and technology grew as those winning times gradually became faster. Minute by minute, riders found ways to get up Pikes Peak faster. Names like Unser, Mears and Andretti, renowned in the annals of auto racing lore, helped shape the history of the Hill Climb in a 50-year stretch that saw the winning times shaved from 16 minutes to under 11 minutes.

In 2011, Nobuhiro “Monster” Tajima became the first to break the 10-minute barrier then, two years later, Frenchman Sebastien Loeb took his custom Peugeot up Pikes Peak in a staggering 8:13.878, a record unlikely to be broken.

Still, racers desire to test the limits of themselves and their vehicles.

“We always changed our car year after year,” Dallenbach says. “Even if we had the same car, we made changes. We never went back the next year with the same package. We went as fast as we could go. You have to change. This year, I’m trying to get under the 9-minute mark. I’ve done different stuff to the car that can get it there. There are probably three or four cars that can do it. I think I can be right there.”

No matter what, history will be made on the summit of Pikes Peak.

Spectators will get a chance to hold that history by purchasing a replica of the 1916 souvenir program, which is being produced in conjunction with this year’s edition. And this will be your one chance to snag 100th anniversary merchandise commemorating this one-of-a-kind race.

“There’s obviously something historic about turning 100,” Leatham says. “We’ve increased the total purse to $100,000, and we picked the 100 entries that we believe bring the most to our race. We’re excited about that.”