All of the Many Ways VW’s Pikes Peak Run Could Go Wrong

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Racing teams are constantly fighting unbelievable odds and insane competition to accomplish wildly impressive feats. And nowhere is that truer than at Pikes Peak.

With the electric car record of 8:57.181 in its crosshairs, Volkswagen Motorsport has gone so far as to invent a new charging system to allow its I.D. R to recharge in the 20 minutes it gets if it has to abort its run because of a red flag.

But there are a lot of things at Pikes Peak that you can’t control, and those uncontrollable factors are what will make a record so impressive if it happens.

First of all, there’s the weather. Mountains, I hardly need to tell you, are tall (14,115 ft tall, in this case). Taller than the clouds often, and if you paid attention in high school geography class, you’ll remember that when clouds hit mountains, they have a tendency to shed water.

Since the mountain is so high and the weather so cold at the top, that can mean rain, hail, or even snow—even in June. According to Jason Campbell, former driver and assistant curator at the Penrose Heritage Museum near Pikes Peak, you can get all four seasons in one day at the race.

“A couple of races were—literally!—in a snowstorm,” says Campbell, explaining that the weather is about 40 degrees colder at the top of the mountain. That means that if it’s raining at the base of the mountain, it can easily be snowing at the top.

The trouble doesn’t stop there, though. Campbell tells the story of one driver who got stuck in fog. “She couldn’t see because of the fog and the road got slippery, so she was just holding on for her life just to drive the car up because the fog, it’s right there,” he says, putting his hand against his face. “You can’t see some of those turns and you can fall off.”

Of course, any road is subject to weather, but the speed and ferocity with which the storms can form in the Rockies makes a good time at Pikes Peak an uncertainty. “Some of these storms can come in within a half hour or 45 minutes,” says Campbell.

Some drivers, he says, have been on the last section, within just a few turns of the checkered flag, and have had storms break out on them. The Devil’s Playground, a popular section of track to watch the Hill Climb from, is one of the most electrically active zones on the planet, experiencing thousands of lightning strikes per year. In fact, a placard at the area says that the Devil’s Playground is “so named because of the way lightning jumps from rock to rock during a thunder storm.”

Even if it isn’t a storm, the high winds in the area can blow light sand onto the recently paved surface of the road, which can make drivers feel like they’re on ice. The crew sweeps the track before the race, but with the changeable weather conditions, road conditions can’t help but change, too.

And even if it isn’t the weather, the paved road is an issue. Built only recently, the highest section of the road is built on sand, which has allowed water to seep underneath and freeze. That means the road has heaved over time, and has become markedly worse since Loeb set his record in 2013. According to one Pikes Peak International Hill Climb staff member we spoke to, racing up the final section at speed, drivers get bounced around and their wheels can even lose contact with the ground completely.

Worse yet, the climb takes place in a National Forest, so there’s the ever-present danger of wildlife. Organizers drive up the hill in the morning with sirens to try and scare any wildlife away, they can’t eliminate the danger.

The Penrose Heritage Museum, named after Spencer Penrose who built the highway and founded the event, has what it refers to as a tribute car. Built from the chassis of Hill Climb car that crashed following a collision with the deer, it’s a tribute to Bobby Donner who died in the accident.

Meanwhile, there are the spectators. While the race now keeps spectators corralled in safe viewing, there was a time when people were free to pretty much go wherever they pleased. Even if that meant crossing the course.

Of course, that’s not allowed anymore, but spectators can still ruin your run. Nearly every year a spectator has to be taken down the mountain because of altitude sickness. Lacking a secret side road, that means that they have to be driven down the Hill Climb course and drivers have to go back down to the start line. They get another attempt, naturally, but still have their first run ruined.

And if it’s not the people on the mountain, it’s the person in the car. Hypoxia, defined as a lack of oxygen, can cause even experienced drivers to get lost on the road.

“You’re ingesting carbon monoxide. Why? Because of the other vehicles, the generators, etc,” explains Campbell. “You’ve got carbon monoxide going through your system. You start the race, your adrenaline is going, your heart is rate, your breathing—you get to some of these hairy, sharp turns, what do you do? You hold your breath. So veteran drivers have been known to get lost on course. You misjudge things.”

A Mitsubishi Evo recovered from the track after it flew off track. The driver and codriver both survived.

To fight that now, drivers get oxygen fed to them. But the fact remains that course is 12 miles long, features 156 corners, and is a public road most of the year, so teams can’t test to their heart’s content.

All of which makes it a miracle (albeit one helped by human safety efforts) that in the more than a hundred years since the first Pikes Peak race, fewer than 10 competitors have died and no spectators have ever been killed.

Considering all the ways in which a run can be ruined, it’s a wonder drivers ever get perfect conditions. But some do. And that might be the hardest part of breaking a record at Pikes Peak. Not everyone faces the same conditions. The temperature, the humidity, the visibility, whether or not an animal decides to run across the road, it all changes from year to year. The run that Romain Dumas faces is different than the run Loeb faced and will be different from the run the next record-breaker faces.

It goes some of the way to explaining why Pikes Peak veterans say that drivers are racing the mountain, not each other. Ultimately, a good run is a run that finishes at the peak.

The post All of the Many Ways VW’s Pikes Peak Run Could Go Wrong appeared first on VWVortex.


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Author: Sebastien Bell

Racing teams are constantly fighting unbelievable odds and insane competition to accomplish wildly impressive feats. And nowhere is that truer than at Pikes Peak. With the electric car record of 8:57.181 in its crosshairs, Volkswagen Motorsport has gone so far as to invent a new charging system to allow its I.D. R to recharge in […]

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