Pike’s Peak International Hill Climb: Day 3

Day one, arrival.

Day two, qualifying.

This is it.

The big one.

Race day.

Everyone’s nerves are on edge due to the multitude of last minute emergency repairs. Two hours before the car was to go up the mountain for staging, the motor was torn down to the bare block to replace the head gasket that had blown during practice. The night before, one of the vintage wheels had a crack sealed up with JB Weld in the parking lot of a tire shop. Even the alignment had been adjusted while on jack stands on the trailer.

Pike's Peak Porsche 911

Most teams have a year, and hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight their way up that goddamn hill. Kitchens and the IDB team had neither. The car had been built in a month and a half on a shoestring budget, so last minute fixes had become a daily occurrence. But, they fought on.

“Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead.”

“Go big or go home.”

“Fuck it, go full retard.”

Pick a cliché motivating metaphor.

With the intention of never running the car again, the decision was made to crank the boost all the way up, run flat out, and push it until they hit the summit, or something exploded. You’ve got to respect that type of commitment. No wasted time on “what ifs” or “maybes.” Sure, the car may not be shaking down the way that they would have wanted, but it was the car they had. So it was going up that hill, no matter what.

So we hit the mountain about 7:00am, at which point others had been posted up for hours. That meant a nice healthy hike from one of the lower parking lots up to pit row. Nothing like a twenty minute walk up the side of a mountain first thing in the morning. Oh well, at least I wasn’t cold anymore by the time we met the rest of the team. The tentative schedule I was given was that the race would start roughly at 9:00, and that the IDB CRX would hit the start at around noon or 1:00pm.

With that rough timetable, I slapped one GoPro on the car, showed the team’s media guy how to run the audio recorder, and started the next leg of my hike. Now, I did have press credentials, which got me through the gate to stand next to the starting line. That spot sucks. Don’t do that. Yes, you get to see the car launch, but every photo will have a few hundred random locals in the background. Nobody wants to see that. Instead, start walking along the fence. Here’s where the majority of the spectators and press are. Yes, the press get to be between the fence and the track, closer than the spectators. This spot sucks. Don’t do that. You’ll have a lovely orange plastic fence in the background of your photos, as well as having the exact same angles as everyone else.

Keep walking. Past the sheriffs that keep out all the riffraff. Have I mentioned how great press credentials are? That yellow piece of paper, paired with a vest, allow you to do almost anything you want. Find a spot up the road, where you cannot see a single person, fence, or sign. That’s what I did. Camp out under a tree, and settle in for a long day. In retrospect, a radio would have been a nice addition.

Pike's Peak Acura NSX

Otherwise, you do what I did, which is lean against a tree, swatting flies, and listening for engines. Because the whole route twists and winds up the mountain, you never see much of it at once. So occasionally, you get surprised by some of the cars. There’s been nothing for half an hour, and then suddenly somebody comes ripping around the bend, and you’re nowhere near the camera. This happened more than once. Most cars you could hear from a long way out, but due to that pesky Doppler effect, some you never hear until it’s passing you. But then oddly enough you can hear it for the next few miles. Science is weird, yo.

As with anything, the longer you shoot this type of stuff, the easier it gets. The photos from even two days earlier are laughably poor in comparison. I started to finally get the hang of the long lens, tracking cars from the full 400mm range, all the way in to 100mm as it charges towards you, and then panning with it to try and keep it in frame. This is made all the more complicated by the fact that you have no idea how fast each car will be travelling. There’s everything from near stock forty-year-old Toyotas, to 911 Turbos with full aero, to semi-trucks, to motorcycle sidecars. All travel differently.

I said earlier that Kitchens was supposed to run near noon. In preparation for that, I brought some granola bars, but nothing substantial. Hike up the hill, camp out for three to four hours, then hike back. Easy. Even with my defective lungs. Sure, I might get a bit hungry or thirsty, but it would be a pretty easy day. We’d be back at the motel by five.

But by one o’clock, the Honda had yet to be seen.

By two o’clock, the Honda had yet to be seen. Oh well, I’d been told that there could be some delays.

By three o’clock, the Honda had yet to be seen. I know if I leave, that will be the instant he goes by.

At 3:45, I start hearing thunder. The sporadic rain begins to become more persistent, and the ominous clouds from the morning are now nearly halfway down the mountain. Then I see three safety trucks go tearing past, heading up the hill. Well, that’s that. I’m not going to hike down a mountain, through the woods, during a thunderstorm. I’ve made it this far without dying, it would be a shame to ruin that record.

Wil Kitchens CRX at Pike's Peak

And then of course, as I always knew would happen, I saw the giant wing of the CRX go roaring past as I slogged my way along the ditch beside the road. Of course. So I failed to get race photos of the team that flew me out, and gave me a place to stay. Fantastic. Have I mentioned that a radio would have been helpful? But the news got worse when I met up with other team members, and made it back to race control. The IDB CRX had not been seen at the top yet, even though he should have made it already. Because I’m me, and I’ve inherited all sorts of depressing neuroses, I of course assumed that this meant Kitchens had gone over the edge. That vicious little Honda had finally torque-steered him right off a cliff.

We finally got word that he was safe, but the car had died. He’d done exactly what he promised, which was drive the absolute snot out of that tiny car, right until it hemorrhaged its coolant all over the side of the mountain. The CRX was dead. You could almost hear the profanity filled tirade from base camp. Eventually, Kitchens got a ride down the mountain with one of the safety teams, and he’d even grabbed the cameras and audio recorder from the car, before some light fingered fan walked off with them. Which they would have. We saw people drive off with everything from “No Parking” signs to hay bale covers.

So at the end of the day, our car was broken and abandoned on the mountain, and I had no photos of it actually racing. Instead of being back safe and cozy by five, it was now nearly eight, and we were standing in the rain, hoping to see that little monster of a racecar come down on a flatbed. Finally, we got the word that the tow trucks were all heading home, but we could go get the car ourselves if it couldn’t wait until tomorrow. Obviously, it couldn’t, so a few team members jumped in the Ram, and headed up the mountain. The rest of us headed home.

At the end of the week, almost everything that could have gone wrong, did. But everyone was alive, and the worst injury was a case of a team member dry heaving for a mile of the drive up. Heavy drinking at altitude can sneak up on you. But more importantly, while everyone on Facebook likes to sit around and discuss what their perfect race car would be, and how great of a driver they are, the IDB team went and did it. No bullshit. They built a terrifyingly fast car, with no time, no money, and a platform that nobody else would have tried. So sure, a lot went wrong, but a lot went right. While you sat at home, watching reruns of The Big Bang Theory, they spent a week partying with their best friends, in the most beautiful setting you can imagine, while building the best car they could. So who really won?

Lincoln Osiris may say “Never go full retard.” but after hanging out with the IDB team for a week, I’ve learned that sometimes you need to.

Bonus Photos

Pike's Peak #888

Pike's Peak Porsche 911

Pike's Peak Exocet

Pike's Peak semi

Pike's Peak Audi TT

Pike's Peak Subaru WRX

Pike's Peak E30 BMW