On a cool morning in June with clouds moving in from the east, the mountain crowned its new king.
Two-time Le Mans champion Romain Dumas took the green flag in his specially prepared Volkswagen I.D. R prototype racer, and a scorching seven minutes 57 seconds later, crossed the finish line and entered the record books as the fastest car to ever ascend Pikes Peak. For the first time in more than a century, an electric car had beaten all comers and shattered the record.
In the racing paddock at the foot of the mountain, the mood in the Volkswagen tent was jubilant. The champagne flowed and a group of boisterous German engineers raised a toast to their victorious French hot-shoe. Victory! At a full 16 seconds faster than the 2013 record set by the superhuman Sebastian Loeb in a twin-turbocharged Peugeot, the experimental Volkswagen racer had demonstrated that electric-powered cars are the future of outright speed.
Just a couple of hours later, the mountain spoke again. While the morning had remained dry and relatively sunny, a sudden squall set in, dropping millions of marble-sized hailstones on the peak and burying the I.D. R up to its side skirts. The unspoken message was clear: don’t get cocky.
The Pikes Peak International Hillclimb is oldest such event in North America and second only to the Indy 500 in heritage and history. The first running occurred in 1916. Legendary local entrepreneur Spencer Penrose widened the original mule track into a tourist-friendly highway and founded the hill climb to drum up publicity. The first winner managed to complete his run up the all-gravel course in a little over 20 minutes.
The course, fully paved since 2012, is extremely challenging. It runs for 20 kilometres through 156 corners, climbs 1-1/2 km, and ascends to a breathless 4,300 metres in elevation.
There are few guardrails. At the bottom of the course, the primary danger is the trees; closer to the top, the drop offs loom menacingly. In 2012, a Mitsubishi Evo went off the outside of a turn and didn’t stop tumbling down the hill for a full 15 seconds. Thankfully, the roll cage saved the life of driver and co-driver.
In the days when the course was a mix between tarmac and dirt, the race was a family affair. The first, and perhaps most lasting dynasty were the Unsers: Jerry, Lou, and Joe Unser began racing Pikes Peak in open wheel cars starting in the 1920s, and their brother Bobby joined them in the mid-1950s. Bobby Unser would win Pikes Peak some 13 times; his son, Robby, was fastest up the hill nine times. As its fame grew, Pikes Peak attracted all manner of international speed-addicted daredevils. French rally-racing heroine Michèle Mouton was the first woman to be fastest up the mountain in her turbocharged and box-flared Audi Quattro. Austrian legend Walter Rohrl won two years later, and Finn Ari Vatanen followed, the latter’s record-setting drive immortalized in the award-winning short film Climb Dance. The jovial Nobuhiro Tajima, better known as “Monster,” became a fixture at the Peak, winning multiple times with his lunatic twin-engined Suzukis.
Today, the race paddock reflects this varied heritage, showcasing a mix of cars that ranges from a Dodge Hellcat built to Time Attack standards, to a modified Nissan Leaf, a squadron of huge-winged Dallenbach specials and an assortment of Cayman GT4s brought by Porsche Motorsport as a sort of spec-racing series.
This last features big names such as rally favourite Travis Pastrana, but there are a couple of Canadians on the roster as well. Nick Kwan and Tom Collingwood are both from British Columbia, and both are also Pikes Peak rookies. They’re clearly excited to be getting a chance at a dream drive.
“We haven’t run the full course,” Collingwood said, “You only get a chance in practice to run in sections.”
Porsches backing means big budget, but Pikes is still a grassroots affair. Walking the pits, I come across a maple leaf stuck behind a drivers name on the roof of a 2010 Volkswagen GTI competing in the Time Attack class. Sead Causevic is a six-time Pikes veteran from Vancouver. He’s also a coach with the B.C. Olympic ski-cross team.
“The last few years have been super busy,” Causevic said, “But I’ve been lucky enough to still find time for this.”
After VW’s electrified win, Causevic seemed enthusiastic about the potential for more battery-powered racers to compete at Pikes Peak. Unlike combustion cars, EVs aren’t bothered by the altitude, so it’s just a question of trade-off between power reserves and battery pack weight. Production-class electric vehicles still struggle with heat management, but purpose-built EV racers just keep getting faster.
And, with Volkswagen’s I.D. R, now an EV is the fastest. It surely won’t belong before the motley crew of speed freaks in the paddock start figuring out a way to fit electric motors and battery packs to their custom-built racing machines. Six years ago, a converted electric BMW M3 built by EV West of San Diego manage to crack the 12 minute mark. Causevic is convinced a lighter machine such as a Miata-based Exocet could be even quicker.
If Volkswagen’s aim here was to create some excitement about their upcoming push to battery power, then mission accomplished. They haven’t just set a record, they’ve impressed an old and dedicated racing community with a convincing effort. When a carbureted Cobra racer fires up next to the Volkswagen tent, getting ready for its own run up the hill, the thundering side pipes sound not like a grumble of discontent, but a round of applause.
At Pikes Peak, it doesn’t matter what powers the cars, only that a team step up to the challenge. Further, it’s not just about the engineering nor the skill. Bring your fastest cars. Bring your bravest drivers. However, in the end, the mountain decides.
The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.