Climbing to an altitude of 14,112’ in a car driven by a combustion engine has plenty of odd requirements that most racing venues don’t. Of course, the engine is subject to some unique demands only seen on cross-country rallies. More than that, the course is unrivaled in the commitment it requires, since a locked brake or a sniff too much oversteer can mean a very long tumble down the mountain. It’s raw, unrivaled and challenging in ways that no other racing venue really is – and that’s why it requires a specific approach.
First and foremost, the car needs to be built to the course. Part of the beauty of Pike’s Peak is that it welcomes a variety of machinery and isn’t too strict in its regulations. Prototypes, open-wheelers, stock cars and every stripe of sports car compete at this prestigious event. They may differ in their design approach, but most of them have one thing in common: They need to function in incredibly thin air.
For that reason, almost every competitor uses some form of forced induction to compensate for the thin air towards the peak. This thin air also entails specific cooling problems, so often teams provide jumbo-sized radiators specifically for this purpose. Not only do they have to cool turbocharged motors, they have to do it with air so thin that even mega-fit triathletes struggle to perform in it.
Most professional drivers are exceptionally fit, but there are only so many opportunities to acclimate to air that thin. Therefore, most of the drivers pipe oxygen into their cockpits, or their helmets in the case of open-cockpit cars. This keeps them from developing the tunnel vision and loopiness that comes with oxygen deprivation, and allows them to focus throughout the final and fastest section of the hillclimb, where precision is all-important – it might be the steepest and most exposed portion there.
Because it’s so exposed, it’s somewhat like rallying. However, rallying usually involves exercising a definite margin of error to ensure a stage finish. However, this is a course which, now that it’s paved, requires full commitment. Not unlike a qualifying lap, the driver needs to put the car right on the edge, and that makes it completely unique. No rally requires the inch-perfect precision, and no road race has such serious consequences for a mistake. For that reason, Pike’s Peak is truly one of the world’s most demanding racing events.