The Unique Challenge of Pike’s Peak

It’s not hard to see why it’s named “The Race to the Clouds.”
The Unique Challenge of Pike's Peak
It’s not hard to see why it’s named “The Race to the Clouds.”

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.

The Unique Challenge of Pike's Peak
The fastest Porsches – Jeff Zwart’s here – use big turbos to perform at the top of the mountain.

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.

The Unique Challenge of Pike's Peak

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.

The Unique Challenge of Pike's Peak
There is simply no room for error.
About Tommy Parry 115 Articles
Tommy Parry has been racing and writing about racing cars for the past seven years. As an automotive enthusiast from a young age, Tommy worked jobs revolving around cars throughout high school and tried his hand on the race track on his twentieth birthday. After winning his first outdoor kart race, he began working as an apprentice mechanic to amateur racers in the Bay Area to sharpen his mechanical understanding. He has worked as a trackday instructor and automotive writer since 2012 and continues to race karts, formula cars, sedans and rally cars in the San Francisco region.

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