Race to the Clouds: Pikes Peak International Hill Climb


Racing as fast as you can to the top of a hill is a familiar childhood game, and one that still fascinates car and motorcycle drivers.

The twisty switchbacks up Pikes Peak will once again challenge competitors’ skills when the green flag drops for the start of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb on June 28, the 93rd running of this iconic race.

When Zebulon Pike first saw magnificent Pikes Peak rising 14,110 feet above the Colorado plains in 1806, he said it would never be conquered by man. Pike never imagined the racecourse that would conclude at the mountain summit a century after his first sighting. Like Pike, most visitors are overcome by its scale and beauty, including Katherine Lee Bates who used it as inspiration when she composed America the Beautiful in 1893.

The race was first held completely on paved roads in 2012, but the course and race format have not changed significantly over the years. Drivers from all over the world compete on what is considered one of the most grueling courses in the racing world. The torturous, twisting road and rapidly changing weather are the challenge. Starting out in sunshine, a driver may travel through extreme weather changes of sleet, thunderstorms, wind, hail, fog, or blinding snow as they make their way up the mountain in this “Race to the Clouds.”

The Unser family has the most wins in Pikes Peak Hill Climb history, starting with brothers Louis, Jerry, and Joe – with Louis winning his first championship in 1934 and continuing to compete until age 70, then returning as a mechanic. In 1956 the next generation stepped up. Bobby Unser had his first Open Wheel win, and his cousin Jerry Unser Jr. won the Stock Car Division. Bobby had 8 Open Wheel championships, 2 Stock Car titles, and in 1986 held the overall time in his Audi Sports Quatro at 11:09:22. He also raced to victory in the short-lived sports car division. His brother Al Unser, known mostly for four Indy Car wins, took the trophy in 1964 and 1965.

The Stock Car Division has been dominated by Coloradoans, with all winners from 1975 through 2006 being local drivers with one exception: Californian Roger Mears snagged the title in 1985. The father-son team of Leonard and Clint Vashscotz from nearby Woodland Park has been the major force for other drivers to reckon with. The duo shares 31 championship trophies. Leonard holds 17 titles in sprint cars, trucks, and stock cars. Clint won 3 pro bike victories on Pikes Peak and has 15 wins in Super Stock. Another legendary father-son team, New Zealand’s Rod and Rhys Millen have a combined 15 wins in Time Attack and Unlimited fields.

In 2013, Sebastian Loeb in a Peugeot smashed the time record up the mountain by over one minute with an impressive 08:13:878. It was his first start in this race. 

This years’ new division for electric cars has eight entries and marks the return of the Unsers, with Robby and Jeri Unser set to appear.

Competitors from Japan, Hungary, New Zealand, Great Britain, France, Italy, Luxembourg, Australia, Mexico, Germany, the Czech Republic, Russia, and Canada will be racing against an American field. The completion of the fully paved road again attracts a stellar global roster of car and motorcycle racers who expect to shatter speed records.

The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is the second-oldest motorsports race in America, over a 12.42 mile course with 156 turns that begin at 9390 feet and finish at the 14,110 foot high summit of America’s mountain – truly a race to the clouds.

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons