Trackside Tuesday: A 14,000 Foot Perspective

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The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is one event I always look forward to on my annual calendar. It’s an event like none other on the globe. The 14,110 ft mountain is my canvas to do as I wish. It is refreshing. Fun. Exhausting. Frustrating. Dangerous. Nearly every emotion that could be thrown at a person in one week is something you are guaranteed to feel on this mountain.

My first year, 2012, I was in sheer awe of the mountain and the event itself, and it was even more special working with Ducati. My second year, 2013, I was overwhelmed with a sense of being part of history as Sebastian Loeb rocketed past me in his special built Peugeot 908 on course to obliterate the standing record. But this year, the mountain had a different feel. And not in a better way.

I was back working with Ducati. I love the team. I love the company. I love the brand. I don’t get to shoot motorcycle racing much, but when I do, it find it to be an exciting and exhilarating challenge. But this year, the mountain had changed. The race was soulless. It had no energy. It had no atmosphere.

What I do not want to do is make this a smear post. Or rain on the parade of a 92-year-old race. But change is needed. Some of you may have read my series of tweets from Sunday afternoon. I stand by what I said. Nothing was said in anger. Only frustration for the event that I very deeply care about. So what has changed?

In years past, if someone had asked me what races a motorsport fan absolutely had to see in person, Pikes Peak would have been right up there at the top. The freedom to move around, little or no restrictions on fans, amazing atmosphere, amazing cars. It has always been one of those things you have to experience to believe. And then last year happened.

My memory fails me with perfect detail, but an inebriated woman (let’s call her Susan) decided it would be a good idea to play chicken with the race cars going by at speed. Naturally, you can guess that Susan did not win the fight, and as a result, was injured. Since this is America, and law suits are a weekend hobby for some people; Susan brought a law suit against the organizers…..and won.

I don’t know the details, but you can bet that she had a good lawyer that wasn’t there, knows nothing about the race or it’s history, or Susan’s true actions that day. I remember hearing that a woman had bit hit by a car but never imagined this would be the result. My guess is that her argument was that PPIHC did not provide adequate protection for fans and that it was the fault of the race organizers that she was injured.

The insurance company that covered the race paid out on the woman, and then promptly dropped Pikes Peak as its client. The new insurance company that was hired surely said “like hell is that happening again!” and forced PPIHC into a raft of changes that may forever change the race, or worse cause it to close shop entirely. That would be the ultimate tragedy from this. And sadly, it’s not an unrealistic outcome for this debacle.

So what can be done? I think the race would be drastically improved with a few changes. For starters: traffic control. Getting into and off of  the mountain on race morning is certainly one of Dante’s circles of hell. And there isn’t a single piece of paper, note, sign or traffic officer to help control the situation at 2am and direct people where they need to be. To say it is pandemonium is putting it lightly. It’s not a fun way to start the day.

Secondly: the race needs more circuit marshals and safety vehicles. As a photographer, I see a lot of the mountain. I see a lot of who is there and who isn’t. In some stretches of the course, you can walk for miles without seeing so much as another human being or safety truck, much less an ambulance. Imagine what would happen if a rider or car went off in these abandoned areas.

No one would know he went off until the timing device didn’t read his next sector split. It has happened. Many many times before. And don’t for one second throw me the argument that the course is too big.

The Isle of Man TT course is over three times the size in length. Nürbürgring is about the same length. Yet both of these races have marshal posts that are daisy chained from one to the next across the entire circuit, and are almost within shouting distance of each other.

Why PPIHC doesn’t reach out to the SCCA is beyond my imagination. Marshals would come from far and wide to experience this unique event and it would help contain the fans and allow for a safer day of racing and quicker recovery after an accident.

Finally, the Sierra Club, no matter how good their intentions may have been, were absolutely dead wrong in forcing the mountain road to be paved. The argument was that paving the road would reduce run-off into the streams as well as be far more cost effective to maintain the road to the summit.

In talking with people who know more than I do, the result of paving the road all the way to the top has produced no appreciable difference in the runoff. And the road is now more costly than ever to maintain. The temperatures, even in the summer, often dip below freezing causing huge heave and thaws and an ever changing road condition.

It now needs to be repaved about every year to keep it from cracking and breaking apart. Anyone who has driven in New England knows what these road conditions are like. Dirt roads don’t have these issues. And forget how costly it is, from a racing perspective, the mountain is now just too fast.

It’s basically a racing circuit with no safety nets and on a road that can allow the riders and drivers to push beyond speeds that should ever be reached on this kind of surface. The result is a day that no one really enjoys. Fans don’t come to the mountain to sit through endless red flags. Nor do the racers. And especially not the media. No one enjoys it. And something needs to change.

I won’t even touch on what happened at the summit on Sunday. You can read my friend Trevor’s account of what he saw when Bobby Goodin passed away after crossing the finish line on your own. 

I’ll end with this. This race is special. It is unique. Awe-inspiring. It is the second oldest in the United States and it MUST continue to exist. But it isn’t worth continuing if it is such a poorly run and managed shell of itself, that no one shows up to race, no fans turn up to watch, and the media are so restricted that we can’t be bothered to come to the mountain and cover it.

I would like to give a special thanks to Ducati, Arrick, Team Spider Grips, Trevor, Asphalt & Rubber as well as the friendly people that work day-to-day to make this event happen. The few marshals I did encounter were bend-over-backwards helpful, and I am forever appreciative for their work and help last week.

I hope there is a 93rd running of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb and I hope that when it happens, it is a far better day than the 92nd running. To see the full archive of images from the 92nd PPIHC, please click here. 

Photo: © 2014 Jamey Price / Jamey Price Photo – All Rights Reserved

27-year-old Jamey Price is an award winning motorsport photojournalist based in Charlotte, North Carolina. His work has been published around the globe by Road & Track, RACER magazine, Autosport, F1 Racing magazine, Motorsport Magazine, F1i magazine, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, SPEEDTV, Southern Living, QC Exclusive, the Washington Post, The Charlotte Observer, and now Asphalt & Rubber.

Jamey continues to do freelance work for some of the most respected sports imagery wire services, and for commercial clients including Ducati, Audi, Lamborghini, Mitsubishi, Red Bull and many others covering a diverse range of sporting assignments from Horse Racing to Formula One and everything in between. You can find more of his work on his website, as well as follow him on Twitter and Instagram.