Trackside Tuesday: Climbing a Mountain

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Normally our “Trackside Tuesday” series features something from the MotoGP paddock, since that is where the A&R photographers spend most of their time swinging lenses. But, I thought we would change it up a bit today, especially since the marketing machine for the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is well underway for next month’s race.

I have a love-hate relationship with Pikes Peak. The racing is unlike anything else you will see in America, and it survives by what seems like tradition alone. Set on one of Colorado’s famous 14er peaks, Pikes Peak is 14,115 feet of undulating road, which starts fast and sweeping, tightens to slow and technical, and then finally relents to some degree near the summit.

It is not a race for the timid, as many of the turns feature an extreme of terrain: granite walls or sheer drops. At one turn, called The Bottomless Pit, the joke is that if you crash there (and don’t break every bone in your body on the two foot tall wall at the tarmac’s end), you will starve to death before you reach terra firma. It’s a bit of hyperbole for sure, but it still isn’t a turn where I would want to go down, if I was a racer.

It amazes me then that the hill climb is in its 92nd season, as the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is really just one good lawsuit away from being sacked; and to be frank, it’s not like the race has done much in the past to mitigate its exposure. So, it is refreshing to see some professionalism being brought to this iconic race, and 2014 will see some spectator guidelines being imposed on the PPIHC.

There will of course be a few misinformed people that will call this the death of Pikes Peak, but the honest truth is that the race, if left unchanged, would have been the death of itself — and it’s not like the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb isn’t still without its dangers.

That might be the reason that Guy Martin has finally decided to make the journey over from across the pond, and give the local teams and riders a run for their money. The Isle of Man TT star will be riding on a custom turbocharged cafe racer, which with the added boost of nitrous, is said to put down near 500hp.

The whole thing is a ridiculous entry, which has its sights squarely on the outright motorcycle record at Pikes Peak, much like Sebastien Loeb’s run last year was an assault on the four-wheeled record.

To break that record though, Martin will have to best the time of Carlin Dunne, who holds the record of 9:52.819, which he set in 2012. Dunne set the record on a Ducati Multistrada 1200, but looked to break that mark in 2013 on the Lightning electric superbike, shown above.

Faster in all the practice sessions than he had been on the Ducati the year before, it was the Colorado weather that probably prevented Carlin from breaking his own record. Friday night and Saturday day before the 2013 PPIHC saw a massive rain storm come through Colorado Springs, which washed the rubber off the course, and added its own layers of dirt and dust.

A sizable fluid spill just ahead of the Carlin’s run didn’t help things either, especially when you consider that the lack of communication on the mountain means that the riders are only told there is a spill, not where it actually was on the course.

Clocking a 10’00.694 for his run, Carlin was only a wheel spin away from breaking the 10-minute barrier once again, which certainly raised some eyebrows considering he was riding one of “those toy” electric bikes.

Electrics will be the future of Pikes Peak, as the massive change in altitude from the starting line to the summit doesn’t affect the electric vehicles like it does the petrol ones. A short course of only 12.42 miles, Pikes Peak is an even more lucrative racing arena for electrics, with the current technology capable of competing head-to-head with gas bikes, no problem.

This means the landscape of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is changing on many fronts. We have already seen the race course become fully paved, which has the side-effect of making the race much more dangerous than it has been in the past, as the dirt road helped keep the vehicle speeds much slower.

We have also already begun to see the PPIHC organization mature, and realize that it needs to change the way it handles spectators, handle media, and handle the local government’s interests. The challenges of covering Pikes Peak as a journalist are still immense, but at least now it seems the greatest challenge is just managing the 3am on-the-mountain start times, cold weather, spotty connectivity, and dangerous vantage points.

The vehicles will be changing too though. Soon the sirens on the electric bikes (a mandatory feature at Pikes Peak) will be the commonplace sound one hears, not the loud grown of unrestricted, air-starve petrol-burners. The writing is on the wall, and we have already seen Pikes Peak greats like Carlin Dunne, Greg Tracy, and Monster Tajima make the jump from dinos to electrons.

For photographers at Pikes Peak, the changes mean that ear plugs will soon be optional, and the photographs will be more accidental. With little warning of an approaching electric vehicle, shots like the one above come about more from patience than skill, at least that’s the story I’m sticking to.

Sitting in what has become my signature “hiding in a gutter” photo position (one has to find a safety barrier wherever one can), the opportunity to get a clear shot is very minimal. If motorsport photography is the most difficult form of sport photography, then Pikes Peak might take the crown as the hardest of the hard.

I have no doubts that the above photo will likely be my most famous picture, especially with my decidedly amateur status in the photography world. But a lack of photographers at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb (especially those willing to venture past the Devil’s Playground), coupled with Asphalt & Rubber’s extensive readership, means that this shot was the big fish in the small pond, at least when it came to Pikes Peak coverage.

I have lost track as to how many publications used the photo, certainly more than the dozen or so that contacted me for permission. Don’t mistake my tone for bitterness, for me it was enough to be present to witness the tipping-point for electric motorcycles at Pikes Peak.

Carlin wasn’t the first to run an electric bike at Pikes Peak, but he was the first to take one up the mountain faster than any other gas bikes on race day. Had conditions been better, I have no doubt that my good friend would have set another record at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.

Photo: © 2013 Jensen Beeler / Asphalt & Rubber – Creative Commons – Attribution 3.0

Jensen Beeler

Despite his best efforts, Jensen is called one of the most influential bloggers in the motorcycle industry, and sometimes consults for motorcycle companies, whether they've solicited his expertise or not.