World-Renowned Race Driver Bobby Unser Coaches Us Up Pikes Peak In A Porsche Cayenne Turbo
"Slow down! You're going too fast for this one!" yells Bobby Unser from the passenger seat. The Cayenne's front tires squeal with complaining understeer as I clip the apex of a rather mild left-hander. I feed the car some of its 450 hp and we accelerate smartly out of the corner. But clearly the eight-time Pikes Peak record holder is right. I can feel how I have scrubbed off speed by approaching the corner too hot. The ensuing short straight ended quickly and I flung the car into a sharp right-hander. "No, no, no," Unser's soft spoken, but commanding voice boomed, "That's about the worst way to drive through a curve!"
I felt like melting into the seat and just disappearing. We are still on the pavement and only about a mile and six turns into the 12.42 miles and 156 turns that make up the route of Colorado's famed Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. Looking back, I guess it was OK to be a little intimidated and screw up a bit. It was 5:30 a.m. after a restless night. I was driving an unfamiliar, very powerful SUV up one of the most challenging roads in the world. The last and only other time I'd seen and driven Pikes Peak was in 1978 in a Chevy Vega! And, I was being coached by none other than The Man who has flat dominated this road and mountain, setting overall speed records during the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb in 1956, '58, '59, '60, '61, '62, and '68 in open-wheel sprint cars, and again in 1986 in a factory-backed Audi Quattro rally car.
Fortunately, we were only on a short warm-up run, and I turned the Porsche around a few turns later and headed back to the starting line. On the descent, I tried to focus on what I was doing wrong. Basically, I needed to pull my head out and concentrate on driving, and not on all the extenuating events that had lead up to this awesome opportunity. I have raced a vintage Porsche in the front of the pack for over a decade. I have attended several driving schools, and know my way around a race track. But obviously, I had a long way to go mentally to be anywhere near the level of Unser and the three other Pikes Peak champions who had joined him to talk us lowly scribes up The Mountain.
It all began with a call from the Editor, smugly asking me if I'd be interested in attending a ride-and-drive event with Porsche in Colorado. He went on to elaborate that we were being offered the opportunity to drive (as fast as we dared) the Cayenne Turbo (the fast one) up the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb race course with one of four Pikes Peak champion race drivers riding shotgun; hopefully to keep us from making an idiotic-enough maneuver to send us flying off the side of the non-guardrailed, 14,110-foot mountain! Would I be interested? My bag was packed a week ahead of time!
The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb dates back to the creation of the highway. Spencer Penrose, who built the highway, devised the race in 1916 as a way to promote the new road and bring clients to his Broadmoor Hotel. This makes it the second-oldest race in the country next to the Indianapolis 500. The first race was won by Ralph Mulford driving a Hudson Special. His time was 18 minutes 24 seconds. The modern record for the race is 10 minutes 4 seconds, set by Rod Millen in 1994 in a Toyota unlimited rally car. This past July, the 82nd running of the race took place. There is some controversy over the future of the race, as the course is scheduled to be paved soon, top to bottom, due to environmental concerns. No doubt the 10-minute barrier will fall with the hard surface, but it won't be the same as watching screaming, turboed rally cars pitch sideways through the hairpins, throwing stones and dust off the vertical sides of the mountain into space.