Porsche Cayenne Turbo Pikes Peak Colorado - Test Drive On Cloud Nine
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.
At the Porsche presentation and dinner the night before our drive, the seven other attending journalists and I were assigned to our professional driver for the next day. When Porsche's Bob Carlson read that I was paired with Bobby Unser, I about dropped my drink. What luck? To make matters better, Peter Brock was to be the other scribe driver in our Number 2 black Cayenne Turbo. Brock has a long history in motorsports with development of the Shelby Daytona coupe and the successful Datsun BRE racing team being only a couple of highlights. During dinner, while Unser and Brock chatted about the good old days, I enjoyed talking with Mrs.Unser (Lisa) and learning more about the family's affair with what has been called "Unser Mountain."
The Unser legacy at Pikes Peak began with Louis Unser. Known as the "Old Man of the Mountain," Louis racked up nine wins and set six new records between 1934 and 1953. Bobby Unser first ran the famous "Race to the Clouds" in 1955. In 1956 he broke the track record, recording a 14:27 time in a family-built Jaguar-powered special. Thus began a string of 13 championships (eight of them record-breaking) won in all three divisions: open wheel, stock cars, and sports cars. Bobby's resume also includes three Indy 500 wins, 35 Indy car victories, two USAC National Championships and two International Race of Champions wins, just to name a few. When a guy like this is sitting next to you and he tells you to slow down, you figure he knows what he's talking about.
So it's now 6:00 a.m. and I'm standing back at the starting line, feeling about 3 feet tall. Brock and Unser have just roared off on their drive to the top. Porsche had provided four Cayennes for the eight of us, so there was a wait while we took turns. We each had only one warm-up run and one shot to go all the way up. Brock had opted to ride as passenger on his full run, presumably seeking the thrill of riding with the Champion up his mountain at what I'm sure was a decent clip. Unser didn't cut the Porsche any slack when he was behind the wheel. In my mournful state, I was contemplating doing the same to save face. I pictured the two of them ripping up that damned hill, sliding around those hairpins and Unser lamenting of how that lead-footed, squirrely "kid" was going to kill him on the next run.
The Number 2 car finally reappeared and Brock climbed out with a big smile on his face. Unser jumped out and with a boyish grin, looked me in the eye and asked, "Are you ready to go?" Without hesitation I jumped into the driver seat, donned my helmet, and headed for the starting flag. My head had been pulled out; I was focused.
The flag fell and we were off. Unser had suggested that he work the Tiptronic Automatic, while I concentrated on my lines. OK, fine. We turned off the Porsche Stability Management (PSM) so the car could dance. Fortunately, Porsche provides this on/off feature, allowing the driver to still control the pitch and yaw of the chassis in this ever-increasing world where the driver is being worked out of the driving equation. More on that later. I approached the first series of paved turns and slowed appropriately before the turn in point.
"That's better," Unser quipped.
Then: "Ah, that's how you do it. Good, good."
"Careful now, you were too fast on that one. See how you went deep? Look at how much speed you lost!"
"OK. That's more like it! Now, here comes the dirt. Easy now, don't give it too much throttle coming out of the corner. She'll jump sideways!"
"Very good! Damn, you're a fast learner. This is so much better! Good, good."
"No, too late on that one! Ulp, too much throttle, see how she steeped out? Nice save, though!"
I was getting into the rhythm. The Cayenne's turbo power was unbelievable. The road was like marbles. Coming out of the tight turns, Second gear was too high, and turbo lag and the Porsche Traction Management (PTM) made the car feel sluggish. Drop it into First, give it just a bit of gas and whoa-she broke loose with all four tires right now and you found yourself in an uphill drift. I wished the new-for-2005 six-speed manual was available with the V-8 cars. It will only be offered with the V-6.
We climbed higher above the tree line. The sun was high enough now for sunglasses. The sky was blue and it was everywhere you looked. Especially dead ahead, which was the only place I was looking at the moment. The road just vanished into air, a 2,000-foot drop to my right and a barren rocky mountainside to my left. "Keep in it," Unser said in a knowing voice, "It's straight ahead over the rise, just some small esses, hammer down!"
Trusting him, I stayed in it as the road popped into view again. We were doing maybe 50 or 60 mph. It felt like 160! More turns and switchbacks came next.
"You're doing great! Much faster than Brock." (Hmm, I thought, he didn't drive it?)
"Damn, now that's how it's done!"
And towards the top came the best:
"Beautiful! I couldn't have driven this thing any faster around that one. That's just as fast as it's gonna stick for anyone."
"Look there, we're catching up to the Cayenne that left a minute ahead of us!"
As we crested the summit, now right on the leading Cayenne's tail, Bobby gave me one more head-swelling comment:
"That was great! You're one fast learner! I could make one hell of a stock car driver out of you!"
Any time, Bobby, any time.
We waited on the top for the rest of the cars to arrive. It was freezing cold and snow was blowing in the air---in August! We stayed in the warmth of the Cayenne, getting out only to switch drivers, as the rules were the pros got to drive us down. My time was over, but what a time it was. The whole thing went by way too fast. Instead of 12 miles, it felt like six. Instead of 156 turns, I could swear I only did 50.
As we descended back to the 9,402-foot starting line, Bobby Unser and I got into a nice chat about car design/technology and where it's headed. Both of us don't like the electronics that are taking control away from the driver. We both hate ABS, traction control, stability control, drive-by-wire throttles, and the like. While we both agreed the Porsche Cayenne Turbo is an incredible piece of machinery, and in a class of its own in the SUV market, we longed for a simpler, RS- or GT3-type version without all the whistles and bells that take the driving away from the driver. From Porsche, a true driver expects that much. It's a sad day when we can't educate people to take control of their actions, but instead allow technology and machines to control us. At least Porsche provides an on/off button for their PSM. Many manufacturers do not.
At the bottom of the hill, we said our goodbyes and prepared to head for the airport. The last I saw of Bobby Unser he was heading back up the mountain with Lisa in one of the Cayennes. To work on memorizing the course a little better? Hardly. No, he was going after "the best damn donuts in the world" that they sell at the summit store. And I know he had that PSM button in the "off" position and was cussin' the ABS.