Ryan Races To The Clouds in Near Record Time

August 1, 2010

Big rig driver highlights the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb experience

Mike0810

To say Pike’s Peak is breathtaking is an understatement, both figuratively and literally.
After all, it was the inspiration for America The Beautiful, which was written in 1893 by poet Katherine Lee Bates. After living a summer near it’s “purple mountain majesties” then spending part of a day on the summit of Pike’s Peak, Bates went home and wrote the words for the patriotic song.

Pike’s Peak also served as motivation for Spencer Penrose, a businessman, who a century ago, wanted the Colorado Springs area to become a hub of activity similar to the big cities he had left on the east coast. A passionate car enthusiast, Penrose formed the Pikes Peak Automobile Company to provide scenic tours of the area’s open spaces with views of the Rockies. Around the same time, a railroad was built to take visitors to the summit of the mountain, and Penrose was driven to build a road to offer stunning vista never before seen by automobile. In 1916, he finished construction on the world’s highest highway, a toll road to the top of Pike’s Peak.

Crystal Reservoir, which is just south of the Start Line, as pictured on the morning of the 88th Pike’s Peak International Hill Climb.

Crystal Reservoir, which is just south of the Start Line, as pictured on the morning of the 88th Pike’s Peak International Hill Climb.

Always a visionary, Penrose soon decided to hold a race to the top, and word spread quickly. With a colossal silver trophy as a prize, the ‘Race To The Clouds’ was born, and race car drivers and people from coast to coast came to participate in and witness the event. Officially named the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb now, it has been held every year since, making it the second oldest road race in America. Only the Indianapolis 500 predates it.

As the race grew in popularity, so did the quality of competition. Many of auto racing’s most famous families, from Unser, Dallenbach, Millens, Donner and Mears, feature multiple family members who have competed in the hill climb over the years. The best drivers in other categories –from drifting to motorcycles – are prominent now as well.
The 88th edition of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb was held on June 27, and featured racers from 33 states and seven countries competing in 10 classes: Unlimited, Super-Stock Car, Open Wheel, Pike Peak Open, Showroom Stock, Motorcycles (five classes), Side Cars, Quads, Time Attack and Big Rig.

I was there to witness Mike Ryan navigate his Detroit Diesel-powered Freightliner Cascadia through the 156 turns on the 12.42-mile course as he wound his way up Pikes Peak. This was the 16th time Ryan has raced in the Pike’s Peak International Hill Climb. He competed on a motorcycle for two years, and in a big rig for 14. With 61,626 feet of plus grade on the racecourse, which is a mixture of a pavement and dirt/gravel surface, Ryan’s experience would come in handy.

This year, he was pulling a truck weighing 9,700 pounds, which is 1,200 lbs heavier than his previous truck, a 2005 Freightliner Century Class ST. Aiding the consummate pro was a 1,950 horsepower engine, which Ryan and his team completed  “in-house” in two months time. Added to the Detroit Diesel was a compounding turbo set up from Borg Warner and BD Turbo along with the Snow Performance water-methanol injection.The 14,100-foot elevation of the top of Pike’s Peak is almost a mile higher than at the Start Line. Many racers, including Ryan, carry bottled oxygen to help them deal with the high altitude, and everyone had a strategy to finish in the quickest time possible.

Monster Tajima, whose car hit speeds of 140 mph in the straight sections of the course, takes a curve near Bottomless Pit. Tajima fell just short in his quest for a record time, running a 10:11 this year.

Monster Tajima, whose car hit speeds of 140 mph in the straight sections of the course, takes a curve near Bottomless Pit. Tajima fell just short in his quest for a record time, running a 10:11 this year.

The 88th Race To The Clouds started off as anything but, with clear skies and sunshine and perfect conditions for record-setting action. The Pike’s Peak International Hill Climb is essentially a race against the clock, so everywhere you turn people are focused on numbers. All of the pre-race hype was on the Unlimited division, and the 10:01.408 record time set in 2007 by Monster Tajima in a Suzuki XL7 Hill Climb Special. Both Tajima and drifting star Rhys Millen were thought to have legitimate shots of completing the course in sub-10 minute time this year.

Several drivers came through with breakthrough performances and record times in several classes, but both Tajima and Millen fell short of the all-time course record.

There were numerous delays with accidents, mechanical failures and drivers going off course, which allowed the always-unpredictable weather to become a factor later in the day. By the time Ryan completed the course in the Big Rig class to cap the racing action, there were snow flurries at the summit of Pike’s Peak and rain on the rest of the mountain.

Ryan is always a fan favorite and everyone was excited to see how he would fare. The weather was a slight factor, but suspension understeer issues, which slowed Ryan in the switchbacks section of the course, took away what otherwise might have been a record run. However, Mike still made an impressive climb up the course, running a 13:03, only 20 seconds off his still standing Big Rig record of 12:43, set in 2006. The extra weight and the fact that Ryan did not have a factory powered race team engine like his previous truck make this year’s performance even more impressive. Ryan’s fans were certainly not disappointed, and neither was I. This was my first Pike’s Peak Hill International Climb, and I could see the reasons for Bates’ and Penrose’s inspirations and the racers who have come to conquer the climb ever since. The experience left me wanting to come back for the 2011 version, which will be the last year with both a mixed pavement and dirt/gravel surface.

Mike Ryan is surrounded by fans as race contestants parade down the course following the Pike’s Peak International Hill Climb.

Mike Ryan is surrounded by fans as race contestants parade down the course following the Pike’s Peak International Hill Climb.

The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb will be completely paved in 2012, so teams are already gearing up for record runs on the historic trek in 2011.

I know it will be
breathtaking.•