I’ve been racing at Pikes Peak for coming up on nine years now, but I’ve known about and been inspired by the racing exploits of Paul Dallenbach for much longer than that. He and his family are firmly entrenched in Colorado motorsports history and Paul continues to redefine what’s possible at Pikes Peak on a privateer’s budget. That’s right, I said privateer. Sure, he gets the help of a few loyal local sponsors, but for the most part Paul and his team do this on their own. No factory backing and no major energy drinks in the mix. Just a dedicated team and a handful of helpful companies that believe in what he can accomplish.
Getting help is made easier by the fact that, besides being a genuinely nice person, Paul has been pretty successful at Pikes Peak over the years. Having won his class multiple times, and even set the overall record, not once, but twice….though the second time was short lived. This year Paul is determined to take back the overall record. He looked to be in position to take it back in 2011, but it just wasn’t meant to be.
I had a chance to sit down with Paul in Los Angeles recently, while he was in town shooting a commercial for Subaru. Here’s what he had to say about what happened last year, and what he’s doing to prepare for the 2012 race to the clouds.
ML@S: You had an entirely new program for 2011. You got the deal done with Banks [Turbochargers] and you’re making more horsepower than ever. You really looked like you were in position to take the win and break the ten minute barrier. Tell us what happened on the starting line that day.
Paul: The half shaft broke under initial acceleration off the line. The engine was fine. We didn’t have any glitches with the engine at all. In fact we were testing the day before at PPIR, just shaking it down and if I would have done one more pull, it would have broke there. But the way I look at it is that everything happens for a reason. I wasn’t supposed to go up that day for some reason. Maybe somebody was looking out for me. I don’t know.
ML@S: It’s interesting that you say that. I’ve heard several drivers say that there’s something spiritual about the place. If the mountain wants you to be on the summit then you’ll be there, if not, you won’t. Some guys feel it’s a very deliberate thing. Do you feel the same way?
Paul: Yeah. I mean obviously at the time when it happens, you’re very disappointed and you think the world is gonna end and all that. Once the hours, days, weeks go by, you get a little bit more perspective on life itself and that it’s not the end of the world, there is next year…and yeah, we wanted to break the ten minute barrier first. But yes, that mountain definitely has its own spirit. Jeff Zwart always says it’s a living breathing organism and he’s right. And the way the race was playing out with all the accidents and everything…if that thing would have broke while I was going 100mph,who knows what would have happened? It could have sent me off the edge or into the crowd or something. That being said, we addressed the problem with the rear-end and; had a guy who manufactures axles for drag racing put together a set for us and he pretty much guaranteed that they won’t break again. Stuff may break around them, but they aren’t going to break.
ML@S: Do you have the same tire restrictions as the other classes, where you can’t run slicks and the tires have to have a groove at least every six inches?
Paul: I don’t know, but I wouldn’t run a slick up there no matter what, anyway. We actually have the Continental engineer, Bruce Voss, working on some things for us. I showed him some picture of some rallycross tires, and he took those and some other ideas and he grooved up a set special for us, that we’re going to try. But we’re not going to test them up there. We’re going to try them on Wyatt’s car (Wyatt Dallenbach, who’s running in the open wheel class) and in the next couple weeks, we’re going up to a go-kart track in Erie. That’s how we went from the Pikes Peak Specials to the road racing rains in the first place. After that testing, we were more than four seconds per lap faster on the one mile track. We looked at it and said, that’s four seconds per mile. The big unknown was what was it going to do in the dirt. I dind’t know that ’til I got up there, and they ended up being great in the dirt. So we’re going to do that same idea at the go-kart track this time, with the rain tire and the new tire. I’m just a little nervous about loose gravel on the highway and picking up a puncture.
ML@S: Have you had to spend allot of time at altitude to map out your power? I would imagine that with your current setup (twin Banks turbocharging with 1300+ horsepower) that you’re not losing the typical 30% that you do with a NA motor.
Paul: No. Matt Tranam at Banks does all of our mapping and all that; and he says we lose maybe 10-15%. We could go to a different turbo where they said we wouldn’t lose anything on top, but we’d suffer a bit at the lower altitudes. So there’s a bit of give and take. I still have plenty of horsepower up top. In practice it was still scary fast. If I lose 15%…that’s probably ok! (laughs) Some people lose sight of the fact, that the reason we have the big wings is because there’s no air up there. So as we lose horsepower, we’re also losing drag. So it kind of balances itself out.
ML@S: What do you think about the pavement?
Paul: Part of the problem with the pavement…the times aren’t dramatically faster, but with the way the road is, it used to be 50′ wide dirt and now it’s two twelve foot lanes; and the angle of the corner is different now. You come down to Bottomless Pit and now it’s a ninety degree turn. Before it used to be you’d drop a gear, but now I’m going down two, maybe three gears and I’m carrying so much more speed. I spun off last year during practice, for the first time ever, in Boulder Park. I came around the corner and there was gravel and I hit my normal braking, and it locked up the rear and spun around.
ML@S: Would you be in favor of seeing more hay bales in those areas?
Paul: Yes. They need to triple the hay bales; and I think there should be a zero tolerance on dropping wheels. If somebody gets caught dropping a wheel they should be parked. Because they’re going to kill somebody. And these people aren’t dropping wheels because they’re out of control. They’re dropping wheels because they think they’re going to save half a second. What they’re really doing is they putting the race in danger and people in danger. You don’t need to do it. We’re carrying so much speed going up to the corner, that we can’t slow down fast enough by the time we see the gravel. That’s my biggest concern. I think there should be more volunteers up there above Devils as eyes; with radios, saying there’s gravel and this guy needs to be parked. You send the message out that you will send someone home who tries to cut a corner and see if it happens again. I’m afraid that if the race goes away, it’ll be because of a tragedy that was preventable.
ML@S: They really all are, aren’t they? Like I mentioned to you earlier, this race always has seemed to police itself internally amongst the drivers and riders. If that continues to happen we can certainly help prevent something from happening.
Paul: I plan on getting up in the Drivers Meeting and saying something; and being strong about it. And warning, especially the rookies, that they’re going to kill someone by trying to save half a second and it’s just not worth it.
ML@S: You always hear people talking about this race getting easier with the pavement. Do you think it’s getting easier?
Paul: No way. It’s as hard or harder than ever. It’s scarier now than ever. The dirt was always forgiving. It looked spectacular, but you could throw the thing sideways and not go off. Now things happen so fast. When you spin these radial tires on pavement they don’t have any forgiveness in them.
ML@S: Where do you go with the program from here?
Paul: If we win this year…even if we don’t win this year, we probably park this car. And I’m not going to fight Leonard (car owner) on that. There’s just not as much money to support it anymore. Maybe I’ll just go up there with a different car. We can put that motor with those Banks turbos, in just about any chassis and go really fast.
ML@S: You did tell me before that you’re just doing this for fun. Can you go slower and still have fun?
Paul: No. No way. It’s still all about winning for me! I think second place would just suck. Especially now with Banks….we can’t get beat by an electric car (referring to Monster and his new ride). At least in my mind. I wouldn’t be happy with that, at all. Especially when we’ve been given the tools.
ML@S: Your program is clearly moving in the right direction. Are you pretty excited about the race this year? Having never seen the new paved section, are these changes you’re looking forward to challenging?
Paul: At this point where I am with the program, yes. Because I’m two wheel drive. The dirt road in 93 and 94…when I broke the overall record in 93 and re-broke it in 94, then Rod (Millen) broke it right behind me that same day, the road was like pavement. It was hard as a rock. They sprayed it (mag chloride) and the weather was right and the road has never been the same…and we’ve been going slower, but our car is way better. So, Leonard Arnold (car owner) and I were talking about this the other day, and we were like…this car is way faster than what it was in 94 and we’ve never beaten that time. That just shows how the road has been. With the two wheel drive, our times were suffering on the dirt. Now the four wheel drive advantage is gone.
ML@S: Who works with you on the car?
Paul: That’s the thing I’m most proud about the car. Kevin Kidwell, our crew chief, works a regular 9 to 5, and at 5:10 he’s in the shop working on the car. And this operation is all Colorado home grown. We don’t have tons of money. We’re on a budget, just like anyone else and we’ve never had any manufacturer support. So it’s all been Leonard Arnold’s help financially and Kevin’s hard work. Kevin is a tool maker so a lot of the parts, he machines himself. The wheels he made…just to save money here and there. Our effort is just as grassroots as anyone else’s. It’s not like we go out and buy a lot of parts. We scrape. Thankfully the sponsors this year have stepped up and come back. I was really worried after we didn’t get off the line last year. Most of them are local. Alpine Bank, Double Eagle Casino and Famous Dave’s.
ML@S: What do you love about Pikes Peak?
Paul: Anybody can build something in their garage and compete. It’s not a spec series. You can draw it up on a napkin and go build it. That’s awesome. You can’t do that with Indy Car anymore. I can’t go race against Dario Franchitti…I have to lease their engines and all that. But here I can compete against Millen and Tajima. Anybody can. That, and you only get one shot at it. Anywhere else when you have a bad day, two weeks later you can try again. Not here. Here you get a full year to think about it.
ML@S: So what do you think you’ll be able to do with your “one shot” this year? What’s going to be the new benchmark?
Paul: Well…we made some calculations based on our lower half race times from 2010, and our practice times from last year; and we figured our race time could have been in the 9:30 range last year. Like, 9:39-ish.
ML@S: So am I hearing correctly that 9:30 is the next attainable barrier?
Paul: Oh, I think we’ll be in the teens. Yep…I do.
ML@S: That would be pretty incredible.
Paul: I think that the bottom pavement now…well…it depends on a lot of variables…
ML@S: Let’s just leave the variables out of it…lets assume a perfect day…the kind of day we all hope for.
Paul: On a perfect day…I’m shooting for a 9:15. I think we can do it. I think the car can do it.
ML@S: A 9:15? I like that!
There it is, kids. So… where will you be when history is made? Get yourself up to Pikes Peak in 2012. It’s sure to be the most epic year ever, and with bold predictions from the most talented drivers in the world, we have allot to look forward to.
If you don’t know Paul Dallenbach, then you should make a point to get to know him. Truly, one of nicer guys in motor racing.