Is just more than a decade a long history? It feels like it to me. When I think about the first year I came to Pikes Peak, it seems like a lifetime ago, but it was just back in 2004. After a lengthy interview with the Motorcycle Race Director, I had been accepted to run in the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. I was a rookie in the quad class.
I took this race so seriously that I even quit smoking, after having been a smoker for eighteen years. I loved smoking…you have no idea. LOVED it. I loved the pure act of smoking. Taking that long draw on a cigarette or cigar, breathing in the smoke, holding it in my ever blackening lungs for just a moment and then letting it go in a fog of foul smelling, used up tobacco and nicotine. To me smoking was pure pleasure. Never mind the fact that it stunk up everything I owned and took minutes off my life with each beautiful, enjoyable, tasty stick. My day started and ended with a cigarette in my hand. Sometimes, my friends and Army buddies tell me, I had a cigarette lit before I was even awake. That’s how much I loved it. Tobacco and nicotine were the glue that held me together.
After my acceptance to race, I also quit my other passion, which was skiing. I quit both on the very same day: January 4th, 2004. I just had to. I couldn’t risk injury, or being sidelined by another knee surgery, knowing I was going to race at Pikes Peak.
As much as I loved smoking I really, really loved skiing. I had to ski every opportunity I could find. I would travel wherever the snow was and made sure I had just enough pennies in my pocket for rentals and a lift ticket…and when I found myself short of funds, I did stupid human tricks on street corners to earn the money. When I joined the military at seventeen, I was asked after basic training to list my “dream three” – the three military posts that were my top choices of where I’d like to be stationed. I could choose anywhere in the world and I chose Fort Carson, Colorado as my number one. I might as well not even have listed any others, because nobody was “choosing” Fort Carson as a dream post. Think about it – this was pre-downsizing, and we had posts on practically every major street corner around the globe. Not even kids that were from here were choosing Carson. So getting my choice was pretty damned easy.
I chose Fort Carson for two reasons: one, to be at the foot of Pikes Peak, and two, to be an hour’s drive from some of the driest, deepest, most beautiful powder on the planet. I knew about the Hill Climb, but my passion at that time was skiing, not race cars. And even then, at just seventeen, I wanted to SKI Pikes Peak, not race up it!
The Pikes Peak ski area had been shut down for years, and I knew that. What I was interested in were the chutes up at Devils Playground. Ask most people – even people who have lived here for years – and they probably don’t know that you can ski these chutes. The chutes are also all named. Great names, too. Names like Baby Blue, Three Little Pigs, Chimney, Little Italy, Rock Garden, and Cornice. Each one seemingly steeper than the next. But I was seventeen…which by definition means that I am bulletproof and would never die. Especially not doing something like skiing.
I spent my first winter at Fort Carson up at the major resorts. As Active Duty Military I was able to get a day pass to Breckenridge for only eight dollars (which was still tough to wrangle considering my pay-grade). I would have random days of the week off, usually not weekends, so the mountain was typically pretty empty. And the colder it was, the emptier the ski slopes. I recall skiing one day when it was eleven below zero with a nasty wind. I was alone most of the day…and it was glorious! To have an entire major resort area all to yourself is a pretty special experience. I honed my skills on the upper part of Peak 8 in a place called Horse Shoe Bowl. It was steep, but wide open. I moved on from there to the steeper chutes on the North Slopes of Peak 9 above E chair. Runs with names like Broadway and Twin Chutes.
By the next winter, I was ready. And winter made sure Pikes Peak was ready for me.
It was one of the wettest winters anyone could remember and Pikes Peak was covered in a thick blanket of snow all winter, which allowed me several opportunities to conquer each of the chutes I mentioned previously. Well, all except Three Little Pigs. Every time I stood atop one of the three tight, insanely technical chutes that made up Three Little Pigs, I chickened out. Maybe it was the thought of the fifteen foot cliff jump that is the only exit to the chutes. Or, maybe I wasn’t bullet proof after all. Best to not find out for sure, either way.
The very last day I went skiing was at Vail. 18 inches of fresh, bone dry, waist deep Colorado powder had me screaming like an idiot in the back bowls of Vail all day. And the weather was typical for Vail after a big storm – blue skies forever, which meant on this day I was not alone. Several hundred other screaming idiots joined me on what would be quite possibly the best powder day of my entire life. A good day to quit, I guess. Tobacco, Nicotine and Skiing were the glue that held me together, or so I thought.
Is just more than a decade a long time? I don’t know. It feels like it to me when I think about all the things that have happened. Personally, that 10 years has seen the end of a marriage and a point where I felt I had hit rock bottom. But as fate would have it, the time allowed me to meet my best friend in the whole world, marry her and have two children with her. Jenifer. She is my rock. My soulmate. In short, she is everything.
Damn lucky, I know.
I’ve watched my son grow from toddler to near teen. I’ve seen the passing of friends and even the passing of my sainted Mother. It seems like a lot. For eight of those years I was even a competitor in a little race called the Pikes Peak Hill Climb. And for three years after that I have taken photos of my friends and fellow racers on the Hill. I have written stories about the race, the people who come to race it and why we all convene back in the sleepy little towns that surround the Peak for a full week each year. I gave up the two things that I felt were the glue that held me together, just to race here.
What many of the racers don’t know, is that for four of those years, I was actually a sponsor! That’s right, each year I donated a sizable chunk of money to the motorcycle purse, which always seemed a little bit under-funded. We got zero return on that money, but I wanted to do it anyway. Well, I shouldn’t say zero return. The personal return I received far outweighed any monetary amount. I was part of the history. I loved the Hill Climb and Pikes Peak that much. LOVED it.
The race has changed drastically over the past decade. My rookie year we had just about a mile of pavement and a fairly good sized group of competitors. Through the “transition years” (from dirt to pavement) we saw the entry totals fluctuate pretty greatly from class to class, even to the point where some had decided that the race might not go on. Those rumors were wildly speculative, but seeing where the race and organization were at the time, the rumors managed to gain a bit of traction in the press, before finally being quelled by the board of directors some time later. The organization has also changed. Going from being, what seemed like, just a few people, to what now seems like a fairly large organization. Pikes Peak and the people I met here were now the glue that held me together.
I have history here. I don’t know if you’d consider it a long history, but it is history, none the less. It’s MY history.
Some of it good, including that second place trophy on the mantle, and some of it bad. All of it worthwhile and seemingly necessary. Somehow, Pikes Peak comes into all of our lives to teach us something. Humility? Honor? Courage? Love? It may be different for everyone, but it’s definitely something.
I don’t know, but every time I think I am “done” with Pikes Peak, I always end up right back here the very next year as part of the annual event. Sure, I have plenty of unfinished business at Pikes Peak. PLENTY. My last race here was a DNF. Not exactly the way I’d choose to finish my career on the Peak.
Besides my program, I take great pride in helping my friends. Many of the friendships I have formed at Pikes Peak are lifelong relationships. A good example of one of those is my good friend Dave Carapetyan. Dave’s efforts in the Unlimited Class haven’t even tickled the outer reaches of its potential. I, like many others, have a ton of time, money and sweat invested in Dave’s program. He is a young, very gifted driver, with more talent than one person should be allowed to have and, unfortunately, a real knack for having a minor detail or two stay firmly wedged between him and his (hopefully) eventual success.
Ask him and he’ll give you a well thought out reason for what’s going on and why it didn’t work out, and what he’s going to do about it. Ask me and I’ll tell you he needs to quit farting around and just bring me the damn car. But, I love him like a son, which is why I’m both content and frustrated.
Again, more unfinished business. Pikes Peak is a teacher and we are the students. I wonder every year, what is the lesson?
Sure, the big budget teams and occasional superstars will show up to race, but that’s not what makes up the bulk of the field, which includes well over 160 competitors. Most of them are just like you and me – regular folks with a history of club or regional racing (maybe even some time in a pro seat) that are out to prove something. Beyond that, maybe even just to prove something to themselves (as was the case for me). Most understand clearly that they don’t have a shot at the overall title, and some even realize their place within their own class. What they come for is not necessarily to beat the other competitors, but just to conquer the mountain, and if they’re lucky, better their time from the year before. Of course they want to win. They’re racers, after all. But winning here is measured in many different ways.
For many, it is one of the few races, if not the only race they’ll do all year. Pouring into it every ounce of sweat they can muster, as well as a budget that often includes more money than they earn in a year. They rely on help and money from sponsors, which for a backyard racer, is usually friends and family. The people that surround us, and understand Pikes Peak, know that “that place” runs deep in our souls. It is who we are, what we strive to conquer and, again, that Peak is the teacher.
I was content to have the next time I come back to Pikes Peak, be as a competitor – doing my best to make the summit and improve upon my best time.
Where was I going with this…? Oh yeah… the annual trek to Pikes Peak. I have sworn each of the past two years that it would be my last. I had zero interest in going to the Hill Climb this year. None. Nada. Matter of fact, I had to be talked into coming out by Chris Nazarenus, and I’m pretty sure it took more than one conversation with her to make it happen. I had no intentions of going back to that place and watching that race again from the sidelines. I had done that for two years now, and I didn’t want to do it again.
Spectating there isn’t an easy trick for me. I’ve been over that point before. This place – this race – is still deeply embedded in my DNA and I’m not ready to retire from it. I’m not ready to call it “a race I used to run”. Matter of fact, I think I plainly spelled it out in both of the articles I’ve written about the race for My Life at Speed. I’d much rather be in the driver’s seat.
Every car and bike that leaves the line, I’m jealous. Insanely jealous. That should be ME.
So what convinced me to come out this year?
Well, there were two things actually…ok maybe three. Number one: Greg Tracy. Getting to see Greg become the first person to run the hill in under ten minutes on both two and four wheels would be a once in a lifetime opportunity. Number two: Chris Nazarenus. In the end, I didn’t want to let her down. Number three: the Newbies. We had two new shooters, including my good friend Andrew Bohan, and a film crew joining us this year, none of whom had ever been to Pikes Peak, much less to the Hill Climb. I was excited to see them experience it for the first time and that didn’t disappoint. Probably the best crew My Life at Speed as ever had at Pikes Peak and for sure one of the best crews I have ever worked with.
As always, it was great to visit with friends and catch up with all that they had been doing over the past year. Of course with Facebook now being such an integral part of so many people’s lives, those “catch up” conversations are much shorter. Conveniently, it leaves only talk about the good times and, of course, the task at hand. The 2014 Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. THE Hill Climb. Hell week. The enduring nightmare. What you call it doesn’t really matter, because what it is hasn’t changed since its inception nearly a century ago. It’s the place that has the power to humiliate, and often does. No one is immune. The best drivers, fabricators and tuners have all been taught a lesson here at one time or another. It can make you a Legend, if “she” so chooses. That’s what she does. In fact, that’s her job – to humiliate you. Embarrass you. And sometimes, if you’re well prepared, and equally lucky, she’ll reward you.
Now that it’s over, I am once again content to never return unless it’s to compete. My Incredible Wife, Jenifer, and the My Life at Speed family are the glue that hold me together. Until next year, where I hope you’ll see me in the driver’s seat.