I must start by saying that this was my first time at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb race and this is my personal story. It was very much a privilege and an unforgettable life experience that I will not soon forget. I am well aware that not just anyone gets to experience this event the way I did being part of the very talented My Life at Speed team. I was blessed with a warm welcome from Andy, Chris, and Greg. And empowered with media credentials to document this historic event and to work alongside very talented photographers and media contributors from all over the country and the world.
The 92nd Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is a world-class race event attracting famous and first-time racers and teams from all over the world. It is the second oldest race in the United States after the Indy 500. The 12.42 mile course includes 156 turns that start at 9,390 ft. and end at 14,110 ft. in elevation. The race also includes many veteran racers that want to be part of this epic race year after year; some up to 40 years running.
My role in this assignment was simple: to meet everyone on the team present at the event and continue to improve my motorsports photography skills, while documenting the experience.
An important part as to why I was here was Greg Tracy, renowned world-record racer and Hollywood stuntman. It is by no means a secret that My Life at Speed was co-founded by Greg. However, it was my responsibility to not only document the event in general but I made it my personal mission to document Greg’s historic participation in this race.
I was driven by the anticipation of the valuable experience and my desire for continued growth and diversification of my photography. Yet I faced much internal skepticism in the many weeks and days leading up to the event as I was facing the unknown, literally. This all changed on my very first day at the starting line (9,390ft. elevation) for qualifying on Thursday, June 26th. I saw the unity and commonality among racers, race team support members, event organizers and officials, and members of the media. Everyone seemed to know everyone. Many smiling faces full of emotions and excitement all with one goal in mind; to make this a successful, meaningful, and safe event for everyone. On this day I got a small taste of what PPIHC was all about and the things that were to come.
After all the qualifying runs ended for the day and as they opened the Pikes Peak Toll Road back for public use, my friend Andy and I started our drive up to the summit at 14, 110ft. I must tell you that I have never experienced this degree of high altitude. As we drove up, I felt more oxygen deprivation symptoms just sitting in the car. But this didn’t matter much, the absolute beauty of the views and the vastness of where we were was enough to keep me exceedingly excited. I am certainly glad Andy offered to drive. I remember saying to Andy and thinking to myself over and over how beautiful and stunning this place was. And I remember Andy replying “Just wait, we aren’t done yet”. I was certainly awed in wonder and could hardly believe my eyes. This gave me the opportunity to contemplate how small we are in this world, truly appreciating the beauty and magnificence of Earth, and being thankful.
At the top there is the Summit House, a small gift shop combined with a place where you can purchase drinks, something to eat, and world-famous fresh donuts which are rumored to be loaded with oxygen for us touristy types. Although the fresh and warm donut was delicious, it didn’t give me the extra oxygen I was looking for. As we were exiting the building we approached the “Summit Pikes Peak 14,110ft., Pike National Forest” monument. This is where many people get their photos taken by complete strangers out of desire for a true keepsake; and this is exactly what I did. I set some settings on my full-frame DSLR camera while waiting our turn and handed it to a complete stranger and asked to take our picture. My stranger friend snapped two shots and asked me to verify to see if they were good enough pictures. This is the time where I thought I had lost my mind. I could not remember how to view the photos in my camera. Several seconds felt like minutes before it finally came to me. I had never experienced a feeling like this before. It was as if my mind, all of a sudden, did not know or remember something I have done many thousands of times before. I don’t remember my stranger friend’s face but I think that he probably thought I was losing it. Fortunately for me, this oxygen deprivation moment was very temporary and I was able to function “normal” thereafter.
That night while meeting and discussing plans with the team for the next day which would start at 2am, Andy and I brought up our story about driving to the peak and how I almost lost my mind at the summit. Concerns about where I was going up the mountain the next day raised rapidly with much legitimacy, as it can be very dangerous to our bodies and have serious health consequences. After much discussion and with the support of Andy who remained calm and optimistic, who persisted that I was going to be ok. My only wish at that moment was that he was right.
It was cautiously agreed that I would be going with Ken and Andrew on Friday June 27th to a spot on the mountain named Boulder Park. It is at 13,380 ft. up and known for its many scattered and stacked boulders throughout the immense area. At this elevation, oxygen deprivation is only one of the hazards one can encounter when fully exposed to relentless winds and very low temperatures. On this morning at about 2am as we drove up the mountain we met with Trevor at Devil’s Playground (12,780ft.). Trevor is a fellow photographer and risk-taker wanting to meet up and catch a ride to our destination.
After a few pointers from one of my teammates, I set out to get some good shots of the race cars in their qualifying runs. After just a little while in the field, I found myself literally freezing. I couldn’t feel my hands and face. I climbed down a hill of boulders from where we parked seeking some shelter from the wind behind boulders, some the size of houses. After trying different spots that would provide shelter from wind and good vantage points to shoot from, I had climbed quite a ways. I also watched and welcomed the bright and intense morning sun coming up behind the distant ridge; this provided some relief from the cold but the wind was still unrelenting. This proved to be another good day on the mountain.
Being my first time not only at Pikes Peak but in Colorado, I strived to get around and seek other must-see places during my visit. The very early times and working through the night, long hours trekking to the different shooting locations in difficult terrain left me and the others with little energy. I did manage to visit the Manitou Cliff Dwellings and the Garden Of The Gods. Both places were great wonders and had magnificent natural landscapes.
Saturday June 28th was the day before the big event and an off-day for so many involved. On this morning I had the opportunity to join Andy, Chad, and Eldad, assisting them with controlling traffic while they performed some additional filming for the Mike Ryan story on location where his out-of-this-world big rig truck had crashed into the woods the day before during practice. Mike Ryan fortunately walked away unharmed and proceeded to race on a motorcycle on race day.
Later that afternoon, My Life at Speed sponsored the much anticipated and well planned BBQ get-together at the place we were staying. This is a voluntary invite only get-together planned for friends and not affiliated with the main event. Many new and old friends came to say hello, chat, and enjoy the delicious BBQ ribs and chicken prepared by Rick, as well as countless side dishes, drinks, and snacks. This special time further reinforced my previous feelings about the beautiful sense of community among the racers and everyone involved in this race.
And then came race day, Sunday June 29th! At 1:30am, I drove up with Rick and Charlie. Although in my heart I wanted to be at the finish line, the plan was to drive up to Devil’s Playground and secure a good parking spot as early as possible and shoot from there. Due to many circumstances, I did not have a choice in this decision and thought nothing more about it. This is a well-known and preferred place where thousands of spectators gather to view the many passing race cars during the race. While passing the time awaiting the start of the race, I was shooting the faraway lights of Colorado Springs and the blue and orange hues of the night sky and the sun rising in the distant horizon when I came across Trevor. If you remember from early in my story, Trevor is the young man we picked up on the way to Boulder Park a couple of days before. He invited me to hike up to the summit. This meant that in order to make it in time, we needed to start at once. Not making it to the summit on time meant that we would potentially get “stuck” in a place we did not want to be for the duration of the race and the possibility of getting in trouble with event officials. I advised Rick and Charlie of what I was doing and started the hike.
My decision to hike to the summit with Trevor was so spontaneous, it’s as if it was meant to happen. I must mention that because my previous experience on the mountain, I was much better prepared this day with all the layers needed to stay warm, except for gloves which Trevor happened to have an extra pair for me. We started the hike in the dark and followed the road the entire way. We stopped multiple times to take photos of the scenery and each other.
As time went by, Trevor started gaining distance on me. Not only is Trevor almost 20 years younger than me, but I was making sure to stay well acclimated to the rising altitude and low oxygen. I’m not going to lie, this was a very punishing hike and my heavy gear backpack did not make this much easier. As I continued to hike and lost sight of Trevor in the far distance I felt an overwhelming feeling of solitude, quietness, and respect for the amazing beauty in front of me. Before too long, I was very much startled by this big horned animal emerging from the crest of the other side of the road. It crossed the road in front of me at about 40ft from where I was standing. It continued up the cliff side with great agility and stopped just in time for me to snap a cell phone picture. I later learned that it was a Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep. When I reached the top of this particular ridge, I found it again in the distance as if it was waiting or perhaps watching me. When I finally reached the summit, I was happy to find Trevor welcoming me with a huge smile on his face filled with triumph, excitement, and anticipation.
I set up on a spot among the handful of media personnel near the finish line and waited. The race started with the motorcycles and I never stopped shooting the action until the wind dried my view finder eye so much that I lost my contact lens in the rocks I was standing on. I know, perfect timing right? Maybe so But I continued to shoot without seeing my camera focus point very well.After some time I decided to make the short trek to the Summit House to wash my hands and use a restroom mirror to put in a new contact. I’ll be honest with you, if it wasn’t because it was impossible to handle a contact lens in these extremely high wind conditions, I would have not worried about washing my hands or a mirror and endured the dirt burn off in my eye. Maybe by fate or maybe not, during my short absence from the finish line a fatal accident occurred in which Bobby Goodin, #86 motorcycle, lost his life in a crash after crossing the finish line. Bobby was racing at Pikes Peak International Hill Climb for the second time. My sincere condolences go to his family and friends for their great loss. I learned about the horrific incident moments later when I saw Trevor, who was visibly shaken and deeply touched by what he had just witnessed.
After the remainder of the motorcycles it was time for the cars. Greg Tracy qualified 2nd so he was to be the second car to race the hill climb. Greg raced in a 2014 Mitsubishi prototype electric car. I proudly stood there and photographed the occasion in all its glory as he crossed the finish line. Because I was on a mission and my determination to document his record breaking 9 minute 8.188 second run had the best of me, I followed him everywhere he went on the summit after his race. I was certainly very pleased when he posed and gave me the thumbs up. It was only at this moment that I thought he actually recognized who I was through all the hats and hoods I was wearing and my face planted behind the camera.
I hung around for a while longer shooting some other racers but felt that my job was done at the summit and decided to start my long hike down and seek other shooting opportunities along the way. Since the road was mostly off limits in this area, the majority of the hike down consisted of traversing and managing multiple cliff sides. Trevor and I kept up together until we lost track of each other sometime on our hike down.
The descent turned out to be even more taxing on my body that I anticipated, after completing the hike up. I hiked down at a pace I felt comfortable with. This gave me time to once again experience the magnificent beauty in which I found myself. Additionally, it gave me the opportunity to photograph the race from places not very reachable by many. It was during this time that I made a conscious effort to absorb as much as I could from my surroundings as I did not know if I would ever be able to return.
I made it back to Devil’s Playground just in time to witness the parade of race cars coming down from the summit. As the racers drove slowly through this area, they gave high fives and shook spectators’ hands. This was a very touching and meaningful way of culminating a fantastic race, and a personal experience for me.
This experience has been somewhat bitter sweet. The larger-than-life magnificent views and vastness of the mountains would leave most of us astonished. The valor and courage of all the brave racers stimulates our souls. The dedication of the many teams and their comradeship is very inspiring. It also demonstrated to me how fragile life truly is and how life itself can change in an instance.