As a photographer and a spectator, I have been to Pikes Peak every year since 2005 and a few years before that as well just for practice days. The mountain really has a way of sucking you in. As a spectator you see this crazy road, you see these brave individuals and you get this feeling that this is not like any other event in the world. When you stand at Devils playground and the air around you is 30 degrees, and the wind is bone chillingly cold; but the sun rises below you and illuminates the world that appears to be under your feet. You get a sense that you are alone with nature’s beauty even though you can see houses miles below.
I have met many people on Pikes Peak; photographers, spectators, competitors and more. I have spent countless hours on the side of the mountain, waiting alongside some of the best photographers out there. If there is one thing that I can say about photographers, it is that they have seen it all. The stories I have heard from folks like Rupert Berrington or Peter Brock are just awesome; and I never thought I would be able to trade that time on the mountain for anything. I never thought I would need to make that choice at all actually.
This year, fires ravaged the landscape of Colorado Springs. Devastation on a scale that Colorado hadn’t seen before occurred and the original Hill Climb date had to be abandoned. This was a logistical nightmare for many teams, but it was absolutely the right thing to do. 24 was closed, the fire crews were chasing wild fires all over the state and slurry bombers were a common sight for many of us on the front range. When the date changed, I was trying to sort out my plan for Pikes Peak again. In typical fashion I delayed thinking about it until I needed to, and at that point I got a phone call. I met Valentin Ivanitski, I believe a few years ago. I met him Ice Racing, when he would bring his crazy V8 Audi A4 out onto the lake to race. Last year he raced that same Audi at Pikes Peak. When he did, on his first year he made it to the top and immediately got donuts. He also met Savannah Rickli. I have known Savannah for a bit as well. Ice racing and Pikes Peak have both been her thing; and I have put a camera on her car for a few years now in order to edit up and release some videos from her runs. Well it turns out things worked out well between Val and Savannah and they ended up getting married this year. With them together I have had a chance to get to know each of them a bit better as well. So when my phone rang and I saw it was Val I answered and the question was “do you want to be my codriver for Pikes Peak?”
Over the years I have thought about what it would take to race at Pikes Peak. I have driven the road many times, up and down, sometimes multiple times a day. I have driven it at night in dense fog, and I feel as though I know that road very well; but racing it, that is a whole other thing. I have always been curious. As a photographer you always have a feeling that you know what the competitor is going through. You combine your own experience with what you perceive their experience is and you generate this sense of what is going through their mind. I immediately said “Yes” to Val, then thought two things: “Wow, I didn’t realize how much I wanted to do this” and “Hmm, maybe I should make sure I don’t have any work commitments.”
Time was tight and Val and I sat down a few times to get things in order. First up was making sure the seat fit well and the harnesses were adjusted properly. I got down to his place and tightened everything up to fit me perfectly. While I was there, I noticed quotes on his car. One on the drivers door and one on the Co-Driver’s door. Val told me that my door is open. If I had a quote for that side then it is easily able to be changed. So I went to work on that. Finally with notes in hand for a few days we went up to Pikes Peak for a recce day. We ran the mountain 3 times (at the speed limit) with notes being called to make sure that everything matched up as we wanted and to work on timing. We found a few spots where alterations needed to be made to the notes and we went about changing them, adding things and basically dialing them in. When we got back from Pikes Peak that day I spent time correcting the notes, getting them bound nicely and cutting corners so they were easy to turn with gloves on.
Tuesday finally came around and I was finishing up some things at work before I left. I headed out to Colorado Springs with two helmets in hand. One for me and one for Savannah. Her helmet failed to pass tech even though it still had 4 years of use left in it based on Snell certifications. Fortunately I was able to save the day and bring her a new helmet. We went through tech. We went through the drivers meeting and we were off to bed. Another day down and the short nights were about to begin, since we were going to wake up at 2 am for our first day of practice.
When the alarm sounded I was up and in the shower in an instant. We were outfitted with coffee and we were only one turn shy of Devils Playground when a radiator hose blew off our tow rig. Fortunately, quick action by a spectator and we made it to Devils Playground without issue. Val and I were getting ready to get onto the mountain. Lots of anticipation had been building up in myself and honestly, I was really curious how well I could do this job. We soon discovered that our intercom system was not working as well… Oh good. The sun began to rise but I didn’t watch it like I did when I was taking photos. I could only see that the light was coming and I didn’t see the beauty that it was creating. Light means we can run and that is all I cared about. When the line began to form, we were at the front of it and when the first car lined up we were right there ready to go. When the flag pointed at Val, I was ready and when the flag dropped we both sprung into action. I was screaming the notes at the top of my lungs and he was just able to hear me over the V8, that was roaring through an unmuffled exhaust. We arrived at the top of the mountain and I realized that the quote I had chosen for my door was even more appropriate than I expected, “on the other side of fear there is freedom.” Fear, anticipation, expectation and just plain nerves creep up on you in that start line. When you arrive at the flag the world is in slow motion it seems, since that flag can’t wave soon enough; but as soon as it does there is nothing besides you, Val and a mountain road and you do your job in deep concentration so you don’t mess it up! (Trust me, you don’t want to mess up!)
After the first day on the mountain, we ended up helping our friends Scott Crouch and Lea Croteau by towing their car down to Wreckmasters for a bit of TLC.
Then we spent time sorting out our intercom systems and we also prepared for the next day. Our crew was fantastic. Stephen, Collin and Rhett made it so we didn’t have to do anything. Honestly that was awesome for me. I sure do like tinkering and I like building cars; but wow, it is really nice to simply be able to relax, rest and concentrate on your job. I spent a bit of time just checking notes, looking for any photos that popped up online and relaxing until day two of practice.
At this point, we had purchased some Chatterboxes from Apex Motorsports. Apex was great to work with and really gave us a good amount of information. We installed everything and we were on the mountain again ready to try them out. The roar of the engine came with a bit more expectation this time. Day Two was our qualifying day. We had two runs on the mountain today, through the fastest part of the course and our job was to learn the road AND qualify for race day. Lots of things change when you see a road for the first time at race pace. Wow, suddenly all those lefts and rights come up on you faster and on our first run I truly got a bit lost! “Is this the 3rd left 6 or is it the 4th?” I came up on the corner before Engineers and saw for the first time how, at speed, it looks so much like Engineers! Wow, these are things that I never experienced before on the mountain and wow, it is very interesting to see it now! With our first run finished we moved on to run two. We headed up the mountain with much more success and when we arrived at the top Brianne Corn stopped by our car to see if we happened to have any tools with us. Val popped the trunk to discover, no, we don’t have tools, but wait… ALL our spare wheels are in the trunk! We just qualified with both of our runs with 150lbs of wheels in the trunk of the car. On the way down we chatted and decided, yes, we need to play a trick on our crew. We leapt out of the car and told them about the odd handling, the clunking, the rear of the car, too much downforce? What could it be. Instantly the guys were on it. They were jacking up the car, they were inspecting all the elements they were looking they were not finding anything. Val, Savannah and I were beginning to wonder if we should give them a hint when Rhett popped the trunk and everyone collapsed in laughter.
When we headed home to the Rainbow Lodge in Manitou Springs I spent some time with the notes. Red Sharpie and large letters were put just below that turn before engineers to simply say “fake”. I made a few other notes, but I found that simply having a confirmation of a few points along the bottom section really just made my confidence a lot higher. The same day our friends Cody Loveland and Tabitha Lohr crashed at Engineers. Cody was determined to get the car running and Tab was banged up from the day’s events. Tab stayed with us and Savannah took good care of her while our guys, Rhett and Stephen, helped Cody get the car together.
Friday’s practice was also very interesting. We decided to take it easy, though I don’t know if we actually talked about it ahead of time. I think that this section of road is really a bunch of drag races with corners in between; and I suspect it is really the hardest on the car. We ran 2 runs at a casual pace then on our third run we tried to open it up. Oil was down, coolant was down, people were on the side of the road and our idea to run a quick run was foiled a bit by all of these elements. We got down and realized they were lining up for a 4th run. We got in line first and we headed up the hill only to find out that the timing van had already left. I like data, I kinda geek out on it, so this was really disappointing. Based on our onboard cameras we found that we shaved 7 seconds off our last run from the fastest of our first 3 runs. That felt pretty good and definitely boosted a bunch of confidence as well.
Before we knew it, race day had arrived. With our cars ready there is little to do but wait. We arrived very early and slept for a bit until the sun came up. Our crew was buttoning up some of our details as other cars were leaving the line. It appeared that the mountain was putting up a bigger fuss this year however. Monster’s car caught on fire, Paul Dallenbach’s throttle cable stuck and only two of the unlimited cars actually made it to the summit! A bit later as we began to line up, Jeremy Foley and Yuri Kouznetsov had their now famous crash as well.
We could see as clouds covered the summit; and if the anticipation was high on Practice day #1 it was through the roof now that we were waiting on crashes. Every once and a while I would ask what time it was and someone would say 5 or 5:30… It kept getting later and I had never seen the race go so long!
Finally we were at the start line. “Guys, do you want rain tires?” was the question we were asked “This is all we have!” was our response and we headed up the mountain.
Val and I were in sync. The lower section went better than it had ever gone and I don’t think that is because of the spares that we remembered to remove this time. We passed through the speed check at Picnic Grounds at 65mph which was remarkably quick for our car. We crossed a line around 11 mile where we saw a few drops of rain on the windshield but the road was still dry. Val would test the traction periodically to see how early he needed to brake and we were still making great traction. We climbed up the mountain and every turn seemed to be a bit more wet but our traction was holding strong. We passed through Glen Cove and headed up the middle section. We came up to one of the W’s and Val hit the brakes early because of how wet the road looked and we nearly stopped! We still had traction! We arrived in Devils Playground and hauled through there as well giving the fans something to talk about again.
The next note was L5 /CR and we saw Bottomless. Hmm, that looks really wet. I heard Val say “Braking early” and the back end of the car stepped out. Immediately he was on the gas, he was pulling this out, we were drifting and we caught traction… Oh no, It is over now was my only thought, but the car had already begun to roll. The back had touched the outside concrete gutter and it threw the nose of the car into the wall. Once that dug in we were landing directly above my corner of the windshield before we knew it and then over again with a final stop on the roof for good measure.
Here is a video of us at Devils Playground. Listen to that thing! It sounds MEAN!
When all the rolling stopped I thought to myself: “Is that it? It sure seems like there should be more.” Then I thought about getting out of my seat and realized I was hanging from the harness. “Ok don’t forget to put your arms and legs in front of you, last thing you want to do is hurt yourself getting out of the seat after all that!” Once I was out of the car things were very clear very fast. I saw the corner worker with the radio and ran over to him. I don’t know how long it takes to roll a car, get out and run across the street to someone, but in that time he had made it about 10 ft in our direction from what I could tell. I looked at him and told him that Val and I were just fine. We are ok, we need him to get on the radio, get a truck down here to get this thing out of here and we need him to get info out to the broadcast to make sure everyone knows both the driver and co-driver are ok, I said, “Please trust me, you gotta do this or my mom will fly to Colorado and kill you!” “Yeah, ok, I got it” was his response. Seconds later a green Neon navigated the corner with caution as it sped off in the distance. The tow truck arrived so fast, it was pretty impressive. The car was loaded up within about 10 minutes of when we actually left the car. The driver of the truck was quick to respond, the safety truck arrived and asked us to write down some pertinent information so he could make sure we were ok; and we were towed back to Devils Playground within a total of 15-20 minutes from the time the crash occurred.
When we were at Devils Playground, we had crowds around the car, taking photos, looking, asking us questions. The first person to ask me a question was a kid, he was probably 10 or 11 years old. “Hey buddy, do you know who broke the record today?” We tried to piece together what had happened, but it all happened so fast, we took some info from the lady in the corner who said to us “Wow, you guys looked great coming through that corner, well up until the (then she gestured a rolling motion with her harms)” and we took what we felt in the car and wow, it is all just a bit skewed from what the video cameras tell us!
We discovered as well, that at the same time that we went off, Jerod Voight’s Camero and Roy Tompkins’ Corolla went off as well. The radios were a flurry of calls apparently and they were scrambling to get things back in action. They made the call to run to Glen Cove for the final cars.
Soon they sent all the cars down. There are few times in life when you can see exactly how much you mean to people based on the look on their faces and when we were standing there, in front of our wrecked car with drivers coming down we could see the concern we made sure they knew we were ok and it was a good feeling to know, how concerned your friends are about you.
On the way down we chatted with our tow truck driver, He told us stories from over the years, he paused and showed us where Jeremy and Yuri’s car ended up and he talked about years before when they used to have 15 tow trucks on the mountain and now they have 6. This all just went in one ear and out the other at the time but the next day I realized what that meant when I heard that Roy hadn’t made it back to the pits till 1 am! We drove down with the window down, I didn’t know where everyone was that I knew on the mountain; but I did know I wanted them to see me with a smile on my face waving to them to alleviate any concerns they may have. During that ride down, I saw what was becoming a very common sight. The look on friends’ faces mimicked one another with absolute looks of concern. We passed by Joel Yust and the concern on his face began to wear on me. I knew he had borrowed my radio, he should know we are ok. We began to ask and discovered, no, the broadcast said nothing about our whereabouts! It listed us as “lost” or “missing.” From what my family told me later, we were never found but fortunately our car was found at some point during the broadcast. I began to regret assuming the broadcast had let people know and not running across the street at Devils Playground to the radio tent to make sure they announced we were ok.
This race is not for the timid, it is scary. Every driver has a few turns that really get to them, but if you can face that fear there is a feeling on the other side that you won’t experience anywhere else. That is Pikes Peak and now I can say that I have experienced both sides and wow, it is an interesting experience.
We have to say thanks to all the great photographers who caught us throughout the week!