Team Johnny Killmore is a road racing sidecar team. Driver John Wood first raced in the Pikes Peak International Hillclimb as a passenger in 2009. In 2010 he would take to the course as driver, on a vintage motocross-styled sidecar with passenger Giorgina Gottlieb. With the pavement being added each year, 2011 was the first time he brought his Formula 2 spec road-racing sidecar to the mountain. With passenger Chris Rizzo, the team would make an attempt at the sidecar class record in what is likely the last year any dirt will be on the course.
Disaster struck in the first day of practice when they bent their frame in the rough dirt section during their qualifying run, and later broke their front suspension as well. With no way to fully repair the stricken machine, John and Chris looked up at the summit with great apprehension on Sunday… race day…
Sunday, race day. The event works roughly the same way each year. You get there before the sun comes up, and wait until mid-afternoon to race. It’s a by-product of running a large event on a mountain road (i.e. it’s crowded and the racers need to be in place, before the fans clog the roadways). This year was especially bad because there were A LOT of red flags for the cars. We listen to the AM radio to gleam information. The car drivers talk about the weather (it changes as you climb from 9,000 ft to 14,110 ft.) The announcers also give information on why there are delays, where oil is, where dirt patches are, etc. You nap, you snack, you listen, you chit chat, you wait…
Monster Tajima broke the all-time record for fastest person up the course, 9:51; ten seconds off his previous record. Rhys Millen complained of brake fade again, and did not break the 10min mark. A few cars went over the side, and there were several delays. Two cars laid down oil, and it sounded like there was over a mile of it on the track (which turned out to be true). Nonetheless, we lined up on the road in the early afternoon and began the long wait for our run. An eagle flew overhead; a native American blessing for ceremonies and actions. A calm washed over me; I knew we were protected.
Sidecars leave two-at-a-time, and the starting line is on a left corner, that flows into a right corner immediately, meaning lane choice doesn’t do much. The chain had been jumping the rear sprocket all week, so we had to make a very cautious start. This left the motor bogged and darned if David Hennessy/Jerimiah Owesly didn’t jump out ahead of us. If they got in front of us, we’d be stuck behind them for miles, as both of our bikes are much wider than a solo bike, and even they have trouble passing each other. Fortunately, Dave was a true racer and didn’t make a bonehead move to slam the door in our face. He left a fair amount of room, as he ran mid-track on the series of right-handers, that makes up the first few hundred meters of the track. The 160HP Suzuki engine was then able to stretch its legs, without jumping the chain and we started to drive the long way around the outside. Dave’s bike caught a little wiggle as he shifted into 3rd, and I put a little wiggle into our bike, to make sure we still had room. Everyone at startline thought we hit, but there were no marks on my bike at all, and I felt no impact.
We got ahead of Dave and then fell into a rhythm. The tires were not up to temp, but we pushed hard anyway; the warm sun putting heat into the asphalt. The bike was nervous in the handlebars, but the headshake we felt in practice was not manifesting. To be safe, I was dragging the rear brake with the throttle slightly opened, as we slowed for corners, stopping the sudden weight transfer of braking. I knew this entire first section of the course well. Grass keeps the gravel away and the corners flow into each other in a somewhat predictable way. We felt good and Rizzo was hitting all his marks as passenger. I couldn’t get the chair to float as easy as I wanted, so I only “hung the chair” off the race course a few times. Usually you do this to straighten out a corner. By picking the chair up off the ground you can run the bike off the actual race course and carry more speed, but the danger is setting it down before the chair tire goes back onto the asphalt. All manner of problems arise in such a situation. S till, we ran smooth and I was very calm as we got to the dirt.
There wasn’t any loose dirt left like in practice. We ran this section on day 1, so cars ran it on day 2 and 3, plus race day. All the loose gravel I had learned to slide in was gone, and Pensapress was bare and exposed. This treatment chemical makes the dirt hard like concrete but still very bumpy. I was afraid to spin the rear tire because I knew it would be torn up, plus I wans’t sure just how hard I could push on this new surface. I actually wished the loose dirt was there, as I was not comfortable in it.
It was extremely bumpy and I tried to be smooth and safe. I never saw Dave in my mirror but he was apparently just a few seconds behind us in the dirt, where he is stronger. The final 400 meters or so is a terrible transition of part asphalt, part Pensapress, and is probably where we bent the frame in practice. I couldn’t believe how much worse it was on race day. It beat the crap out of the bike, myself, and Rizzo. I actually was rattled so hard, I had my vision blurred once, and I wasn’t even going that fast. Finally we bucked and jerked and slammed onto the asphalt, where I had to brake once for potholes, then snap the throttle cables tight to run past “brake check” and onto the second half of the course. This is a part that you never actually race during practice, because it is used as the slow down and turn-around area on those days.
Watch this video of cars and bikes in the dirt section. We pass through at 10:10 and if you look closely you can see the chair wheel’s lack of any suspension really hurts us.
I felt back in my element though and immediately tried to push the limits of traction to see how the asphalt felt. It was a little slippy, but consistent, so I started to push hard everywhere except on the brakes. I noticed that in right-hand turns with any speed, the steering was fighting against the chair wheel, and the wiggling, jerky feeling was confidence sapping. The bike would “bump steer” on the brakes- a condition where the machine hunts along the asphalt every time it hits a bump – but the vicious head shake seemed subdued, as long as I kept the brakes and throttle on as we slowed. Now if only the brakes will not overheat in the next 5 miles!
The fans are very thick in this first section, because the Glen Cove campground is here. Fortunately they did not crowd track-edge and I could see where we were. We made it to the 8 switchbacks known as “the W’s” and the machine was still behaving skittish, but not scary. We ran through them very cautious, but fan video actually makes it look quite fast as you can see here:
If you watch closely you can see the weaving under braking shaking mine and Rizzo’s head, while the bike itself weaves. It looks slight, but when the handlebars are in your hands and you are driving at a guard rail, and several people with cameras who look like they are scattering, it’s much more intense and hard to concentrate.
Nonetheless we made it through the W’s without making a fool of ourselves and carried up to Devils Playground where the final spectator area is. The area was PACKED with people and you are turning left and cresting a rise, so the line of people to your left are what mark the racing line. The hope is that no one is on the actual track because you are at full throttle and fully committed. Nothing surprised us and we began the final climb. This area is above timberline, so it’s all rocks and dirt; meaning more of said rocks and dirt are pushed onto the track, necessitating caution.
We had already driven along a stretch of asphalt that had an oil slick laid down by a car’s previous run, but it was thin. I knew a mile-long slick was up here and in “Bottomless Pit”; a recently paved and very fast turn at the bottom of a rare downhill section, with a steel rail and a 1,000 ft drop-off on the outside. We had been following the slick and for a while and it was fairly thin, but anywhere the car was at full throttle, the slick got thicker. The entire run down to Bottomless Pit is full throttle, and I ran to the left of the slick (Bottomless Pit is a right-hander) and saw the culprit vehicle sitting on the inside of the turn. I also saw a HUGE and shiny streak of oil running horizontal on the track, in the middle of the turn. No oil dry laid down? No attempt to sweep? No yellow flag? I glanced at the course control vehicle, sitting on the inside of the turn and wondered what they were thinking; but in an instant I was sliding through the oil. The bike gave a wiggle of protest and I got a quick shot of fear (the only time in the entire race I was afraid) but the machine recovered instantly and we were off.
I couldn’t believe we were already in the last mile. We were getting a good run in considering the bent frame and worn tires. There was no need to brake or try harder or anything. We were in the Zen-like calm of “no mind”, the hyper-focus that puts things into slow-motion. Truly, we had tapped into the pulse of the mountain and it was guiding us up to the summit. A slight miscue brought Rizzo’s head a little too close to a hay bale and I gave him the thumbs up. “My fault, won’t happen again,” I thought, but he said later it had no effect on him; he had a few inches and that’s all he needed. What an awesome partner for a race like this, no?
Rizzo lives at sea level though, and this last mile is a VERY steep climb, gaining almost 1,000ft of elevation. I knew he had to be getting tired. You can feel an exhausted passenger through the frame; they become sloppy and have a rubbery feeling as they transition. Rizzo was not showing this, but he was also not moving to the extreme right or left in corners, so I knew he was conserving energy. I held up my pointer-finger to tell him “1 mile to go” because I knew he didn’t have the top section as memorized as I did, this being his first year and due to our mechanical issues while practicing up here. I dug in hard because the bike had been behaving well and I knew this was the last few minutes. We ran slow in and fast out of every corner, and the last hairpin was the only time we got any real headshake, which went away when I slammed the final downshift into 1st gear. I knew the final left hand climb had loose rocks on the outside and a nasty bump in the middle of it, so I hugged the inside and ran about 70% of available traction. When I saw the flag man, I pinned the throttle to make the last gasp on our overall time. It didn’t feel like we were going faster than in practice, but suddenly there was not a lot of room to slow down.
The slow down area is dirt, and we went into a slide to the right. I played with the front brake but it would lock the wheel under the slightest pressure. Unable to use front or rear brakes, I pulled in the clutch and the bike went into a gentle skid to the left. Playing with both brakes made it feel like we were on steel ball bearings. The boulders that lined the parking area were coming up fast, and we were still going at least 50mph. I decided I’d rather smash the side of the bike than the front and forced it into a big slide. It was all I could do to see through the dust as we went backwards.
I let go of the front brake and steered it so we would do a 360 spin, still thinking “This is going to make us look like idiots, and cost me over $1,000 and 200 hours of labor in the desert summer sun.” Somehow we righted the bike and it stopped as if we were sitting in a parking space, with Rizzo still in the chair, and the motor idling contently. After this I only remember jumping out and hugging Rizzo and screaming “F_ck yeah!”, over and over. I couldn’t breathe and I didn’t care. We made it. We ran hard and it was a fast run on top of all the things we had to overcome. Cords were showing in the rear tire. But we were at the summit. The mountain allowed us to see the greatest treasure it had; a clear view that spanned counties. I never bother looking at the view from the summit except on race day. Once you see it after racing in competition, it doesn’t look the same any other time you look at it. There is an electricity in the air that’s different than on practice days. It’s an immense blessing.
We went up for the interview with the radio guys but they didn’t have our time. They weren’t sure if it was a record or not. Neither were we. The 13:18 record was set in 2005 when there was a lot of dirt left, but it was set by a bike with a lot of power and a team who had been there multiple times to memorize the course. It was too close to know. Sure we had won, but we had a lot more machine than the other sidecars, and it was really about our own effort; not how we did compared to the other teams.
The drive back down is always surreal. The crowd lines the track and goes insane as you pass by, mostly wanting to shake the passenger’s hand, because hey, the guy is hanging his head inches off the ground. We took quite awhile to get to the bottom, and in the final few hundred feet it turned into 1 lane, and many familiar faces popped up, smiling, shaking our hands. I tried to smile back, but we are so close to the ground it was hard to look up and see anyone . I was also transfixed on the gauges, as our machine does not have a radiator fan; and I was having to keep the engine at 2500RPM, to give the water pump the speed it needed to flow water through the radiator and back to the engine, which was running very hot. Suddenly Gina appeared with a smiling but very serious look on her face (new readers need to know Gina is my normal passenger when we road-race, and was my Pikes Peak passenger last year). She climbed on and I couldn’t really hear what she was saying, I could only hear cheers and the sound of the drive chain grinding on something. Really? We bent that too? Christ, you’re kidding me?
Finally I heard the news from Gina. Dale Wentworth had been hurt. Dale was here last year and was pitting for a friend who was racing on an ATV. When Gina and I crashed into a ditch in practice, he jumped up like a freakin’ super-hero and helped us straighten our front rim. I kept in touch with him for the week and then the year between last year’s and this year’s event. He is all heart and we had been trying to meet up with him all week. Dale was competing in the 750cc class on his Aprilia, and bike problems for him and for us had forced us to miss that chance to meet up. I shrugged off his injuries, until Gina told me where it happened… very early in the course.
Though much ado is made about the sheer cliffs and rocks at the top, the scariest part of the course is at the bottom. Grass has no traction, so if you go off you are going down the side and into the trees. Trees do not move for humans, and the bottom of the course is quite fast. Apparently Dale had made it into the first left-right series, making the left but not the right, heading off into the trees without any apparent effort to stop. Stuck throttle? It didn’t matter. He was not conscious, and this serious news bittered any joy I had about our run to the top.
I sat through the awards trying to enjoy it, as many records fell this year. Sidecars were last, and it was past 9pm at this point, with the long delays during the race. About 30 people were still hanging around, so I patiently waited for the microphone to say my thank you’s. I thanked Becker Moto Works and the other racers, who didn’t treat sidecars like a red-headed-stepchild, but as an equal competitor. I then thanked Bristol Brewery and Spider Grips for their support and wished all the best to Dale, and took my seat.
They then announced the sidecars were in 2 classes and made Hans the winner of the 600 class (the order was us, Dave, Hans, and Ken Kyler/Bucho <— I only know him by his screen name). Unfortunately the trophies were for 1st and 2nd, and really technical issues didn’t make it proper to split the class. In the past this has always been a problem, but we sorted it out with the officials and got Dave Hennessy the 2nd place trophy. During this I saw the hand-scoring time for us, a 13:09.04… nine seconds below the current record. Had we done it? The results apparently weren’t official, and the officials didn’t seem interested at all in trying to figure anything out but the trophies, so we went back to the cabin with our crippled machine in a daze. Had we set the record? Was Dale going to be ok? We didn’t know, so I just opened a beer and spent a lot of time in confused silence . I wasn’t sure what I was here for, what I just did, if anything mattered… I mostly just thought of Dale. He was talking when he went into the hospital, but was in a coma now. That’s a normal story you hear the day before you find out they died. I couldn’t sleep, and barely had any interest in the downloaded footage of the race.
The times posted the next day, and that’s as official as it ever got for us. We set the record. And we drove home… Dale is still in a coma, but he can squeeze someone’s hand on command. We don’t know if he knows who’s hand he is squeezing, but he opened his eyes briefly. He responds to light, and they took the tube that was relieving pressure out of his brain. I don’t know about his broken shoulders; it’s going to be a long time and I’ve accepted that. I also know that next year, I will still be back at Pikes Peak, with a much faster bike, as I know there are several other teams coming next year, who probably think it’s a slam dunk to take the win from me. I don’t plan on giving up without a serious fight to the finish.
Stay tuned, and pray for Dale Wentworth and his family. He’s way too good a person to lose, and I ask for him back, for his and all of our sakes.