Those words still haunt me. “We hope we can find him.”
What do you mean….we hope we can find him? There are a lot of people on this mountain. It’s race day and it is almost unimaginable to hear those words coming over a live, radio broadcast. Oh, the announcers used these words too, “We don’t know what happened to Greg Tracy“. How could nobody, know where Greg is?? That just didn’t make sense.
Those words became bigger than just my emotion, worry or concern about Greg. I knew that his family, his mom and dad, his wife and kids, the team, were hearing the same, ominous message from that live radio broadcast, “We hope we can find him.” (video below)
As those words kept echoing through the blustering wind on the summit of Pikes Peak, “We Hope We Can Find Him” I was literally numb. I felt sick and it wasn’t because of the altitude, it was pure emotion.
The day started out like any other Pikes Peak race day. The feeling that you literally had just put your head on the pillow and the alarm goes off, but you are already awake. The pure excitement and anticipation of what this year’s race would hold. Would “THE” record be broken? Would the weather hold out for a perfect race day? Would the dirt – the final year of dirt – be a factor for the day? Would Dave C get the car ready in time for the start? Would Gary break his overall motorcycle record? Would Greg win his 7th title.
As per our usual race week ritual, the early morning (2:15am) parade to the local 7-11 ensued. We filled up on coffee, granola bars and lots of water. We got high fives from people just ending their night at the local bars. We were on our way – all three vehicles – each with different stops and agendas on the mountain for race day.
This year’s Pikes Peak was going to be so different for me, as I was going to head to the summit with a select group – John Ryland owner of Classified Moto, Adam Ewing – Photographer, Ricky Henry – who we elected to help us with a very epic photographic shoot and Matt – one of the video producers for Ducati. The rest of the My Life at Speed photographers of Dave Philip, Matt Galantuomini, Kyle Lewis and Eric Gearhart (and a couple of others…) would weave their way up the mountain, packed into another vehicle like sardines, until they found the perfect place to shoot and experience the race. Andy DeVol, Mandy Newman and Rick Beets would be at the bottom of the mountain, watching (and later hearing via the radio broadcast) all of the race action unfold, from the pits.
We stopped by the Spider Grips Ducati pit area and part of my job for the day, was to make sure all of the winners in the motorcycle/quad/sidecar division would receive a special Pikes Peak checkered flag. With flags in hand, we piled into the Dumonde Tech vehicle (all 5 of us and our gear) to head to the top. There are no words to describe what an honor it is to be on the mountain before dawn. No wonder Pikes Peak was the inspiration for “America the Beautiful”. We slowly traversed our way up the course, only to be stopped at Devils Playground. But we had the golden ticket, the very rare “Summit Pass” was in our possession. We were waved through like royalty heading to the formal wedding.
As we arrived at the Summit – we all looked at each other and realized that we were in a situation that very few experience. I felt like an astronaut viewing and walking on the moon for the very first time.
I opened the car door to have the winds almost pull the door out of my grasp. It was windy. Really windy. Certainly the winds would die down as the sun came up.
There was quite a bit of time for us with not a whole lot to do, so sleep seemed like an appropriate response. I finally experienced what I heard about from others who had been on the top (or near the top) race day. You would get to a point of “almost resting” and your body would feel the lack of oxygen and you would gasp for breath. It felt like you were drowning. Okay, so rest was out of the question too. Our chit chat turned to pure hilarity, as the sleep and oxygen deprivation caused all of us to behave like giddy school girls. The porta-potty that was tethered to the mountain, became the focus of much of the conversation and laughter. It precariously battled the wind and was thrust side to side, barely keeping its position in the high winds on the mountain. The worry was, that if in use, and the winds managed to break the grip of the tethers to the peak, we would have a very bad version of the Wizard of Oz.
As sunlight hit the top of Pikes Peak, the winds did not die down. In fact, the winds seemed just relentless. These weren’t occasional gusts, but constant wind with no escape from its fury. I knew that although a probable epic day, it was going to be a long one. The conditions were harsh. The other problem we had – no communication. Our radio could not be heard and we could not hear any of the other members of the team. Luckily, they could hear each other. Occasionally, I could get a text to transmit and could log on to Facebook. I know, Facebook. But on that day it became a way for our team to know what was happening on top – messages via text and Facebook. Crazy.
We found refuge next to a small building that is located at the top of Pikes Peak for “altitude research” (ironic, I know). We set up the camera gear. Mind you, this wasn’t your typical “camera in hand” type of gear. It was a complete photography studio – lights, soft boxes,etc….oh, did I mention that there were 40-50mph winds?? I know we looked like complete fools out there, but Adam patiently and methodically went through the set up of each shot. We managed to photograph more than 50 of the racers who made it to the summit. Ricky is now of the ranks of superhero, as I have no idea how he managed to hold this light kit…errr, huge white parachute that we had set up. It was ridiculous.
The rhythm of race was upon us. Records were broken. Wind, no wind. Didn’t matter. We were at the top of Pikes Peak to witness history.
The rhythm of the photo shoot lasted until the conditions (and red flags) proved to be too disruptive and the epic, portrait shots of the motorcycle racers, were not going to happen.
The guys took refuge for a bit in the car, as the elements were so unforgiving that what was supposed to be fun, now started to feel like a bad dream with no escape. Altitude, exposure was starting to take its toll. We had been on the top of Pikes Peak for more than 14 hours.
I grabbed my camera and tried to shoot some stills and video, but the wind made it almost impossible. There were a few fleeting shots, but nothing monumental until the last two classes – the 750cc and 1205cc motorcycle classes. Gary Trachy, Greg’s brother, was in the first class and there had already been a red flag in his class and I didn’t know which rider went down. As I walked and looked for Gary, I managed to receive one line of text, “Did Gary make it to the top?…his mom wants to know. Please respond.” I tried and tried to get a text out that yes, he had made it to the top – he was second. Gary was safely at the top. What I also knew and didn’t say, is that he did crash, broke his arm (badly) but somehow, got back on his motorcycle to get to the top and take the second place spot. Finally. The text had been sent and I hoped that it was received.
The rumble of the big bikes started to echo up to the Peak – the last class was almost to the top. I had extra camera batteries for Greg and Alexander’s onboard Contour Cameras, so all the world could see the glory of fans high-fiving them on the way back down the mountain. I honestly can say, that it didn’t even cross my mind that Greg might not make it to the top.
The first glint of the neon on the helmet as a Ducati rounded the corner by the summit house made me smile. The new Troy Lee Designed helmet looked great! Wait a minute, the Ducati is black, not red. It was Carlin Dunne and although I was glad to see him, I had the first ummm..”something is not right” feeling in the pit of my stomach. Your mind starts rationalizing “Oh – he was in the second start line, he will be coming around the corner next”. I kept watching, and the only two motorcycles from the class I didn’t see, were Greg Tracy and Alexander Smith. My heart sank as the silence of the mountain left only the voice of the howling winds to be heard. Where were they?
I kept looking, thinking, “no way” and I hear a “Chris” and it is Alexander. A quick hug and congrats but he was quickly surrounded by Gary and others wondering, where’s Greg? He said he didn’t see him, but something, intuition or whatever, told me that he did know something. But he is smart. He knew that rumors get out of control quickly, there are family members waiting at the bottom and he was now the keeper of the secret. He wasn’t telling.
The radio announcers gathered Carlin Dunne, Jeff Grace, Alexander Smith and Glenn Cox around a van which served as the radio broadcast booth for the winner’s interview from the Summit. Maybe it was just for comfort, I don’t know, but even with the wind, I started shooting. Somehow it was a safety blanket from the sick feeling that I had in the pit of stomach.
As you will see in my video, it is not the “usual” winners interview. Watching Glenn Cox choke back his emotion still gives me chills. Even today, this is difficult for me to view.
As all the racers started to head back down the mountain, Alexander stopped and I asked him, “He will be okay, right?” He said, “Greg is fine. Don’t worry. He is okay. I promise.” Of course, as I tried to text, Facebook, call…anything, as we had zero info on Greg at the top and no communication. Your mind is not your friend in those situations. I just said a prayer, kept my cool and held back the emotion as best I could.
It took almost another two hours before we knew where, what, happened to Greg Tracy.
Although the outcome with Greg was positive – when we finally reached the bottom of the mountain – he was precariously propped up getting into his street clothes and eating clips and salsa. His leathers were a rumpled, shredded mess and the Ducati was still up on the mountain, in a big state of missing parts and pieces. I remember trying not to act like a fool, like it was no big deal and just wanted to know if he was okay. I told him, “You know I worry.” He smiled and said, “Yeah, I appreciate that….this is a bummer for sure. I had the pace to set a new record. Next year, for sure, the record will be mine.”
Alexander was quick to find me and gave me another hug and told me, “I told you he would be okay!” The exhaustion, stress and battling the elements just took over.
I started to cry.
I felt for the first time, all day, I could finally breathe.