Eight Amazing Years and One Incredible Climb
At the mark of eight years of marriage, Ashley and I are happier than ever. To say, however, we followed the road most-traveled would be misleading. Adversity breeds character and we’ve made a living building character. Navigating life on a student’s budget is a skill and one we have, togther, been forced to develop. The following is a snapshot of our first eight years – just a few of our experiences.
We have lived in seven different units (three apartments, a duplex, a condo and a house – all rented of course), six cities and four states. We traveled more than 5,200 miles on the ground (more than 3,000 with our kitty, Ladybird), bought and sold five vehicles, endured 92 days at more than 100 degrees in a single year and survived an apocalyptic-like 100-year-storm that virtually shut down the entire East Coast. We’ve dipped our feet in the waters of the Southern Pacific, the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. We bore in-person witness to Kellen Moore and Doug Martin while they led the Boise State Broncos’ to their second Fiesta Bowl victory, (a 17-10 undoing of TCU in Arizona,) and the Texas Longhorns in their final game of the age-old Thanksgiving rivalry with Texas A&M as conference opponents. That ended as a historic win over Ryan Tannehill’s Aggies in College Station thanks to a walk-off field goal by now Super Bowl champion and highest-paid kicker in NFL history Justin Tucker, who hammered home his final college kick in his last collegiate game. We watched a NASCAR Cup race in the Last Great Coliseum, Bristol Motor Speedway, took in a women’s basketball game from Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, rooted for the animals at multiple professional rodeos and saw Dierks Bentley, Josh Turner, Zac Brown and Brian Regan (three times – hilarious). Early on, we sat in amazement through the entirety of Cirque du Soleil’s Alegria show. We’ve seen MLB great Roy Halladay pitch a 2-run shutout and the New York Rangers beat the Hurricanes in Carolina (shootout) and the Avs in Denver. We’ve wandered through more roughly a dozen zoos across the U.S., meandered through the smoking hot, sun-soaked streets of SeaWorld twice and braved the lava-like tarmac at dozens of air shows across the country (my idea).
Marriage takes compromise. If we’ve learned nothing else through the first eight years, we’ve learned that. Despite growing up in North Idaho, where mountains were close and four seasons presented ample opportunities to camp and take advantage of other outside activities, I was never much of a country boy, not that I was defined by the throws of big city Post Falls either. Neither could I tell a drug dealer from a standard hooldum, nor could I build a fire from flint and a pair of well-suited sticks, but through a childhood that offered exposure to everything from demolition derbys, crop dusting and corn mazes to street racing, late-night hockey games in downtown Spokane and countless trips to nearby Seattle with all of its port-city glory, I had a foot in each world.
Ashley grew up in rural Texas in a small city-town outside Houston. She has always enjoyed the outdoors, camping, hiking, shooting and anything else that gives reason to separate butt from couch. It had been some time, years, since her and I made an effort (had the time and money) to get away for our anniversary. We recalled a trip from Boise to McCall, Idaho, for a long weekend to mark the occasion several years ago, but beyond that, we had essentially resolved to dinners out.
We found a great compromise after moving to Colorado and verifying our suspicions of a close proximity to the world-famous Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. We took a cautious peek at ticket prices and other feasibility considerations. Much to our delight, it was very affordable, highly feasible and scheduled to take place the day before our anniversary. This combined Ashley’s love for the mountains and the great outdoors with my love for motorsports and sprinkled in some snacks, drinks and a manageable road trip. We pulled the trigger and set ourselves up for the first occasion-marking weekend away in years. It did everything but disappoint. The moment tickets for the 2017 PPIHC go on sale, you can bet we’ll take the plunge again. Below is a recounting of one the PPIHC weekend – one of the best weekends of our lives.
Point A to Point B
Twelve forty in the morning. “Shut off the damn alarm.” We retired to bed a mere quintet of hours ago. Allowing ourselves 50 minutes to awaken, arise, dress, pack the truck and roll out, we stumble through the apartment in a focused fog. One-thirty hits and we were pulling out of our Broomfield parking lot under the cover of darkness.
There isn’t much on the radio, but as the bars close, hip hop hums for a couple hours. Mike Posner, DJ Snake and AlunaGeorge and Drake serenade us east on Highway 36 then south down I-25. Denver traffic is not heavy, but every fourth car speeds past like it’s escaping the cops (it probably is). Castle Rock sure sits up here a bit. No wonder it gets so much hail: tennis ball size.
We’re in Colorado Springs, closing in on the exit to take us up the hill. All of a sudden, traffic picks up. We approach the left-turn lane and find ourselves in the middle of long line of cars, trucks and RV’s. We are now to our place in line, in front of that Jeep and behind those two Subaru’s that will bookend us all the way up the hill.
Hopefully we are early enough to get a spot in Glen Cove, the designated viewing location from which we’re hoping to see the race. There is only so much mountain. The event only sells a certain number of tickets each year and organizers only allow a certain number of vehicles, 1,200, up the mountain. The event restricts spectator access because of safety concerns, bucking a trend of years past (the 28 second mark in the final video below from 2013 shows someone crossing the road. Others line the course without any fencing at all). The event designates a handful of locations along the course where spectators may park for the day. Each location has unique pros and cons: bathrooms, WiFi access, medical services and different views of the race. Glen Cove offers a good view of racers screaming out of a corner and standing hard on the gas. A checkpoint in the middle of the road forces drivers to remain dangerously close to the spectator fence on the outside along the race line. A corner of maybe 45 degrees to the right at the opposite end puts drivers on their brakes and demands they turn in before sliding into the dirt and the side of the mountain.
As this procession of spectators lumbers cautiously up the mountain road, viewing locations begin to fill. Cars and trucks pull off as we reach their destinations, but once one of these locations is passed, there’s no going back. A system of radio calls and estimates helps event staffers make sure no more cars than the remaining locations can accommodate continue up the mountain from certain points.
“Darn that stupid white Nissan. Get moving!” The WRX two cars up finally passes him. Following suit, we stick close to the Imprezza ahead of us as he eventually moves by the new-to-driving lugnut in the Altima. Without making more eye contact than necessary, I steer into Glen Cove’s apparently-full lot with authority, leaving little opportunity for anyone to tell me it’s full. After what must have been a grueling conversation with a lot attendant, the lugnut finally moves in behind us. We were the final two vehicles allowed in Glen Cove. “We barely made it. Might need to set the alarm for midnight next year.”
I rest the truck at the base of one hill and the crest of another that flanks us. Parking brake on. Rope holding down a corner of the tent sitting a few feet to the right of the truck, kicked. Stake replaced. Ashley and I load ourselves like mules and zigzag through the makeshift lot, packed tighter than 13-year-old girls at a Justin Bieber concert. We cross the street on which the competitors will eventually race. “There’s a great spot. It’s near the fence, but on the other side of a deep ditch with a reinforced rock face to hopefully slow down a wayward racer should he or she get loose under braking.”
Of course, this is a race so we are surrounded by an unending parade of cigarettes attached to well-meaning hillbillies who neither care about their own lungs, nor those struggling to survive in the ribcages of their kids and others inside the surprisingly-large range of the deadly smoke at the already-taxing 11,000-plus feet of elevation. We move down the fence about 15 feet. It does nothing about the smoke, but does create a hole for Wyatt, his three-year-old brother (still in diapers) and their parents, although I use that term loosely as it implies they parent. “There goes Wyatt again, up the mountain, screaming and throwing rocks down at us and our cooler. There goes Wyatt’s dad after Wyatt. There goes Wyatt’s mom after Wyatt’s dad and could it be, the hillbillies opened another pack of kill-me-slowlys.” People who have never attended a motorsport in person have no idea what they’re missing. Airports have nothing compared to the people-watching a motorsport is certain to provide.
The race officials begin to stop spectators heading up the mountain. A helicopter filming the event chases the course from bottom to top and over our heads. The pace bikes make their way up the course and find black ice from snow the night before near the top. The start will be delayed, but not for long. “Where is the sun? This is the very end of June in Colorado. It’s freezing cold. We should have dragged our blankets over here.” We sit with the sun to our backs behind the mountain holding us. Across from us, we watch the thin out, little by little, until we finally stand and let the sun light our faces, then shoulders and finally the entirety of those close enough to come warm themselves before the actions starts. Then, the action starts.
This race pits some of the finest competitors from across the globe, limited to 100, against the clock, one at a time. Because of time constraints, at any given time, there may be two or three racers on-track. Should one suffer a mechanical failure or crash, a red flag at one of the many checkpoints will stop upcoming competitors and send them back to the start line to begin again once the trouble is cleared.
This course runs from the nearly 9,400-foot-high start line to the 14,115-foot-high summit more than 12 miles away. The final spectator location, at 12,780 feet high, is still several miles from the end of the course. We are sitting at 11,440 feet of elevation and are third from the last designated location for viewing.
Racers traverse an average grade of seven percent for 156 turns and the best in the world cross the finish line in fewer than 9 minutes. This year, the King of the Mountain, a prestigious title bestowed upon the competitor boasting the fastest time up the mountain on the day, manages to put all 12.42 miles behind him in 8:51.445. Romain Dumas (Photograph 9 below), of France, in the unlimited class, gets the better of Rhys Millen’s 2016 eO PP100 electric car. Dumas’ victory at PPIHC is just the icing on the cake in his June after his team wins the famed 24 Hours of Le Mans. The PPIHC world record, set in 2013 by Sebastien Loeb in his unlimited class, Red Bull-sponsored 2013 Peugeot 208 T16, is a road-burning 8:13.878. He shatters the previous record and many expect Loeb’s historic run to sit atop of the record book for years to come.
As Ashley and I sit in our camp chairs, sipping the hot chocolates we bought from the souvenir and snack shop nearby, we hear the unmistakable sound of a supped-up race bike. The several classes of race bikes always open the show. After a pair of deaths in the previous two years, the PPIHC reverts to a 2011 rule that essentially eliminates the sportbike class. The remaining classes, however, are more than entertaining and pull everyone to their feet and the fence. “Wow! That guy was really moving. Did you see him throw his knee down in the corner?” Later, during an interview broadcast over the radio which a nearby cigarettemonger has tuned, we hear the initial competitor issue a detailed, turn-by-turn report to competitors who hadn’t yet left the line. He warns of ice in the shade at various points along the course and explains how at one point, he is traveling at 5 mph and still has his back wheel spinning. In the video below, of Dumas’ winning run, the danger is clear and the unprotected cliffs that taunt racers along the final half of the course demand respect.
The electric bikes are puzzling. As with the electric cars, many have sirens on them to announce their presence (audible beginning at the 5 second mark in the first video below). Without the sirens, their only tell is the sound of the rubber on the road. “Fascinating!” Three of the top five finishers are driving electric cars. They make some incredible speed. Equally intriguing are the three competitors with sidecars. The first two are so evolved, calling them sidecars in a stretch. More or less, they zoom by with their monkeys, the passenger with as much responsibility as the driver, flopping through all sorts of positions designed to improve aerodynamics and balance.
Quads follow the bikes and after them, the much-anticipated mix of car classes prepare to tear up the road. Though there are several classes, they run in a mixed order. We don’t bother to consult a race schedule and never know what’s going to fly around that corner next, though the roars of those insane, high-horsepower engines echo among the rocks and up to us, well in advance, offering a hint of identity.
Each car is different. Some have newer bodies. The Vipers, Porches, Mustangs and Camaros are easy to spot. Some have classic bodies. We both agree the black-with-white-numbers ’71 Cuda is the loudest. Ashley tells me she might actually feel OK flying off a cliff in that one. It’s hard to argue. “What a beast!” Another fun one is ’70 Camaro. A red flag forces him to make two runs – OK by me – and reminds me of the nights I spent at the State Line Speedway watching stock car races as a kid.
Some of the cars look like nothing we’ve ever seen before. The open wheeled class in particular spits out some rides that look more like small planes than cars, brandishing wild spoilers. “These cars have spoilers? Spoilers only become effective at relatively high speeds. I can’t believe these cars are reaching those speeds on this mountainside!” Unlimited class cars have bubble cockpits and sit right on the ground. The drivers are as diverse as the cars. One driver is 68 years old (Porsche at the 2:50 mark in the first video below and photograph 8). This is his final race, he declares in a broadcast interview later. Some drivers are women. For example, the driver of the Viper at the 3:08 mark and the rider at the 4:40 mark in the first video below are women.
I don’t often take my cameras out these days. Having photographed so many events for so long, I find I don’t have the freedom to enjoy photographing as often as I used to, but once in a while, I have a lot of fun. This is a fun event. Had I been contracted to shoot the hill climb, I might have aimed for a little more visual variety, but even as a casual spectator as interested in watching as documenting the race, I feel Glen Cove offers me enough freedom to roam and provides a decent amount of angles and opportunities. After one of my many trips to the restroom (at altitude, one is cautioned to drink water continually and it naturally takes its course), I step over to the fence right on the course. Drivers fly by, as a few of the photographs show, just feet from me.
One of the newer mustangs, driven by Point Richmond, Calif., resident Tony Brakohiapa (1:12 mark in the first video below and 4:45 mark of the second video), gets a little loose momentarily as he rounds the corner in our direction. He is seen from the in-car footage in the second video, unable to really get into the gas, wiggling back and forth. This appears far more pronounced from the outside. In itself, this loose condition isn’t the concern because anyone losing control that far away would give spectators plenty of time to retreat to safety and if allowed to continue in the slide, would likely go all the way around and end up facing down the mountain. The concern is overcorrecting and that’s what Brakohiap began to do. Recognizing this, many spectators on the fence stepped backward to safety with a collective exhale and gasp. A good action sports photographer knows to remain calm and in my case, keep the off-camera eye open. The back kicks out on him once, then a second time (the dangerous one as his momentum would now carrying in our direction), then, and this is key, he feathers the gas. I stay put. Had he stepped into it, I would have bailed. These drivers keep their cars on the edge, which keeps them close to out of control, but just as close to returning to control. Dumping the gas at that stage (not all the way gone) returns his high-powered Mustang to him almost instantly and now standing with a much smaller group along that fence, I capture an amazing shot as he rumbles by in the middle of the gear before dropping the gas altogether (Photograph 5 below).
We all watch as the lone semi lays down a barricade of smoke on his way up the course. He is red-flagged to a second run, but fails to reach us again. He blasts through a wall of hay bales at a lower point on the course, which we have no trouble identifying on our way back down the mountain after the race. A red flag and a second run means trouble for competitors because they build their cars to make one run, one really strong run. For a second run, the tires have wear, the engines are stressed and hot, the brakes are hot and all of this works to change the handling of the cars and in some cases, prevents them from behaving the same way around corners.
After a long, long day, Ashley and I pack up the truck then return to the course for the parade. This is one of the highlights of the day. Competitors form a line at the summit and head back down the course. As they reach each spectator location, they slow down and hang their hands out the window for high-five’s from spectators. Their cars are covered with hail from a storm that blasts the summit, but barely touches us several thousand feet, and about 5 to 6 minutes in race time, down the mountain. While we wait for the cars and bikes to reach us, a crowd of spectators and media forms around a feel-good story, the Arrow-sponsored 2016 Corvette Z06 SAM, driven by quadriplegic Sam Schmidt, a former IndyCar Driver. He runs the bottom part of the hill climb in a historic feat, driving with only his head.
To see these cars and bikes right here, next to us, and feel the grip on these gloves – to smell the heat from the engines and the race fuel and exhaust – to hear, and feel, the growls from these engines – to see the smiles on these competitors’ faces – it’s unbelievable. These are some of the best drivers and riders on the planet, right here, slapping hands with thousands of people who traveled a long way and got up early just to see them. These are masters of their craft who literally risk their lives attempting one of the most dangerous race events in history. It is one of the great traditions in all of sports and a thrill that makes the long, slow, descent down the mountain after them worth every minute.
This is the 100th anniversary of the PPIHC. We are a part of racing history. We recognize this as a worldwide racing event planted firmly in Colorado, our new home. We feel fortunate to live so close to the event and plan to return, hopefully many times.
Glen Cove is at the 4:45 mark
Glen Cove is at the 4:00 mark
Glen Cove is at the 3:50 mark