With 156 blind turns and dizzying drops, the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is one of racing's toughest challenges. Superstar driver Marcus Grönholm aims to set a new course record-on his very first try.
Author Kelly Bastone Photography Bryan Oller
MARCUS GRÖNHOLM doesn’t look nervous, but he probably should be. The gravel road beyond his steering wheel disappears into the clouds, so he can’t see the next hairpin turn or the sheer 2,000-foot drop just beyond. And though he’s a veteran racer, a two-time World Rally Champion and one of the best wheelmen in the world, he’s a rookie at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. Yesterday’s practice run up through 156 precarious corners was his first time on the course and nearly his last: As he was speeding into a turn, the hood of his turbocharged, 800-horsepower Ford Fiesta came unlatched and flipped up onto the windshield, obscuring everything except the milky Colorado fog in the side window.
So today, less than 24 hours before the race, Grönholm pilots a Ford Flex SUV slowly up Pikes Peak’s steep, snarled curves for a final “walk-through” of the course. He motors past wind-raked high-country grasses and boulder fields. Meanwhile, in the passenger seat, codriver Timo Alanne recites the features of each of the road’s twists, switchbacks and straightaways, like a tutor drilling a student for a physics final.
Any student would be anxious about this test, where the penalty for braking a split second too late is a long swan dive into a sea of rocks. Last year’s race was delayed by 14 serious accidents, and one participant was flown by helicopter to a nearby hospital. For his part, the lanky Finn is his usual stoic self today, if a bit cheerful in a somewhat macabre sort of way.
“Poof!” Grönholm exclaims as he removes one hand from the wheel to mimic a car launching off the road and into the abyss.
Reaching the 14,000-foot summit, which is thick with clouds and tourists, Grönholm unfolds himself from the Flex and smears the toe of his racing boot across the loose grit on the ground. He’d hoped for some rain to tamp down the dust and make the course tacky enough to yield a new speed record. The Japanese racer Nobuhiro Tajima clocked 10:01 in 2007, and since then everyone has been trying to break the 10-minute mark.
Now, though, Grönholm has another prize in mind: hot chocolate and donuts. He’d read in a guide book that the summit concession has top-notch pastries, so he and Alanne happily join the long line. After all, the driver officially retired from racing after the 2007 season, and competing on Pikes Peak is his version of a vacation—one he’s hoping will make him the fastest driver ever to reach this cloud-piercing summit.
PIKES PEAK IS A LEGENDARY RACE, the second-oldest in America after the Indianapolis 500 and a feather every off-road racer would like in his cap. Part of its mystique is the road’s breathtaking implausibility. Hacked into the rugged rocky mountainside in 1915, Pikes Peak Highway is the brainchild of Spencer Penrose, who owned the grand Broadmoor Hotel at the foot of the mountain. To celebrate the road’s completion, he hosted a race to the top the following summer.
Since then, the Hill Climb has drawn the world’s best drivers. At the mountain’s height, engines lose 30 percent of their power, drivers’ reflexes grow sluggish, and snow and hail are commonplace, even in July. All great races have their unique demands: Baja has sand, Rally Finland murderously high speeds. Here, the challenge is altitude. And those brutal turns.
Racing is in Grönholm’s blood: His father, Ulf, was one of Finland’s top drivers, and his Finnish countrymen have long dominated the sport of rally racing. One of the most famous carracing movies ever made, Climb Dance, captured Finnish driver Ari Vatanen as he drifted around Pikes Peak’s dusty corners in a Peugeot, his tires tracking mere feet from the road’s fearsome dropoff. (Remarkably, only three drivers have died in the race’s 92year history.)
When Grönholm’s friend, four-time Swedish Rally champion Andreas Eriksson, asked him to come out of retirement and join a Pikes Peak assault, the feisty Finn couldn’t say no. It’s a risky move. He’s a little rusty and, at 41, a tad old for such a tough race. “If the driver makes a mistake here, Oy! Oy! Oy!” says Grönholm, shaking his head at the consequences. He’s fond of making comic-book sound effects, though he’d rather avoid a slapstick ending.
AT 7 A.M. ON RACE DAY, Grönholm stands in the pit sipping a bottle of water. He’s got a cowboy’s build, tall and lanky, with a hard-edged jaw and long legs that propel him quickly along without ever seeming hurried.
Next door, Tajima sits in his car, waiting. Grönholm’s Fiesta is splayed open beside Eriksson’s, like a patient on an operating table, as the white-shirted engineers bustle about. They’ve worked through the night, tweaking both vehicles, and now they look haggard.
The Fiestas are specially tailored for Pikes Peak. Despite their extra-large race wings (to compensate for the mountain’s thinner air), they look a lot like the showroom Fiestas Ford will roll out in summer 2010—except, of course, they have bigger brakes, a roll cage, a high-test turbo charger and a stampede of additional horses under the hood.
Eriksson’s car also boasts a rebuilt shell, since he wrecked it in practice three days before the race. So it’s really up to Grönholm to challenge the 10-minute mark. “Today I’ll prioritize safety,” Eriksson says from the doorway of the team truck. “Marcus, he does everything right, all the little stuff. When he makes a mistake, it’s huge, a real screwup.” But such snafus are rare, which is why rally fans revere Grönholm and expect a dazzling performance from him on a course that’s famous for intimidating lesser drivers. Adds Eriksson, “Marcus is not afraid of anything.”
Grönholm slides into his racing seat, buckles his harness and straps on his helmet. He revs his engine to the redline, then slams it into gear. All four tires spin and the Fiesta rockets forward. He has no clue how fast he’s going—there’s no speedometer—but as he whips around the first corner, the raw acceleration sends a shiver through the crowd. A helicopter shadows him from above, filming Peak Performance an homage to 1989’s Climb Dance.
He hits all his turns perfectly, Alanne calling commands into his microphone from the passenger seat. But just three miles from the top, where the course steepens and drivers prepare for a final punch to the summit, the Fiesta’s turbo quits, cutting the power in half. Grönholm plows ahead, mulishly urging the failing Ford up the last switchbacks. A fire breaks out. Just a quartermile to go. He persists, trailing flames in the final turns. When he crosses the finish line, a rear tire is engulfed.
“I wanted to get to the top,” Grönholm says later, with a grin. Amazingly, he finished with the day’s fifth-fastest time. But he takes comfort in knowing that Tajima didn’t break 10 minutes either, despite finishing intact. There’s always next year. “I know what I need to do now to come back and be fastest,” he says. Besides not catching on fire, he plans to skip the donuts.
Boulder, Colorado–based writer KELLY BASTONE races a 1964 Volkswagen Beetle convertible, which rarely crosses any finish line first.