Photo: Rich Chenet, Porsche Cars North America. Click image to enlarge
By Laurance Yap
Colorado Springs, Colorado – Pikes Peak gets into your blood – literally. Fourteen thousand feet up from ground level, after having driven through 12 miles and over 100 turns, you’re panting from a combination of adrenalin rush and altitude sickness, the thinner air up here not only having an effect on the power your vehicle’s engine is producing but also on your own breathing apparatus. Take a look around you and you’re presented with some of the most spectacular scenery you’ll see in your lifetime. If your breath wasn’t already gone from the exertion of driving quickly up to the peak, it would definitely be knocked out of you then.
Photo: Laurance Yap. Click image to enlarge
Bobby Unser knows how Pikes Peak gets in your blood. The 73-year-old first watched a hillclimb here at age eight, and started contesting it in his teens, finally winning it in his early twenties. Throughout his life, the 13-time winner has been drawn back to this Colorado mountain, enchanted by its spectacular scenery and the unique challenge of the undulating course itself, a combination of pavement, gravel, and pulverized granite that has presented him with varying conditions repeatable nowhere else in the world. “It’s the most beautiful sight you can see,” he says from the passenger seat as we carve (more slowly, now, because I’m driving) up the side of the mountain in our Porsche Cayenne Turbo. “And who knows how much longer it’s going to be this way.”
Unser, who between his wins here has also managed to win many other races and championships, including three Indy 500s, probably knows the Peak better than anyone, and he’s more sensitive than most to how it changes over time, how it always seems like a living entity. “One morning,” he says, “you’ll go for a run up, you’ll come back the next day and the turns aren’t the same, a rock may have worked its way to the surface overnight. It’s a living, breathing thing, this road.” One that, shamefully, may be paved over completely, thanks to a court case brought by the Sierra Club against the city of Colorado Springs in the late nineties. Now, instead of a grippy, crushed-granite surface, half of it has a pitted, rotting asphalt surface, due to be extended right to the top. Unser thinks it’s a right shame.
Photos: Laurance Yap. Click images to enlarge
Paved or not, there’s no question that Pikes Peak is very much one of those drive-of-your-life sort of roads. The landscapes are spectacular, and the kinks and hairpins and curves of the road are as challenging for an enthusiast driver as any racetrack, with the extra excitement of no guardrails and a minimum 5000-foot drop to the closest bit of civilization. During the annual hillclimb, held every year over the fourth of July weekend, helicopters stand on duty to lift drivers and their cars out of accident sites; the event’s safety team, here for our drive, are simply the best in the world, with the most up-to-date training and the latest equipment. They need it, because when things go wrong here, they go really wrong.
Behind the wheel of the Cayenne, I am, all things considered, pretty calm. With the tires deflated to 25 psi, and the automatic air suspension at its softest setting, the big truck simply floats over most of the bumps and ruts, and thanks to its turbos, the 4.5-litre, 450 horsepower V-8 doesn’t struggle with the elevation. For our run up the mountain, Unser has turned the stability control off, making it easier to punch back into the power earlier to counteract what little lag there is, and making it more fun to slide the tail out when you can actually see where the road goes next. This, it turns out, doesn’t happen very much: for most of the climb, the hairpins and sweepers are obscured enough by the scenery that you have to tread very lightly indeed, Unser’s exhortations to go faster notwithstanding.
The higher you go up the Peak, the more starkly beautiful the view gets. At the very top, the landscape’s an almost uniform colour, the drop-offs grow to a thousand feet, and all you can see below you are sky and clouds. Unser still gets a rush at the top, and as I pass the finish line and pull to a stop, he gets out, breathes in a deep breath of (thinner) air, and proclaims himself on top of the world. “This,” he says, “is heaven.”
On the way down, we switch places and Unser shows me what he – and the Cayenne – are really capable of. He bodily tosses the big Porsche into corners, balancing it beautifully on the throttle, his fingers making minor, calm corrections at the wheel as we hurtle across ruts I’d thought I should avoid, and over bumps that would toss a lesser vehicle clear off the mountain. Unser normally drives a pickup truck back home in Albuquerque – “I’m just a working man,” he says – but by the end of our run, as we sit smelling rubber and smoking brake pads, he’s halfway sold. “The ABS wouldn’t be good for the race, but otherwise this thing ain’t bad.”