Sturbin: Danger, History Collide In ‘Race To The Clouds’

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, July 19 2009
Marcus Gronholm in the Boulder Park section of the Pikes Peak International Hillclimb during practice. (Photo by Paul Webb/Ford Racing)

Marcus Gronholm in the Boulder Park section of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb during practice. (Photo by Paul Webb/Ford Racing)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

In the spirit of Parnelli Jones, world-class rally aces Marcus Grönholm and Andreas Eriksson will scale Pikes Peak Sunday determined to crack the elusive 10-minute barrier.

Jones, one of America’s most versatile drivers, won the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb in 1963 and 1964 in a Mercury Marauder set up as a U.S. Auto Club stock car. Grönholm, a two-time World Rally Car champion, and Eriksson, a four-time Swedish Rally champion, will tackle the 87th edition of “The Race to the Clouds” in a pair of supercharged Ford Fiestas.

Despite their impressive rally credentials, Grönholm and Eriksson have spent this week in and around Colorado Springs, Colo., adjusting to the serpentine 12.42-mile course and thin air as bonafide rookies. Jones, the 1963 Indianapolis 500 champion, suggested that was a wise approach.

“Those rally guys are pretty brave guys anyway, running on the circuits they run,” Jones said in a recent interview. “But as far as I’m concerned, it was probably the most dangerous race course I ever drove. I’ll tell you one thing: You have to have a lot of respect for the hill. And it’s even getting tougher, in my opinion, because they’ve oiled (the surface) to the point where it’s like asphalt, and that makes it much faster. And because it’s much faster, there are more chances, I think, of getting off-course – especially up where there’s no tree line.”

The course, which features 156 turns, begins at 9,390 feet and finishes at the 14,110-foot summit of Pikes Peak. As drivers climb toward the summit on paved and gravel roads, the thinning air slows reflexes and saps muscle strength. The 4,721-foot climb also robs engines of their ability to produce horsepower, to the tune of 30 percent at the summit.

The entry list of 163 drivers in 17 classes includes 12 reigning champions, and is highlighted by Unlimited class star Nobuhiro “Monster” Tajima. A three-time event champion, Tajima set the race record of 10 minutes, 01.408 seconds in 2007.

“I don’t care who you are,” Jones said, “if you go up there and look off the side of them mountains up there, where there’s no trees…and I want to tell you, there’s a couple of places if you go off, they don’t even need to go after you. And that says to me the respect you have to have for that hill, at any costs, even loose gravel like we ran it versus what they run today.”

The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is the nation’s second-oldest race, trailing only the Indy 500, which staged its 93rd edition on May 24. The inaugural climb entry list in 1916 saw Barney Oldfield and Eddie Rickenbacker compete after logging respective finishes of fifth and 20th on the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The complete list of classes: Unlimited, Open Wheel, Super Stock Car, Pro Trucks, Pikes Peak Open, Time Attack 2-Wheel Drive, Exhibition Car/Truck, Vintage, Motorcycle 1200cc, Motorcycle 750cc, Motorcycle Supermoto 450, Motorcycle Quad 500, Motorcycle 450cc, Motorcycle 250cc, Motorcycle Quad 450, Motorcycle Vintage and Motorcycle Sidecar.

Among the returning champions are Rhys Millen (Time Attack 2-Wheel Drive), Clint Vasholtz (Super Stock Car) and Paul Dallenbach (Open Wheel). Millen logged a class record of 12:31.06 last year. Vasholtz, winner of 15 of 17 climbs, will continue pursuit of the 18 career victories set by his father, the legendary Leonard Vasholtz. Dallenbach, younger brother of former open-wheel and NASCAR driver Wally Dallenbach, is a three-time overall event winner. Paul Dallenbach has topped the Open Wheel division at Pikes Peak five times.

The Olsbergs Motor Sport Evolution team from Sweden has brought two new 800-horsepower Ford Rallycross Fiestas to the event…and plenty of spare parts.

Eriksson called the mountain “a very strange place” following an adventuresome partial practice run on Wednesday. “It is a really beautiful view up there, but in the race car you only see the corners,” Eriksson said. “I guess the tourist session is over.”

Eriksson, co-owner/driver of Olsbergs MSE, forced the team to dip into that parts bin after he ran off-course and struck a rock, damaging his Ford’s left rear section.

“I ran off of the right side, not the outside of the mountain, so that was quite good,” Eriksson said. “In the middle of moving around on the corners there was a little (engine) misfire and no power at all and the speed wouldn’t get up quite as high. So I slid out on the corners, and I got out and it was quite bad on the wheel in the rear. Then I flipped over onto its side. I put it on its side, mostly on the roof.”

Except for a headache, Eriksson was uninjured. “Yeah, it’s a good thing it happened on the inside of the mountain and not the outside,” Eriksson joked.

“We had a few problems, but the car is really nice to drive,” Grönholm said. “The handling is perfect, but because of the altitude we were struggling through the hairpins and there wasn’t so much power, but when it [power] was coming it was OK.  We need to work with our engineer on mapping and things like that. We need a little bit of experience for this race to be competitive and we know that it will be difficult on Sunday.”

One of Ford Europe’s top-selling models, the Fiesta won’t be available in American showrooms until next year. Competing at Pikes Peak this summer is one of several non-traditional methods being used to introduce the car to the U.S. market.

“This is really something Andreas approached us with,” said Jamie Allison, manager, Ford Performance Group. “It’s something he and Marcus wanted to do, so it was really a delight for us to field the call, field the interest from Andreas and Marcus, and obviously appreciate the role of Olsbergs in all of this. Our role at Ford Racing is to support the team, facilitate what they needed when they came to the U.S., basically offer any support whether it’s technical, logistics or in any other fashion. Our role was to support and make sure they went up the mountain and showcase the great product we have with the Fiesta.”

Jones, whose resume includes USAC championships, off-road desert and NASCAR competition, said Pikes Peak shares similarities with dirt racing.

“The way it used to be, all loose gravel, you had to set the cars up so that they had a lot of roll in them and not so firm because they would skate off the course,” Jones said. “I’ll tell you how critical it was when we ran there: You could take a passenger car suspension and it would work better than what you would consider a stock car racing suspension, because you had to let that car roll. You had to let it roll to keep it from sliding.

“In other words, you had loose gravel; just imagine trying to hang on running through gravel, versus running on asphalt. It was just something you had to do. And, not only that, the tires we’d run were real spongy, soft. Firestone made them and they had walnut shells in them, so that the walnut shells, as they wore down, they kept some kind of a tread.”

Jones recalled winning the races in 1963-64 with laps in the 13-minute range.

“The course has gotten progressively faster,” Jones said. “I’m telling you, now it’s more like pavement. I was just there a while back and went up the hill, and I was totally shocked to see how much of it they’ve oiled. And I think they’re making it more dangerous. Pretty soon they’re going to have to put guard rails on it.

“It’s a challenging deal, for what it’s worth, I guess. It’s one of the oldest races in the United States, and it has a lot of importance that way, as far as recognition.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, July 19 2009
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