Pikes Peak 2017: A Rookie's Tale by James Clay

Pikes Peak 2017: A Rookie's Tale

As featured in the January 2018 edition of Roundel Magazine

Roundel Article - Pikes Peak BMW 2017

In January 2018, the BMW Car Club of America's monthly magazine "Roundel" published this story, written by BimmerWorld President and driver James Clay. We highly encourage you to pick up a copy of Roundel to read their 8 page version with amazing photography by Kevin Adolf. Getting monthly copies of The Roundel is just one more perk to joining the BMW Car Club of America.

Here is the full story by James Clay:

The Plan

I didn't know much about Pikes Peak, either the mountain or the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb event, back in November of last year.  Sure, I knew it is a tall mountain from the little I retained in geography class.  And I knew racecars climbed the mountain once a year from the old Wide World of Sports weekends (I was a Steve Millen fan as a kid), and more recently from my friend Bill Caswell who took his E30 rally creation up a few years ago - well, part of the way up.

Last year, my good friend and fellow BMW racer Jesse Clark spent some time driving Pikes Peak for a commercial shoot, and put it in the "come back with friends, better equipment, and repeat" file.  That November, fresh off the mountain with all the enthusiasm and remnant adrenalin from his trip, Jesse stopped by my house for the weekend to lasso his most likely friend to make rash decisions and commit to cool car stuff.  And as expected, I didn't need a lot of convincing (or detail – more on that later) to add it to my growing list of 2017 ideas of things to do, and the planning started – spreadsheets and all.

The first question, and the most fun one to think about, was of course "what will we drive?"  Obviously it will be a BMW, and as it turns out, I already had a BimmerWorld E92 M3 project in the planning stages (as if Jesse didn't know that when he came to visit).  

I vividly remember the days and weeks spent flipping through JC Whitney catalogs as a kid, planning my next creation for when I finally reached driving age.  And as it turns out, even after "growing up" and planning (and executing!) hundreds of car builds for the last 20 years at BimmerWorld, that 13 year old kid is still giddy to start making a list to build an awesome car.

Our BimmerWorld E92 M3 was dubbed the "Street/Track Project" with the stated goal of being street driveable (not that you'd want to every day), very track capable, and really resonate with our growing group of customers that dig in and modify this platform to a higher level for more serious track use.  Our initial budget was $25,000 for go-fast parts – not small, but not a $100,000 racecar build either.  Enter Pikes Peak and a giddy pair of kids with a spreadsheet, and Jesse and I successfully hijacked the build into a hill climb car.  I feel confident that a large group of friends, customers, and track enthusiasts just smirked a little in response to my self-induced cost/scope/project creep.  Of course Pikes Peak and this now-expanded build is only a plan still, albeit a grand one, and with a growing list of similar plans Pikes Peak was tabled while I worked on more likely projects. 

Suddenly in January while I was at Daytona for the ROAR Before the 24, things got real.  I had a missed call from OPTIMA Batteries, the primary sponsor for my IMSA car.  I returned the call and remember pacing and watching prototypes enter the International Horseshoe through the chain link fence as my excitement grew.  "We are looking for iconic automotive events to participate in for a new project", "no think bigger", "you're a racer – what have you always wanted to do" – these are pretty compelling questions!  We ended the brainstorming session with me needing to research one event, and shelving any research or insight into this one once again – "Pikes Peak is easy.  I already have a car and a plan!"  And like that, we had a sponsor involved that likes doing cool car stuff maybe even more than I do, and we were off.

The Car

The start of the race season is always busy, and I was also committed to running the Nürburgring 24H with OPTIMA which took three week-long trips to Germany, so I was too buried to do anything past minimal research on the car, which was the primary focus (or longer-term component) of Pikes Peak.  We knew the E92 M3 we were building was a great track platform, and now that Pikes is fully paved, that makes it a solid mountain platform as well.  Its future destination is track use, so we didn't want to stray too far toward unique hill climber, and I still wanted it to be relevant for our customers.

The basic components of a fast track car are easy - make it handle, make it stop, and more power and less weight are always better.  On the handling side, Motion Control Suspension 3 Way dampers similar to our IMSA MCS parts were paired with Eibach springs, full solid mounts, bearings, and race arms on all 4 corners.  Carbon replaced heavier stock doors, trunk, and dash as we dropped the car weight (after installing a 200 pound cage) over 600 pounds from stock.

The thin air at the 9,390' starting line elevation gets noticeably thinner after 12.42 miles at the 14,115' finish line, and presents challenges I hadn't previously considered in car builds.  Obviously power is a struggle without forced induction on our car.  We made the best of what we had by increasing airflow with a new Magnaflow track exhaust spawned by this project, a Macht Schnell intake, and Rogue Engineering pulleys – a healthy 400+ wheel Hp on our BimmerWorld dyno.  But at the summit, that number is more like 250-275, or approximately the output of a current model 328i 4-cylinder.  

Not only does the engine not make power at altitude, but it also gets hot because the thin air doesn't have the thermal mass to remove heat from the coolers.  We maximized efficiency with a full compliment of CSF coolers – engine coolant, oil, power steering, and transmission, and used Red Line Oil in all to stand up to the heat and abuse. Epic Motorsports both helped us maximize power as well as reduced temperature with a custom ECU calibration for 110 octane fuel.

The engine wasn't the only hot spot.  Our brakes would also gasp for air to cool them between braking zones, so a Performance Friction brake package, again originating from our IMSA E92 M3 program, was installed.  I didn't want to take any chances on a stock or lesser system holding up. 

Aero always makes a car faster, and with the typically lower speeds of Pikes Peak a more aggressive setup is appropriate.  And of course the thin air plays a part here too – thin air over a wing produces much less downforce than sea level air.  Our BimmerWorld Carbon GT wing is both light and very adjustable up to a significant amount of rear downforce, and we paired it with new more aggressive front dive planes and our larger version of a GT4 undertray/splitter.

Safety for any racecar is important, but this event is unique and more dangerous, so we put a lot of thought here.  Our BimmerWorld Forged TE:AL wheels are much less likely to crack, break, and lose air than cast options, and I didn't want a surprise on the mountain.  A Racetech head restraint seat was paired with Schroth 7-point harness (yes seven – an additional one for a straight negative G-load on rollover), left and right side nets to keep the driver in place, and window nets to keep arms in and debris out.  Lifeline provided a Novec-based fire system which is more likely to extinguish a fire if the car lands somewhere unreachable in an accident.  At this point of research, I clearly had an idea of safety concerns, but only at a theoretical level.

The Initiation

After a quick and successful shakedown at a BimmerWorld BMW CCA Race School at Summit Point with NCC, our car was tested and ready to hit the mountain.  The car was fast and flawless – both of which are critical for a successful event, especially since I hadn't had the time to do pre-race test days and needed every minute to learn the track and set the car up.  So on Thursday June 15, we loaded the trailer and Kevin Adolf, photog, pro wrench, and transport machine, took the wheel of our dually and headed to Colorado Springs to Pikes Peak!

Now.  A moment about Pikes Peak, the mountain.  I'll start by saying that the same 13 year old kid that loved flipping through car magazines and catalogs also hated heights.  As a kid, anything over about 10-15' was absolutely off limits.  And as it turns out, Pikes Peak is as expected a tall mountain, but it's not tall like a ski mountain or the fun country road mountains I drive.  It's tall and plunging like the rock face that someone with a death wish would climb.  

"This is a surprise" you ask?  Well it turns out that for me, part of plunging headlong into something is skipping the potentially unpleasant details that might hold me back.  I didn't have time to watch video with all the other racing and work I had on my plate, but quite honestly I didn't want to because half of Pikes Peak videos are wrecks that I don't need to see.  One of the first videos to pop up – Jeremy Foley and codriver running wide and tumbling down hundreds of feet (miraculously they lived).  I suddenly understand why we bumped into the new no co-driver rule a couple of months ago that cost Jesse his seat – turns out they only want to risk one person in a wreck.
Sunday I land with two of our race mechanics, drive to Colorado Springs, grab Kevin and a quick lunch, and head to the mountain in our rental car.  This is a public road 364 days of the year, so we can drive "on course" and learn the track, but we are required to follow the lines on the road (no crossing the double-yellow), and obeying the posted speed, which is 25-35.  "Lame."  Is what I would say if I hadn't already started peeking skeptically over the edge of the entrance road.  The start of the climb up the mountain.  The one that starts with what must be a 1,000' drop no more than five turns past the entry gate.  

As we continue to climb Pikes Peak in our initial scouting trip, we wind through the mountain and I become more skeptical of my ability to make good decisions.  Seven miles up we pass a beautiful and massive reservoir of blue melt water and then pass the race pit area where we will start the race – we've climbed a few thousand feet and my pulse is climbing in match step.

The track is divided into three sections, and we wind our way through the first section, defined by fast flowing sections, a few tight switchbacks, lots of trees, and then near the top a turn called Blue Sky – because from the driver's seat in my struggling rental car, all you can see on the horizon of the road is blue sky.  Not even a tree to catch you.  I am crowding the double-yellow, not to maximize my corner radius, but to increase my ability to not plunge to what I image would be a quite unpleasant landing.  

The next section of the mountain breaks out above the tree line, so now almost every turn is another terrifying blue sky horizon.  This section is defined by "The Ws", a section of climbing road with extremely tight switchbacks which climb several hundred feet back and forth, so if you fall off the top one, you hope the next one down catches you (which seems unlikely) or else your dropping a few hundred feet.  Luckily that very rarely happens – the last time was at least a few years prior…  I am now white knuckling the steering wheel, over the double-yellow, traveling 19mph.  19.  And not a single click faster.  In what my three faithful passengers would later lovingly call "the death ride" due to my additional constant and small corrections on the steering wheel, I was now less focused on learning the track and more so on how I could weasel out of this predicament that my "friend" Jesse put me in.

The third section of Pikes Peak opens up a bit with faster sweeping turns (again with nothing but blue sky on the horizon, but this time you're supposed to be flat in 5th gear), and the small relief is the slope if you slip off is not quite straight down now – except the one drop of almost 1,000 feet toward town called Bottomless.  Indeed.  The reference point for one 100mph turn is actually described as "when you suddenly see the next mountain peak appear out of the blue over the horizon of the road, do something."  To fast guys that means turn the steering wheel, but I'll go ahead and make that action a solid application of brake.  Oh – and that reservoir we passed at the entry?  Now looks like a kiddie pool at the bottom of a circus diver's platform.  We make it to the top, and the string of cars behind me rejoices.  And somehow I'm stuck strapping into a racecar to do this in about a fifth of the time it just took us.  Joy abounds with this realization, but the ride down is actually mildly better.

The Testing

Monday starts with a very mild 6:30AM wakeup.  My friend Rick Snyder who I raced World Challenge with years ago has joined us for the week and we all arrive among the first cars in tech at 8AM.  I get to check out some of the competition, which I suspect are all capable of over 19mph – including the 1918 Pierce-Arrow on display with wooden wheels.  This is where we also learn about oxygen for drivers.  It turns out, since the FAA has a law that pilots operating over 10,000' must have an oxygen supply to breathe, many drivers think its probably a good idea to have a similar setup in a racecar where decisions are critical and mistakes are disastrous.  Yeah, seems pretty smart to me – so while I go to rookie orientation the guys go about final car prep and locating an oxygen rig for the car.

I drive to the mountain and we meet at the starting line for orientation with our rookie class, which includes my friend and ex-BMW PTG driver Peter Cunningham, and its good to see a familiar face.  After some general procedure and logistics discussions, I get in a car to ride shotgun with an experienced Pikes Peak racer – a car driver who also was insane enough to race six years on a motorcycle before switching.  As it turns out, the view from the passenger seat is much more encouraging, and my imagination is much worse in many cases than reality on the drops.  Or my perception is also now affected by the thin air, as I think absolutely idiotic thoughts like "that turn is actually pretty safe because the trees will catch you", or "I'll only roll once or twice before I hit that bolder field – not bad."  A couple of round trips up and down the mountain and I know the track a bit, know some turn names, and I'm ready to get in the racecar tomorrow.

Orientation is officially over, but I take my rental up and down one final time – and totally crush that 19mph record of the prior day.  Feeling good and accomplished, I return to base camp where the guys are done with the car, we go snag dinner (Mexican followed by ice cream – the Champion's meal), hit the store for supplies, then back to the hotel to try to fall asleep at 7PM.

So what's on the docket for the week, and why the 7PM bedtime?  Well, every day for the next four we will be practicing on a designated section of the mountain, and since there is one way up and down, we all report to the base 45 minutes away at 3:30AM to 4AM, make our way to the corresponding pit space, unload, 4:45AM drivers' meeting, and 5:10AM (or beginning of nautical daylight) green flag.  And since this is a public road, again open 364 days a year weather-permitting to the public, when the tourists arrive at 8:30AM, race practice is over and we are back to rental car learning of the next day's section and car prep.  Logistically, this is a nightmare event that the organizers seem to pull off almost with ease.

I am relieved as we start Tuesday at the "easy" bottom section where imminent death isn't quite as obvious.  This is our "free test day", and the following three will be actual qualifying where we both set our starting position (bottom section on Thursday), and complete a minimum of one timed run per section.  At 9,000' our car is pretty saucy, sounds amazing (thanks Magnaflow), handles well, and I begin to settle in a little.  Remember, this is the section with all the soft trees waiting to catch an errant car like big green pillows.  There are only a few turns that bother me (Blue Sky tops the charts), but I am starting to focus on the road, not the scenery, and using all the road buys margins previously unusable.  This section feels familiar to me like a road course and I gain almost a minute over four runs, with a final around 4:40.  I am more confident, and somewhat less terrified.

After we load up, I head off in the rental car or the rest of the morning to pre-run the top section with Kevin, who has over come a fear of his own – riding with the "race driver" having a panic attack.  We swap seats so I can sightsee (peer over the edge and convince myself rocks will catch me if I fly off), and after maybe 5 laps, I'm feeling good.  We head back to the hotel to check on car prep and Kevin finds the excitement of the day – a video on Instagram of a prototype losing it at the second to last turn (in the section we will run tomorrow) and spinning uncontrollably, luckily stopping on track.  It turns out pavement on top of permafrost moves as much as 4-6" per day with the temperature changes and the frost heaves are right in a massive high-speed entry braking zone.  Mexican, ice cream, bed, sweet dreams of spinning cars.

On Wednesday I learned that the comfort and bravado of the day before disappears overnight.  Maybe it was the 3:30AM arrival that put me off.  Or maybe after unloading the car at the bottom and driving up the first two sections (including the super sketchy cutback section) in the dark bothered me.  Or maybe it was the ice that formed on the painted lines of the road overnight that eliminated the last shred of confidence (keep in mind, while this section truly is wild even to a normal person, some of my competitors were towing their 24' enclosed trailers up it with a dually – our guys agreed with me that we would not entertain that option).  But we started out 5:10 green flag with me wound as tight as I could be.  

I poked up slowly my first run – the ice especially at the top was no joke, but with the sun, it did begin to go away quickly.  I again build confidence and lower my time – right up until the car goes into limp mode with a dead throttle pedal, right at that braking zone where the car went spinning the day before, leaving me to try to brake, cycle the car, and not roll backwards – and yes, I am still [more] terrified.  After some evaluation, I am more comfortable with the issue (which always occurs right at the top, and more often when I push the car harder) and can quickly resolve it, and do so in future runs.  The ice is gone, and between runs while waiting to go back down (all the cars have to come up first), I am able to relax and really enjoy hanging out with my fellow drivers.  In this highest of the sections, I start to recognize why there are so many turbo cars here – my V8 is gasping for air and on the final few pulls near the top, we are really clearly down on power.

Today we head back for a BBQ breakfast, then I hit the mountain in the rental again while the guys prep.  We are re-running Section 1 for qualifying, and I already know the track but spend time really drilling in to perfect it in a short day.  I am pretty sure I woke Randy from Epic Motorsports up in the morning when I called to discuss the limp issue, so I check back in on that at a decent hour.  He has ideas in the afternoon, but no known solution yet (and really, we won't know until race day because it only happens at the very top, which we are convinced is an altitude function) but by 2AM when we leave again we will have a new software file.  The routine continues with a slight modification – check on car prep, fall on my butt on a cactus, pick about 300 of an estimated 1,000 needles out, non-Mexican, no ice cream, sleep.  Clearly this was an off day.

Thursday was quick and easy.  Three runs on the bottom section, and we qualified 7th of 21 in class.  Repeating the known section is a massive confidence builder before I attack the worst section the following day.  This is a very important performance because the earlier you start in the run order, the more likely you are to avoid fog and rain or worse, which is an almost certainty in the afternoon.  The car is back to performing perfectly, so we predict an easy day of prep, load up and grab breakfast, then come back for more rental car runs.  I am really starting to settle in to the routine, but we are all wildly tired because it is a constant push.  Pre-run, check car prep, avoid cactus, Mexican dinner, sleep – and everything is right with the world again.

All is well on our 3:45 parade up the mountain on Friday to run the final section –  the middle with the big drops.  I have learned and I sit out the first run; no need to shake my confidence with low light and icy roads.  We are ready and waiting for run two when we notice a wall of fog rolling in – fast!  I jump in, line up, and head up through the fog for the first few turns before I break out around the tree line and have a clear run the rest of the way.  It is beautifully sunny at the parking area and the fog/clouds are below us, slowly rising – it is magical.  
After the last car comes up, we slowly make our way down and after two turns  (in the super sketchy W section), I can now see about five feet in front of me.  Rhys Millen, who could drive the mountain with his eyes closed, is on my bumper and takes notes on my speed for some good-spirited ribbing afterwards.  Again, I realize I hate heights.  We sit around in the cold and fog and I have lost my chance to practice the section I most need to acclimate to.  The mountain is shut down around 8AM, and we slowly pick our way through the fog down to load up.  

Prep work is light for the race – smooth is good!  We put on new sticker Hoosier tires and a heavy inspection to make me feel warm and fuzzy.  Friday night is Fan Fest – over 30,000 people come downtown to check out all the racecars parked on the streets in the barricaded center of Colorado Springs.  We meet a lot of people and talk a lot of cars in the six hours we are there.  We are up late, but tomorrow we sleep in – its pit prep day and no 2AM wake-up!

After 12 hours of sleep and a leisurely Saturday breakfast, I suddenly feel different.  It is amazing what your brain can process given the right ingredients, and sleep that we sadly lacked through the week is one of those.  Jesse flew in to begrudgingly watch me run solo, and we spend the day on the mountain and I am wildly comfortable showing the place off to my friends from the rental car.  All the turns make sense and I'm ready to race.  The switch is flipped.  We set up the pits, which is really just a place to store our snacks and tire options (slicks, rains, and the snows we wish we had) because the car prep is done, and all we need to do on Sunday is start the car.  Its up to driver and machine from that point on.

The Race

Race day is the culmination of months of planning and building, a week of on-site testing and preparation, and a super exciting day with racers and fans alike hitting the mountain at 3AM to get in position, whether that is to your pits or favorite viewing area.  A quick morning chapel is held in the woods and multiple people have encouraged the time to make sure you are ready for whatever happens – I attend.  The bikes and quads run first, slowest to fastest at about 1 minute intervals, and yes, they are expected to pass each other as the go…  They start at 9AM and conclude around 10:30, the workers take down the air fences, and its time for cars.

After some minor wrecks and mechanicals that send cars back to re-run, some multiple times, our 22nd spot draws near and we line up to go.  The cars in front of me roll off in about three minute intervals, the track stays green, and it's my turn.  The OPTIMA film crew turns on about 12 GoPro cameras on the car to document the event, I line up to stage, red lights on, lights out, GO!

My Sunday race up Pikes Peak was one of the most enjoyable drives I have ever had in my career.  The bottom section went by like clockwork and the pace was solid – no surprises and I felt great.  This was my first time to link the sections together at speed and as I transitioned from the first to second section, I shot through the guard house gap at well over 100 and entered the first bumpy braking zone into Section 2 with mild caution, but the car slowed, grabbed, turned and rocketed off.  My oxygen bottle was flowing which kept my brain sharp, and adrenaline was pumping at record levels as I entered the W switchbacks, the infamous Foley corner (where Jeremy flipped down the mountain), and continued to work my way out of the toughest and most foreign section.  

At the top of the Ws, I entered the final section at speed and the tough stuff is done; just the fast wide open flowing part ahead.  I remember all the turns, which means I can sail into a blind apex with a hundred foot drop on the outside full speed without thinking of anything but the track ahead.  As I climb the last few straights the car sings along – the Epic Motorsport calibration solution has solved our altitude limp!  A second-gear right-handed hairpin called Olympic is the last turn and Peter's solid guidance from earlier in the week rings in my head – "it's the last turn; you'd really feel like a mook if you screwed up here."  But I don't, and the last pull to the summit is perfect all the way to the double checker that marks the end of an amazing adventure.

I park my car in line behind all the other competitors that made it up before me, get out and do a few quick interviews, then head to the summit timing station to check my time – a tick over 11 minutes, and about 30 seconds faster than my loose goal!  I celebrate with Rick's homemade bacon that I toted up beside the transmission tunnel in the car, and walk around to share the feast with my fellow drivers – all of who seemed to enjoy bacon as well.  The mountain begins to fog up as expected, the runs start to become sporadic, and eventually the snow and hail comes at the summit and we get word that the top of the mountain is closed and all future runs will stop at the halfway point, solidifying my 6th place position in class, only a few seconds out of 4th, and in the top third of the field.

The Setdown

As special as the run up the mountain was, the parade down after the last car ran was possibly better, or at least gave more time to appreciate it.  Sure, for the first mile or so we were navigating the wet and hail-covered road on race slicks, which would have been enough to freeze me in place a week prior.  But then we got to the first large fan area, where the spectators lined the track, waiting for the drivers to slow down and give a fist bump or high five.  Over the duration of the 12 mile descent, I must have slapped several thousand hands of people who arrived at 3AM to watch 29 bikes and 51 cars race the clock to the summit of one of America's tallest mountains.

The feeling of finishing this event, which is a challenge on its own, is euphoric.  The challenge of digging in to overcome a personal obstacle to perform at this level made the result even more special.  And somehow I've come from not being quite so sure I wanted to get in any car on this mountain a week prior to pondering what type of turbo motor would have enough power to launch me up the track about 90 seconds faster next year to put a BMW at the top of the heap.  
20 years ago this fall I went to the track for the first time and started my BimmerWorld business to fund the need to be on a racetrack.  Clearly, the racing habit becomes no less ingrained with time.

. . . . . . . .

Bonus Video, from our friends at OPTIMA Batteries:

Pikes Peak BMW Build Pages: