Looming in grand
isolation at the eastern edge of the Colorado Rockies, 14,110-foot Pikes Peak
was named in 1806 for U.S. Army Lieutenant Zebulon Pike, who was exploring the
region after the Louisiana Purchase. In 1916 a mineral tycoon named Spencer
Penrose completed a dirt road to the summit—the highest thoroughfare in the
world at the time—and decided to celebrate his achievement with a race. Thus
began the Pikes Peak Auto Hill Climb, the country's second-oldest motor race
after the Indianapolis 500 (first run in 1911). The course—12.42 miles long and
rising 4,708 feet from its starting point, more than halfway up the
mountain—contains 156 turns, some hanging over nearly sheer drops of hundreds
of feet. None of the turns are protected by guardrails, or even by dirt
Pikes Peak is
also known as Unser Mountain. In the 50 climbs that have been held since Louis
Unser first won, in 1934, seven Unsers have won 30 class championships.
Three-time Indy winner Bobby Unser, Louis's nephew, leads the clan in Pikes
Peak victories with 13. "There isn't a human being alive who knows more
about this mountain than I do," says 55-year-old Bobby.
The latest Unser
to tackle the peak is Bobby's son Robby. At 21, he has been driving race cars
for six years, and a year ago at Pikes Peak, in only his second try at the
mountain, he won the open-wheeled class in a record 11:18.27. For Sunday's 67th
Pikes Peak Hill Climb, Unser had been hired by the Peugeot team to drive its
astonishing Unlimited Division rally car, a four-wheel-drive,
four-wheel-steering, six-speed, ground-effects, turbocharged, wildly winged
Peugeot 405. Its tiny, 1.9-liter engine produces about 700 hp, nearly as much
as a Formula One car.
Peugeot's ace driver, Ari Vatanen of Finland—winner of the Par-is-to-Dakar
rally for the past three years—set a record of 10:48.22 up Pikes Peak, and this
year he was back in the No. 1 Peugeot, with Unser in No. 2.
Young Unser faced
a formidable test. The Peugeot is extremely difficult to drive. Furthermore, a
driver's feet must constantly dance over the three pedals, and Unser's right
leg was still healing from surgery performed last winter. But by Friday's
qualifying round. Unser was only seven seconds behind Vatanen.
expected to win and set a new record, while Unser's personal goal was to beat
his teammate's '88 time. Unser knew that his role was to provide backup support
for Vatanen; if anything should happen to the favorite, Robby would be there to
claim the win for Peugeot, a company that places enormous value on the
publicity derived from this event. "I'm so honored to be part of this
team," said Unser. "I feel great that they've accepted me."
At the same time,
Unser seemed unaffected by the pressure. "I haven't quite figured out
nervousness yet," he said. "I know what I have to do, and that's all
there is to it for me."
On Sunday, 63
cars in six classes raced against the clock, with the Peugeots' Unlimited
Division fifth in the starting order. Unser roared through Engineers Corner,
two miles from the start, where the switchbacks begin climbing through the
evergreens to the timberline, his progress traced by a tail of dust. As the tan
plume faded out of sight, Vatanen's engine was heard echoing in a hollow
farther down the mountain. Vatanen raced through Engineers so fast that the
crowd oohed as if his passage were a burst of fireworks.
his run in 10:48.34, 1.12 seconds more than Vatanen's record. Behind him, at
the nine-mile mark, Vatanen was running 10 seconds ahead of his record pace.
Moments later, the Finn's car slid off the road and slammed against a boulder;
he limped home in 11:12.54. "It was a simple mistake." he said. "I
was going for it and got a little too wild."
Said Robby Unser,
the new champ, "I'm a little disappointed that I didn't set a new record
for Peugeot, but the run was about as good as I could do." Then he hitched
a ride on a helicopter to Devil's Playground, a few miles down the mountain,
where the first family of Pikes Peak was preparing to celebrate. For at least a
year, the Unser name would be back on top of the mountain.