Near Miss

Le Mans GT winner and factory driver Romain Dumas decided it might be fun to take a racer's holiday and trt something a little different — on Pikes Peak,

Photo: Near Miss 1
January 18, 2013

Ever since 1916, when Ray Lentz struggled to Pikes Peak’s oxygen-starved summit in his aero-engined Romano Demon, the 14,110-foot granite monolith has been a seductive goal for racers of all types and kinds, everywhere.

Ironically, the annual Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is probably better known in Europe, New Zealand, and Japan than it is in America. That’s because there is no similar test of car and driver anywhere else on earth. Some of the mountain’s most dedicated challengers and record holders hail from faraway places, and Porsche factory driver Romain Dumas is no different.

Curious about the possibility of taking one of his own team’s rally cars to one of America’s highest mountains, he’d been questioning Porsche’s resident Pikes Peak expert Jeff Zwart about “the hill” since he’d first learned about it and discovered that the famed automotive cinematographer and amateur racer had been racing on the mountain for 13 years, driving nine different Porsches to seven class wins.

Although Pikes Peak is a highly popular tourist destination, visited annually by millions, by courtesy of the City of Colorado Springs and the park service, the road to the summit is used just once a year for the historic hillclimb.Entrants are allowed but one run on race day; make just a single mistake, and you wait a full year for another chance.

Weather conditions at the summit are fickle at best and subject to extremes of temperature,moisture, and wind velocity, so it can take years of trying to match favorable conditions at the start line with those at the top to make a successful run. Factor in this year’s new, fully paved road to the top,which previously was a relatively safe, (slower and more spectacular) beautifully groomed, decomposed granite gravel surface, and the hillclimb has become much faster,more complicated to plan for, and certainly more dangerous.

Photo: Near Miss 2

Since Porsche’s secret racing facilities in Weissach are currently focused primarily on development of its new LMP1-class racer and making sure its numerous, partially supported race teams in various series around the world are properly prepared, there’s precious little time to devote to a singular event as chancy as Pikes Peak.

Other manufacturers, after spending hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars, euros, pounds, yen, or whatever currency was required to prepare for the race, have also discovered, to their chagrin, how uncooperative and obstinate the mountain’s weather can be — and decided never to return.

The same weather/financial uncertainty that makes it too risky for carefully planned, time-sensitive marketing campaigns has actually made the Peak an ideal setting for dedicated privateer teams and drivers willing to risk the capricious conditions year after year to become King of the Mountain.

Like Bonneville or even the Indy 500, the unique lure of winning overall at Pikes Peak has become so respected among racers that its special, hardy fans return year after year to experience the unpredictable drama that can be expected to occur in each edition. This year was no different.

Romain Dumas had expectations of doing little more than using this first attempt on the Peak as a lark, a fun learning experience, perhaps to seriously challenge sometime in the future when other racing commitments didn’t interfere. In addition to his love of pavement, Dumas also loves to rally race on different surfaces and believed that his experience off-road might offer some advantage.

Photo: Near Miss 3

“I also thought it might be fun to take my girlfriend to America for the week!”he admitted with a smile. “Jeff Zwart offered to let me use his tire warmers and introduce me to the local Porsche dealer so we would have a place to work. Porsche Motorsport said they’d give me all the data they acquired with Jeff in previous years, so I felt comfortable in making plans.

“We prepared one of my GT3 RS rally cars entirely in Ales, France,where my rally team is based,” continues Dumas. “There were no major modifications to our car. We fabricated some air intakes on the rear quarters to get some more air to the engine, some brake ducts for the front, and a bigger splitter and dive planes on the nose for the thinner air at altitude. It might have been smart to run a turbocharger, like Jeff did last year in his GT2 RS, but this was simply an exploratory adventure, something like any street-driven Porsche privateer entrant might do — so I went with what we were familiar with.”

The local conditions were more radical than expected.Major forest fires just north of Colorado Springs shut down the local highways leading to the mountain and threatened to scorch Pikes Peak. Dumas’ team arrived on time, but the event was postponed indefinitely based on weather and the huge fire’s indecisive spread. Dumas’ mechanics were forced to wait with no certainty as to when they might have to return to France without even getting on the mountain.

The race was eventually rescheduled five weeks later than originally planned.With no date conflicts, Dumas rearranged his flights and arrived on Monday, the evening before the first practice. Since the park opens to the public at 9:00 in the morning and has to be completed before the public enters, practice begins at daybreak. Everyone has to be on the mountain ready to run when the sun breaks the horizon somewhere east of the Colorado border. Dawn on the mountain is worth the trip.

“That meant we had to be up at three every morning for practice; my girlfriend didn’t think much of that,” laughed Dumas. “It’s also very, very cold up there, so we were not fully prepared for the icy conditions when we had to practice on top. The cold temperatures during practice were a serious consideration because of limited traction.We had to remember that, on race day, all that cold-tire temperature data was useless, as we would start much later in the day.”

Photo: Near Miss 4

As this was the first year the road to the summit was entirely paved, the choice of tires and compounds, along with special hand-cut sipes,was less critical than in previous years but still important. Dumas selected Michelin Cups, knowing they’d be tough and predictable even if not quite perfect. The change to full pavement had created, in effect, an entirely new and different type of event. Even Dumas’ main competition,Rhys Millen in his well-developed Hyundai Genesis drift car, was testing different chassis setups to find the ideal. Previous overall record-holder Rod Millen, Rhys’ dad, had used this same car last year to set a new Time Attack class record in his secret attempt to defeat his friend Jeff Zwart’s 997 GT3 RS.

But now Rhys was again behind the wheel of his four-year-old racer and in the same class as Dumas. Time Attack allows more latitude in preparation than a regular production class. Millen’s major mechanical advantage was the Hyundai’s turbocharger. Dumas had the lighter car by some 182 kilograms pounds, at 1,160 kilograms, but his inexperience on the mountain, against Millen’s vast 18 years of speed on the Peak, would count heavily against the Frenchman’s chances.

Practice sessions on Pikes Peak, because of the number and types of entries and limited time, is divided into three sections: bottom,middle and top. Entrants are also split by class into three groups, each group running one of the three sections on the three consecutive practice days, starting Tuesday. Each section of the 12.42-mile, 156-turn road to the top is unique; altitude and temperature change are important factors, but so is terrain. The lower section, starting at a 9100-foot elevation, is very fast,with three vaguely similar corners that can easily fool the inexperienced. Dumas commented later that thiswas, for him, the most difficult to master. Zwart still feels the super-fast top section, across the mountain’s long upper ridge, from Devil’s Playground to Boulder Park, remains the most complicated because of the varying arcs on the three fastest sweepers, with changing camber, that have to be taken flat. The hard-climbing mid-section is slowest and perhaps easiest to learn but has a couple of unforgiving serious un-ARMCOed drop-offs.Nothing is easy on the Peak.

Dumas wasn’t the only Frenchman on the mountain. Jean-Phillipe Dayraut, last year’s extremely promising first-year challenger, had returned with his beautifully prepared French Dacia coupe in full World Rally trim.His early practice runs showed that he’d be a strong contender for the overall best time, along with Paul Dallenbach’s perennial favorite openwheeled, unlimited, turbocharged Chevy V8 hillclimb special and current record holder Nobuhiro “Monster” Tajima in his brand-new all-electric contender.

Tajima’s existing 9:51.278 record, set last year when the top section was still unpaved, was almost certain to fall. Topsection practice speeds among the swiftest contenders were all much faster than Tajima’s previous times. What became really interesting, when final times from the three days of practice times were connected, was the real possibility of one of the Unlimiteds “breaking nine”minutes with a new record in the high eight-minute range…a time that was considered impossible just a couple of years ago.Dumas’ section times were shockingly fast, as was his qualifying speed on the lower section.He’d run 1.5 seconds quicker than Millen! As a relatively unknown “flatlander” in a production car, only a couple local pundits had even considered the fast Frenchman for a top five.Once his times were posted, however, people soon became aware of his factory racer background, and his class win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Dumas was being whispered as a real contender.

Photo: Near Miss 5

Starting time for the Unlimited Class is determined by the quickest qualifier on the lower section. They can opt to start the class at any time during the race day. All other racers start according to a preset order, with the slowest classes and bikes starting first. This year, with foul weather closing in on the top section, the fastest Unlimited qualifier chose to start the class runs early. Dumas, in his theoretically slower Time Attack Class Porsche, was scheduled much later. He was dismayed with this rule.He was used to track events where the starting order is dictated by overall qualifying times, regardless of class, with the fastest racers at the front of the grid. As a potential top-five contender he felt it was logical that he start soon after the Unlimiteds and, even more importantly, right in front of Millen in his class so they would essentially race in the same conditions. Millen starting nine spots behind Dumas (because of his 1.5-second-slower qualifying time) was actually a greater disadvantage, as it would put him right in the ever-worsening weather on the top section. But, as he wasn’t familiar with the mountain, Dumas was still concerned with what he considered unequal conditions.

As luck would have it, three of the fastest Unlimited qualifying contenders never made it to the top. As one of the quickest,Dallenbach took the green under ideal start conditions, but his engine suddenly went silent soon after the green flag, leaving those at the start line wondering what had happened. Blown engine? Crash? What? Dallenbach had suffered a stuck throttle and went wide-open off the left side of the fast lower section! The car was totaled, and Dallenbach was airlifted out. He was very lucky, suffering no serious injuries.When the road finally reopened, Tajima’s slick-looking electric proto smoked its motor part way up, leaving the fierce Japanese record holder greatly disappointed by the side of the road.When Dayraut’s Dacia, now the top-favored entrant, lost its brakes halfway up the mountain, it suddenly became evident that this year’s top time might be set by either Millen or Dumas! Now, the later Time Attack class start time became even more of an issue, but the rules were the rules.

Finally in position, Dumas charged off the line, the GT3 RS’s exhaust resonating off the mountain’s cliffs clear and crisp until the sound gradually faded in the altitude somewhere above the tree line. Dumas’s run was going perfectly, but as he approached the summit it began to spit rain. The colder temperatures on the wet surface made traction difficult, but he held on all the way to the top…and a new overall Peak record of 9:46.181. Dumas had achieved the impossible: an overall record time by a first-time entrant in a normally aspirated production car! It seemed inconceivable that a production-spec 911 road racer had achieved what had only been dreamed of by Unlimited Class racers just one year earlier.

Then it was Rhys Millen’s turn in the Hyundai. The veteran never made a mistake, using the turbo’s added power to gain slightly on Dumas’ newly set record time on the perilous top section. When he stopped the clock at the summit, Millen had beaten Dumas by 17/1000s of a second for a new overall record!

But for less than two-tenths of a second, Dumas would have been King of the Mountain, his name going down in racing history as an “impossible run.” Still, it had been an incredible achievement. Now Dumas will have 364 days to rerun the mountain in his mind, over and over,wondering where he might have gone just that millisecond faster…and, like hundreds of others before him, scheme for months, planning his next attack on the Peak.

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  • Porsche technician's project SC
  • The 356 That Keeps on Giving
  • Porsches for Less Than $15,000
  • Plug In and Play
  • Preview: 2013 Cayman
  • Under the Radar: Non-U.S. 1968 911S
  • The Townes Speedster
  • Pre-purchase Inpsection, Pt. III
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