Shout It From the Mountaintops

By Peter Brock
Nov 18, 2011 | Hyundai, Suzuki | Posted in Suspension & Handling | From the Nov. 2011 issue | Never miss an article

To the acclaim of nearly everyone who watched this summer’s iconic Race to the Clouds on Colorado’s Pikes Peak, Nobuhiro “Monster” Tajima shattered the mountain’s fabled 10-minute barrier with an almost perfect run to the 14,110-foot summit. The onboard video has attracted nearly a million views on YouTube. It was Tajima’s sixth win in as many tries, but this one was special. His two main adversaries in the Unlimited Class, Rhys Millen and Paul Dallenbach, had learned much from last year’s climb and came better prepared to defeat the tenacious Japanese champion.

As exciting as Tajima’s record is, it’s also important to understand why, after 22 years of trying, he was finally able to accomplish his life’s goal. In addition to Tajima’s 850-horsepower, twin-turbo, four-wheel-drive V6 Suzuki SX4 being perfectly suited to this year’s course, there were a couple of extenuating circumstances that may warrant an asterisk.

However, don’t let that detract from the fact that he was the only one of four potential winners to actually get under the long-sought 10-minute mark. Everyone who ran that day faced the same weather and traction. When building a vehicle for the single run to the summit, there’s always some uncertainty about the best combination of power, downforce, tires and brakes. The conditions change each year, and the ideal setup is a moving target. What might have been perfect one year won’t necessarily be perfect by the next.

Weather and traction aren’t the only factors that have kept competitors guessing in recent years, as the 12.42-mile, 156-turn course has been slowly paved—bit by bit—to satisfy a lawsuit. For this year’s running, held June 26, only about 2 miles of gravel remained in the middle of the course.

It takes years of experience to understand exactly what equipment will be required as conditions change. The situation remains fluid even as the drivers wait on the start line. The weather, especially near the summit, is less than predictable. It can change from dry to wet in moments, and snow, hail or ice can show up suddenly at the very top.

While the event is held in summer—usually the best time of year to race—there are no guarantees that conditions at the start line will match those at the top. As a result, a full year’s plans can be for naught if the mountain refuses to cooperate.

Fortune Telling

After years of trying, Nobuhiro “Monster” Tajima became the first person to break the 10-minute barrier at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.

It takes time, tremendous resources and, most importantly, years of experience to craft a special hillclimber for the Peak. Since a competitor gets only that single run each year, chance has much to do with the final outcome. Perhaps that’s why Tajima’s run this year was so special: Almost everything went perfectly.

Tajima had the best combination of power and downforce to match the conditions. However, Rhys Millen’s Hyundai-powered racer could be the best solution for 2012. Theoretically, his sleek coupe might have even been the best this year, but Rhys got caught out on experience. The car was so new last year that teething problems prevented it from running flat-out for the whole climb. Had those problems not occurred, Rhys might have known that his brakes weren’t up to the task this year, and he could have made the necessary changes.

Rhys is no stranger to Pikes Peak, however. His father is Rod Millen, whose 1994 record run held for 13 years until Tajima finally eclipsed it in 2007. The second-generation racer has competed on the mountain for several years in the popular, production-based Time Attack class. Rhys won that class two years ago, setting a record in the process, and finally decided it was time to reclaim the Peak’s ultimate record for the Millen family name. He was convinced he could break the mountain’s 10-minute barrier with a new car of his own design. Looking far ahead, he spoke with the organizers in an attempt to get some certainty on what changes were scheduled for the road. Pavement was being added. The question, as always, was, “How much?”

The Art of Adaptation

The road may be mostly paved, but Pikes Peak still offers unique challenges: extreme altitude and temperature changes, tight corners, sudden snowstorms, and even gravity itself. It's a long way down.

As the road slowly morphed from dirt to pavement, racers were left facing a dilemma: What combination of tires would cope with minimal traction on dirt and maximum bite on asphalt?

Slicks were ideal for the smooth pavement, but they were useless on dirt—unless they were specifically modified, and that would compromise their traction on pavement. Plus, thousands of dollars could be squandered on a modified design that proves to be a poor match for next year’s conditions.

Tajima had the advantage of experience with a proven platform. He kept refining his car each year based on information he gathered about the rate of the paving process. However, he still arrived with various tires, wings and front spoilers that he could try in practice.

Millen, looking ahead, realized Tajima’s platform was becoming obsolete as pavement was being added. At some point, Millen’s vision of a prototype racer with minimal frontal area and low drag would eclipse Tajima’s taller, high-downforce design. Millen showed up last year with his new car, but as we know, its lack of development killed any real chance he had of challenging Tajima or local favorite Paul Dallenbach.

Dallenbach won the hillclimb overall in 2003 while running an earlier iteration of his lightweight PVA 03 in the Open Wheel classification. He decided two years ago that he’d go all out and challenge Tajima’s Unlimited Class record. Dallenbach had the slight advantage of a lighter vehicle—just 2000 pounds. However, he had no way to incorporate four-wheel drive, which had proved so successful for many others on the looser dirt portions of the road. Adding more power was his simplest solution.

Last year, Dallenbach’s team built a killer single-turbo engine that might have been successful had it not disintegrated in practice, leaving him with the team’s much less powerful backup engine for race day. With more pavement this year, Dallenbach figured his design could literally regain some badly needed traction. He enlisted the help of turbocharging expert Gale Banks, and Dallenbach’s team showed up with a locally built, methanol-fueled, twin-turbo Chevy V8 that cranked out an astonishing 1300 horsepower. This gave Dallenbach’s vehicle an incredible 1.5 pounds per horsepower.

To offset the expected wheelspin, car owner/tuner Leonard Arnold added even more wings and aero devices to keep the car planted under full throttle. In the three days of practice, Dallenbach’s new ride showed flashes of impressive potential. What he really needed, though, was more development time.

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