Behind the Scenes of Ducati's Triumphant Return to Pikes Peak 2018

Three days on the trail of the American CEO who insists Ducati remain King of the Mountain.

Josh Condon / The Drive

Jason Chinnock is nowhere to be found inside the tent. This is notable for three reasons, all related: one, because Ducati’s top rider, Carlin Dunne, is currently racing up the side of a mountain towards a finish line 14,000 feet in the sky; two, because the tent is the designated area for team Ducati to watch official times as they’re posted to an electronic leaderboard; and three, because Chinnock is chief executive officer of Ducati North America, and the company’s return to competition at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, and its attempt to reclaim the mountain’s heavyweight motorcycle-class record in 2018, was entirely his idea.

A Record

Consider for a moment what it means to set a record. It’s not hard to imagine: humans are natural, even obsessive record-keepers. We all, through some vestigial quirk, recall inconsequential achievements—most beers drunk in a sitting, an undefeated run of ping-pong. I remember very clearly the fastest I've ever driven, down to the decimal point: 197.6 mph, in a Ferrari F12berlinetta, on a Detroit proving ground runway. I can still recall that exact figure as easily as my ATM code. (Not to mention every long second of the run—the lightness of the steering wheel, like the car was in orbit; the slow, agonizing climb from 196 mph to 197 and beyond as thickening air became a brake on the machine, like driving through pea soup.) Yet that number has no significance or tangible effect; it doesn't mean anything. And besides, it wasn't even 200 mph. 

Owning a notable record, the kind that inspires well-funded competition and international news coverage and maybe a commemorative hat, is simple to fantasize but difficult to comprehend. Try to imagine being able to walk into any gathering of people, anywhere in the world—a birthday party in Tokyo or a Paris restaurant opening or an old logging bar in the Upper Peninsula—and stand on a chair and say: I am the best at this, better than you or anyone, including all the people who have ever attempted it, famous or dead, going back through recorded history. And then everyone has to agree with you.

It is a rare and powerful drug. People who would otherwise be considered ordinary, everyday citizens—jobs and mortgages and children and pets—cover their faces with bees, or tattoos, or stuff themselves with pounds of mashed potatoes, or grow their fingernails to the length of reticulated pythons in order to experience it, and rarely for the promise of any sort of financial reward or meaningful notoriety. The need to set a record could be considered, for some, a form of madness.

We like records because they help us contextualize, in small and often bizarre ways, our species’ place in the universe. The natural world imposes certain limits, thanks to things like gravity and inertia and friction, and we keep probing the edges, looking for a little extra room. Exactly how far can someone swim? How much weight can a person lift? How fast can we get from here to way the hell up there? What if we add a bicycle? How about a car?

Vehicle manufacturers also like records because there's no opinion involved, unlike an award. Records are inarguable and mostly impervious to spin: no amount of persuasion can make 10 minutes quicker than nine minutes and 59 seconds, or make 217 miles per hour faster than 218.

Of all the various types of records, there is one broad and unofficial category that carries the most weight, thanks to an inexact mixture of romance and a certain hardnosed prestige. That category is comprised of all the records that risk death in the attempt. For a manufacturer, danger adds a short but powerful narrative. It says: people—and not just regular people but extraordinary people, courageous people, the type that risk death for glory—trust our machines with their lives.

Josh Condon / The Drive

Breaks and Breakthroughs

In 2012, Carlin Dunne set a new motorcycle record on Pikes Peaks with a 9:52.819 run on a Ducati Multistrada 1200 S. It was the first time in the race's history—96 years old that year—anyone had broken the 10-minute mark on a bike. 

The second time it was broken was almost immediately afterward. Dunne's Ducati teammate, Greg Tracy, ran the course on the same model bike some six seconds slower, with a time of 9:58.262. 

Dunne's record stood that day, and for another five years.

As often happens when a milestone falls, there some details about the circumstances worth mentioning. First, 2012 was the year when Pikes Peak Highway, the public road on which the race is run, was finally paved in its entirety. The course had been slowly adding blacktop since the 1950s, in fits and starts, but by the time Tracy and Dunne broke the 10-minute barrier it had become essentially a road course. Times were bound to drop. Superbikes, utterly useless on dirt but optimized for asphalt, suddenly had a significant and likely insurmountable advantage. Ducati announced it would not be returning to Pikes Peak in 2013. 

Ducati, of course, makes its own superbikes—is in fact quite famous for them—but Jason Chinnock says he never liked the idea of them competing on the mountain. Chinnock is large for a motorcycle rider, tall and fair-skinned with reddish hair, and moves through crowds with the joy of a man who for some years was made to sit in a cramped metal box, which he did as a tank pilot in the Army. He has Colorado roots—he attended CSU—and says he pushed for Ducati to compete at Pikes Peak during his earlier years with the company, before a stint at Lamborghini and, in January 2016, being named Ducati's North American CEO. 

But Chinnock said he long felt superbikes were too large a safety risk on the mountain—too fast, too unforgiving. And besides, he said, explaining the decision to leave the competition even as Ducati held the course record, the company had spent three years competing mostly against itself—a particularly expensive hobby. 

Racers sit under the long tent and go through elaborate visualizations, eyes closed, gently leaning into the handlebars or swaying in a chair, moving a hand like an orchestra conductor.

We were touring Ducati Island, at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. Chinnock and I and an endlessly cheerful Cycle World writer named Gary Boulanger had spent two hot and occasionally very fast hours riding there from Ducati headquarters in nearby Mountain View, California. Ducati Island at Laguna Seca is a longstanding testament to Ducati's popularity in California, and the U.S. in general—it's the brand's largest market—and is each year reliably full of beautiful, candy-colored vintage Italian sculpture, and Ducati brand activations for every riding demographic, and people reminiscing about how much better it used to be when MotoGP was in town. It was in Ducati Island that Chinnock mentioned something for the first time, vaguely, about an off-the-radar crash in 2012; it was only later that I realized this crash was in fact one of those details worth mentioning about the 2012 Pike's Peak International Hill Climb, and one not widely known.

Chinnock's story was interrupted when he stopped to shake someone's hand, and he didn't finish the thought until two days later, on Pikes Peak, waiting for the Ducati riders to hit the starting line. In between those two points, the three of us—Chinnock, Boulanger, and I—had watched practice and Superpole events from the World Superbike paddock at Laguna; flown to Denver by way of San Francisco; picked up a trio of Ducati Multistradas for a late-night ride into Colorado Springs; found a few hours sleep at Ducati's customary, nondescript motel for the event; and made a 4:00 AM run 9,000 feet up a mountain, to the Pikes Peak starting line. 

What Chinnock told me was this: in the days leading up to his sub-ten-minute run, Greg Tracy crashed while filming a promotional spot, sustaining significant injury. And no one knew about it except the Ducati team.

Maybe it's because we had all spent so much compressed time together—not just riding but shuffling along with plastic trays of food court food and zombifying in front of our phones at an airport gate and stumbling dead-ass tired out of our motel rooms at zero dark thirty—but when Chinnock tells the story in full it comes out like a confession. Haltingly, at first, then all at once. 

He says Tracy was pulverized so badly he couldn't put a foot to the ground. He had to be lifted onto the bike and supported at stops. 

The team was able to keep it out of the press. Tracy still wanted to race. 

The medical team probably would have advised against Tracy riding, if they had known about it, which they didn't. Team members, Chinnock said, balanced Tracy on the bike at the starting line, and again at the finish.

In between, Greg Tracy went out and broke the 10-minute mark, which had never been broken before that day, except the other rider to break it was his teammate Carlin Dunne, who did it just a bit quicker, and whose record then famously stood for half a decade.

Later, Chinnock again recalls the race—arguably one of Ducati's most important moments in North America—and it still seems to unnerve him.

"That race, the guys were really leaning hard, hanging it way out," he says. "Maybe almost too far out."

This, too, could help explain Ducati's short absence from competition at Pike's Peak. Also, anyone who says records are inarguable and impervious to spin has yet to hear the story of Greg Tracy on the mountain in 2012.

The Stakes

Six people, three of them motorcyclists, have died during the Pikes Peak Hill Climb in the 102 years since the official race began. It is morbid but accurate to note that this is not particularly fatal, at least as far as extraordinarily dangerous road races go. The Isle of Man TT, which started a year later, has claimed at least 149 riders—five of them in 2016 alone.

But when two motorcyclist fatalities occurred back-to-back, in 2014 and 2015—one of them involving a privateer's Ducati—the unprecedented mortality rate on Pikes Peak raised alarms. Keeping insurance for the race was suddenly an issue. The idea of banning motorcycles outright was considered. 

In the end, a compromise was reached: no superbikes, and an invite-only format with proper vetting of rider credentials. For 2016, Ducati also formed Squadra Alpina, a team of former champions, including Tracy and Dunne, to coach and advise anyone who wanted help with the mountain, plus a pair of loaner Multistrada models to help race officials and medics get around quickly. Ducati also arranged a makeshift tented paddock, heavy on the brand's red shield logo, where teams could prepare and organize in relative quiet. In the years before, riders would set up haphazard camps wherever possible, emerging violently and at random from the woods when called to the starting line.

In 2017, Chris Filmore rode a KTM 1290 Super Duke R to the top of Pikes Peak in 9:49.625. Filmore, and KTM, could lay claim to being the best of all time. Ducati dropped its brief role as munificent benefactor, and started planning a return to competition for 2018.

The Race

There are three main spots to watch the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb: the starting line; the various vantage points on the mountain; and the summit. If you're on the mountain, you have some mobility—as much as possible on a mountain, anyway—but if you're at the bottom, near the starting line, you're stuck at the bottom. You can't make your way up the mountain. Likewise, if you're at the summit, you can't make your way down. This goes for the racers, too: once they've finished their runs to the top, they have to stay until competition ends. For most, this takes hours.

The starting line gets more crowded the closer it creeps to daylight, and by 7:00 AM it's roiling with engine noises and full of cold people drinking hot watery coffee. Racers sit under the long tent and go through elaborate visualizations, eyes closed, gently leaning into the handlebars, or swaying in a chair and moving a hand like an orchestra conductor. There are twenty riders, and an indeterminate number of race organizers in oversized ear protection looking at clipboards and shouting. The riders pull out of the tent and roll to the starting line; a lanky cowboy with a handlebar mustache saunters after each one, stops at the same point, and puts his hand in the air. When the rider launches off the line as the green flag drops, the cowboy makes an exaggerated doff of his hat, and someone, somewhere, makes note of the signal.

The starting line is a couple hundred yards from the Ducati tent, somewhere beyond a fortress of steel barriers. You hear the riders leave the line more than see them. And then you wait for a time.

Spectating Pike's Peak is different from watching other races. There are no video streams anywhere, no following the competition on TV in real time with professional commentary, no radio broadcast over an address system. The rider takes off, and then you wait. You wait for quite a long time. The fastest runs are all around 10 minutes, and the official results, which appear without warning on various scoring boards in various team tents around the makeshift paddock, take longer still.

And so you sit in a tent, and you wait for a time. You look at the screen for a while—everyone's looking at the screen, which gives you the impression the time will appear any second—until you stop believing it is ever going to show up and get bored of looking at the screen. You still look at the screen, of course—there's nowhere else to look—but you start listening more to the conversations around you. These include a lot of rumors—rumors from up the mountain. That there's hail at the summit, or the course is extra cold that day, or that someone crashed, maybe. It's hard to tell how the rumors make it down the mountain, but there they are: you're in a tent at the bottom and you've heard that it's hailing at the top and the course is quite cold and perhaps there was was a crash but hopefully not. And then some people drift away from the screen and you squint at it, but you realize there's probably nothing to see or you would have heard some reaction, good or bad, and then you look around and realize Jason Chinnock isn't in the tent, even though Carlin Dunne is currently racing up the mountain, all 156 gnarly turns and thousands of feet of elevation, and everyone is waiting in the tent for his time to appear. And then you hear an exhalation and the clapping starts in a rush and you squint at the board and see a new time that wasn't there a few seconds ago: 9:59:102. Not a record, but still the best time of the day. 

There's still one rider to go. Rennie Scaysbrook, on pole position on the big KTM. He takes off and, for the 20th time that day, I find myself in a cold tent with nothing but folding chairs and a television screen, waiting for a time. Except now, Chinnock is there. He had gone to a different display that showed the timing breakdowns by section so he could follow Carlin along the route, doing the math in his head. 

Chinnock didn't wait for Scaysbrook's breakdown in the final section. He walked back to the Ducati tent to await the ultimate fact of the time along with everyone else. Scaysbrook is the only one who can beat Dunne—he will win, or not win, based on this single sprint, the time for which will appear on the screen as if by magic and on no particular schedule. 

No one drifts away from the board. Everyone stares at the screen, willing the time to appear. 

I sense the reaction before I can read the number. I watch Chinnock as the realization hits—Carlin's won, Ducati's won, he's won—and he lets out a big whoop and his mouth hangs open in a dazed grin and he looks for a long moment like a young boy in the midst of incandescent joy. Then he stalks around the tent hugging everyone he recognizes, and then he walks into a field holding two mobile phones above his head, looking for a signal to call Ducati global headquarters in Bologna, to tell them the good news.

The Mountain

I talked to Carlin Dunne a couple days after the race. I wanted him to explain what it feels like to be the best in the world at something. This was what he said:

"Well, I don't know about that, but I can tell you what my morning was like: up early, had my coffee, started my day with a customer yelling at me that I sold her a defective tire because she ran her Vespa over a nail."

That's when I realized something that was probably well known to other people at the race, those who know more about these things: Carlin Dunne, fastest man up Pikes Peak in 2018 and for five years the fastest ever to do so, has a day job. He sells motorcycles and scooters at a dealership that he owns in Santa Barbara, a moneyed coastal community north of Los Angeles. Ducati's Pikes Peak team is, essentially, a volunteer effort. It's a reminder that wealth and fame often don't come from being the best at something difficult, but from being the most recognizable at something popular. These are entirely different propositions—different skill sets. True excellence often toils in obscurity.

But, stupidly perhaps, I push on: Most people will never know what it's like to be the best at something, I say, and you yourself spent many years not being the best at this particular thing, until all of a sudden you were. So what does that feel like?

Carlin is silent for a long time, except for several abortive attempts to answer, which is out of character. (He is notably camera-friendly and smooth in interviews.) I don't think he's ever considered the question, and it shocks me, mostly because I've spent so much time time contemplating it for this story—what now seems like an inordinate amount of time, a silly amount of time—and I hold no records whatsoever. 

Finally, he gives me an answer. What he describes is less a feeling than an absence of one—a sort of quiet. An elimination, if only briefly, of the nagging doubts everyone shares: Am I doing what I'm meant to be doing? Have I made the right choices? Do I have what it takes?

"I guess it just validates the choices I've made, and all the time I've put in—even though I've always really loved it," Dunne says. "It's an affirmation." 

I ask if that means he'll return next year, hunting the record he lost.

"It's so demanding. I think myself and my entire team are suffering from a type of sleep exhaustion. But, yeah, yeah, if we fall into place properly, and we're able to get that support from Ducati again, we'd like to take a crack at that record. There still seems to be unfinished business."

That sense of inevitability, primal and persuasive—a record exists, but it's not ours to claim, therefore we must return to take it—echoed something Chinnock had said two days prior, just after Ducati reasserted itself as King of the Mountain for 2018. 

"For this race, we won, and we can be happy about that," he said. "But our record was beat last year, so it's our responsibility to find a way to take that back. That's the second call I'll be making, after the one I make telling Bologna we won. 

"What is it we're going to need to break that record?"

Ducati

Carlin Dunne atop Pikes Peak.