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.
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.
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, a 290-point hand of Gin Rummy, 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 recall that exact figure as easily as my ATM code. (I'll also never forget the lightness of the steering wheel, like the car was in orbit, or the slow, agonizing climb from 196 to 197—it felt like minutes—and then more, fighting a wall of air like driving through pea soup.) Yet that number has no meaning or tangible effect; except to me and only me, it's entirely insignificant. 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, with 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. There is almost never any financial gain, or real notoriety, or any other reward. The record is what matters. The need to hold 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, unlike an award, records rarely involve opinion. Records are essentially 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 morbidity. That category is comprised of all 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.
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—the brand is actually 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 evident a safety risk on the mountain—too fast, too unforgiving. And besides, the company had spent years competing mostly against itself, he said, explaining the decision to leave the competition even as Ducati held the course record. That's 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 a crash in 2012. It was only later, hearing the full story, that I realized this crash was in fact one of those details worth mentioning about the 2012 Pike's Peak International Hill Climb—especially because it was not widely known.
Chinnock's story at Ducati Island 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 a starting line 9,000 feet up a mountain. In between those two points, the three of us had watched 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 motel; and made a 4:00 AM run up the mountain.
What Chinnock told me was this: in the days leading up to his sub-ten-minute run, the same year Carlin Dunne set the course record that would stand for five years, Greg Tracy crashed while filming a promotional spot and sustained 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 food courts and sitting in bars 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, and Tracy still wanted to race.
The medical team probably would have advised against Tracy riding, if they had known about it, which they certainly 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 next rider to break it was his teammate Carlin Dunne, who did it just a bit quicker, and who in doing so claimed a record that famously stood for half a decade.
When Chinnock recalls that race again later, it still seems to unnerve him more than anything else, despite the fact that Carlin Dunne's run in 2012 is arguably one of Ducati's most important moments in North America.
"That race, the guys were really leaning hard, hanging it way out," he says. "Maybe 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 Pikes Peak in 2012.
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 began a year later, has claimed at least 149 riders—five of them in 2016 alone.
But when two motorcyclist fatalities occurred in back-to-back years on Pikes Peak, in 2014 and 2015—one of them involving a privateer's Ducati—the unprecedented mortality rate 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. (Before, riders would set up haphazard camps wherever possible, leading to the spectacle whereby a rider called to the starting line would burst, loudly and at random, from the surrounding woods.)
In 2017, Chris Filmore rode a KTM 1290 Super Duke R to the top of Pikes Peak in 9:49.625. Filmore, and KTM, laid claim to being the best of all time.
Ducati dropped its role as munificent benefactor and started planning a return to competition for 2018.
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 and eating steaming breakfast burritos from a food truck. 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.
It still has the feel of a grassroots event—a local competition for some of the world's most famous motorcycle- and automakers. As each rider pulls out of the tent and rolls to the starting line, a lanky cowboy with a handlebar mustache saunters behind, stops at the same point, and puts his hand in the air; when the green flag drops and the rider launches off the line, the cowboy makes an exaggerated doff of his hat, and saunters back in the opposite direction. One can only assume that someone, somewhere, is making note of his 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. Then, you wait for a time.
Spectating Pike's Peak is different from watching other races. There are no video streams, no following the competition on TV in real time with professional commentary, no radio broadcast giving updates 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.
So you sit in a cold tent, waiting 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 anything will ever show up. The screen is quite obviously broken, and besides, you're quite 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: that there's hail at the summit, or the course is extra cold that day, or that someone crashed, maybe. These rumors seem to originate somewhere up the mountain. It's hard to tell how the rumors make it all the way down the mountain, to the starting line—one long, winding game of telephone?—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 again 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.
Except, 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'm in a low tent with nothing but folding chairs and people around a television screen, waiting for a time. Except now, Chinnock is there, too. 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 Scaysbrook's 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 a number to appear.
I sense the reaction before I can read anything. I watch Chinnock as the realization hits, 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. Carlin's won. Ducati's won. He's won. Then Chinnock 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 and tell them the good news.
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 is 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 don't often 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 relative obscurity.
But, stupidly perhaps, I pushed on: Most people will never know what it's like to be the best at something, I said, and you yourself spent many years not being the absolute best at this particular thing, until all of a sudden you were. So what does that feel like?
Carlin was silent for a long time, except for several abortive attempts to answer, which were out of character. (He is notably camera-friendly and smooth in interviews.) I didn't think he'd ever considered the question, and it shocked me, mostly because I'd 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've never been the best at anything compared to anyone in a three-mile radius, let alone the whole world.
Finally, he gave an answer. What he described was less a feeling than the 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 said. "It's an affirmation."
I asked if that meant he'll return next year, hunting the record that was lost. He paused before he answered.
"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 I tell Bologna we won: What are we going to need to break that record?"