Pikes Peak 2020 Was Wonderful Without Fans. But It Wasn’t The Same

When race cars tear through a national forest but there’s nobody around to hear them, do they still make a sound?

byJames Gilboy|
Racing photo

August 30, 2020, 9:30 a.m. Though it's at last race day for the 2020 Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, the parking lot here at the Devil's Playground—famously the most breathtaking spot to watch the race from—is basically empty. Due to 2020's coronavirus pandemic, the PPIHC will run without spectators for the first time in history; only a smattering of cars belonging to media, race staff, and emergency responders are here.

At long last, and after a two-hour delay due to ice on the road, the first competitor up the mountain roars past: a Cummins-powered 1949 Ford F1 truck.

As the noise of the soon-to-be diesel course record holder fades into the distance, the next summit hopeful in their Datsun 240Z growls into view by the Ski Area, some four miles down the road and 2,000 feet beneath us. Minutes later, they too tear past the Playground, ushering forth a new Acura TLX in a cycle that repeats itself for the next five hours, interrupted only by the silence of an occasional DNF—or the whirr of a resurrected Tesla Model 3.

Through it all, photographers roam the mountain freely, as if there's nothing going on. The general public forfeited this liberty after 2013, when multiple boneheaded near-misses between cars and spectators forced race organizers to pen fans in or shut them out entirely. They chose the latter, and in doing so, reserved the best viewing spots for people that can be trusted not to walk out in front of race cars, such as race staff, law enforcement, and safety-briefed members of the press like yours truly.

After a brief, post-race ceremony at the summit, the racers again descend, the class winners among them brandishing checkered flags. This signals time for us too to get off the hillside; an ordeal ordinarily made miserable by the thousands of people clogging up the mountain's two-lane road. But with no onlookers onsite, there's no Texas-plated GMC Yukon in my mirrors, and the only real jam is along the pit straight, where teams are already dismantling their popups and trailering up their race cars.

From there, it's smooth sailing down to the toll gate, as well as an altitude offering enough oxygen to let me think straight.

Eventually, I pondered: as smoothly as this year's race unfolded, is it an experience I'd want to repeat? Because as nice as it was to photograph race cars on the mountain that inspired America the Beautiful without people pestering me about my camera and orange vest, or sneaking into the woods after me, the effects of COVID-19 on Pikes Peak weren't limited to vanishing spectators.

Some entrants from abroad were forced to drop out, relationships with sponsors were strained in more ways than one, and those of us allowed through the gate had to remain either masked or spread out. It was a uniquely isolating race-viewing experience, and as someone who attends races not just to see cars, but also the people who build, drive, or just appreciate them, it left me feeling empty.

With at least 10 months until the green flag next drops at Pikes Peak, I can only hope that America gets on top of its public health crisis, and that the crowds can come flocking back to what they call America's Mountain. Because for all the public's absence did to streamline race day, the public is also a crucial and inseparable aspect of what makes races like Pikes Peak possible—and worth camping out all day at literal dizzying altitudes.

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