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Hell Week on Pikes Peak

There were 1,600 miles to bridge between two races, and only one car and one Robb Holland to compete in the events—but who's counting?
Miles Tillman / Larry Chen

Ever since the season schedules were announced late last year, I’ve had two weeks in June circled in red ink on my calendar. 

The week of June 13 was the SRO race at Virginia International Raceway in Virginia, and the week of June 20 was the Pikes Peak Hill Climb. Normally, these events aren’t back-to-back, but not this year, unfortunately. The GT America race, in which I would be competing, would finish up late Sunday morning on June 19 in Alton, Virginia, and sign-in for the Hill Climb would start at 8 a.m. the following morning—1,600 miles away in Colorado Springs, Colorado. 

With a huge number of flights being canceled on a daily basis, just getting myself back to Colorado in time for signing was going to be a potential logistical nightmare. But to make matters worse, my lead mechanic for the SRO series, Travis Smith (who also runs the Porsche specialists, Pinnacle Motorsports), is also my lead mechanic for the Hill Climb. So that meant not only did I need to make my flight, but I also needed to make sure Smith made his as well. 

Larry Chen

Oh, and did I forget to mention I was racing the same car in SRO as I was on the Hill Climb? Yeah, so that had to make it to Colorado as well. It was definitely going to be one of those weeks. In the end, it all worked out. But it was also because a lot of stuff came together in exactly the right ways. Here’s how it all went down.

The Race in Virginia

Before I go too far down the rabbit hole of my logistical nightmares, let’s talk about the race weekend at VIR. 

As you know, we had a pretty decent weekend at the St. Petersburg raceway in Florida back in February, but our Porsche 718 Cayman GT4 RS Clubsport proved to be a bit too competitive, so the powers that be pegged back our balance of performance to make us more equal with the other cars in the series. All of the GT4 RSes in the field were issued restrictors that reduced power and given ballast to carry that made them substantially heavier. But the big change was increased ride height for the cars. This changed both aerodynamics as well as suspension geometry. This was a big issue: it meant a major alteration to our setup that would take us a while to get our heads around how to make the car work well for my driving style.

So with that in mind, our main goal to start the race weekend at VIR was to make a bunch of changes during practice to try to get a setup on the car that would work well. In general, we were going in the right direction, as the car was getting quicker and better to drive with each lap, but we were still missing out on a bit of pace to the other GT4 cars in the class. And even though I put in a qualifying effort that was 1.4 seconds quicker than my best lap last year, I was still about one second off of pole, and the closeness of the field meant that I would start P9. Not ideal in a closely packed field where passing requires a huge effort and a bunch of commitment.

Race One on Saturday, June 18, went fairly well, and I managed to make up a few spots at the start, and another when a competitor spun at the top of the esses. It meant I spent a fair chunk of the race sitting comfortably in P6 without too much pressure from behind. That lack of pressure allowed me to get my head down and turn in the overall sixth fastest lap time of the race. This was important because the grid for Race Two the next day would be set by the fastest laps of Race One. 

Unfortunately, a late yellow flag tightened the pack back up going into the last few laps of the first race. That gave my fellow competitor Marko Radisic the thought of trying to make an over-opportunistic move going into Turn One, where we were braking from over 140 mph down to about 45. My Porsche was far better on the brakes than his BMW, so the chances of him out-braking me were literally zero, but that didn’t prevent him from trying. The resulting crash took us both out of the race. 

On the bright side of things, my only damage was a broken tie rod, so the team didn’t have to stay too late getting the car back together. But even better was that we were starting to figure out the car setup, getting it more and more to my liking as the weekend went on. 

Starting in P6 meant I had a solid chance of getting on the podium going into the second race of the weekend. That outside chance increased after making up a position on the start, and then another just before another full-course caution late in the race packed the field back together for a final dash to the finish. 

Coming into the last lap, I had P4 locked down. But with the leaders battling hard in front of me, my hope was that they would trip over themselves and give me a chance to sneak onto the podium. My wish was granted when fellow Porsche driver Adam Adelson tried an aggressive outside move at the end of VIR’s long back straight. Unfortunately (for him), it didn’t pan out and he went off track—not only giving me P3 but making the cars in front of me check up, which bought me right to the rear bumper of Aston Martin driver Jason Bell and carrying a bunch more speed than he was. That speed allowed me to draft past the Aston and claim P2 at the line by 0.04 of a second!

It was a great finish to an otherwise unspectacular weekend. It’s always important to be able to reward my Rotek Racing crew with podium champagne and bring home some hardware. However, there was a bit of a hitch to my post-race celebrations. Because we finished on the podium, our car would also have to go through tech to make sure that everything was in compliance with the SRO rules. 

Normally, that’s not a problem. But we had planned on using the time immediately after the race to get the car swapped over to its Pikes Peak specifications, so any time we spent going through tech would eat into our ability to make those changes before having to load everything up for the cross-country trek. 

A Hitch in the Plan

Of course, with my luck, tech took well over an hour and my guys weren’t able to get too much work done prepping the car for Pikes Peak, which meant we would have to deal with it once it arrived in Colorado. However, the delay also meant our rig was late in leaving, so it was going to be touch-and-go as to whether everything would arrive in time for us to make qualifying on Tuesday, June 21, at 4 a.m. (Pikes Peak stays open to the public throughout race week, so we need to do our practice runs and qualifying before the gates open at 8 a.m.)

Our full-time truck driver, Al Barrios, is a rock star behind the wheel. In addition to being a maestro with a Big Green Egg, he managed to get our rig into Colorado Springs at 10 p.m. on Monday night (with the help of a second driver). However, Smith still needed to do the work to bring the car up to Pikes Peak-spec, with the main job being pulling out all of the aforementioned balance of performance items that SRO makes us add. 

Once those were removed, Smith then had to install the JRZ active dampers that we were going to run for the race. In addition to the elevation, the insane dropoffs, and the 156 corners, one of the biggest challenges of Pikes Peak are the extreme bumps that we face at the top of the mountain. As you near the top, the mountain surface heaves and buckles several inches a season, giving us a road surface that would make Detroit jealous. JRZ has created a very fast-reacting motorsports active damper that we believed would help us better control the car over those bumps. Other than that mod, the car was an unrestricted and bone-stock GT4 RS Clubsport. So it was an absolute weapon.

Those changes still took a bit, however. By the time Smith was finished, it was almost 2:30 in the morning—which gave us just enough time to load everything up into the small trailer and head up the hill for qualifying. With no sleep. Not ideal, if I’m honest.

Arrival at Pikes Peak

For practice and qualifying, the mountain is divided up into three parts and the field is divided up into run groups based on your car class. Each group runs one section of the mountain per day in practice. The fastest times from the lower section (Sectors 1 and 2) are used to set the field for the race. It’s important to get a good time in qualifying, as the fastest cars start earlier. This is an advantage because, traditionally, the bad weather moves in around 2 p.m., and the cars that qualify further back tend to get stuck in it.

So I rolled to the start line at just a bit after 5 a.m. with no sleep, in a car that was completely different to what I was used to, and with no practice on one of the most dangerous roads in the world. What could go wrong?

Miles Tillman

Well, as it turned out, nothing. 

I was able to manage a time that put us P6 in class, and at the end of the week (once all of the other groups qualified) in P20 overall. Additionally, we were the second-fastest normally aspirated car, and the fastest Cayman ever, beating Tanner Foust’s qualifying record in the last-gen GT4 Clubsport by over three seconds. Not too shabby after everything we had to go through just to make it here.

After qualifying, we were finally able to get some sleep, but we were back up at it again the following two mornings with practice runs in the middle and upper sections of the mountain. Once again, we were quick, resulting in times in the top three to top five in class. All of the indicators were there that we should be among the top 20 or maybe the top 15 cars on race day. But it turned out that the mountain had other ideas.

We had been watching the weather reports all week, and for the most part, the weather looked really good. Really good right up until the day before the race, that is. On Saturday night, June 25, the weather report showed up to 10 inches of snow—yes, that’s right, snow—around the 13,500-foot level. Which, at Pikes Peak, means from right about Devils Playground all the way to the summit. A threat of the race’s 100th running getting canceled because of snow in June. Talk about a disaster.

Race Day

But Pikes Peak is anything but predictable, and fortunately, the weather guys got it wrong. (I’m shocked, I tell you, shocked.) Race day dawned with wet roads but thankfully free of snow. So the 100th running of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb went on as scheduled, much to the delight of the thousands of fans who got up at zero dark thirty and braved the cold, soggy conditions to get a seat up on the hill. 

However, the mountain and Mother Nature weren’t done with us yet. While we drivers could deal with the damp roads without issue, seeing which way the road actually went was a different story altogether. A low cloud had descended over much of the mountain, severely limiting visibility. And visibility is kind of a thing you need while trying to navigate a treacherous mountain road with 1,000-foot drop-offs and at a high rate of speed.

To make matters even more interesting, the clouds were constantly in motion, so some parts of the road were more visible to the early runners and some parts were more visible later to others. Times were coming in all over the board.

My run started off with slick roads and low visibility at the bottom, but then it dried and visibility improved fairly quickly. And even though I had opted for wet tires and a wet setup on the car, my first three sector times were fairly competitive with the top 10 overall. However, there is a phrase that you will hear quite often at Pikes Peak: “The mountain decides.” This year, the mountain decided that a good finish wasn’t in the cards for me. 

As I passed through Devils Playground to start the fourth and last sector, visibility went from not too bad to virtually nonexistent. I had to slow my pace to crawl (well, in reality, it was about 65 mph, but it felt like a crawl) as I couldn’t see more than a dozen feet in front of my car. I was trying to look out my side window for reference points to identify where I was on the course but even that was incredibly difficult. (Now I understand how rookie pilots feel flying through clouds for the first time.)

As I got closer to the top, I tried to find the two posts that I use as a braking marker going into Cog Cut, a very sharp hairpin corner with no guardrail and a substantial dropoff to the cog railway track below. Well, I completely missed seeing the posts, and before I knew it, I had missed the turn and had to slam on the brakes as I just about drove off the side of the mountain. That was a first for me.

After that scare, I basically limped around the last couple of corners and crossed the finish line, immediately pulled over near an official, and screamed at him to red flag the race. Visibility was near zero and I felt the conditions were too dangerous for my fellow competitors. As I rolled up to the post-run parking area, fellow competitors David Donohue and James Clay came up to me and I told them how bad visibility was. They laughed and said everybody had the same shitty visibility story, we just all needed to man up. Funny thing to say to a bunch of competitors who were literally just racing up the most dangerous road in the world. But that’s Pikes Peak.

You can see a video of my run below. I really wasn’t kidding about that visibility.

Here’s a cool Porsche video on the race as well:

All in all, it was a very interesting and tiring month of June for me. Now, we’ve got a bit of a break before we get back to work at the next SRO race at Watkins Glenn at the end of July. Then, after, it’s a month of nonstop racing with the awesome Nashville Street Circuit in Tennessee, followed by the iconic Road America course in Wisconsin. 

Hopefully, with a bit better understanding of the Porsche GT4 RS, we can start making a run to the top and drag ourselves back into championship contention.

Miles Tillman

Robb Holland is an American race car driver and automotive journalist. He has competed in the British Touring Car Championship, Pikes Peak, the World Touring Car Championships and more.

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