This Ford Bronco ‘Bronczilla’ Race Truck Shows Why Pikes Peak Is Still Great
The 100th running of Pikes Peak inspired Jimmy Ford to race there for the first time—and bring a race-winning Bronco back to the mountain.
Milestone races aren’t just a celebration of the series’ past. Often that past is what inspires the future.
The 100th running of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb was no exception, wooing internationally acclaimed drivers like Romain Dumas and Rhys Millen and inspiring incredible builds like Ken Block's "Hoonipigasus" Porsche 911. Yet one of my favorite entries from this year's race was one with deeper roots in local racing. It was the return of a Pikes Peak legend: a race-winning beast of a Ford Bronco known as "Bronczilla."
Bronczilla is the kind of build that lives up to its name. It has an ultra-light all-aluminum tube-frame chassis built by John Wells in 1993 with a fiberglass racing body. It's rear-wheel drive, with a rowdy 351 small block Ford V8 that tucks in behind the front axle and a four-speed racing transmission from Auto Gear Engineering.
Leonard Vahsholtz raced it, a racer with 18 class wins at Pikes Peak to his name across a record 32 years of competing there, per the Colorado Motorsports Hall of Fame. After 2022's race, the Vahsholtz family has a record 46 class wins at Pikes Peak across multiple generations of Vahsholtzs—even more than the Unsers who are all but synonymous with racing there.
One of those class wins was the Bronczilla's in 1994, which Leonard Vahsholtz drove to a then-record-setting finish in the Super Truck class of 11:36.630, per the Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph.
Hill climbing runs also runs in the family for Jimmy Ford. His father raced at Pikes Peak and was a regular in Colorado Hill Climb Association events, so Ford racing in his vehicles would always be a natural fit. Ford's friend, Chad Grant, sparked the idea of buying Vahsholtz's Bronco to race in Colorado Hill Climb Association events.
Bronczilla was still actively raced in area hill climbs before Ford bought it, making it easy to run. Its previous owner, Tim Walker, had purchased the Bronco from Leonard Vahsholtz and raced it for a couple of seasons before selling it to Ford. Ford had to make a few modifications to fit in properly, but it wasn't long before it was right back in hill climb events.
As the team grew comfortable racing the Bronczilla in hill climbs, entering it in the 100th running of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb gained steam among the team.
"When I went to Leadfoot Festival in New Zealand, an event held by [fellow Pikes Peak racer] Rod Millen, after the event, I was chit-chatting with Rod, and he asked me if I was ever going to do Pikes Peak," Ford told The Drive. "So, it was kind of in the back of my mind, and I'd been thinking about it a lot."
"What better would it be to run Pikes Peak for the 100th running in an old Vahsholtz Bronco?" Ford continued. "I thought it was kind of cool bringing some history back to it for the 100th running. Little did I know that it would be loved so much."
Getting the Bronco ready to head back to Pikes Peak was a little more complicated. Pikes Peak is now paved all the way to the top, which requires a different setup than the dirt-road hill climbs it had been doing. On top of that, everybody on the Jimmy Ford Racing team has a day job to work around, meaning that most of their racing prep has to happen on the weekends.
"When we decided we wanted to do Pikes Peak and got accepted into it, we were literally thrashing from January all the way up until the weekend before testing trying to get the things switched over from dirt to asphalt," Ford said. "It's a lot of changes that you have to make in the suspension and the brakes, and [you have to add] some sort of aerodynamics so that big brick can try to split the air a little bit."
On dirt, the Bronczilla rides about 9.5 inches off the ground, but for Pikes Peak, that ride height was dropped down to about 4.5 inches, which required different shocks and springs. The brakes needed some significant changes, too, as the dirt setup requires a lot more rear bias than asphalt. Speeds go up as you've got more traction on the paved stuff, so on went much larger brakes.
Because Pikes Peak is a race to a staggering 14,110-foot elevation at the finish line, cars now run extreme-looking aerodynamics to push far thinner air around each vehicle. To help make a very square '90s Bronco body cut through the air, the whole bottom of the Bronco was covered with a smooth panel. The team also fabricated the truck's other aerodynamic parts to bring it into full modern-day Pikes Peak spec.
"We may have got some ideas from other vehicles, but as far as fabrication and everything, we pretty much did it ourselves," Ford said of the Bronczilla's new aero.
The Bronczilla still had the Ford V8 Vahsholtz built for it that makes about 630 horsepower, according to Jimmy Ford. The engine's spot behind the front axle gives it better weight distribution than your average '90s Bronco, which (judging by the video) clearly helps makes it easier to hoon. With that much power in a featherweight tube-frame truck, no wonder it set class records back in the day. It was still pretty light even with all of the modern-day Pikes Peak gear added in, too. Ford said they got the Bronczilla's total weight down to about 2,800 pounds.
Colorado Springs' Mod Finishes finished off the refreshed build with a fresh matte black wrap with the team's array of local sponsors. "All of our sponsors were local people that we knew or grew up with. One of the coolest things about running Pikes Peak is keeping it local," Ford said.
Unfortunately, Bronczilla didn't make it to the top of the mountain this year.
"We were running really good," Ford said. "We were top five overall in the bottom section with the time we laid down. We got just a little past the picnic grounds coming into 11-mile, [where] I came out of a corner, and we lost most of our power. Then about a second later, the engine made some gnarly sounds, and that was it. It shut off, and that was it."
"So I took it back home to the shop literally that night because I couldn't sleep wondering what happened to it," Ford continued. "I pulled a few valve covers off of it and noticed that when I would turn the crankshaft, the camshaft wasn't turning and opening up the rocker arms."
A full teardown is yet to come, but Ford suspects it's either a broken camshaft or a timing chain issue. Either way, the mountain won this time—but that's not the end of Ford's run with the Bronczilla. It will race more Colorado hill climb events, and hopefully, return to Pikes Peak, too. Pikes Peak is a tough race with ludicrously early mornings, but getting an earlier start on finding sponsors and working on the truck could make all the difference.
"We're all going to sit down and talk about it and see if that's something we want to do again," Ford said. "I mean, for me personally, I don't like leaving off on a DNF, you know?"
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