Dream the Impossible Dream: The History of the Pikes Peak Race

Dream the Impossible Dream: The History of the Pikes Peak Race

In the fall of 1806, during a bout of bad weather, Lt. Zebulon Montgomery Pike made a failed attempt at scaling the 14,000-foot Peak that would soon be named for him. Following that attempt, Pike boldly (and incorrectly) went on record saying that no man would ever make it to the top.

Over a century later, the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is the second oldest race in America and continues to deliver on its original promise to the host town: bringing in tourist dollars. Beyond anyone’s wildest expectations, the multi-class race is now a motorsports legend, bringing in tourists from dozens of countries around the world.

The Race to the Clouds Is on

In the early days of the twentieth century, folk DID reach the top of the Peak, and it was time to make good on the promise that the feat could be a profitable venture for the good people of Colorado Springs.

Once “conquered,” Pikes Peak is known to span over twelve winding miles with over 150 turns and reaches a staggering 14,115 feet in altitude.

A narrow dirt path was made up to the summit, but it was very narrow, and to call it challenging to traverse would be an understatement. Around the same time that Hill Climbing was catching on as a worldwide phenomenon, venture capitalist Spencer Penrose decided it was high time to get a more “proper,” wider dirt and gravel road for travelers wanting to get to the top of the Peak.

Putting this new road to work while snagging the tourists’ money, the need to get to the top seemed overwhelming, and the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb was born in response.


With a time of just under 21 minutes, in a car powered by some of the most advanced automotive technology for its age, Rae Lentz won Pikes Peaks’ debut race, receiving the “Penrose Trophy” to commemorate his victory.

Though the race was not as celebrated by those outside of America initially, the first official jog up the mountain proved a success. The racing commissioners decided to give the PPIHC the green light for the following year.

Indycar Invasion

And so it was with slight changes made the Pikes Peak race went on for the better part of the next three decades. After the end of World War II, the race was accepted as part of the AAA and USCA Indycar Championship.

The cars that participated in the PPIHC were simply glorified versions of the Indycar, containing a couple of necessary modifications that would allow them to run up the Peak’s rocky terrain. The commission vacillated between allowing and disallowing point payment for the race.

Even though the racing cars changed over the years, bringing in lighter weight and faster construction consistently, the race continued without a lot of change until the 1980s, when Indycar withdrew from this competition.

Better Late Than Never

The 1980s were an era that smacked of excess, and that excess trickled down into the design of cars. Due to these newly designed Rally cars, the US was getting quicker and quicker every year.

After a driver won the race two years in a row with an unmodified Audi Quatro B, remarkably, they continued to get no love from the car manufacturer. After the second victory, however, Audi decided to get in on the action.

In 1988, after years of scrambling and scraping, rose The Peugeot 406 Turbo406. This dude showed up to show out, and succeed it did.

Finnish race Ari Vatanen set a new record for climbing the Peak in the Peugeot 406 Turbo-16 405. The year was 1988, and the love of the PPIHC truly began to flourish and thrive, and as it neared 100 years of existence, the PPIHC was on the radar of every major racing team across the world.

Turning Japanese

Though the 1990s started rough with the late-blooming Japanese team coming to the party and wrecking shop, it did circle back around for the US. The new decade brought with it its unique performance challenge, and the good ole USA found itself on the losing end of the race again thanks to the latest Japanese cars brought from across the globe to claim victory.

The Japanese won in 1992 and broke records in 1993, and then they fell off again. The Japanese influence on the Pikes Peak race was minimal at best, making the therm less influential at large.

The Reign of Rod Millen

Rod Millen raced on the scene with the Japanese on their way back down the hill. In ‘94, Millen made history by roaring up the Peak just shy of an unbelievable 10 minute time. This feat was made in another first, the first Toyota Celica to race the mountain.

Though he lost the following year, Millen would return triumphant, and he would continue that tradition for the next.

Paved with Good Intentions

Just before the turn of the millennium, the Sierra Club decided it had had enough with the shoddy upkeep of the road to the top. They reported to the US Government that the neglect was making for irreparable damage to the beautiful natural surroundings of Colorado Springs.

The busted blacktop also generated issues for the cars too, causing loss of traction.

Every year for the next ten years, the city who’d been taking in the race’s spoils had to pave 10% of the road.

Making it to 100 and Beyond

During the “dark period” when the road pavement was in process, cars consistently lost time at the finish line’s end. But 2012 opened the new road in its entirety, and in 2013, it was on.

That year Sebastian Loeb, driving a Peugeot, flew up to the summit at a mind-blowing 9:46. That record stood in a place of pride for quite a while.

In 2015, the first electric car made its way up Pikes Peak, and the following year the first electric car broke the speed record by over an entire minute, knocking it down to a super quick 8:14.

There are no signs of being turned away or shut down, so who knows how much longer this ride will go on.

Ride Into the Sunrise

The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is the stuff history books love to sink their teeth into. It has a fun history, and it is an event that brings fans out from all over the world over a century after its inception.

As there is no end to the PPIHC insight, we will close by watching her drive into the sunrise because it’s not time for it to set on her yet.

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