Motorsports

Pikes Peak Remains Unforgiving Nearly a Century On

A whirlwind tour of America’s Mountain and the race that defines it.

Nothing prepares you for the scale, beauty, and majesty of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb (PPIHC). Held annually on the titular mountain right outside of Colorado Springs, Colorado, professional racers and amateur hotshoes alike charge up 12.42 miles of almost continuous uphill grade, slicing through 156 turns and climbing 4,720 feet by the time they reach the crest some 14,110 feet into the clouds.

Although it’s widely thought of as one of the premier motorsports events in the world, mainstream automaker participation in the often treacherous hill climb has remained fairly limited. As is usually the case, privateers made up the majority of this year’s 60-car field.

But Volkswagen made one of the bigger splashes in recent memory during last year’s event by shattering the overall course record with its all-electric I.D. R concept—the first vehicle to break the eight-minute barrier. (Unless you have millions to spend, good luck touching that record anytime soon.) This year, Porsche was out in force with a squadron of Cayman GT4 Clubsports, Dodge showcased an in the wrapper-fresh Charger Hellcat Widebody, and Bentley set the production car record with a near-stock Continental GT.

Then there’s the one automaker who keeps coming back, who has continued to work tirelessly to beat the mountain. For the past eight consecutive years, Acura has shown up at the start line in something wearing the stylized caliper badge up front—and made quite the name for itself in the process. This year was no different, as Acura rolled up five-deep in a squad of race-ready cars and SUVs.

Not surprisingly, two of the five were the NSXes, Acura’s only real-deal performance car in its current lineup. Honda engineer and racer James Robinson drove a moderately modified NSX while his brother (and fellow engineer and racer) Nick Robinson piloted a near-stock variant in the highly competitive Time Attack 1 class, returning a very impressive 4th and 5th in class, respectively.

The NSX was a no-brainer, but the RDX A-Spec and MDX Sport Hybrid were crowd-pleasing, high-riding oddities in a field of low-slung, box-flared weapons. That’s not to say they didn’t look the part; both RDX and MDX were stripped down to their floorpans and filled with racing hardware to be both competitive and safe. The RDX’s 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder received a bigger turbocharger, short-path intercooler, and electric supercharger, raising output from 272 hp and 280 lb-ft to 350 hp and 330 lb-ft. The MDX was particularly potent with 400 hp and 350 lb-ft of torque, thanks in part to a boost in displacement for the 3.5-liter V-6 to 3.7-liters, along with re-tuned settings for the electric motors and engine. Like the pair of NSXes, both crossovers were driven by Acura engineers; Steven Olona in the RDX, and Jordan Guitar in the MDX.

Then there was the flag bearer for the marque—Peter Cunningham in his RealTime Racing TLX GT. The 2017 edition of the race was an auspicious one for Acura, as it saw Cunningham and the TLX GT claim first in the Open class (setting a class record in the process), second overall, and Rookie of the Year honors. The 2018 running of the race was equally as successful for Cunningham, RealTime Racing, and Acura despite the I.D. R’s long shadow, with another Open class win and record time along with a third-place overall finish.

It was more of the same this year. Cunningham and his TLX GT once again scored a first-in-class and new class record of 9 minutes, 24 seconds to go with a third-overall finish. RealTime fitted the No. 42 TLX GT with an upgraded aero package and revised the tuning of the car’s 3.5-liter twin-turbo V-6. If you check back again the same time next year, I’m sure we’ll be writing about another podium finish, another first-in-class win, and a new class record.

That was Sunday. A day before the TLX howled up America’s Mountain, we caravanned up Pikes Peak Highway in a small conga line of shiny RDXs at a considerably more languid pace. Led by the event’s official NSX pace car, we pulled over at every other major corner, dodging nervous tourists in loaded-up minivans, struggling trucks towing campers, and cycling tours of 40-somethings wearing bright hi-vis jackets. As the air gradually thinned I started huffing aviation-grade oxygen from a weightless canister that looked alarmingly like a can of Febreze.

All the videos, pictures, and crash footage in the world can’t prepare you this place. The first few sections of the race sluice through a dense forest broken by sandy clearings and boulders. Slide off the road here and you’ll come to an abrupt stop at the base of a towering spruce, or if you’re lucky, nose-first into a muddy silt pit. A few miles past the start, and you break from the treeline, giving way to a rocky, sand-colored alpine landscape characterized by vicious drop-offs and white-knuckle hairpins. A large portion of the road is without barriers, so one mistake here can end in a downhill tumble.

Just past the treeline, I stepped into the NSX for a brief moment of personal Pikes Peak glory. Traffic and the gaggle of RDXs kept speeds at a minimum, but it was enough to grasp a thimbleful of what the competitors experience. The forest stage is not entirely different from Angeles Crest Highway north of Los Angeles, but above the treeline, portions of the highway transition into hairpins following a blind uphill portion. In a car as capable as the NSX, it feels downright dangerous—even at low-impact speeds.

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Back to Sunday. We arrived at the start somewhere around 6 a.m. and hiked a third of a mile up to one of the first corners to catch the motorcycles. I arrived out of breath, head pounding from the thin air and sleep deprivation, only to catch a brief glimpse of a supermoto-style bike drag a foot through the first corner. He never made it to the top, crashing shortly after leaving our field of vision. A lengthy delay worried spectators, but thankfully, reports indicated the rider suffered no serious injuries.

Bikes continued through the afternoon, culminating in tragedy when veteran racer Carlin Dunne crashed on a prototype Ducati shortly before the flying finish. He was the final bike to go up and was on-track to have the fastest two-wheeled time of the day. Dunne succumbed to injuries after being medivac’d off the mountain shortly after.

The cars run fastest to slowest, as set by qualifying sessions a few days prior. Acura’s Cunningham and his white-and-orange TLX GT was one of the first, screaming by our spectating spot in a blur. A few 911 GT3 Cups howled up the course, followed closely by strange open-wheeled contraptions that were as blisteringly quick as they were unsightly. The NSX duo buzzed by in short order, followed by an explosively loud decommissioned stock car. There were plenty of oddities as well, including a diesel-powered, mid-engined Beetle silhouette with clamshell bodywork made from Kevlar and carbon fiber. A few hours later, rain forced organizers to shorten the race course.

That’s Pikes Peak. Victory, glory, terror, excitement, and tragedy at 14,000 feet above Colorado. Nearly a century on, it remains one of the most unforgiving—and alluring—motorsports events in the world. Making it to the summit is a win in itself.

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