2020 Pikes Peak Hill Climb Race Report
Updated: Oct 21, 2020
Much success was had at this years Pikes Peak Hill Climb. We finally broke through our plateau and the elusive ten-minute barrier! For the last four years we have been knocking on the door with a 10:10, 10:05, 10:07, and a rain-out last year. I was starting to wonder if I would ever be able to accomplish the goal I have had since I watched the race growing up. Each year has its own story behind it on how close we were, and a lot of the reason we didn't quite get there was due to trying to do too much or change too many things which ended up biting us in the end. This year brought a different challenge: COVID-19.
Soon after the whole country shut down, the Pikes Peak organizers had announced postponing of the late June race by two months to August. While surprised, I was very happy to hear that it was only delayed and not cancelled out-right. Plus having some more time to finish developing the car was a welcomed sight! Always a bright side, right? Later, it was announced that no spectators would be allowed to attend. Wow, that will be different! Normally, the pit area is packed and the fans line the course along the way. What I will really miss is the high-fives on the way down after the event.
The extra time quickly fleeted away as the balance of work, home, and all the other things from a crazy 2020 left us with just a couple of test sessions prior to being on the mountain for race week. Although I have to admit, this is a very common experience every year. Something a privateer with a full time job and supportive family is hindered with in the attempt to compete against higher budgets and dedicated efforts for this famous race. Regardless, we carry on and setup one last tuning appointment with our fabulous tuner, Nick McMahan, located at the race performance shop, Mofab LLC.
Our goal was to setup our 10-position switch for boost control, get our shift computer dialed in with our new software version, and make final checkups that we are good to go for another assault on the mountain! Things went pretty smoothly however as soon as we moved to the shift computer tuning, we quickly found problems. From 3rd to 4th and 4th to 3rd had issues. No matter what timing adjustments we made on the ignition cut or actuator delay, we could never get consistent shifts. If this system was not bullet-proof and I could not rely on it 100%, it isn't worth it to run. Miss-shifts are killer on the mountain and any gains from a paddle shift kit would be wiped away. Unfortunately, in the end, we threw in the towel and left scratching our heads at the shifting although we all had a bad feeling that something wasn't right with the transaxle.
Fast forward a few days and our fears became reality. The gearbox was no good. It needed to come out for some TLC.
And so it did. Taking out the gearbox meant it wiped away our test time that we were planning on accomplishing over the next several weeks. Would be well worth it though as the car could simply not be competitive in its current state.
The PBS gearbox has been a thorn in our side ever since putting it in the car. We have struggled with the shift mechanism and most of the time it results in wearing out the dog rings allowing slipping to occur when attempting to shift. This type of problem gets worse and worse as each miss shift occurs. Enter Weddle Transaxles...
In talking with Sean Ritchie at Weddle Industries, whom now services my gearboxes, I got some very good news. I could transfer a good portion of my internals (already Weddle parts) and upgrade the case and shift mechanism to a Weddle Gen3 ratchet system. This system was originally designed for my type of application with paddle shift kits in mind. By luck, there was one more Gen3 in stock and it could have my name on it. With sponsor support from Weddle, I pulled the trigger and we moved forward with the transfer. I was very impressed with the customer service and speedy turnaround time that Weddle provided. They literally saved my year by coming through and getting me going again.
Having missed critical test time, I decided to scrap the idea of a paddle shift system and go with manual shifting. The Gen3 ratchet system would still work like butter and I was really looking forward to not having to think about getting the car to shift. This way, I could also focus on handling and setup of the car. So after getting the car all back together, our schedule was pretty full leading up to our early tire test session on Pikes Peak. Thursday, we aligned the car at Revolutions Performance. Friday we tested at Pueblo Motorsports Park. That left Saturday and Sunday to Test on the Mountain in the bottom section. With one day after another, it felt like Peak week all over again. Non-stop work and focus on the car.
We spent tons of time on the alignment rack. Off season updates to the rear uprights and front A-arms (now aero tube'd!) left everything out of wack and no where close to a baseline. Chris at Revolutions Performance was awesome and got us squared up and ready to rock and roll.
The very next day we headed down to Pueblo to shake the car out for the first time. Even though we had some set backs, I was very thankful to get this opportunity to stretch its legs. More for getting myself comfortable again! The session proved to be very fruitful as we were able to start dialing the handling in as the car ran really really well! We did have a few issues that we had to overcome, but all-in-all I was very happy at our progress. And I don't have to mention Pueblo in the middle of the summer is freaking hot!! Our stints were short because of it, and I was baking in that sun!
Less than 12 hours later we were on the mountain. The nice cool mountain. :) For early testing I signed up for two sessions, both on the bottom section. I really wanted to focus on that part of the course because I knew I could improve the most on that area and that is the section that counts for qualifying. It is especially important to get a good qualifying spot for race day as our 2019 proved why; we didn't qualify well and had to run a shortened course due to rain coming in. No fun! What made this year even more interesting is our first day on the mountain for race week is the bottom section qualifying. So I thought this would give me a good edge to really get some good practice in beforehand. The day turned out to be a great one. We made 6 full runs, normally unheard of! Typically we get 2-3 runs in on the bottom section. With so much seat time, we were able to make steady progress every run and dialed in the tire pressures, shock settings, and camber. In the end, we were the fastest of the day and just a few seconds off the 10-minute pace that I constantly have my eye on.
The next day we were able to continue our development and the car really came alive after some very good adjustments. I was just starting to really push the car to its limits. However, the ups and downs of racing struck again. I was coming down one of the faster straights right below the Ski Area going over 100 mph, I started to break for the sharp left turn. My breaking point was at the same point as a big dip in the road. The force of braking and the bump broke a rod-end on the left front a-arm. The suspension buckled underneath and I did everything I could to get the car slowed down before the guardrail at the end would make sure I stopped. Fortunately, I slowed in time and putted around the turn and parked it next to the corner workers. My day was done. Luckily, it wasn't worse than it could have been!
Still though, I was very pleased with our progress and knew there was so much potential left in the car.
The next week gave me time to clean the car up, put on some finishing touches and make sure everything was in tip-top shape for race week. The first weirdness of COVID restrictions occurred with the Drivers meeting. Normally on the evening in-between Tech inspection and first practice day, instead it was an online Zoom meeting half a week prior to Tech inspection during mid-day, meaning most competitors were still at home working or still getting prepped.
I was able to take a short break from my work and get signed in. It was pretty comical to see fellow competitors in there surrounds wherever they were. Most were in an office, but as you can imagine there was all types of things. One competitor was driving with the laptop setup in the passenger seat. Another was hanging out on a lake boat shirtless. And I even caught one well-known driver picking his nose!
Final Preparations for Race week. I love the Tiger Shark decals!!
And fully put together. I added some racing strips down the middle too. You may notice my rain tires in the picture are not your typical tires. They are Pikes Peak Specials from the dirt days! I have run them before on asphalt and like how they handle so I decided to use these in case it rains. Hoosier now makes them and we run them for our CHCA races on the dirt. The look pretty cool on the car!
Photo op! Tech inspection went pretty smooth and it gave the crew a chance to admire the good work done so far. They did awesome all month long and I am very grateful to have them on board!!
With that out of the way, anticipation quickly ramped up. We would be on the mountain the next morning for qualifying. No pressure!
The tone was pretty determined this morning as were felt comfortable from the test days we were able to have from before. Plus, there were much fewer people around the pit area with spectators not being allowed on the mountain this year.
To say qualifying was a success is an understatement! Not only did we qualify well under our goal time, we were within seconds of the top competitors in my class. The very seasoned Clint Vahsholtz and Paul Dallenbach. I have been watching those two go up this mountain since the 90s when I was a teenager volunteering in the race with my family. :)
The rest of the week was kind of a blur with very smooth days of practice. We made steady improvements every run and kept up the sub-ten minute pace. I felt more and more confident and knew I could go even faster. Every run I would creep a little bit closer to Paul and Clint however, they would match the improvement and I remained a few seconds from them at the end of the session. Still though, just to be within striking distance had me really believing I could beat them.
This year was all business as we would get home, prep the car for the next day and get some well needed sleep. Because qualification is for overall run order, no matter what class, we had to wait until all classes finished qualifying. In the end, we were very proud to have qualified 3rd in class and 9th overall! The five cars ahead of us were all within just a couple of seconds of each other. The competition was tight and anything could happen. We were really happy to be right there in the mix with some of the best drivers to ever have raced here. In fact, of the eight drivers ahead of me, six of them I have signatures from when I was watching them as a kid. So surreal to be just behind them. The cool thing is that I knew I can go faster and hopefully surprise them on Race Day. :)
The other bummer of COVID was that Fan-fest was cancelled. That is usually a ton of fun however exhausting in its own right. So, the bright side being that we were well rested and ready for race day!
What a day it was. Bright, sunny, spectacular! Race day started out as any other time with a little hectic-ness with all the activity in the morning; Prayer service with Layne Schranz, getting the car out and all setup, drivers meeting, and packing a bag for the shuttle to take to the top. All that quickly slowed down as the race officials announced a two hour delay due to ice on top of the mountain. Great, one more thing that could effect our ultimate goal of getting under ten minutes. At least they were working to get a clear course for us.
The delay left a lot of time to, well, sit around, yep, sit and get nervous. Apparently, I like the busyness of getting all ready to go and not waiting. I sat and sat and sat and the anxiety silently crept up. Keep it together Novembre, you only get one chance a year and you can't let it slip away again like those other years! I felt like I was walking around like the Jack Nicholson meme:
When the race finally got underway, I could start focusing again at the task at hand. Before I knew it I was in the car in my pit stall waiting for what seemed like an eternity to get the go-ahead to head down to the start for staging. One of the wonderful things the race officials did was to be very efficient at staging and allowed competitors to stay in their pit stall to keep the tire warmers on as long as possible. It was very impressive once we got the go-ahead for us to get down, get weighed, and then lined up to start.
It was awesome to see the support of fellow competitors and their crew. I could feel the energy of the start line and was so ready for another chance at this race run. A run I had been waiting for more than a year since we were rained out in 2019. So much work has been done to get to this point.
And just like that, we are off and running! I quickly found the limits of the tires especially on the tighter turns. It felt very slick but I was hoping it was due to pushing the car as hard as I could go.
I had a few mistakes here and there but mostly felt good. One big mistake around the sump-house turn had me take it down a notch as I couldn't get away with too many of those occurrences. I tried to remain aggressive but controlled. It is a fine balance and hopefully, all the practice times that I have run help with muscle memory.
Before I know it, we are at the top! The car made it, I made it, it was a strong run, but I have felt like that before only to be disappointed in my time. I got to the top and started getting unbuckled. It was eerily quite as I waited for someone to tell me my time. All of a sudden I hear Layne Schranz yell and come jumping my way. He pointed at me saying that I had done it, I had gone under ten! I couldn't believe it! I was so so happy as we have been trying for years to accomplish this goal. Such gut and determination went into this. Official time was a 9:50.329. Personal best by 15 seconds! Good enough for 7th overall and 4th in class.
So happy to see Derek Jordan, the flagman, at the summit!
I have to thank my family for allowing me to live out my dreams and compete in this insane race that is in our backyard. They sacrifice so much for me. I am extremely grateful for their support.
I couldn't have done this without my crew: Terry Cooper, Patrick Bernard, and Brett Rice. They methodically tweaked the car every run and we kept getting faster and faster. It was beautiful to see the thought put into every detail. There isn't a better crew on the mountain than those three!
Also big thanks to Rodney and Earl O'Maley, fellow competitors that have helped me with my car build. So fun to race with too.
I also have to thank my sponsors for I couldn't do this with out support. Overdrive Raceway, Mofab LLC, Weddle Industries, Hoosier Racing Tires, Garrett Turbos, and AEM Electronics.
We finally did it! So thrilled and already aching to go again. 2021 is already being strategized and I can't wait to continue to improve. See you all then!!