Hill Climb revving up for record-breaking event

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There has been a lot of hype surrounding the 2012 Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.

Believe it.

This race will be bigger, faster and already is set to make more money than all previous years. Even though race organizers had to reschedule the event — from July 8 to Aug. 12 because of the Waldo Canyon fire — they promise the Race to the Clouds won’t miss a beat.

In the fire’s aftermath, the Hill Climb just might be the sporting distraction and infusion of economic activity that Colorado Springs needs. Six years ago, when the race was one-third the size, it brought in an estimated $4.4 million to the local economy.

“For all the competitors and fans, it will still be the 90th running that we had planned for July 8 and it will still be spectacular,” said Megan Leatham, Hill Climb director of operations.

After all, this year the entire road to race history is paved, with the final sections completed after last year’s race. And that has already made a difference. The 12.42-mile paved course up Pikes Peak Highway attracted many new competitors — those with cars two inches off the ground who wouldn’t dream of racing on gravel, and those who want to test the performance of electric cars.

The Hill Climb is the second oldest auto race in the U.S., behind only the Indianapolis 500, and has always attracted big names in racing, from Mario Andretti, Rick Mears and Parnelli Jones to Bobby Unser and the rest of the iconic Unser family. Longtime Hill Climb board member and self-proclaimed gear head Ed Sauer put it this way: “It’s the thrill of the mountain.”

The paved road changes everything, and buzz swept through the racing community as soon as the last mile of the road work was completed in September. The highway’s first six-mile stretch (below the Hill Climb’s start line) was paved in the 1950s, but the entire race was on dirt and gravel until the past decade.

Thirteen years ago, the city was required to pave the entire length of the highway after settling a lawsuit with the Sierra Club, which claimed the dirt highway was causing erosion and affecting the watershed.

Sauer, who is president of Bank at Broadmoor, a race sponsor, admits no one on the Hill Climb board wanted that road paved. They believed it would be the race’s undoing.

But the rush of competitors to enter this year’s race changed their minds, he said. And now, weeks before the green flag signals the start of the Hill Climb, records already have been broken. There are more competitors, more sponsors, more international media and more hotel bookings than last year, which had broken all previous records.

For race organizers, it all adds up to a healthy bottom line. Leatham expects the race to make enough money this year so she can sock away about $300,000 for next’s year’s race. It’s a big accomplishment considering just a few years ago the race was $200,000 in the hole and the Hill Climb board was on the verge of shutting down the event.

Broadmoor founder Spencer Penrose started the Hill Climb in 1916 to publicize the opening of Pikes Peak Highway. And, the race had only been canceled during World War I and World War II. Race organizers credit the 300 volunteers, who have fallen in love with the Hill Climb as Penrose did, with saving the event from doom.

“The really cool part of this race is the passion that surrounds it,” Leatham said.

In the past week, Leatham has been on the phone and Internet with competitors in 15 nations to alert them to the new date. Despite the logistical challenge, only about 10 of the original 211 entrants were unable to reschedule for the new date.

Last year’s champion, Japanese driver Nobuhiro Tajima, said he wouldn’t miss it. He broke the 10-minute milestone last year and now is revved up to take on the mountain in an electric car. Race organizers have been told Tajima has spent more than $1 million on his electric car, which won’t lose as much power climbing altitude as a gas-powered car, meaning he could once again break the record.

Motorcycles too are chasing the 10-minute goal. The current record is 11 minutes, 11 seconds. But the paved road just may help them smash that record. In practice runs in June, the Ducati motorcycles were picking up one minute in time.

“The scary part is it’s going to be fast . . . 12 miles, 156 turns in 10 minutes — pretty thrilling,” Sauer said.

And, that’s not just hype.