Race to the Clouds regains its traction

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For the average tourist, a trip to the summit of Pikes Peak means ambling ever upward in the family minivan — the cooler packed with sandwiches, the air conditioning on full blast and the children strapped in the back screaming about who’s touching whom.

And while the 14,110-foot summit is accessible most summer days to everybody with a few hours to spare and two or more wheels beneath them, this Sunday’s Peak will eat your minivan’s lunch.

June 29 marks the 92nd running of America’s second-oldest motor race, now officially known as the Broadmoor Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.

Only the Indianapolis 500 is older. And while maintaining the iconic event has been an uphill battle some years, the Race to the Clouds has recently begun to hit on all cylinders. 

“Everyone works year-round for this one-day event,” said Tom Osborne, president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Sports Corporation. “It’s like the racer preparing year-round and having one shot at the mountain. That’s what makes this so exciting.”

According to the race’s Executive Director Megan Leatham, the event was teetering on a precipice less than a decade ago. Discussions took place over whether the hill climb would continue.

“The hill climb was in dire straits in connection with El Pomar [Foundation],” Leatham said. “They came to Sports Corp seven years ago and the [Pikes Peak International Hill Climb], which is a 501(c)3 contracts with Sports Corp, which tightened the budget and began to garner big sponsors. That’s what turned it around.”

Leatham said Sports Corp is “still contracted to maintain stability. I don’t see that changing in the near future.”

Not only has the Sports Corp maintained stability, it has boosted the event’s global recognition. Osborne said, as the nonprofit increased its viability, it was able to invest in Lincoln Floyd, director of development. 

Tom Osborne, president and CEO of the Sports Corp, tours the new PPIHC museum at The Broadmoor. It will open Tuesday.

Tom Osborne, president and CEO of the Sports Corp, tours the new PPIHC museum at The Broadmoor. It will open Tuesday.

On Facebook alone, according to Leatham, Floyd increased the PPIHC’s fans from 3,000 when she arrived to 63,000 today.   

“We didn’t have the financial wherewithal [to market the event] early on,” Osborne said, adding there are also 170 race teams, each with a social-media presence. “We were just taking it one step at a time. It’s only been the last couple years we could hire a new staff person. … We’ve been watching the budget so tightly before; now we have some money and are in a growth stage.”

Leatham said the race is more stable now than it has been in the past, but not stable enough.

“Since I’ve been hired, the board has stressed being budget-conscious,” she said. “Recent success has allowed more flexibility financially, but the goal is to keep a tight budget. I won’t feel 100 percent secure in the financial stability of the race until we have the next year’s operating expenses in the bank, and we’re not there yet. I want to be in a position where, if for some reason we don’t get sponsorship, we still know the next year’s race will happen.” 

The PPIHC’s operating budget is $850,000 annually and, according to Osborne, funding comes from sponsorships, ticket sales and entry fees.

Key sponsors include The Broadmoor as title sponsor, as well as Hankook Tires and Mitsubishi. Additional funding comes from the 3 percent Lodgers and Automobile Rental Tax, or LART. 

Yet, Leatham said the budget doesn’t begin to act as a measure of the cost involved. More than 150 volunteers, as well as 60 deputies from El Paso and Teller counties’ sheriff’s offices, 11 volunteer board members, eight fire departments and 150 race officials who make just enough to cover gas expenses, facilitate the event each year.

“It takes a community to pull this off,” Leatham said. “Financially, if we hired all of these positions, we would be in the red each year.”

More money, more problems 

Fan attendance, like the budget, has also increased steadily the past several years, which has led to a new set of problems, according to Leatham. This year’s race, for the first time ever, will have designated areas for seating, a change from past years when fans were free to roam about the Pikes Peak Highway. 

“We had 6,000 people on the hill in 2012,” Leatham said. “Last year we were at 8,000. 

“If the city invests $150,000 and gets a return of $6 million, it’s a great return on your investment.” 

– Tom Osborne

“There’s good and bad to that,” she explained. “Revenues from ticket sales are good, but that’s a scary number of people out on a very fast race course. We may have to limit ticket sales in the future. We’ve discussed it internally. If we saw a major increase this year, we won’t be afraid to do it. But we would also do it with the intent to make the viewing experience as awesome as it can be.”

Leatham said that would include selling tickets for specific viewing areas that would provide merchandise, food and drink vendors and televisions with live streams of the race.

She added that, even with assigned seating, the PPIHC is still one of the most fan-accessible races in the world.

“One unique aspect for this race compared to others is the general access the fan has to competitors,” she said. “During Fan Fest, they can go up and shake hands. Even on race day, spectators can park below the start line and walk the pits. I give the competitors all the credit in the world for how they interact with the fans. They are phenomenal and understand this is such a unique race.”

Osborne said businesses in the city benefit from the hill climb, whether they are directly involved or not. 

“Successful annual events are so important to the community. Hotels know they’ll be packed, and they count on it,” Osborne said. “Colorado Springs sees the economic impact. The race brings in somewhere around $6 million a year. If the city invests $150,000 and gets a return of $6 million, it’s a great return on your investment, which is what the LART committee is looking for these days.”  

Osborne added that the value of the international media coverage is priceless, and that three films are being produced around this year’s hill climb, including the Discovery Channel’s “Fast and Loud” with a viewership of 2 million in 130 countries, as well as Canada’s “MegaSpeed” and “Speed with Guy Martin” out of Europe. 

Leatham said the hill climb is one example of Sports Corp’s many successful behind-the-scenes efforts to bring quality sporting events to Colorado Springs.

“There are so many things that happen in this city that Sports Corp has its hand in — in a positive way,” she said. “But they don’t seek the credit. One thing I’ve learned about strength in leadership is how to be humble.

“That’s what Sports Corp is about. They care about the success of the events and the impact it has on the city. They don’t care about much else.” nCSBJ

If you go …

Tickets for The Broadmoor Pikes Peak International Hill Climb are available online
at www.ppihc.com.

Race Day general admission: $40 online

Race Day general admission week of race: $50 online — tickets are available for purchase in person during race week at the locations listed on the Race Week Schedule available on the official website.

Package Deals:

Family 4 Pack: $135 — in order to use the Family 4 Pack, all four people must be in one vehicle (sold online only).

Camping permits: sold out

Pikes Peak Hill Climb

(Approximate cumulative impacts for 2005-2014)

• 160,700 visitor nights
• $60.4 million in sales by
local businesses
• 114 local jobs annual average (full-time equivalent)
• $22.8 million in local payrolls
• $846,600 in city sales taxes
• $249,500 in city lodging and auto rental taxes
• $338,600 in county sales taxes
• $331,900 in RTA sales taxes
• $981,700 in state sales taxes
• $628,000 in state income taxes

(Source: Colorado Springs Sports Corporation)