Pike’s Peak International Hill Climb: Day Two

Wil Kitchens at Pike's Peak

It’s 2:35 am when you realize you’ve overslept. Mad scramble to grab clothes and wake your roommate. Thankfully, you were smart enough to prep your camera bag the night before with only the required gear and credentials. Pile into the pickup truck and drag a racecar two thirds of the way up a mountain in the dark. The driver jokingly teases you that the first time you’ll go to the top is in a truck driven by a half-asleep man, in the dark, towing a trailer, while doing twenty over the limit.

Once you finally hit the dirt parking lot, at the ominously named Devil’s Playground (which a race official helpfully informed you was the highest point for lighting strikes in the country), you grab the ramps, and unload the car. Then, it’s the time honored tradition of “hurry up and wait”. That’s my biggest takeaway from this weekend. A huge percentage of racing involves just waiting. So then you all pile back into the truck, and try to catch an hour’s sleep until the sun comes up.

The early hours are not just for the sake of drama. Pikes Peak is a national park, that is open to the public. So all practice and qualifying has to be completed before the roads open to the public. Hence, early mornings and sleep deprivation.

Pike's Peak media

For a bit of background, I’m an asthmatic. That’s a fancy way of saying my lungs don’t really work that well. I once lived in an oxygen tent for a few weeks as a child, to stop me from dying. That was at Missouri elevation. Now in less than 24 hours, I’ve gone from that, to probably 11,000 feet above sea level. Curled up in the driver’s seat of a Dodge Ram, I had to consciously attempt to regulate my breathing and slow my breath. Don’t panic. You’re not dying. You can do this. Deep breath, hold it, stretch the lungs, relax. Eventually, I was able to nod off.

In an effort to actually get traction, the IDB Racing team opted to wait for full sun up, in the hope that the pavement might warm up enough for the slicks to work. But other teams began running as soon as there was enough light to see the road. And I needed to generate content. Also, I needed to learn the ins and outs of this mortar tube of a lens I’d rented. Extended out to the full 400mm range, with a hood, the telephoto is an imposing bit of kit.

So I stumbled out into the biting morning air. I did notice I was one of the few people without a cap or gloves. Oh. Maybe this was worse than I expected. Too late now. Slowly trudging my way along the trail, I tried to pick out a good vantage point. This part was always difficult for me, just trying to retrain my brain. Even at its shortest length, the telephoto lens was longer than anything I’ve ever used. So I was constantly closer than I needed to be.

But eventually, through trial and error, I started to dial it in. The majority of my photos will have to wait, because in a fun twist, the bag containing my laptop charging cable and mouse, as well as all my recording gear, was “misplaced” by some baggage handlers. Fun! So I’m trying to type this before the laptop turns into an oversized paperweight. I am working with the law of averages here. If I shoot a few thousand photos, sheer random probability means at least a handful should be usable. That being said, built in stabilization in a lens is the greatest thing of all time.

Watching a hill climb is basically identical to watching a stage rally. You have no real idea what’s happening at any time. You find a spot on the side of the road, preferably one with elevation, and a rock you can stand behind. Because while these folks are semi-professionals, and the surface is paved, accidents happen. Kitchens himself spun the CRX the day before, and went off the inside of a hairpin. So watch your footing. Don’t die for Instagram likes.

Pike's Peak

So you find a spot, and wait. Where I was stationed, I couldn’t see the previous section of road. So I would sit, and wait for the sound of screaming engines and chirping blow off valves. Then I’d grab the lens, aim for where the road came into view, and mash the shutter button right before I expected the car to come into view. As fast as these cars are, even at altitude, you need to anticipate their position. If you try to follow it, you’ll wind up with a lot of beautiful photos of the back half of a car. Lead the target. Eventually, I found a spot that allowed me to get the close shot, and then do a half turn, extend out to full range, and follow the car up the next climb.

Every so often, a man on a four wheeler would tear ass up the road, hanging way out off the side of the machine. Shortly thereafter, you’d see all the cars that had ran up come back down in a slow parade. Spotting that madman on a quad was the sign to expect a reset. So whenever I would see him, I’d take that time to move to a different location. Otherwise, cars are running every few minutes, and if you’re walking too much in that period, you’ll miss something.
Eventually, the CRX of IDB Racing came barreling around the bend in all its winged glory. Sheer madness that thing is. All barking exhaust and popping wastegate. This isn’t the same Honda driven by the Jimmy John’s driver.

Watching the in-car footage later made me realize how much more insane it was than I anticipated. And I anticipated pretty damn crazy. You can see the torque steer violently yank the wheel to the side at each corner, causing Kitchens to have to catch it, and wrestle it back straight again. He described it as being similar to a speed wobble on a motorcycle, but it did it at every single bend.

As 9:00am crept closer, I began the long slog back to the parking lot. I couldn’t remember how far I had come, and cell phones and radios don’t really work up there. The last thing I wanted was to be stranded. Scratch that, the last thing I wanted to do was to annoy the men who had let me into their circle. So when I saw the four wheeler run up the mountain again, I headed back. For some reason, the walk down is worse than the walk up. Your brain starts to get confused, and your equilibrium goes. Or maybe that’s just me, from a lifetime of living in the plains.

Coming up next time: breakdowns, emergency repairs, block parties, and more.


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