The Mountain Vs. The Weather – 2017 Pikes Peak International Hill Climb

Photos by Sean Cridland

Anyone who thinks racing up Pikes Peak is easy has never been there. Though the course is only twelve and a half miles long, it includes 156 corners, climbs from 9,500 to 14,114 feet above sea level, and winds through several microclimates. Run off areas include boulders, trees, and endless expanses of sky. A winning effort is more akin to an Everest expedition than a road race.

David Donohue, driving “FrankenPorsche”, prepares for his race day start before the clouds moved in. Donohue designed the radical front airdam.

Six Porsche teams entered the 2017 edition. Veteran hill-climbers Chris Lennon and David Donner were joined by rookies Les Long, Robert Gardner, Romain Dumas protégé Laure Many, and Le Mans and Daytona winner David Donohue. Lennon was driving the same RSR tribute car that’s already taken him to a win. Donner was entered in the same GT3 R that took him to victory in 2016. Long and Gardner with both driving GT3 Cups. Donohue was entered by Porsche of Colorado Springs in a car they lovingly referred to as FrankenPorsche, or, as it was labelled on the rear lid, Porsche 911 Turbo S GT3R America Cup, as it had parts from all those models! Porsche factory driver Romain Dumas was back with an improved version of his Norma-Honda prototype.

Les Long’s vast experience on road courses never before included events where the runoff area was a snowbank.
Long, in practice, is climbing his way toward real snow.

On-mountain testing began the first weekend of June, when temperatures at altitude were still frigid. Combined with the usual obstacles, competitors wound between snow banks, some as high as thirty feet. No matter. Pikes Peak veterans know: you can never have enough time on this mountain. A quarter of a second gain on each corner equals close to forty seconds a run. Plus, it’s important to see how the road changed over the winter. Frost heaves in the braking zone of one corner near the top have tossed several cars into the boulders in just the last three years.

Les Long emerges from a seeming cauldron of weather. Moisture on the pavement is apparent.

During this year’s final practice, weather moved in uncharacteristically early. While photographers enjoyed snapping shots of racecars emerging from frothy clouds, racers were intimidated by driving the Ws – a portion of the course most notable for steep cliffs and BIG air – in dense fog. Wildlife can also be a factor, with several drivers reporting bear sightings, the ever-present marmots, and mountain goats and sheep curious about the sound of unmuffled racing engines.

This year, the Porsche contingent also faced some serious competition from other marques. Rhys Millen was back with the Hyundai Elantra with which he won overall in 2012 and Peter Cunningham was driving an Acura specially prepared for the Pikes Peak Open Class. Despite the challenge, both Donohue and Donner thought they could race for the win.

Romain Dumas leaves the start on race day in the updated Norma-Honda prototype.
To say racecars get rebuilt between sessions is no exaggeration. Here the Dumas crew has the Norma-Honda almost completely disassembled before race day.

Roman Dumas was fastest in qualifying and ran first, easily taking the win, but set a time of “only” 9:05. Reportedly, he suffered a loose spark plug wire, which put him considerably down on power. Peter Cunningham set a blistering time of 9: 33 in the Acura to take second overall. Local legend Clint Vahsholtz took third with his open-wheel car at a very fast 9:35, and Rhys Millen set a 9:47 to take the lead in Time Attack 1, the realm of Porsches for the past several years.

Chris Lennon was ran his RSR tribute, setting a personal best time up the mountain on race day.

Some odd problems in qualifying meant Chris Lennon in his RSR tribute was the first Porsche off the line. For a car of its age and power, Lennon did well, setting a personal best of 10:50, eventually good enough for 25th overall. Starting right behind him was Pikes Peak rookie Les Long. Long, who has extensive experience on road courses, found America’s Mountain an entirely different kind of challenge. Still, he did the work, brought in legendary chassis tuner Greg Fordahl to set up his car and rose to the occasion with a 10:57, good enough for fourth in Time Attack 1. Robert Gardner had a safe, but solid run to set an 11:19.9. Then came Donohue.

Above left, Chris Lennon and his wife Kathleen; above right, Les Long, center, with friends.

Above left, David Donohue; right, Robert Gardner.

David Donner drove the FrankenPorsche – in its original 991 Turbo S incarnation – setting the Time Attack 2 record in 2015. For 2017, team principle Joe Brenner decided to bring it up a few notches. Cobb performance tuned the engine to more than 900 horsepower.  The suspension was upgraded to GT3 Cup specs, and RB provided special brakes. Wings and splitters came from GT3 RSR. Donohue himself drew up the template for the vertical front air dams. Everything came together late, with testing only starting in early June. A turbo sensor issue triggered the car into limp mode during qualifying. He had done some fast segments in testing, but could he make it to the top?

Above left, David Donner; center, Laure Many; right, Romain Dumas.
David Donohue drives FrankenPorsche up the mountain. Note the radical front airdam.

By Donohue’s start time, dark clouds were approaching. Nonetheless, when called upon, the Porsche launch control worked perfectly and off he went. “I gave away some time on the bottom from lack of grip,” he said later, “but on top the car was fast. I gave it everything I had, but I’m not entirely satisfied with my run. I know there’s more.” His time: 9:49.954, just two and half seconds behind the veteran Millen. Donohue’s response: “I’m planning for 2018.”

Not even electric tire warmers will keep that looming black sky from interrupting the race day.

Then, the dark clouds dumped hail and sleet on the upper two-thirds of the course just as Laure Many began her ascent. Running into horrible road conditions, she was lucky to make it to the summit in 20:45. Unfortunately, 2016 Time Attack 1 champion, David Donner, was waiting his turn in line. His day was done before it started, a huge disappointment. He had recently installed a brand new engine and a transmission specially tailored to the demands of Pikes Peak. With ratios better suited for climbing in steep, first-gear corners, he was looking to take twenty to thirty seconds of his previous year’s time. Donner’s run was stillborn, leaving him – and all the Porsche fans – wondering what if? Could he have beaten Millen’s time to take another Pikes Peak win?

We’ll have to wait till 2018.

David Donner races not only the time but also the weather.

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