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The latest heroes behind the Hill Climb

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Once upon a time, the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb didn't worry about surviving.

The local organization was strong and funding sufficient. Sponsors helped produce enough prize money to make a difference.

The competitors were plentiful, especially in the stock-car and open-wheel divisions, with lots of local drivers who had their own followings. There was a time when the depth of entrants was so strong that, especially for stock cars, drivers had to qualify well or perhaps not be able to run in the Race to the Clouds.

Those glory days began to fade a bit, first in the 1980s and more during the '90s. Motorcycles were added to increase the appeal, and many of the familiar drivers led by the likes of Leonard and Clint Vahsholtz, Gay Smith, David Donner, Bobby Regester, Ralph Bruning, John Wells and others kept coming back, no matter how much it pushed their finances.

Along the way, foreign car-makers picked up some slack, starting with Audi (Michele Mouton, John Buffum and the one-time comeback of Bobby Unser Sr. ) in the '80s, then Toyota (Rod Millen) in the '90s and now Suzuki with Nobuhiro Tajima, who last year broke Millen's overall race record with a time of 10 minutes, 1.408 seconds.

This year's hill climb is Sunday, with Tajima back once again to try cracking the mystical, elusive 10-minute barrier.

As the years have passed, though, the race has changed in many ways. Sponsorships and prize money aren't what they used to be. As of last year, qualifying is a thing of the past. This time, what's now known as the Super Stock Car class has only six entries, and the Open Wheel division nine.

Other categories have come along to help fill some of the gap, and the motorcycles are strong as usual with 120 riders taking part in a handful of classes. In all, counting exhibitions, 188 vehicles will head for the summit.

It's worth going to the race, even if you stay around the start line. Some of my best years at the hill climb have been roaming around in the pit area as the drivers and their crews and families prepare for their runs.

There's still a group of local businessmen overseeing the race. But by past standards, the hill climb of today is almost hanging by a thread. Actually, let's make that two threads. We're talking about two special men, without whom the race organization might not have enough willpower to keep going.

Bob Gillis and Phil Layton have been involved with the hill climb for decades. Gillis, who runs TCI Tire Centers downtown, serves as president of the race's board of directors. Layton, who first got into racing on the safety and medical side, is the race director, which puts him in charge of everything.

You may not have heard much about them, and that's just fine with them. Part of their motivation has been to carry on for others who came before, people like Thayer Tutt, Bob Isaac and countless other civic leaders, along with those who made the race practically their whole lives, such as former race director Nick Sanborn.

You'll never see Gillis or Layton act like they own the oldest auto race west of the Mississippi River. They're simply dedicated to keeping it alive, which has become more challenging in these different times.

They believe something else: The Race to the Clouds is worth saving, because of its history, uniqueness and ever-changing identity. Perhaps someday it'll be nothing but hybrids and electric-powered vehicles. But as long as cars are part of American life, there should be a Pikes Peak Hill Climb.

And thanks to Bob Gillis and Phil Layton (though they'd surely try to deflect the credit to many others), it's still happening.

routon@csindy.com


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Don't miss it British Open TV: Thursday-Friday, 5 a.m. to 5 p.m., TNT; Saturday, 5-7 a.m., TNT, 7 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., ABC; Sunday, 4-6 a.m., TNT; 6 a.m. to conclusion, ABC. Pikes Peak International Hill Climb
Pikes Peak Highway, Cascade
9 a.m. Sunday, but no traffic beyond Crystal Reservoir after 8 a.m.
Tickets are $40 (10 and older) at toll gate or ticketswest.com

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