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Climbing America's Mountain

The Hill Climb hurdles over setbacks in a race to escape the red

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Nubohiro "Monster" Tajima and Yutaka "Genius" Awazuhara race to beat the 10-minute barrier on Pikes Peak. - MEGGEN BURGHARDT
  • Meggen Burghardt
  • Nubohiro "Monster" Tajima and Yutaka "Genius" Awazuhara race to beat the 10-minute barrier on Pikes Peak.

The biggest change in the 79th Pikes Peak International Hill Climb will not be a noticeable one on the mountain. The racing will be as tense as usual, with drivers skirting the course's 156 curves with daredevil precision, making onlookers gasp before nosing the roaring racecar from the edge of the abyss. But, for the first time in as long as anyone can remember, the event will have begun its fiscal year in the black.

Low attendance at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb Educational Museum in Manitou Springs forced the organization to close the museum doors and sell the property. The closing of the museum caused speculation regarding the fiscal health of the 85-year-old racing event, second in longevity only to the Indianapolis 500.

"We had several years of operating in the red which forced us to take drastic steps," Hill Climb CEO Mike Clark said. "Now that we've taken the steps we had to take, we think we can operate the race over the next few years."

Hill Climb officials estimated that the race was losing $50,000 to $60,000 a year, due to its continued subsidization of the museum, which opened in 1989. Hill Climb officials estimate that, without the cost of operating the museum, the race will actually turn a profit in 2001.

In another cost-saving measure, Hill Climb officials changed the date of the race, which has been run on July 4 since 1991. This year's race will run on June 30, when it will be less expensive to rent the road from the City of Colorado Springs. The City will benefit as well, keeping the Pikes Peak Highway open to tourists on July 4, the height of the season.

No sooner had the race date been moved than the next hurdle appeared on the horizon. In a Colorado Springs City Council meeting last November, the Council decided not to provide the Hill Climb with money from its Lodging and Rental Tax (LART) fund, a tourist tax added to hotel room and rental car fees in Colorado Springs. It is estimated that drivers, employees, officials and fans of the Hill Climb contribute about $6 million dollars to the area economy annually, and last year the City Council granted $30,000 -- less than one percent of LART revenue -- to the race. (In reality, the LART money only exchanged hands on paper before going right back to the city-owned Pikes Peak Highway for road rental costs.)

News that the LART money had been denied came as the museum was closing operations, leading to speculation that the race might be discontinued. "It was an unfortunate accident of timing," Clark said. "The city was faced with the same things as us -- operating in a reasonable economic style. I don't like the decision, but it was their decision to make. Losing the LART, that hurt. But is it going to drive us out of business? No."

Clark has reason to be optimistic about the Hill Climb's future. He negotiated a new, more lucrative four-year contract with ESPN, which broadcasts the race throughout the year on ESPN2, and is shown in 56 countries.

But a chief concern remains: securing a title sponsor. Adelphia decided not to return in that role this year, choosing to support the event on a regional rather than national level.

"[Even] without a title sponsor, the race will go on for the foreseeable future," Clark said.

The race has faced tough times before -- it was run in 1998 and 1999 without title sponsors -- but the situation calls for strategic planning. The Hill Climb is wooing Suzuki, which brought some 450 executives and their families to the race, most from Japan, where the event has a tremendous following. The Hill Climb has secured smaller corporate sponsorships from Faulken Tire and Strana ZF, a super truck -- big trucks -- racing series of all things. But entrants in the car and truck divisions are down to 46, from 79 last year, and prize money is down to $70,000 from $120,000.

"We've cut back as far as we can without destroying [the event]," Clark said. Will they cut back more in the future? The board of directors meets July 1 to discuss its strategy.

Other changes down the road include paving the Pikes Peak Highway over the next 10 years. In accord with a 1999 environmental assessment by the U.S. Forest Service, an erosion control construction project is due to begin later this summer. Paving the highway is expected to solve about 30 percent of the erosion problem, while engineering -- building better drainage, for instance -- is expected to solve the other 70 percent. While the pavement might change the character of the race, Hill Climb officials say the race will just have to adapt.

As for the race itself, the Sprint division has been consolidated into the Open Wheel division, where 1991 champion David Donner of Colorado Springs returns after racing in the High Performance Showroom Stock for the past three years. The Super Stock Truck division and High-Tech Truck/SUV divisions have merged to form the Super Truck/SUV division, where Woodland Park's Leonard Vahsholtz will vie for his 12th overall title. His son, Clint Vahsholtz will go for his ninth title, which would put the 30-year-old from Woodland Park in the company of elites like Louie Unser. The younger Vahsholtz will go for his sixth straight Super Stock Car division title, to go with three motorcycle titles he's won.

Rod Millen, who set the overall race record of 10 minutes, 4.06 seconds in 1994, will not be returning in 2001. Toyota, which had sponsored Millen's efforts in previous years, has opted not to return in 2001. Millen said he intends to return to the race in 2002.

Millen's rival, Japan's Nubohiro "Monster" Tajima, will return with a new bright red Suzuki Aerio, which is rumored to put out 1,000 horsepower. He'll have his sights on cracking the 10-minute mark. His Japanese rival Yutaka "Genius" Awazuhara, also in a Suzuki, will try to better Tajima.

Without a doubt, Don Bruner is the most missed racer this week. The 29-year-old Bruner of Colorado Springs was the 2000 champion in the 250 Pro motorcycles class and one of the race's most likable riders. He died in a motorcycle racing accident near Denver on Sept. 10.


capsule

Pikes Peak International Hill Climb

Pikes Peak Highway, Cascade

Sat., June 30, 9:30 a.m. Toll-gate opens for pre-race parking at 4 a.m. and closes for the race at 10 a.m.

Tickets: $25. Children 12 and under, free.

Overnight camping: $25 per car plus ticket for each person. Must arrive between noon and 8 p.m. on Friday. Limited availability.

Call 685-4400.

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