On a perfect summer morning in 1994, I rode in a van to the summit of Pikes Peak and enjoyed a sneak preview of history.
It was about two hours before the start of that year's Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, and the anticipation of a fast race suddenly became a certainty. I had covered the Race to the Clouds many times, but I had never seen anything like the Pikes Peak Highway that day.
The weather was perfect, and that day the road was, too. Thanks to applications of calcium chloride and just the right mix of moisture, the surface was hard, smooth and not dusty. Actually, the technically unpaved racetrack was solid enough that you could see tire marks around many corners. It was like that even close to the top, where so many drivers have lost so much time through the decades.
But not in 1994. Anyone who saw that road ahead of time knew it could be a great race, and it certainly was. Rod Millen set the overall record at 10 minutes, 4.06 seconds in the Unlimited division, which held up until Nobuhiro Tajima took it down to 10:01.41 in 2007.
Also, the Super Stock Car and Open Wheel marks fell that day, and nobody has touched them since. Robby Unser captured the Open Wheel title in 10:05.85, just a shade slower than Millen. Bobby Regester turned in a time of 11:39.17 in winning the Super Stock Car division. And a young motorcycle rider, Clint Vahsholtz, rocketed to the top in 12:21.13, still the fastest anyone has ever covered the 12.42-mile course on a motorcycle.
Vahsholtz, of course, has gone on to follow in his father Leonard's footsteps, dominating the Super Stock Car class with 13 victories in the past 14 years (all except 2007). Last year, Clint came amazingly close to toppling Regester's record, finishing in 11:39.66.
Yet, from all reports, the road on race day still has never again matched 16 years ago. The only way to do that will be when the Pikes Peak Highway is paved all the way to the top, which could happen as soon as next year. When it does, perhaps the Race to the Clouds will have to start over with records, leaving intact the marks set during nearly 90 years of competing on unpaved (or a mixture of) surfaces. There's absolutely no telling how low the new records might go in all classes.
But that hasn't stopped the most dedicated hill-climb racing operations from still trying to break that 10-minute barrier Sunday.
Tajima is back for the 88th running of the Race to the Clouds in a new, specially designed vehicle, and if the road is cooperative at all, he could finally make it under 10. But Tajima faces some real competition in the Unlimited group, with Rhys Millen (Rod's son) and Paul Dallenbach feeling just as capable.
No matter what the racing surface, though, the sad part of this race's recent evolution has been the Super Stock Car division's decline. It was once the Hill Climb's lifeblood, with so many entrants (almost all from the Colorado Springs area) that qualifying was necessary to make the field. But this year, as in 2009, only three stockers will run, as Vahsholtz is chased only by Layne Schranz and Steve Goeglein. Perhaps the most telling fact is that those three drivers' cars are anything but new: Vahsholtz still drives his 2002 Ford, Schranz a 1999 Chevrolet and Goeglein a 2004 Chevy.
Nobody wants to see the stock cars go away, yet some of the other classes (Pikes Peak Open, Vintage, Time Attack and Open Wheel) are hanging in there with larger groups of eight to 20 entrants, and the motorcycles still are plentiful.
But change has been the race's mantra, along with fighting for survival, since its robust financial days ended a decade ago when Chevrolet exited as title sponsor, providing good prize money plus healthy rewards for division winners driving Chevys.
Now, as race organizers look toward an all-paved era, they're hoping more car manufacturers will see the potential in ruling the mountain and squeezing the promotional max out of it.
But until then, Tajima and the rest simply hope the road Sunday is smooth and dry. If it is, they might party like it's 1994.