Uphill Battle

The speed merchants who risk their lives on the Pikes Peak Highway hope to put the brakes on a road-paving project.

Rod Millen, who reached speeds in excess of 130 miles per hour in last year's competition, says racing on pavement would be too dangerous even for experienced speed demons like himself. "It'd be like running the Long Beach Grand Prix with no barriers between the track and the spectators," says Millen. "And as far as the average tourist goes, the gravel slows them down. It sends the correct message. From a general safety standpoint, it's better to leave it as it is."

Gay Smith, a former Hill Climb champion and current member of the Hill Climb Board of Directors, worries about the tourists as well. "With all the hail and snow up there, that road could turn to ice at a moment's notice if it was paved," explains Smith.

Members of the race board haven't yet agreed on a strategy for fighting the paving plan, which comes just as the city is pushing a proposal to tear down the old tourist center at the summit and build a new one. The city council met Monday and decided to accept the advisory commission's recommendation to pave the highway. However, the proposal is still subject to veto by the Forest Service, which could have concerns about the environmental impact of a construction project. If the plan passes muster with the Forest Service, it will then be subject to a public hearing and final approval by the city council.

The paving plan is also contingent on the city's ability to come up with the $30 million to $40 million it will take to pave the road and erect the new tourist center. The advisory commission is recommending a pay-as-you-go approach under which $350,000 would be put aside annually and basins hit hardest by erosion would be targeted first. At that rate, the advisory commission predicts, it would take several years to complete the entire highway project.

Despite the fact that actual paving is still a ways down the road, Hill Climb spokeswoman Rita Randolph calls the prospect daunting. She also isn't happy that the city is timing a nationwide "Pikes Peak Preservation" fundraising effort to coincide with the running of the race over the July 4 weekend. Randolph describes the city's decision as a "piggyback" move that could serve to make the Hill Climb's popularity an instrument of its own demise.

But Colorado Springs mayor Mary Lou Makepeace emphasizes that the city council's decision to send the proposal to the Forest Service is just the beginning of a lengthy process. "At $350,000 a year," says Makepeace, "most of us won't even be on the city council when this project gets under way."

That makes Randolph and other race enthusiasts breathe a little easier. "Their plan is going to take a long time and cost lots of money," Randolph notes. "So at this point, time is on our side. We're also hoping that people will recognize this race as an international event which put Pikes Peak and Colorado Springs on the map. This race is much more important than many local people realize.

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