The Race to the Clouds Turns 100

The flagman gave his signal. Travis Newbold fired up his No. 747 Ronin, the motorcycle that was built to conquer Pikes Peak. He looked at the flagman and locked his visor.

The Ronin was handcrafted, a collector’s edition; the front brake alone cost more than any whole bike Newbold had ever owned. But as a precautionary measure, Newbold and his crew decided against warming up the engine before the race. They didn’t want it overheating on the course.

The flag went down, and Newbold went full force. Tried to, anyway. The Ronin sputtered and wouldn’t lift its front wheel. The electrical system wasn’t awake.

I was ready to take every inch of the course as fast as I ever had, and the up-until-then flawless motorcycle was not even giving me even half of the RPMs
, Newbold later wrote in his journal. ‘This pig,’ I kept thinking, as I tried to hold every bit of speed through the corners.

Then the pig fully woke up.

Coming out of a fast corner, the back end snapped out hard. I corrected and was tossed out of my seat as the handlebars did a tank slapper. Somehow I ended up back in the seat, still on the road, and totally pumped on adrenaline. ‘Go! Go! Go! It’s time to shine,’ I thought, as I linked the corners together with everything I had. I could feel the back end track out when on the gas. On one big tightening horseshoe corner, I felt the slide and knew I could only narrowly avoid running wide and off the road or embrace my inner dirt biker.

Last year was Newbold’s eighth as a competitor at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, a motorsports race that begins at 9,390 feet and finishes at the 14,115-foot summit. The Race to the Clouds turns one hundred on Sunday.

Newbold grew up around Pikes Peak and dedicated nearly a decade to conquering the race, riding sponsors’ bikes or ones he had slapped together with junkyard scrap. He met friends from around the world at the race and started Newbold’s Motorbike Shop in Denver with the $1,600 in prize money he won for his finish in 2008, his second year competing. But the Climb has taken more from Newbold than it’s given. During practice last year, his best friend and mentor, Carl Sorensen, went off the course on his Ducati and never came back. And after a highly publicized incident just days later, Newbold was shunned from this year’s Climb.

Like many racers, Newbold, 33, keeps a journal to recall certain courses and unload the emotional baggage that comes with them. To commemorate the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb’s 100th anniversary, Newbold, one of the race’s more controversial competitors in recent memory, shared his Climb-related entries for this story. Entries, in italics, have been edited for clarity.

Spencer Penrose, builder and founder of the Broadmoor Hotel, started the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb in 1916 as a way to draw attention to his new home town of Colorado Springs. Originally from Philadelphia, Penrose was a car nut and boasted one of the largest collections of automobiles west of the Mississippi.

Now the Climb is one of the oldest motorsports races in America; only the Indianapolis 500 has been waving a checkered flag longer. But unlike Indy, the PPIHC is barely a blip on the radar of all but the most hard-core Colorado motorsports fans.

Race day usually draws around 7,500 spectators, who are warned that they are attending at their own risk. Devils Playground, one of a few suggested spectator spots, provides views of the race above tree line but subjects its visitors to extreme wind and cold. And getting to Devils or any of the other viewing areas is no small feat — for spectators or competitors. There’s no run-off area along the road, weather conditions change at the drop of a hat, and turns are named after what might happen should you screw them up. Famed retired racer Bobby Unser is credited with saying, “If you go off the edge at the Bottomless Pit, you’ll starve to death before you hit the bottom.”

In the days leading up to the race, the best of the racing world takes over downtown Colorado Springs. Imagine the Formula 1 crowd attending hot-rod-style pig roasts hosted by NASCAR’s good ol’ boys, with the cooking done by the best car and motorcycle designers in the world. Motocross bikers launch themselves from ramps into backflips higher than most of the surrounding buildings. The Ducati girls, busting out of their red miniskirts, sign autographs and pose for selfies with anyone who can manage to get close enough. Italian-motorcycle VIPs sip Prosecco while the tatted, shirtless Harley guys clutch their PBR tall boys. The latter make up most of the drunken rabble who camp out during race week, hollering “Hells, yeah!” all night long.

Trucks, cars, motorcycles, quads — even electric cars — get the chance to race the 12.42-mile course. Participants come from all over the world, shipping motorcycles from Italy or electric cars from Japan, and can generally be divided into three groups: the rich guys, the rich guys who want to make history, and the guys who spend everything they have to get there.

Tan and exotic, the first group stays at the Broadmoor or the Antlers Hotel. The second group stays at the Rainbow Lodge or one of the other nice family-run motels along the strip in Manitou Springs. They work on their fancy machinery and talk race technology with the media. Those in the third group, usually local teams or rookies, stay in cheap motels or hunker down at the Lone Duck Campground. They have begged for or borrowed trucks, trailers, campers and whatever else they need, from whomever they can, just to make the trip. Many are Newbold’s friends.

During practice, which lasts four days, the mountain is divided into three sections (from the summit down), and different groups practice on a different section each day. Those who are serious about winning or setting a record come to Colorado to begin practice as soon as the road to the summit is clear of snow. But when that happens is anyone’s guess. This year, snow lingered until May.

Covered in snow or bathed in sunshine, the road presents dangers at every corner, whether racers are competing or not. Sorensen, Newbold’s best friend, died during practice.

Newbold started racing motocross at age ten, after his mom bought him a little Honda CR80 to keep him out of trouble. According to his writings, he learned more on the bike than he ever did in the classroom.

How much life is a green-spiked mohawk going to learn in school? I learned how to live by learning how to race. Facing the fear of lining up on a starting gate. Getting hurt and figuring out how to avoid injury. Rebuilding clapped-out, garage-sale dirt bikes. Fixing hand-me-down conversion vans to get to the race. Saving what little money I earned to go race, and learning how to get on the podium to earn enough to keep racing. Learning to be a champion and not be a dick about it.

After attending the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute in Phoenix, Newbold returned to Colorado to work at a repair shop, where he built a bike that gave him an appetite for high-speed thrills. He came across some pictures of dirt bikes racing the Climb, and they were enough to pique his interest.

On my first morning [of practice]...I can vividly remember rubbing sleepy dirt out of my eyes in the race pit as I heard what sounded like a dragon being tortured in a dark dungeon. I later found out it was a Yamaha Banshee on ’roids being rung out on a dyno inside of a race hauler. [And] say what you will about quads [motorcycles with four tires that usually whiz through dirt tracks], but the memory of the premix smoke and sonic waves echoing through the trees still brings me goose bumps.

That first night, Newbold met some old-timer motorcycle racers at the campground who passed around an old coffee can containing some strong booze. Then they started to rain-dance. No joke. These Native American petrol-head long-hairs beckoned the God of the Mountain for hero dirt. Newbold was hooked.

But the race had been going through some changes — good and bad, depending on who you ask. Racers started one at a time instead of the longstanding tradition of five, taking much of the battling among racers out, in Newbold’s opinion. Spectators were now fenced into corrals.

One change seems to have made the race much more treacherous — not that there’s anything wrong with that. In the late ’90s, the Sierra Club brought a lawsuit against the PPIHC organization, claiming that its gravel road was causing washout and erosion, which was threatening the environment. The PPIHC organization, which helps oversee the road, eventually settled out of court with the agreement that the road would be paved to the top. The pavement job, completed in 2012, has significantly increased speed.

For six-time Climb winner and Hollywood stuntman Greg Tracy, it’s the risk that makes the race so special. “PPIHC represents everything good about an America that is not plagued with litigation — an America that gives people the freedom to choose to take risks, to dare greatly,” says Tracy. “To achieve great things in life, you have to take risks, whether it is racing or business or whatever. This is one of the few places in the world where you can still do that. You make decisions to take calculated risks based on your experience and accept the fact that you have to be comfortable with the outcome.”

For the 2012 race, Newbold slapped together a “Pikes Peak special” bike, as he calls it, salvaged entirely from a junkyard and Craigslist. The bike took him to the winner’s podium that year, which is also when he met Sorensen.

“Hot Carl” was a tech inspector and new-racer instructor, and Newbold was looking to improve his skills. From 2012 to 2015, Sorensen served as a mentor to Newbold. He’d watch Newbold as he raced closed-course short-circuit road races and teach him skills like how to get off his seat, look through corners and keep his feet on the pegs. But Sorensen admitted to his wife, Lacy, that Newbold didn’t need much help. “Some people just get it,” Lacy says of Newbold, “and Travis has all this natural talent that makes him good at whatever he rides: dirt, track, road racing, flat track.”

Last year, Ronin Motorworks, a small, local motorcycle company that specializes in hand-built machines, was looking for a rider to test one of its bikes on Pikes. After Harley-Davidson pulled its support from the famous Buell Motorcycle Co., founded by an ex-Harley engineer, Ronin bought fifty of Buell’s bikes for their engines and chassis and went to the drawing board.

Ronin decided to build 47 one-of-a-kind bikes named after a legend about 47 samurai who were orphaned by their master, sell them to collectors and motorcycle aficionados, and close shop. The marketing side got the idea to race one of the 47 at the PPIHC, and in walked Newbold.

A deal was struck, and Newbold had access to one of the most advanced and exotic machines in the field.
A local company racing a local race with a local rider. It was a plan of awesomeness.

During practice leading up to last year’s race, Newbold was surprised by how fast his Ronin would go. I was full of respect for how fast the beast was, but it caught me off guard in one practice session; I was a bit late on the brakes coming into a hairpin above tree line. I skidded sideways into an Armco guardrail, made some photographers dive for cover as I slid broadside to a brief halt.

Race week officially begins with tech inspection. Teams converge in the Broadmoor World Arena parking lot in the morning, where a makeshift pit magically appears. Tech-inspection tents, one for cars and one for bikes, sit side by side. The international media takes pictures of the teams with Pikes Peak as the backdrop. Kinks are worked out, some expected, some not so much. (More than a few “racing experts” from around the world have been caught by surprise by the effects of the altitude on everything from engines to eczema. For starters, the altitude at the summit takes away about 30 percent of an engine’s power. Newbold taught British racing legend and mechanic Guy Martin a bit about Colorado mechanics when Martin’s turbocharged Martek would not run well at altitude on the gas he was using.)

Practice last year began at the top section of the mountain.

The top section is more beautiful and scenic than any road in Colorado, and that is saying something. It is also home to the Bottomless Pit corner, Boulder Park and Olympic. Needless to say, it is not a place for a mishap.

Sorensen’s bike had been giving him trouble all week, until finally, during practice on Thursday, it started to behave.

The redheaded Italian bitch of a bike was finally letting him ride without sputtering and fart-burping like a drunk having an epileptic seizure. Carl was all smiles as usual when he put his helmet on. I was fumbling with my ear plugs, and he got the jump on me to practice line. I watched him launch and grab gears like a pouncing tiger.

Newbold had been trailing Sorensen when he turned a corner and saw a photographer waving at something. Newbold heard that No. 217 had gone off the edge. ‘Who is that?’ I thought, as if my brain was trying to keep it from me.

Spectators and racers silently waited for an ambulance to arrive. It did — slowly, and without its lights on. Sitting atop that beautiful mountain that morning, I felt my heart break. Something I had loved and given myself to had broken my heart.

Just days after Sorensen died, Newbold sat on the Ronin on the starting grid of the PPIHC with his new bride and Sorensen’s widow both hugging him. He really wanted to win the race for Carl.

I wanted to win for all of our friends and to try and make some light of such horrific outcomes of something we choose willingly to do and expect our loved ones to stand by and watch. Most of all, I wanted to win for my own reasons that I can’t even begin to understand.

After the “pig” crapped out on him and came back to life, a tight corner threw him for a loop. Faced with the certainty of hitting the guardrail and going over the edge, Newbold chose to, as he wrote in his journal entry, "embrace my inner biker.”

I straightened the bike up and throttled straight off the edge of the road, landing in a ditch littered with skull-sized rocks. I kept the throttle on the whole time and jumped back onto the tarmac without missing a beat. After a zigzagging switchback section known as the Ws, the bike finally did overheat, putting itself in limited mode again. As I approached the Bottomless Pit, it cooled back down and gave me full power again. Go! Go! Go! As I passed a few broken-down race bikes, I stood up on the pegs and caught air as I pinned the throttle through the subsiding bumpy road surface. As I passed Carl’s corner, I fought very hard to not give the throttle any slack with only three corners to go. The back end stepped out again, and again I saved it. I let my eyes take in a glimpse of the checkered flag. I had gotten the bike to the summit! There, after the finish line, is the only remaining dirt on the mountain.

A rider on a backup Honda (he crashed his first bike during practice) was the only guy who could beat Newbold. They were seconds apart in practice.

I grabbed a handful of throttle and pitched that bitch sideways. Immediately, the steering lock was found, and I had to finally let go of the grips as I high-sided right in front of the TV cameras, who were interviewing the HRC Honda rider.

He had beaten Newbold by fourteen seconds.

I tried to give him the business, and slid and dropped the bike in the dirt as the media was interviewing him. That’s when they came over and did the runner-up interview with me.

The Colorado Springs Gazette story from June 29 begins: “Some Pikes Peak Hill Climb motorcyclists are frustrated. But more than that, they’re scared.

“Some people just get it, and Travis has all this natural talent that makes him good at whatever he rides."

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“After middleweight-class rider Carl Sorensen passed away when he fell off the course in a practice run Thursday morning, several motorcyclists vented their concerns about the course’s safety and the completeness of the race’s management. It was the second time in two years a motorcyclist has died in race week.

“Perhaps the most vocal of these riders was Sorensen’s close friend, Travis Newbold, who expressed disgust with the race as a whole, despite winning the heavyweight class and saying he did not consider not racing this year.

“‘This race really needs some competent organization,’ Newbold said after his run Sunday morning. ‘There needs to be more safety put in place and more organization. It’s a shame that they’ve been running it as long as they have, and it’s just like a plastic toy-machine watch the way things are run up here.’”

To compete in the Climb, racers must submit an application, pay money and receive an invitation from the PPIHC organization. That Newbold, a race veteran and podium finisher, didn’t get invited to compete this year is almost unheard of.

“Travis basically got screwed for speaking out. He just said what many riders have been saying privately for years,” says Johnny Schwaig, the Ronin Motor Works technician who prepped Newbold’s bike last year.
“Nothing he said was wrong; it just rubbed some people the wrong way. A lot of it had to do with the emotion of losing Carl.”

Six people have died at the PPIHC since it began, two in as many years: Sorensen and Bobby Goodin, a 54-year­old rider from Texas. Goodin kept on the throttle after crossing the finish line, and it cost him his life. Jerry Unser, one of Bobby Unser’s relatives, was killed in 1929 during a practice run.

Look, we all know that racing is dangerous. But Carl was not reckless, and anyone who knew him on or away from the track would tell you he was not a risk-taker in comparison to many of the other racers. It was very hard losing my best friend, but there’s comfort in knowing he went out with his boots on, doing something he loved.

Newbold has good memories of the race, too. There was a French rider named Dimitri who he didn’t like until they spent some time after a practice session sitting at Devils Playground in awe of their surroundings. Dimitri brought out a bottle, and they drank the whole thing before Newbold discovered it was only margarita mix.

He remembers the terror of hearing a two-stroke quad start up at 4 a.m. his rookie season in the Lone Duck Campground. He remembers doubting himself the morning of the first practice, wondering whether it was a good idea.

This year Newbold will attend the race, but as a mechanic. He doesn’t mind. He already has his sights set on the Isle of Man TT, undoubtedly one of the most dangerous motorcycle races in the world.