Over the years, the Pikes Peak Hill Climb has survived fatal crashes, inclement weather on the windswept summit and even the oddball behavior of a Texan named Bill Williams, who in 1929 insisted on pushing a peanut up the 14,110-foot mountain with his nose. But a proposal to pave the Pikes Peak Highway has placed the future of the storied road rally in jeopardy.
The Pikes Peak Highway Advisory Commission and the Sierra Club are recommending that the winding twenty-mile road to the summit be paved in order to help stop erosion on the hillside. The road is currently covered with gravel, which proponents of the paving plan say is responsible for the poor condition of the historic mountain.
But traditionalists like current Hill Climb champion Rod Millen of Newport Beach, California, say paving the road would put an end to one of the world's greatest motor-sport events. The race has been run since 1916, when a Model-T Ford took the checkered flag.
"I suppose that when something like the Hill Climb is right on your doorstep, you tend to take it for granted," says Millen. "I grew up in New Zealand reading about Pikes Peak. In Europe you see billboards put up by car companies boasting about winning Pikes. It's televised in 150 countries around the world. But I don't think people in Colorado realize the value of this race. There's only one road race like that in the world."
A large part of the fascination for racing enthusiasts is the Hill Climb's unique format: Drivers are challenged to push the limits of their abilities and vehicles in a timed run up the mountain road, which has 156 turns and no guard rails. But the Colorado Springs chapter of the Sierra Club says the mountain that inspired "America the Beautiful" when poet Katherine Lee Bates made the trip to the peak in 1893 has suffered enough abuse because of the road rally.
The city of Colorado Springs leases the road from the U.S. Forest Service and set up the highway advisory commission to monitor it. In addition to keeping the road open, the city pays a concessionaire to operate a restaurant and gift shop at the summit for the estimated 500,000 tourists who visit the peak each year.
The Sierra Club's Gail Snyder, who sits on the advisory panel, says the fact that the city has failed to pave the road already is "arguably criminal." She claims that when maintenance crews groom the road, debris gets pushed over the side, creating "alluvial fans" that in some spots bury tree trunks in up to seven feet of gravel. When it rains, she says, the gravel doesn't absorb enough of the water, which then runs off the side of the road, creating what she describes as "little Grand Canyons." A Sierra Club study also says the gravel is clogging streams in the area. "It's a clear violation of the Clean Water Act," claims Snyder.
In some places near the base of the mountain, trees have collapsed into deep gullies that Snyder says are a direct result of the erosion caused by run-off from the gravel road. It's more difficult to gauge the effects of highway maintenance higher up; above the timberline, the barren mountain takes on the natural appearance of a large gravel pile anyway.
Former Colorado Springs mayor Bob Isaac, who has always opposed paving the highway, says the environmentalists are overreacting. "This paving talk doesn't make sense," says Isaac. "The runoff is going to be even faster with pavement. But these environmentalists are like a steamroller. They get carried away and don't realize the value of this challenge which has given us worldwide recognition."
Snyder says politicians like Isaac are the main reason the city hasn't paved the road before, even though the Sierra Club has been recommending it for several years. She says that the Hill Climb organizers, who consider the gravel surface part of the race's identity, have had the city council in their pocket.
David Zelenok, the city's transportation director, proposed paving the highway in 1991. "My main thought at the time," says Zelenok, "was that paving the highway would lower maintenance costs. The paving would've paid for itself in just two or three years. But the Hill Climb objected to it because it would change the character of the race. The city council agreed."
Isaac says he hopes the city council also nixes this latest proposal, which has won the advisory commission's formal endorsement. Not only would paving the highway ruin a road race that has been won by such famous drivers as Mario Andretti and Al Unser, it would also affect traffic during the rest of the year, says Isaac. "Paving that road would be flat-out dangerous," he adds. "Flatlanders are already having problems driving on it as it is."
In fact, tourists often are so scared after making the twisting trip to the summit that they refuse to drive back down, forcing Forest Service "road sergeants" to take the wheel. The road is so steep that motorists must stop for a mandatory brake inspection on the way down. And some drivers who have competed in the race agree with Isaac that paving the road would only add to the safety hazards.
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.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
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.