America has three ancient temples to speed, but only one dares to climb to the clouds. As old as the Indy 500, more dangerous than the salt flats of Bonneville, the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is quite literally the pinnacle of motorsport. Held in Colorado, this year marks the 100th running of the event, and once again some brave souls have gathered to test themselves against the mountain. Among them are a handful of Canadian racers.

“The biggest thing is the elevation,” says Will Au-Yeung of Waterloo, Ontario. “It’s a unique challenge. Combustion, cooling, power are all affected.”

Au-Yeung is used to breaking records. The PZTuning team specializes in Time Attack, an all-out assault on a racing circuit where victory goes to the car that can put down the fastest lap. Pikes Peak has the same goal posts, but the game is a lot more dangerous.

“There’s absolutely no runoff,” Au-Huang says. “You go past the limits, you go over the edge.”

these canadians are taking on the 100th running of the pikes peak hillclimb

The Volkswagen I.D. R participating in the Pikes Peak Hill Climb Photo by Volkswagen

PZTuning is here looking to break the front-wheel-drive record at Pikes Peak, and they’ve a decent shot at doing so. In 2018, their bewinged and hugely turbocharged 2012 Honda Civic set down records at five circuits across the U.S., making it the fastest time-attack car in North America; their Pike’s Peak effort has a different setup, but is no less fierce. This is Au-Huang’s third year contesting the event, and he’s hoping his drive and experience pays off.

With 156 corners over twenty kilometres, the climb at Pikes Peak is ten times the length of the average Time Attack road course. The ascent to 14,115 feet (4302 metres) taxes man and machine — most drivers are breathing from onboard oxygen tanks. At this altitude, storms move in fast, bringing rain, snow, or massive hailstones. The mountain is an unpredictable foe.

But precisely because of this human-vs-nature conflict, the community of racers is unlike other types of motorsport. Competitors aren’t really here to beat other drivers, but to test themselves against the elements. Veteran drivers are quick to offer advice to rookies, rather than jealously guarding speed secrets.

“You immediately bond with the other drivers,” says Sead Causevic of Vancouver, B.C.

Causevic is also here to contest the front-wheel-drive record, albeit in a slightly different class. He’ll be driving an Audi RS3 LMS, a purpose-built racecar based on the RS3 sedan, prepared by Colorado-based Bluewater Performance. With six Pikes Peak attempts under his belt, he’s the most experienced Canadian here.

these canadians are taking on the 100th running of the pikes peak hillclimb

Causevic’s former Volkswagen entry, at Pikes Peak in 2018 Photo by Brendan McAleer

He is also one of the coaches for the Canadian Olympic Ski Team. “It’s going in different directions,” he jokes, but reports that racing up the hill or down the hill uses a lot of the same skill set. Despite his years of experience, Causevic says he considers himself an amateur racing driver, and that the drive is as much about the experience as it is trying to set a fast time.

“It’s such an iconic event,” he says, “I’m just going to really enjoy the experience, prep well, and drive well.”

You can watch the Pikes Peak hillclimb from the comfort of your couch via Mobil 1’s Facebook page. Alternatively, the event will be posting updates on their Twitter feed. It’s a difficult event to spectate in person — once things kick off, you’re basically stuck on the mountain, or down at the start line. Attending in person should still be on your bucket list.

these canadians are taking on the 100th running of the pikes peak hillclimb

A checkpoint at the 2018 Pikes Peak hillclimb Photo by Brendan McAleer

these canadians are taking on the 100th running of the pikes peak hillclimb

A helicopter flies over the 2018 Pikes Peak hillclimb Photo by Brendan McAleer

these canadians are taking on the 100th running of the pikes peak hillclimb

Racer Travis Pastrana and fans at the 2018 Pikes Peak hillclimb Photo by Brendan McAleer

these canadians are taking on the 100th running of the pikes peak hillclimb

Porsches preparing for the 2018 Pikes Peak hillclimb Photo by Brendan McAleer

these canadians are taking on the 100th running of the pikes peak hillclimb

Porsches preparing for the 2018 Pikes Peak hillclimb Photo by Brendan McAleer

these canadians are taking on the 100th running of the pikes peak hillclimb

One of the PZTuning race cars during a hillclimb Photo by PZTuning

these canadians are taking on the 100th running of the pikes peak hillclimb

Causevic’s former Volkswagen entry, at Pikes Peak in 2018 Photo by Brendan McAleer

The first Pikes Peak hillclimb was held in 1916. In those days, the road was wide enough, but it was also entirely gravel. Drivers slid their cars through the dirt, kicking up dust clouds that drifted off the edge of the road into open space below. Ascents took about twenty minutes.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the climb was part of the official Indycar series. There’s no way you could replicate it with today’s 375-km/h Indy racers, but back in the good ol’ days, they just took the race cars off the circuit and pitched them up the mountain. I’m sure the tiny leather helmets offered sufficient protection.

these canadians are taking on the 100th running of the pikes peak hillclimb

Motorsport icon Walter Röhrl mastered the Pikes Peak in 1987 at an average speed of 111 km/h Photo by Audi

European racers arrived in the 1980s, and brought a rallying ethos with them. Legendary driver Michele Mouton – herself with a successful ski-racing past – wrestled her monstrous 500-hp Audi Sport quattro S1 up the mountain in 11 minutes, 25 seconds. She was crowned Queen of the Mountain.

Gradually, pavement crept up Pikes Peak and the elapsed times fell. The current record of 7 minutes 57 seconds was set by French driver Romain Dumas in a battery-electric Volkswagen I.D. R. Because of the elevation, Pikes Peak has long been an event where forced induction dominates — a century ago, the mountaintop was actually used to test aircraft engines. Electric motors aren’t affected by the thin atmosphere, apart from cooling, so you can expect to see more EVs atop the podium in the future.

Competitors aren’t really here to beat other drivers, but to test themselves against the elements

But time and trophies are not what bring drivers to Pikes Peak. Yes, there are records to be broken or won, and at an elite level, wearing the crown of King or Queen of the Mountain is among the highest accolades in motorsport.

But Au-Huang talks about being next to Romain Dumas in the paddock, the two teams sharing tools and advice. Causevic talks about meeting hero driver Sebastien Loeb – nine-time World Rally Champion, 2013 King of the Mountain – and feeling like they were both just drivers. The mountain is unforgiving, but in its shadow there’s little room for ego. It brings people together.

these canadians are taking on the 100th running of the pikes peak hillclimb

Porsches preparing for the 2018 Pikes Peak hillclimb Photo by Brendan McAleer

For Gilles Nadeau of Knowlton, Quebec, it’s also a test of character. At 61, he is a rookie at Pikes Peak, racing in a Porsche GT4 Clubsport. Nadeau started racing relatively later in life, starting out with track days in his late forties, and soon seeking out bigger challenges.

The Porsche Pikes Peak Trophy is an interesting class, its competitors running evenly matched cars. But again, the contest is not usually between the drivers themselves. Instead, they are here to prove themselves, or to prove something to themselves.

“You’re racing against yourself, and you’re racing against the mountain,” Nadeau says, “At Pikes Peak you do not look in the rearview mirror. You keep your eyes on the road ahead.”

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