60ies Hill Climbs
COLORADO'S ANNUAL RACE to the Clouds has been around since 1916. but only recently has it begun to gather international interest. The reason? Audi. Two years ago this German firm became captivated by the idea of breaking the outright record at the Peak. So it went mountain climbing with American rallyist John Buffum, who won the Pro Rally category there in 1982 and 1983. But that was not enough, and for 1984 the factory sent its latest short-wheelbase Quattro and works driver Michele Mouton (plus her navigator Fabrizia Pons) to Colorado in search of a hillclimb title. Their presence caused quite a stir.
Pikes Peak has long been the province of USAC. the friendly folks who still bring you the Indianapolis 500. Generations of Unsers, as well as many of the great names in American circle track racing-Parnelli Jones, Mario Andretti, the Mears brothers, to name just a few have raced up the Hill. Then USAC began to lose its struggle with CART over Indy car racing. The hillclimb stayed out a trout not eager to get between two wrestling grizzlies.
The SCCA picked up the sanction a few years ago and introd~ced a division for Pro Rally cars. This was a marriage of convenience: The hillclimb people needed a nationally recognized sanctioning body; the SCCA was eager to drum up publicity for its new series.
When they first appeared at the HilI, rally cars were looked upon with disdain by the ,locals. After all, a proper hilIclimb car possesses one rather important attribute-a Great Big Engine. Also, it must have Great Big Tires and, preferably, burn methanol. For generations the class act on the mountain had been a sprint car, the classic Thirties' openwheel dirt track racer that has remained unencumbered by any advances in suspension technology.
But in 1982 bemusement turned to much gnashing of teeth when John Buffum's Quattro not only won its class, but also set a record for closed-wheel cars. And as if embarrassing the stock car drivers wasn't enough, John had the gall to suggest that an outright record was conceivable. His 12 minute, 20 second time for the 12.4-mile course was a half minute faster than the stockers', though it was well off the 11 :44.0 set by Bill Brister in an open-wheel WelIs Coyote. In 1983 the locals felt better Buffum returned, but went slower, even though he did win his class again. And to top it off, Al Unser, Jr, who was one of their own, lowered the outright record to 11 :38.0. In a proper hillclimb car, another Wells Coyote.
Into this arena stepped Audi Sport, the new abbreviated Quattro and international rallying's rising star, Michele Mouton. Audi was very straightforward about the whole thing. It had come to beat the record. Winning the rally car division would not do Unser's record was the goal.
Michele's car was several generations of development newer than Buffum's, a result of intensive effort during the World Rally Championship competition. The new car is based on the 4000 chassis with a shorter wheelbase. It's several hundred pounds lighter than the coupe and more powerful too-Audi claims it has about 420 bhp.
You have to understand the competition Audi had taken on. While the old style, upright sprinters are still in evidence, the fastest cars on the mountain are specialized hillclimb racers such as the Coyote built by local John Wells. This mid-engine single-seater seems unsophisticated and it is. Wells claims that sophistication is not required in a car whose normal cornering attitude is an opposite-lock power slide. The hill's 156 turns, most of them hair pin switchbacks connected by short straights, call for instantaneous traction. A substantial rear weight bias and a high center of gravity plus an 80.0-in. wheelbase ensure quick weight transfer and a low polar moment of inertia. The result is a racer that turns instantly. Meanwhile, the 600-plus bhp from a methanol-burning 360-cu-in. Chevy V-8 fires the car like a howitzer shell from one switchback to the next.
It takes a considerable amount of intestinal fortitude to drive one of these up the mountain. Up above the tree line, a succession of "blue-sky" turns tests your convictions. A minor miscue can easily send a hapless car and its driver over the side of a scenic vista. Mario Andretti, who set a record here in 1969 when the hillclimb was part of USAC's Champ car points race, admitted to a certain dislike for the potential dangers involved. He swore never to return until "they put guardrails all the way to the top."
In light of all of this, what could have been more unlikely than a 5-cylinder sedan, turbocharged and burning gasoline, driven by (dare I say it?) a woman? Sure, she might do quite well for a foreigner, a woman or a rally driver. But she couldn't seriously think she'll beat a real car, could she?
Audi thought she could. Michele's new car, the one just raced in Greece, was brought over after a freshening up. Fabrizia rons, Michele's navigator, came along for the ride and made pace notes during scheduled practice and some clandestine runs in a production Quattro that Mouton drove on days when the mountain was open to the public. This practice, while common among the competitors, brought official reprimands from the local gendarmes who were tired of hearing complaints from the tourists driving the same road to the top.
Fabrizia was to ride with Michele during qualifying as well as the official events, the extra weight being offset by having someone there to talk the driver through the turns. If driving up the mountain takes courage, there is only one word for a person who can read a book while hurtling skyward: gutsy!
Only a few things about the Audi were changed for the run to the top of the Peak and of these, the major one was the recalibration of the Bosch Motronic fuel management system. The fuel control problem is a considerable one, because the start line is at 9000 ft above sea level and the finish line is nearly a mile higher. The turbo maintains most of its boost up the mountain although how much, no one seems to know. The best guess Audi engineers dared to make was that the engine was developing 400 bhp at the start and maybe 350 at the finish.
The last section of road to the top of the Peak-the race course-is not paved, but the word belies the quality of the surface. It's not a graveled succession of potholes, but a smooth roadway of bean size particles of crushed granite. Sparse rains, thousand of tourists and constant grooming by the Peak Patrol make the roadbed the envy of any highway maintenance supervisor who lives in the Frostbelt. The unusually heavy traffic the night before the race (the only night the mountain is open) leaves a layer of fine gravel and dust, but this is swept
aside by the first race cars, which leave a clear groove for the fastest qualifier, who starts whenever he chooses.
Practice, though inconclusive, had been promising for Audi. Although Michele had not driven the entire course (competitors can practice on only a third of the hill at a time), there in an unofficial formula for, combining segment times into an approximation of full course times. Based on this, the Audi effort appeared to show promise, A turbocharger failed halfway up the hill, but a spare one was installed. Fabrizia made more pace notes and the fuel management computer was fine tuned. But wait! Norwegian Martin Schanche, driving a rallycross-style 4wd turbocharged Ford Escort, turned some embarrassingly quick times. The Audi contingent was not worried. Schanche had been practicing down where there were still trees and other landmarks. Micheles navigator might have been a hindrance here, but it was a matter of waiting until one went higher where the turns all look the same. . .
Race morning dawned sunny and hot, hotter than anyone can remember for a 4th of July in the Colorado Springs area. The breeze seemed refreshing, although most of it appeared to be generated by helicopters that were orbiting the start line. Most of them had been chartered by foreign journalists who had come to watch Michele.
The Pro Rally cars go up the mountain first. Michele, owing to her lukewarm qualifying times, had to start early (8th car off the line) while there was still plenty of loose gravel to pitch at the crowd's parked cars. Still the Audi seemed noticeably faster than any other car leaving so far.
Tension mounted down below, as communication from the top was spotty. There was a scoreboard mounted on top of a motorhome and the team gathered below it expectantly. Now that their car had left, there was nothing to do, so the coolers were opened.
Almost 15 handkerchief-wringing minutes after the Audi had left the start, the numbers flashed their electronic message: 12: 10.0. A convincing win in the rally class and well under Buffum's
12:20.0 record. But not nearly fast enough. Several members of the crew of an open-class racer cheered Michele was upset and didn't want to speak to the press. Schanche gave the Audi crew a momentary start. His Escort's halfway time was blindingly fast. But he had a flat tire and the worrying was over. The morning wore on and as the coolers were emptied, realization dawned in the Audi camp that maybe they wouldn't have to fall on their swords after all. If no other car beat Michele's record, at least a partial victory could be claimed.
As the open-wheel cars began to leave the line, Audi people's hopes brightened. The heat was taking its toll and engines expired on what seemed like every other car. But remember, the fastest qualifier got to start when he chose and veteran hillclimber Bill Brister planned to start last. He figured the road would be perfect by then and he was right. As the last car up the hill he was also the fastest, reaching the top in II :44.0. But he was the only person to beat Michele.
She had regained her composure and charmed everyone with her speech during the awards presentation. The international publicity is good for an event as parochial as the Pikes Peak Hill Climb. Audi was pleased and its engineers were undoubtedly thinking of next year. After a year of development, the Quattro should be faster than ever. Perhaps then Michele Mouton will become queen of the Hill.