At Speed in Search of Excellence At Pikes Peak

Colorado Springs, COLORADO -- In the late-afternoon shadows cast by Ponderosa pines, Aaron Hale and Romain Dumas smiled knowingly and shook hands. Hale, of Honda Performance Development, had built the four-cylinder engine that propelled Dumas’s prototype racer to victory in the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. A gas-versus-electric nail-biter, the type of race likely to be repeated here in coming years, found the Swiss sports-car racer finishing 2.387 seconds ahead of Greg Tracy’s battery-powered Mitsubishi MiEV Evolution III (pictured), which enjoyed lavish factory support. Hale, who is taller and lightly bearded, exchanged congratulations with his confederate in combustion, who’d been wearing a gray, white, and red driving suit for many hours.

“I’ll tear it apart and look at it,” Hale promised, referring to the 2.0-liter HPD K20 racing engine, which performed so well after being punched out by just 2.0mm. The senior engineer in engine development assembled the long block with valve springs he’d found lying around in the HPD facility after their use in durability testing for another engine.

Why I Go to the Races

To get behind the scenes, to feel desire in the air, and to sense incipient glory are the reasons to go where the best compete. In five weeks’ time, between May 25 and June 29, I attended three of the world’s oldest, most demanding, dangerous, and thrilling races: the Indianapolis 500, Isle of Man TT, and Pikes Peak.

Honda proved to be a common denominator, since it captured Indy with driver Ryan Hunter-Reay and then prevailed in the nine-minute climb up the 12.4-mile paved road to the 14,115-foot summit of Pikes Peak. The TT motorcycle week was dominated by a resurgent BMW and Michael Dunlop, yet the rider from Northern Ireland also won the important Supersport race for the Japanese brand. During my five-week sojourn, I was not merely availing myself of corporate hospitality as part of some dilettantish survey. (I actually turned down the chance to go to the Belmont Stakes on June 7 as guest of Grey Goose, where indeed I would have been a dilettante.) No, sir, I was on a quest for truth, one satisfied by rising at 3:30 a.m. in order to be in the pits at Pikes Peak by daybreak, and by having already driven to the summit during practice, feeling the pavement’s bumps, and peering over the terrifying cliffs.

Sometimes it just comes to you

On such a quest, the key to understanding can be found anywhere.

For example, while leaning against the pit wall at the TT, I talked with Mark Sears, product support specialist and former chief designer for Dunlop motorcycle racing tires. As the TT was about to start, Michael Dunlop controversially switched from Metzeler rubber to Dunlop. But Sears wasn’t gloating; he knew it could go the other way next time. After discoursing about the high-modulus compound in the center of the tire and how this contributed to stability at 200 mph, Sears said, “The reason Michael switched is confidence. He’d won five races last year with us. He decided to try a competitor’s product for another reason, such as financial,” Sears chuckled. “He had stability issues and knew he could come back to Dunlop and continue his success.” Besides desire, what has been most evident at all three legendary races has been the precision required of winners. In Penske Racing’s garage, team manager Jon Bouslog spoke about already preparing Helio Castroneves’s backup car for the Detroit races, which were still a week away. (Castroneves would win the second of two held there.) Indeed, being finicky pays off. While racking up four class wins during TT week, Michael Dunlop all but apologized for playing Captain Bligh with his team. “But they’re happy now,” he said.

Inspired by excellence

At all three tracks, the intense yearning for success felt by every racer formed its own thunderheads.

Castroneves was pursuing his fourth Indy win, while James Hinchcliffe and Ed Carpenter sought the first. From my Tower Terrace seat, even before TV viewers saw it on Lap 175, I understood the impending consequence of Hinchcliffe’s impetuous entry into Turn One, taking away Carpenter’s line. Later, after Hunter-Reay’s victorious move into the grass while plunging into Turn Three for the lead and then subsequently holding off Castroneves by a length, I tasted his elation when he entered the Firestone tent where we gathered after the event and uncorked champagne.

As proven by Hunter-Reay’s pass in the grass, Michael Dunlop’s relentlessness, and Aaron Hale’s two millimeters of bore, excellence is a subtle thing. Being on hand to witness it provides inspiration for a long time to come.

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