Eklund dials in SAAB in preparation of Saturday's Falken Tire Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - Two years of experience at the Falken Tire Pikes Peak International Hill Climb seem to finally be paying dividends for Per Eklund of Arvika, Sweden.
After a disappointing practice session on the top section, during which he failed to complete a run, Eklund rebounded with perhaps his best-ever day of practice during Wednesday's runs on the 5.5-mile section from the staring line to Glen Cove. Driving his Saab 9-3 Viggen, Eklund put together four consistent runs of 5 minutes, 18.53 seconds, 4:58.80, 4:55.59, and 4:55.54 on his final try.
"The feeling is perfect," Eklund said. "The car is like a soft lady."
Eklund set the record for Pikes Peak Open division in 2000 with an 11:21.58 effort that shaved more than a half-minute of the old mark.
In 2001, Eklund horsed his car to a respectable 12:08.30 despite flattening a tire and losing his second gear.
"You learn every year," Eklund said.
Fellow countryman Stig Blomqvist of Orebro, Sweden drove a 5:18.16 on his first and only run of the day. On his second he blew the engine on his Ford RS200E. He didn't complete another run.
Blomqvist's team is trying to get another motor shipped from England as soon as possible.
Both Blomqvist and Eklund are veteran rally racers. Blomqvist won the 1984 World Rally Championship, while Eklund has won the European RallyCross title. The two cut their teeth racing against each other, but have not competed head-to-head in 15 years.
CHAMPIONSHIP DIVISION: What's old is new again. And that's just fine with veteran champ car driver Butch Hardman of Golden, Colorado.
"We've been waiting for this since 1973," Hardman said. "The Champ cars that have run since '73 have run out of their class. The Hill Climb Association has been really nice helping shape up the class."
The Champ car (or upright sprint car) division is new on Pikes Peak this year, but the cars have a look of nostalgia about them. They are similar to the open wheelers driven by legends like Bobby Unser, Al Rogers and Slim Roberts in the 1950s and 60s. They have always been a fan-favorite, spewing rooster tails of dirt and roaring like a hellhound up the course.
"The fans are what brought me back," said Hardman, who is competing in his 33rd Race to the Clouds, and is one of seven entrants in the Champ car division. "There have been so many fans over the years who have come up to me and said, 'Butch, you're awesome to watch.' When I come down the hill on race day and people are coming up to me wanting to give me a beer or a pop, that's great, greater then walking up to the podium and getting whatever prize," Hardman said.
If the Salida Hill Climb three weeks ago and Wednesday's practice times are any indicator, the Champ car division should be one of the most hotly contested at this year's 80th running of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.
At Salida, the top four Champ cars were all within 1.5 seconds of each other. In practice Wednesday, Hardman was quickest with a 5:36.63 run. Butch's son, Brian Hardman, a rookie, was third quick with a 5:41.58, and John Guynn of Colorado Springs was second quick with a 5:38.27 best run.
"All the cars are running close, so that's good," Hardman said. "There's four cars here and any of them is capable of winning."
HPSS: More horsepower and half the drive wheels: That is the equation that Jeff Zwart of Woody Creek, Colo., is wrestling to adapt to.
Zwart is a four-time champion in High Performance Showroom Stock driving an all-wheel drive Porsche. This year he is debuting his 2002, two-wheel-drive Porsche GT2, which packs 50 more horsepower than the car he drove to a second-place finish last year.
On his second run on the lower section Wednesday, Zwart went into a half-spin on the paved section between the Ski Area and Glen Cove.
"It was a wild second run," Zwart said. "(Adapting to the new car) has been more of an uphill battle than I thought it would be, but I think it'll come around."
Zwart's best run of the day was 5:35.84. His goal is to set the class record for two-wheel-drives of 12:59.41, which was set by Rhys Millen in 1997.
"The car's working perfectly," Zwart said. "It's really more the driver than the car." Abaka Masayuki's Lancer Evolution 4 suffered mechanical problems and he did not practice and will not take part in Thursday's qualifying runs.
ELECTRIFYING: Tim Eckert knows all the electric car jokes. In fact, when he was pushing a stock car to the top of America's Mountain in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he told those same jokes. Now, the joke is on everyone else.
Eckert will pilot the ER2 electric car in Saturday's 80th Falken Tire Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. And if his practice runs on the top half of the course on Wednesday are any indication, the existing electric car record of 15 minutes, 19.91 seconds set by Teruo Sugita in 1999 is in deep trouble.
"This car is on the cutting edge of electric-powered technology,'' Eckert said. "And the Pikes Peak Hill Climb has always been a perfect place to showcase something like this.''
Not only does the Race to the Clouds have a wide national audience, it's probably more popular overseas that any race held in the United States.
"Someday, the world's supply of oil is going to run out,'' Eckert said. "This will be the car of the future.''
Electric cars have been around for ages, but there always seems to be so kind of problem - battery life, weight or size. Not any longer, at least according to Daniel Rivers, president and CEO of Compact Power Inc. of Monument, Colo., the company that developed the ER2.
"With the new technology, we are able to balance weight, power and distance,'' Rivers said. "And the motor should be good for a million miles."
"We had the car down at Pikes Peak International Raceway about two weeks ago and we clocked at about 130 mph,'' Eckert said. "That should be fast enough for anyone.''
According to Eckert, the ER2 goes from 0-60 in 3.2 seconds, has a curb weight of just 1,150 pounds (the body is a carbon fiber-Kevlar combination) and recharges in 30 minutes.
"It has an automatic transmission that never shifts,'' Eckert said. "The only gear is like third gear in most automatics, but when you step on the pedal (you notice he didn't say gas) you have a very smooth acceleration.''
Electric cars have been on Pikes Peak many times in the past 20 years, but couldn't reach the speeds that Eckert is making.
"Weight - because of the weight of the batteries - has always been the factor that has held back electric race cars,'' he said. "The new batteries have solved that problem.''
Two years ago, CPI had a car at Pikes Peak (the ER1) that carried a battery pack weighing 1,260 pounds. The power pack of the ER2 weighs 250 pounds.
"The batteries are the most high-tech aspect of the car,'' Eckert said. "The engine is actually the same electric motor that was developed way back in 1893 by Tesla in Colorado Springs. It's just a simple AC motor.''
And unlike all other cars in this year's hill climb, you can't hear the ER2 coming. It doesn't roar. In fact, it doesn't even purr. If anything, there is a slight hum.
"That was one of the biggest things I had to adapt to in learning how to drive he car,'' Eckert said. "With gasoline engines, you can hear the engine revolutions and back off before you break the tires loose. We can spin the tires at any time. I can break them loose at 10 mph or 80 mph. That was the biggest adjustment for me.''
STOCK CARS: The Stock Car triumvirate of defending champion Clint Vahsholtz, Gay Smith and Bobby Regester continued their ongoing battle during Wednesday's second day of practice on the top half of the course that ran from just above Glen Cove to the summit.
Vahsholtz clocked 6:07.40 on his fastest run of two while Smith, who made four runs, had a fastest time of 6:15.15. Regester's quickest time in his four runs was 6:18.18.
SUPER TRCUK AND SUV: In the SUV/Super Truck classification, Leonard Vahsholtz, who is going for his 13th championship had a best time of 6:03.86.
OPEN WHEEL: Although some mechanical bugs still need to be worked out David Donner's Donner/Dykstra again turned the fastest times in open wheel. He improved over his first three runs from 4:58.23 to 4:50.76 to 4:46.69.
"The car is sick," said Donner of Colorado Springs, who won open wheel in 1991. "I think that I can improve a lot on my times in the car."
On his last run, however, Donner nicked a hay bale about a mile from the starting line and broke the wing on his car.
"I can't see the front of the car," Donner said. "I just try to judge where the wings are. I hit the last hay bale on the corner. I just barely touched it, and the wing just exploded."
Donner expects the car to be ready for qualifying runs Thursday.
"Hopefully, tomorrow I'll give myself a half-inch more room," Donner said.
Jimmy Olson of Denver was second fastest putting together runs of 5:06.12, 5:02.82, 7:00.24 and 5:00.63. The seven-minute anomaly happened when Olson came upon a slower car in the Halfway Picnic Area and could only follow patiently.
Jimmy Keeney of Colorado Springs was again third quickest with runs of 5:15.44 and 5:04.75. Keeney ended his day early when, following his second run he broke second gear in his Greenwood Hull FX-2. He did, however, hint that he is planning to turn it up a notch in qualifying.
"I got a little more to pull out tomorrow," Keeney said. "I don't want to give everything away in practice."
Pikes Peak Open: Koichi Horiuchi, driving a Mitsubishi FTO was best with a 5:14.41, while Blake Fuller had a best run of 5:44.05.