Pikes Peak first practice session report

Suzuki's Tajima begins search for PPIHC's magical 10-minute barrier COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - Nobuhiro "Monster" Tajima debuted his new fireapple red Suzuki Aerio during the first practice session of the 79th Pikes Peak International Hill Climb...

Suzuki's Tajima begins search for PPIHC's magical 10-minute barrier

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - Nobuhiro "Monster" Tajima debuted his new fireapple red Suzuki Aerio during the first practice session of the 79th Pikes Peak International Hill Climb Monday.

Practicing on the bottom 4.5-mile section from the Starting Line to just below the Ski Area, Tajima clocked a 3:41.43 on his fastest run of the day. Not a record-smashing run by any measure, but it's early in race week. Tajima, of Shizuoka, Japan, took no chances as damp track conditions were not conducive to several dry tire set-ups his team experimented with.

"Last night there was big rain up here," said Tajima, who won the Unlimited division in 1995. "Everything was still wet today. I must be gentle. Otherwise there's no point."

Tajima doesn't want to push the car too hard too early, risking a crash. He wants to save his best run for Saturday when he will try to become the first driver to make a sub-10-minute run on Pikes Peak. His Suzuki can generate 1,000 horsepower, but because of the poor grip on the course the team dialed the turbo boost down so that the machine was putting out around 685 horsepower.

Tajima might have taken it easy today, but it won't last. Tajima's driving style is the epitome of aggression. He earned the nickname "Monster" 25 years ago at a road rally race in Australia. He said that the Australian press had been under the impression that Japanese are small of stature and timid in the driving department. The press saw Tajima drive by pushing his machine to the limits, and was surprised when out of the cockpit stepped a large Japanese driver. The press dubbed him "Monster." Upon return home, the Japanese grabbed hold of the moniker, and the rest as they say is history.

Tajima's prodigy Yutaka "Genius" Awazuhara is driving a Suzuki Gran Vitara in the Unlimited Class. Awazuhara clocked a fast run of 3:42.20, showing that he's quickly learning the intricacies of the course.

They will both have a strong contingent of Suzuki executives on hand to cheer them on. The automobile maker is bringing some 440 Suzuki executives to the race this year, most from Japan. They will arrive Wednesday night.

Open Wheel: Making his return to Open Wheel after three years in High Performance Showroom Stock, David Donner of Colorado Springs was fastest in practice on the lower section. He was also consistent. He clocked runs of 3:29.79, 3:28.48, and finally 3:28.00. The 1991 Open Wheel champion, driving a No. 2 Donner Dykstra DD-3, said that rather than trying to innovative, his team is just relying on tried and true technology.

"We're not trying to outsmart ourselves like we have in the past," Donner said. "We're just approaching it this year to have a good time."

Five-time Open Wheel champion Gary Lee Kanawyer in his 1981 Wells Coyote was a hair slower than Donner with fast run of 3:28.38.

Emblazoned on Donner's car is decal from the Multiple Sclerosis Society. "There are people that I've known who have been diagnosed with MS and don't know anything about it," Donner said. "We've given up a prime (sponsorship) spot on the car to let people know about it.

It makes you feel like you're helping others, instead of just racing around, being selfish."

Jimmy "Shoe Boy" Olson, the defending Open Wheel champion, was third quickest in his No. 44 1993 EWJ Wells Coyote with a quick time of 3:37.25. Olson, of Denver, had no traction troubles because his car is equipped with four-wheel drive.

"The dampness is awesome," said Olson. "The car's hooking up really good." The competition in Open Wheel is shaping up like it could provide some of the closest competition in the race this year.

"We've got some good iron up this year," Olson said. "It's awesome. All the good guys are back, which is good. But, to keep up with them you've got to push yourself to the max."

The only mishap on the lower section befell Steve Clark. His steering column came detached from the spine while on the Grouse Hill part of the course. Fortunately he managed to slow down enough before impacting a stone wall. His No. 17 Roadrunner R4 sustained only minor damage to the front left lower control arm and radius arm. He is expected to practice tomorrow when the Open Wheelers will run on the middle section of the course from the Ski Area to just below Devil's Playground.

Top section: Devil's Playground claimed three cars today as drivers began practice for the 79th Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.

The Big Rigs, Pikes Peak Open and Super Truck and SUV divisions climbed from 12,780 to 14,110 feet to see what their cars were made of. Two of them made it back down only on the backs of trailers, and one was disabled for the rest of practice.

Pikes Peak Open driver Koichi Horiuchi from Japan was the first to experience problems. He slid off the road during his third practice run after his 2001 Mitsubishi FTO broke its turbo. He was able to drive the car back to the pit area, but he was done for the day. Horiuchi's mechanic worked on the turbo the rest of the morning and said he would have it ready by practice time tomorrow.

Super Truck and SUV driver David Schmidt has experienced serious mechanical problems for the second year in a row.

Last year, he said he was making his best time ever during the Hill Climb. The finish line was in sight as he rounded the last curve. Suddenly, his transmission dropped. He was unable to finish the race.

This year, bad luck struck early. He broke the front end of his 1993 GMC Sonoma on his fourth practice run. His crew had to carry his truck down the mountain on its trailer. He didn't know if he'd have it fixed for Tuesday's practice on the bottom portion of the course.

Last year's champion of the Pikes Open Division, Per Eklund of Sweden, also experienced mechanical problems. During his third practice run, his 2000 Saab 9-3 Viggen's gearbox sprung a leak. He said his mechanics would be able to fix it. However, they didn't bring a spare gearbox to the pit area. He too towed his car down the mountain on his crew's trailer.

Eklund and his crew are optimistic about their return to practice tomorrow and the race Saturday. In their final successful practice run, they were neck and neck with today's fastest driver, Jean Pierre Richelmi, who is driving a Toyota Corolla. Eklund's time was 3:25.11. Richelmi's time was 3:23.96.

Bgorm Berglof, Eklund's Saab factory contact, said he is hoping Eklund will break the overall course record of 10:04.06.

"I don't know if it's possible to break the record," he said. "The road and weather would have to be almost perfect, like the time Rod Millen set the record in 1994, he added. However, he said he is still hopeful. Despite serious mechanical problems for some drivers, others said they had the best practice runs.

Richelmi, the 1999 Pikes Peak Open champion from Monaco, had the best practice run on the Peak in his career. He made the approximately four-mile long, 1,300-foot climb from Devil's Playground to the summit in only 3:09.51. He said this was almost 10 seconds faster than his previous best practice run last year. However, Richelmi said he still has one worry.

"The (Eklund's) Saab is still a problem," he said.

Middle Section: Just as the first rays of sun struck Pikes Peak for Monday's initial day of practice, Gay Smith stood behind his up-on-jacks 1993 Ford Mustang and watched the wheels spin.

"At least they are turning in the right direction,'' Smith said. "That's a good sign.''

Before the day ended, Smith's good sign had produced results. Practicing on the middle portion of the 12.42-mile course, Smith had the fastest time in the Stock Car classification with a clocking of 4 minutes, 14.79 seconds, better than his top competition, Bobby Regester and Clint Vahsholtz.

"Gay showed us some stuff today,'' said Vahsholtz, the five-time defending stock car champion. "He was putting the numbers on the board.''

Smith ran his first "Race to the Clouds" in 1974. He's been the rookie of the year. He's been the fastest qualifier. He's placed second five times. He's never won.

"It takes a lot of things to win a race,'' said Smith, who was among the fastest early in last year's race before failing to reach the finish line. "We just keep trying.''

In a class with the depth and talent of the Stock Car Division, it takes every bit of magic a driver and crew can muster. All total, the 10-driver stock car field has 124 years of Pikes Peak experience.

They have won 11 championships and six rookie of the year titles and the line gets drawn in the dirt long before the first engine fires on race day.

"It's a fun group of good people with fast cars,'' said Regester, who won the open wheel title in 1985 and captured back-to-back stock car titles in 1994-95, setting the stock car course record of 11:39.17 that still stands in 1994. "Look at just our team. There is more than 100 years of experience in my pit crew.''

And while Smith and Regester, who had the second-fastest practice time Monday with a clocking of 4:15.59, are capable of winning, the class still belongs to Vahsholtz, who won three-straight motorcycle titles before climbing behind his stock car and reeling off another five straight.

"I really want to tie the record (Bobby Unser won six straight open wheel titles and John Crawford won six straight production rally titles),'' Vahsholtz said. "If you don't tie it, you can't break it.''

PIT STOPS: When the Porsche factory didn't get Jeff Zwart's car ready for this year's race, the Woody Creek resident did the thing any good racer would do - he found another ride.

"We bought this one out of the want ads,'' Zwart said pointing to his 2001 Porsche 966 Turbo. "I don't think the guy we bought it from knows what we did to it." "Rocket" Ron Kirkman first heard about the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb when he was just a boy back in his native New Zealand. By the way, he was a 15-year-old boy 50 years ago. "Since the first day I heard about this race I wanted to run here,'' said the 65-year-old PPIHC "rookie" who will attempt to cowboy a 130-horsepower quad runner to the finish line in the Exhibition Class. "I came last year to watch and this year to race.'' In his first official day of practice, Kirkman, known as the "Flying Fossil" back in New Zealand, had some fuel problems. "The gas here is better than the gas in New Zealand,'' he said. "I've got to cut back my octane some.'' Running in the same practice sessions as the stock cars and high-performance showroom stocks, Kirkman had a faster practice time than some of the cars. Rhys Millen, the 1992 Pikes Peak Open champ and the defending champion in High Performance Showroom Stock had the fastest HPSS practice time Monday, covering the middle third of the course in 4:17.81. Zwart was second in 4:30.11.

-PPIHC-

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Series Hillclimb
Drivers Rhys Millen , Bobby Unser , John Crawford , Clint Vahsholtz , Jeff Zwart , David Donner , Rod Millen , Steve Clark , David Schmidt