Pikes Peak International Hill Climb Open Wheel preview
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - Rhys Millen leaned back in his folding canvas chair and watch the sun come up over Devil's Playground early Tuesday morning.
Millen was in the group practicing on the upper third of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb course, and the 28-year-old California resident was really in no hurry to fire the engine on his 2000 Mitsubishi Lancer. It's not like he doesn't know the racecourse - the twisting, turning 12.42-mile layout fits Millen like an old shoe. He just wanted to savor the moment.
"The race is a passion for me,'' he said. "This is my 10th year here.''
Rhys Millen first arrived on Pikes Peak in the tow of Rod Millen, his racing father who first saw America's most famous mountain as a Pro Rally driver in the late 1980's. It didn't take Rod long to stamp his mark on the mountain and instill love for the race in his son.
"It's an obsession for him,'' Rhys said.
Nobody has ever climbed the mountain faster than Rod Millen, who established the all-classification record of 10 minutes, 4.06 seconds in 1994 and then spent the next five years trying to break the unthinkable 10-minute barrier without success.
Rod isn't racing this year after losing his sponsor, but according to Rhys, he will be back.
"He'll be in New Zealand this year,'' the younger Millen said when asked if his father might sneak into town to at least watch the race. "I don't think he could stand to be here and not race.''
So the Millen family tradition will fall on Rhys' shoulders. He's ready to carry the load. He's the defending champion in the High Performance Showroom Stock division and during the first two days of practice has shown no signs of surrendering his crown.
After sitting out the first two practice runs Tuesday, Millen clocked 3 minutes, 14.91 seconds on his first run and 3:14.60 on his second. His last run of the day came in at 3:11.44.
"My mindset is a little different than my father's,'' said Millen, who was the youngest champion in the long and storied history of the race when he captured the Pikes Peak Open title in 1992 at the age of 19. "But the pressure on both of us is the same. "We both want to win.''
TIRE WARS: The second day of practice was a mind game for the Super Stock Car classification. For the second straight day, Gay Smith was the fastest in practice, besting both Bobby Regester and five-time defending classification champ Clint Vahsholtz.
"My crew has it right on the nut,' said Smith, who clocked 3:06.48 on his final run of the morning. "But having the fastest time in practice doesn't guarantee that you will have the fastest time on race day."
While Smith was on cruise control, Regester and Vahsholtz were tire searching with the race's tire rule on their minds. According to race rules, a driver must use the same kind of tires (make and model) during qualification and on race day. That can turn tire selection into a guessing game.
"Is it a coin flip?'' Vahsholtz said. "You bet. And it's the weather that makes it a coin flip. You pick your tires for qualification and you have to live with them more than two days later regardless of what has happened with the weather or road conditions. It is a guessing game.''
That's a game Suzuki is more than willing to play. In past years Nobuhiro "Monster" Tajima's team spent much of practice trying to fix problems in the engine and suspension of his racing machine.
This year, the engine is running fine. The only experimentation his team has done on his hot red Unlimited No. 01 Suzuki Aerio has been on tires, which is a standard for all drivers, in an effort to find the right tread and compound to match the 12.42-mile course's ever-changing climate and road surface.
"We're trying different compounds and different tires," said Tajima. "Now, we're talking about race day conditions, otherwise this practice has no point." Tajima's fastest run of 3:53.49 came on his final run of the day.
His teammate Yutaka Awazuhara - a 12-time Japanese Dirt Track champion - did not have so successful a practice. His Suzuki Grand Vitara experienced leaks in the exhaust manifold. His fastest run was a 4:23.43.
The two drivers will be the focal point of a large Suzuki contingent, which will arrive in Colorado Springs Wednesday night. They will be on the mountain for qualifications, as well as Saturday's race.
Three hundred and fifty of Suzuki top-selling dealers from Japan have been invited to the race as reward for their industriousness.
Kanawyer finds competition: Gary Lee Kanawyer of Scotts Valley, Calif. knows how to handle the tough competition in Open Wheel this year. For the second straight day defending Open Wheel champion Jimmy Olson stayed hot on the heels of five-time Open Wheel champion Kanawyer.
Practicing on the middle section - which winds from the Ski Area to just below Devil's Playground, Kanawyer had a fast time of 3 minutes, 57.58 seconds. Olson, of Denver, clocked his best run in his four-wheel drive No. 44 1993 EWJ Wells Coyote at 3:59.22.
Following one of the runs, Kanawyer parodied a popular TV commercial featuring Michael Andretti, and "he tried to lock me in the bathroom," Olson said with a laugh.
"Where's my stick," Kanawyer said as he held the door closed. Colorado Springs driver David Donner, the 1991 Open Wheel champion, fell off the pace a little due to a mysterious engine problem. His No. 2 Donner Dykstra DD-3 would not rev above 5000 RPMs, but it didn't stop him from clocking a 4:10.05 on his first run. He sat out several runs while he and his mechanics tried to fix the problem. Donner took an optimistic view of the problem.
"If it's too easy (during practice) then you worry because it's going to hit you on race day," Donner said. "We're definitely in the hunt, and I don't think there'll be any worries."
The problem seems to be in hand, as he clocked a 4:03.21 on his final practice run. Eklund and Richelmi still close: Mechanical problems didn't stop Saab's Per Eklund from having the fastest practice times in the Pikes Peak Open division on the second day of practice on the lower part of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb course, which runs from the Start Line to the Ski Area.
Eklund, of Sweden, took his 2000 Saab 9-3 Viggen from the start line to the Ski Area (about 4.5 miles) in only 3:34.89, four seconds faster than his competition, Jean Pierre Richelmi, who made the same run in 3:38.06. Both these times were faster than Suzuki driver Nubohiro Tajima's 3:50.69 yesterday on the same part of the course.
Richelmi, from Monte Carlo, Monaco, said he wants to beat Eklund in his Toyota Corolla, but so far, Eklund has beat him in every practice run since yesterday. And Eklund hasn't even been able to make every practice run. Tuesday, after only two runs, his gearbox sprung a leak. It was a replay of the problem he had on the first day of practice. However, Eklund's crew was prepared. They replaced the transmission and differential and were ready in time for the sixth practice run.
Eklund is watching out for Richelmi, though. He said that tomorrow he must "practice, practice," because Richelmi can be a better driver. Richelmi's crew chief, Marco Pastorino, said tomorrow is an important day.
"It will be a difficult tire battle," Pastorino said. The Pikes Peak Open division will practice on the middle section of the course on Wednesday. It will also be the day the Pirelli race day tires are selected.
Tires aren't everything in a race, he said. The three keys of winning are the car, the driver, and the tires, but when the car and the driver are both good, the tires can win the race. The road is also a factor Eklund and Richelmi are concerned about.
"I hope for the race day it will be very clear," Richelmi said.
At the beginning of practice Tuesday, the road was wet and covered with loose gravel. Eklund said that as the day drew on, the road got better, and he credited that with his fast practice times.
Mechanical Problems: Pikes Peak Open division driver Koichi Horiuchi of Japan experienced serious mechanical failure for the second day in a row at practice. Tuesday on the lower section of the Hill Climb course during his first run, the transfer case on his 2001 Mitsubishi FTO broke. His crew spent the rest of practice repairing it.
Tyler Casebier, Super Truck & SUV driver, also experienced serious mechanical problems. Before his second practice run even started, his 2001 Ford Explorer leaked methanol at the starting line. His crew pushed the truck back into the pit area and repaired the leak. However, as he continued his second run, his truck suddenly died. According to his crew, fuel leaked into the distributor cap and caused an explosion, destroying the cap and the rotor. The crew replaced the cap and rotor but couldn't get the truck started. Casebier didn't practice again until the sixth run.
Nuts and bolts: Big Rig driver Bruce Canepa received a scare around the Big Sky curve on the lower section of the Hill Climb course Tuesday.
He said that as he approached the curve, his truck went straight instead of turning. He slammed his brakes and stopped just as his front wheels left the edge of the cliff.
"It's really Blue Sky," he said about the view from the edge.
The tracks his truck made looked like somebody's suicide attempt, he said. He was able to back up and complete the practice run.
One for the history books: The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is once again graced by the presence of race historian Stan DeGeer and his wife Eloise. DeGeer has published three books on the Race to the Clouds: The Pikes Peak Race; Pikes Peak is Unser Mountain; and Pikes Peak or Bust. The, 85-year-old writer from Albuquerque, N.M., has also written a fourth book about the second-oldest motor sports event in the country, but is currently looking to sell advertisments in it to cover printing costs.