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Race to the Clouds

August 23, 2017
2017 Pikes Peak Feature Image

It was forty years ago that this Canadian started his racing career on the dirt tracks of Eastern Canada, and this year he’s celebrating on his way to the top.

Story by Shane Scott

There’s uniqueness in being the only Canadian motorcycle racer at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb (PPIHC). I tried to keep this in mind as I headed out from Moncton, N.B., for the long 4,100 km drive to Colorado Springs, Colorado. As this was my third year in a row making the trek, the itinerary was well sorted: 1,000 km per day for four days. As a privateer, there’s no glamour in the trip. Each night I bed down in the back of the same Ford F-150 crew cab that’s pulling my 7 x 14-foot enclosed trailer, packed to the brim with race bike and endless totes of spare parts, tools, equipment, gear and the like.  

Founded in 1916 by Spencer Penrose, the Pikes Peak National Hill Climb, and the road he built to accommodate it, has presented a unique challenge to generations of racers. The Pikes Peak toll road winds its way up the length of the course 19.98 km with 156 turns to the 4,300-metre summit, providing an incredible drive and views that draw hundreds of thousands of visitors annually. Because of this popularity, the road is closed for only one day per year – race day. That means all testing, practice and qualifying is scheduled between sun-up and 8:30 a.m., when the road opens. Conditions on the mountain course are what could reservedly be called “variable,” especially hazardous for vehicles with only two wheels; race morning in 2016 saw snowplows scraping thick sheets of ice off the top of the track.

A Sparse Racing Career

IMG_6379sFor 2017, I was entering a 2015 KTM Super Duke 1290R, the same bike I’d ridden to a third-place finish in the Heavyweight division the previous year. We’d made improvements to the suspension, as well as added some aftermarket electronics but had not been able to test over the winter.

Our one opportunity for a shakedown came in May at the first round of the Society of Atlantic Roadracing League series at Atlantic Motorsport Park in Shubenacadie, N.S. It should be said that I’m by no means a road racer, having only dabbled in it over the years. Visits to Shubie have been few and far between, with races in 1984, 1993, 2005 and 2016, though my return in 2017 broke the long-standing tradition of one visit per decade.

I came away from the weekend taking first place in the Pro Twins, first place in the Formula 46 class and third place in the Pro Superbike. More importantly, we had a good baseline as we began the trek to Colorado and America’s second-oldest motorsports race.

Our arrival in Colorado Springs for the test weekend on June 10 and 11 was greeted with 70 km/h winds, gusting to 95 at the peak, which understandably had officials anxious, resulting in a group test run for safety. Even at that reserved pace, we were being pushed around on the road, with the wind most noticeably, and uncomfortably, doing its best to suck the bike off the side of the mountain.

America doesn’t have the stomach for race fatalities as in the road-racing cultures of Ireland and the Isle of Man, and this fact very nearly ended the event for motorcyclists. The top section has not been kind to motorcycles over the past few years with fatalities in 2014 and 2015. After Carl Sorensen slid off the high-speed 19-Mile corner and plunged to his death in a practice run in 2015, it was said that in the days after the race, the PPIHC administration had made a decision to cancel future motorcycle participation in the event. Thankfully, that ruling was not made official.

Tight Field

This year’s competition was expected to be very tough. Returning for his seventh year was last year’s King of the Hill, Bruno Langlois from France on a specially prepared 2017 Z900, bristling with advanced race parts and electronics. Also back was Rennie Scaysbrook on a new KTM factory-backed Super Duke 1290R, looking equally race-prepped. He had been well on pace last year to win the overall, but entered the hairpin at Elk Park with too much steam and put himself into the guardrail. The biggest threat, though, was rookie Chris Fillmore from L.A., also on a KTM factory-backed Super Duke 1290R. At 30 years old, Fillmore has spent most of his last 15 years as a KTM-backed pro AMA Supermoto and Superbike racer. I first met him in 2006, when we were racing a national Supermoto event in downtown Toronto. It’s a huge task to arrive at Pikes Peak for the first time and compete for a win, but Fillmore is not your average rookie.

Testing early in the morning always has its challenges, the first of which is getting up at 2 a.m. to be on the hill at 3 a.m. But being early has its rewards in getting first choice of pit area – the closer to the starting line, the easier it makes getting situated for each practice run. Both days we were first in line to take advantage of the valuable lessons learned in years past.

This year, my crew for the test weekend was veteran Canadian road racer and Harley-Davidson XR1200 series front-runner Blaise Fougere from Halifax. With time at a premium, we’re always under the gun to learn quickly and make smart adjustments, meaning I rely heavily on Fougere and his experience as a national-level road racer to move us in the right direction.

All Together

IMG_7659We never actually get to run the entire course until race day; instead, testing, practice and even qualifying are completed on various sections. This first day of testing was spent on the top half of the hill, and after a few tentative passes, the surface began to warm and the pace picked up. We’d eventually manage the fourth-fastest time of the day.

The second day’s testing took place on the bottom of the circuit, with its fast and flowing corners favouring the guys with a road-race background. The first series of corners is the most dangerous, with speeds high and tire temperatures at their lowest. The catch here is that the harder you charge out of the gate, the more temperature the tire builds and can hold onto for the cold climb to the top. By the third session, we were ready to lay down a fast time, but four corners into our run, at full throttle and maximum lean angle on a 160-plus km/h sweeping right-hander, my engine abruptly shut down. The suddenness of it locked the rear tire and sent the big twin into a skid toward the guardrail on the outside of the turn. I gathered it up just as I went over the white line, within a metre of disaster. Coasting to a roadside stop, I tried to digest what had just happened. I turned the key off then on, and it fired up immediately. The course was promptly red flagged, but not in time to stop the next bike, Fillmore, who seconds later flew by at a race pace just metres away.

I unceremoniously rolled back down the course to the pits, the bike cutting out twice more along the way, suggesting a fuelling or electrical problem. We were done for the day.

Gremlins

I stayed in Colorado Springs for the week trying to solve our mechanical problems. Fougere flew back to Halifax for the week, to return next Sunday for the “Peak Week” schedule of events.

I was offered a fuel pump from the KTM factory team as a possible solution. The difficulty was, there was no place to test the bike during the week. I discovered that the following Saturday, there was a track day down at Pueblo Motorsport Park, an hour south of Colorado Springs, so I registered for that. Unfortunately, the fuel pump hadn’t fixed the issue, as the problem once again reared its head on my first out-lap.

After some phone calls and pondering of the situation, I felt the issue must be with the aftermarket tuning electronics I’d installed on the bike to help with fuel mapping at race elevations. I spent the remainder of the day in the desert heat ripping off all of the new electronics and returning it to stock, only to miss the last practice session.

I knew I couldn’t afford to miss any more practice runs on the mountain, so, at the suggestion of some well-informed locals, I rolled the KTM out of the trailer at the crack of dawn the following morning next to an abandoned warehouse in nowhere Colorado, surrounded by an expanse of flat desert, on an arrow-straight road that went on forever. Of course, being on public roads, in a foreign country, aboard an un-plated competition motorcycle with no insurance, carries with it a certain gravity, which I weighed with great care against the toils of an entire year. On this occasion, fortune favoured the bold, and my hunch about the wiring as the Super Duke was back on song, albeit down horsepower and a quick shifter in this stock form.

Main Event

IMG_7949The Peak Week schedule began on Monday, June 19, with registration and technical inspection. My crew this year was the same as in 2016: the aforementioned Fougere and Caleb Noiles. Noiles is an experienced Canadian road racer from Moncton, who’s been running up front in the 2017 Atlantic Pro Superbike and Supersport Championship series.

On Tuesday morning, I decided to put all the problems of the past week behind me and come out swinging on the middle-section runs. I led the field with the fastest time on each of the first three runs of the day, with only one minor hiccup. Coming into the final turn of my third run, I reached for the front brake and the lever went straight to the bar – no brakes at all! I locked the rear brakes and dirt-tracked it through the corner in a panic. Safely back in the pits, we bled a large amount of air out of the brakes and surmised it had gotten in there from the violent headshake the bike had been through the previous weekend when the engine shut down.

The remaining two runs of the day were not comfortable ones. This mountain is no place to be without brakes unexpectedly. I kept one finger on the lever for most of the runs, pulled in just enough to feel there was brake pressure there. Surprisingly, though, I ran faster times, but was eventually shuffled back to fourth fastest once again thanks to improving times from the factory-backed guys.

Fingers Crossed

While taking care of the brake issue, we also decided to try reinstalling the electronics I’d removed when trackside in the desert. Despite the risks, it would give us the fuel injection map tuned specifically for the race elevations, and it also meant the quick shifter I’d done without all morning would be back on line and saving me precious fractions of a second with each use. Our hope was that loose connections and not the units themselves caused the stalling issues.

The next day, we were back on the top section of the mountain and spent much of the day working with the people at Pirelli to get the most out of the tires. We made headway, but it was difficult to attack the course at 100 per cent without feeling safe entering and exiting every corner. I kept one finger pulling the brake lever all day, hoping…

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