Larry Detrich can still recall the first time he climbed America’s mountain in 1948. More than 60 years later, he’s making his first appearance in a race car at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.
Taking the Pikes Peak Cog Railway to the summit as an 8-year-old when visiting his grandmother in Manitou Springs, Detrich is likely the oldest rookie in this year’s Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. And he’ll be doing it in a Formula One-style vehicle sporting a Volkswagen Rabbit motor that produces only 180 horsepower at altitude.
The aluminum car has inferior technology, designed 25 years ago for the now-defunct Formula Super Vee series. So Detrich will have to take advantage of his car’s ability to stick to the pavement on turns to challenge the powerful open-wheel cars he will go head-to-head with on the mountain Sunday.
“Fortunately I sit so low in the car I can’t see over the edge,” said the 71-year-old Detrich, who began racing competitively in 1979. “You’re just going, ‘It’s eternity on this side and infinity on that side, so stay the hell between the white lines.’”
With a full head of white hair and bright blue eyes, Detrich neither acts nor looks his age. And that starts with his enduring desire to jump into a race car and reach the 14,115-foot summit with unnerving speed.
Sitting in the back of his rented RV Friday, his passion and enthusiasm for every type of racing – from the Bonneville Salt Flats to high-speed track racing – is unmistakable. Detrich moved to Denver 41 years ago and splits his time between Colorado in the summer and a New Zealand beach town in the winter.
But don’t think he skips out on the race scene for six months a year. He competes in vintage races in New Zealand in a similar open-wheel car, running into racers a third his age in the dressing room.
“My judgment is pretty good as far as how the car feels, how far I can push it,” said Detrich, a “Bonneville 200 MPH Club Life Member” jacket tossed over his shoulders.
He says professional racing keeps him in shape, forcing him to keep up the morning workouts and careful diet. His vision less sharp, his hearing feeling the effects of countless hours in race cars, Detrich’s once ruthless competitive drive has gained new perspective.
He and his one-man crew, Mark Mercer, were once rivals on the track. After a 25-year run together that included setting three land-speed records in Bonneville, much has changed.
“At this age, we’ve done it all competitively and you like to get out … and just enjoy it,” said Mercer, twice the Sports Car Club of America national champion. “We’ve already done the competitive part and broken enough records.”
Nothing better defines his drive to hit terrifying speeds than a popular video of Detrich burning down Interstate 70 at 135 mph in the car he will race at the Hill Climb to celebrate his 70th birthday (YouTube 70 on 70). A new challenge awaits.
“I’ll tell ya, motor racing, it’s in your blood,” he said. “You just, you can’t get it out.”
Dallenbach expects records to fall
Six-time Pikes Peak International Hill Climb champion Paul Dallenbach expects time to fall about 20 seconds at this year’s race, the first on a fully paved course.
But according to Dallenbach, a Basalt native who earned the No. 2 qualifying spot in the unlimited division for Sunday’s race, the paved path also brings new challenges.
“They took a quarter of our road away,” he said, pointing to several inches of dirt that line both sides of the road.
“We’re going to be going by those orange barriers (at Glen Cove) at about 135 mph, and it’s going to look like your opening is (tiny). That’s the tricky part.”
Dallenbach’s qualifying times were second in his division to France’s Jean-Philippe Dayraut, but he says he was worried about his car’s performance after the first practice day. After his crew installed a new differential Thursday night and switched to slicker tires, the Pikes Peak veteran is much more confident with his high-horsepower best heading into race day.
“First day was scary, we changed a ton of stuff on the car,” Dallenbach said.
Dallenbach’s nephew Wyatt, 20, will compete in the race for the first time Sunday in the open-wheel division. He qualified third in the division.