Published: July 1, 2013
Sebastien Loeb was surprised to see snowflakes in Colorado on the final day of June.
"We are almost in the snow here," he said nonchalantly as wet flakes danced about him on the summit of Pikes Peak.
He was shocked to see the flakes. The rest of us were shocked by his mind-boggling speed. Loeb directed his Peugeot 208 T16 to the top of America's Mountain in 8 minutes, 13.878 seconds, demolishing Rhys Millen's one-year-old record of 9:46.181.
This is similar to waking up this morning and finding out someone had run a 3-minute mile.
Loeb, from France, delivered a happy jolt to the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. Expect big-name racers from across the globe to arrive in Colorado Springs next summer. Those big names will hunger to lower Loeb's extraordinary number.
A new era in this ancient race has arrived. In 1994, Rod Millen raced up the mountain in 10:04 and over the next 18 races, the record dropped a mere 18 seconds.
And then in one year Loeb sent the record tumbling by more than 90 seconds.
Much of this radical drop has to do with the paving of the course. For decades, racers competed on dirt and gravel, and there was an untamed, Wild West quality to the event.
The Sierra Club and other environmentalists demanded pavement to prevent erosion. Many of the Hill Climb's staunchest supporters wondered if pavement would ruin this venerable event. The pavement instead delivered a charge of life to the Climb.
Rod Millen talked with a smile a few minutes after Loeb's astonishing performance.
"When men were men," he said, "we raced on dirt."
His words were not spoken with bitterness. He's not stuck in the past, or the dust. He was dazzled by Loeb's performance.
"It's a very different race," Millen said. "It's a new event."
Millen said he was not shocked by Loeb's time. He expected the record to take a deep drop. "That makes sense," he said.
But the number, he said, will not take another huge drop in the near future. The record will fall, slowly and surely, and he's not sure when the dropping will end.
Loeb is easy to root for. He's low key and surprisingly modest. Two hours before he conquered Pikes Peak, he was wandering through a dusty parking lot with his wife, Severine. They were chatting quietly and kissing occasionally. They looked like just another couple enjoying the Climb.
"He was very relaxed," Severine said later. "It was like it is before every race. He knows what he is doing. He doesn't think about the danger."
Severine was only acting relaxed. She had seen the course's winding roads and the steep drops.
"For the first time, I was afraid," she said.
A few minutes before Loeb's attack of Pikes Peak, dozens gathered around his Peugeot near the start line, taking photos and gazing with adoring eyes at a machine. At the same time, Severine and Sebastien were walking side-by-side through a crowd toward his car. The couple chatted calmly in French.
Almost no one noticed them. A few devout race fans offered thumbs-up and shouts of "good luck" as the couple took a long walk to an extremely popular car.
Turns out, there was no reason for Severine's fear. Turns out, Severine and her husband were about to savor a big French celebration on America's Mountain.
Two weeks ago, Bruno Famin, the director of Peugeot Sports, called Loeb from Paris. Famin had studied the Hill Climb course, and he made a bold prediction. Famin said he believed Loeb could race up the course in under 8:15.
Loeb had his doubts, but Famin offered grounded encouragement.
"It will be very difficult to put it all together," Famin told Loeb, "but if the car is used to its full potential, without any mistake, it can be done."
It can be done, Famin told his driver.
The amazing thing is that it was done.