Published: June 27, 2013
When Nobuhiro "Monster" Tajima arrived at America's Mountain in 1988, he found a dusty racing paradise. The road to the top of Pikes Peak remained unpaved, and the racers faced more danger and more thrills.
Tajima, the Hill Climb's former overall record holder, is a happy man, hesitant to complain, but he misses the fun and perils of the old days.
"Too smooth," Tajima said of the fully paved course racers will take to the top of the mountain in Sunday's 91st annual Hill Climb. "I like gravel and ice and snow."
He shrugged, and his face had a pained look.
"If possible, I want it back to gravel, but I'm sure that's not possible," he said.
The Monster has a good grasp on reality. It is not possible.
The battle over paving the Pikes Peak Highway is over. Environmentalists, led by the Sierra Club, struggled for years to force the powers that be to end erosion by paving the winding road. The pavement has transformed the Hill Climb.
"Totally different," Tajima said. "And different times."
He's right about those times. For decades, elite racers chased an elusive sub-10 minute run up the mountain. Tajima finally busted the barrier in 2011 with a 9:51.28 run. Monster's mark lasted one year before Rhys Millen cut the record to 9:46.164 last summer.
On Sunday, there's a strong chance the record will take an astounding dip.
Veteran Hill Climb competitor Clint Vahsholtz believes French racer Sebastian Loeb could roar to the mountaintop in 8:20.
Wait, I said. Did you really say 8:20?
"That's right," Vahsholtz answered.
Several yards away, Loeb was standing just off a road at The Broadmoor, where he was gazing through sunglasses at a beautiful Puegeot. He talked as if the car was human.
"The sensation I get in this guy is very good," he said. "The speed is incredible."
Cars matter more in the new Hill Climb. In the past, an experienced, daring yet wise driver could use his skills to defeat drivers who might have been blessed with superior cars.
Now, cars rule, and Loeb's spaceship-like Puegeot should reign as emperor of Sunday's festivities.
Loeb declines to kid himself. He knows Tajima and hundreds of other drivers faced more adverse conditions in the dusty old days.
"It was very different," he said. "Slower, for sure."
I told him about Vahsholtz's 8:20 prediction. Is that number really possible?
"I don't know," he said.
Then he smiled one of those knowing, confident smiles.
"I know, but I don't say."
If Loeb busts the 9-minute mark, and there's every reason to believe he can, our French visitor will deserve all the celebratory champagne he can guzzle. It will be, no doubt, a spectacular feat.
But this race isn't the same. The fast-falling times reveal that truth.
Tajima, and many others, miss the rising dust and the unpredictability and the untamed, Wild West quality of the days when pavement and the Pikes Peak Hill Climb had nothing to do with each other.