The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is on.
Aug. 12 is the new date for the 90th run of the second-oldest motor sports race in U.S. history. Race week begins Aug. 7 and includes technical inspection, practices, media day and the downtown Fan Fest Aug. 10.
Tickets purchased for the July 8 event will be honored, but no general refunds will be made.
The Hill Climb, which pumps millions into the local economy, was postponed from its July 8 race day because of the Waldo Canyon fire. U.S. Forest officials would not have been able to cover the race as they usually do with their eight fire trucks because all resources were directed toward fighting Colorado’s worst wildfire in the state’s history.
“With the help and support of the City of Colorado Springs, the U.S. Forest Service, Pikes Peak – America’s Mountain, and the numerous agencies dedicated to the safety of the public and the competitors, we are thrilled to be able to make this announcement,” said Tom Osborne, Hill Climb chairman of the board and president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Sports Corporation.
Although there was a setback, Hill Climb director of operations Megan Leatham never wavered in her enthusiasm. Even as Sports Corp officials held a press conference July 28 to formally announce the postponement of the race, Leatham — exhausted from the round-the-clock work to notify the 211 teams and more than 6,000 fans of the postponement — was upbeat and positive about setting a future date.
“I am so excited about the opportunity,” she said. “I hope that we can provide this community with something positive – that we can bring the economic impact here.”
When Hill Climb officials came to the realization June 27 that they would have to postpone the race, they were rattled. The Hill Climb had gone on nearly every year since 1916 when Spencer Penrose conceived the idea of racing cars up Pikes Peak Highway as a way to advertise the opening of the road up the beautiful mountain. It had only been canceled during World War I and World War II.
Rescheduling the race, which takes a year to plan, required some calendar maneuvering. Nearly all summer weekends are booked with events from the Rocky Mountain State Games, the downtown Olympic celebration to the USA Pro Cycling Challenge in late August.
However, the last thing the Hill Climb board wanted to do was cancel this year’s event. The 2012 Hill Climb is set to make race history – for the first time competitors will take the 156 turns up the 12.42-mile stretch on a fully paved highway.
The newest feature in the race, the paved road, had already attracted more competitors, more sponsors, more international media, more hotel bookings and more pre-race activities than last year, when it busted all of its records. Tickets sold at double the rate as excitement was building for a new category — electric cars. Last year’s race champion, Japanese driver Nobuhiro Tajima who broke the 10-minute record, will race this year in the electric car category. He is said to have spent $1 million on his car.
Competitors, on hearing the news of postponement, vowed to come back when a new date was set, Leatham said.
“The amount of support and understanding from competitors worldwide has been phenomenal,” she said.
She cannot say what the economic hit could be, if any.
In 2006, the last time an economic impact study was done for the race, Hill Climb had a $4.4 million economic impact on the city, according to a study by David Bamberger & Associates. Then, there were 1,900 spectators and 150 media representatives. Since then, the race has grown to 6,000 spectators and 300 media representatives. The Bamberger report projected the race to have a $60 million economic impact from 2005 to 2014.
“We are very excited and hopeful that when we do have the 90th run later this summer, that the numbers will be strong and we won’t lose very much of the economic impact that we bring to the city,” Leatham said.
Last summer, the race broke all its previous records in ticket sales, merchandise sales and hotel room nights. This year the event had booked 800 room nights at the Crowne Plaza, the event’s host hotel, compared with last year when 416 room nights were booked. And, sponsors had doubled from last year.
“As far as economic impact, we may not miss a beat with the postponement,” Osborne said. “That is good news for the community and for the race.”
Some of the competitors already have indicated their desire to establish a fund to benefit those agencies that have battled the fire and now support the Hill Climb’s ability to host the race, Osborne said.
In recent years, the race has steadily grown in size, popularity and international notoriety. It’s so big now, that race officials are considering making it a two-day event.
It’s ironic that the pavement has something to do with the race’s revitalized success. Thirteen years ago when the Sierra Club sued Colorado Springs to get Pikes Peak Highway paved, the Hill Climb board of directors thought paving the road would be the race’s undoing. They fought it and lost.
Now, the paved road has attracted new racers and renewed interest and it seems the race has secured its place in motor sports history, said Ed Sauer, former Hill Climb board chairman.
“Now, all these new cars are coming in — big time drivers . . . it really has made this a better race,” he said.
This year is the not the first year the Hill Climb has been in jeopardy of cancelation. Sauer, president of The Bank at the Broadmoor, recalls the day five years ago when he was forced to call an emergency meeting on the Hill Climb’s fate. The race had been reeling since the late 1990s when Chevrolet pulled out as a sponsor and took its $250,000 with them. At about the same time, the city started charging rent for the use of the highway — that was in the thousands, Sauer said.
Race officials started paying the previous year’s bills with money coming in for the current year’s race.
The board was faced with the notion of shutting down the second-oldest motor sports race in the country. It was $200,000 in the hole.
“We were literally minutes away from making a decision to disband,” said Bob Gillis, PPIHC board member and general manager of TCI Tire Centers.
But even back then, they could not bring themselves to shut it down.
“I’ll never forget, (board member) Bob Gillis said, ‘this race has gone on for 84 years, it will go on for 85 years,’ “ Osborne said. “It’s just part of the DNA of this community.”
Race organizers hunkered down and cut expenses. The Sports Corp. took over the marketing and ticket sales for the event.
“Everybody rolled up their sleeves and they pulled it out,” Osborne said. “It’s amazing to see the passion of the race director, the race committee and the 300 volunteers — it’s alive and well.”
This year the event is on solid financial footing. Race organizers even expect to sock away hundreds of thousands of dollars to be used for next year’s event.
“This is Spenser Penrose’s legacy,” Sauer said. “It is so fulfilling to see people understand what this race means, and what it means to the community.”
The buzz about the paved road swept through the racing community as soon as the last mile of the roadwork was completed in September. The first six-mile stretch was paved in the 1950s. The city was required to pave the entire length of the highway after settling a lawsuit with the Sierra Club, which claimed the dirt highway was causing erosion and affecting the watershed.
“When we found out there was only going to be a mile left to pave, we asked Mayor Steve Bach if he could accelerate the paving because we knew once it was paved it would ignite and give a boost to the race,” Osborne said.
It did. So many racers wanted in this year’s race that officials set up a qualifying event — 211 teams originally signed up to compete; only 180 can compete, Leatham said. She won’t know for a few weeks how many of the competitors will be able to come to the new date.
At least one large group – Audi North America – that tied its national convention to the race has promised to come back to the new date. The group expects to bring in 300 people.
As for the July 8 T-shirts and memorabilia already printed, well, “those will be collector’s items,” Osborne said.
•Tickets are still available at www.ppihc.com