One year ago this weekend the Pikes Peak Hill Climb Experience opened at El Pomar’s Penrose Heritage Museum.
The heritage museum originally opened in 1941, blocks from its newest iteration, which is located just across the street from The Broadmoor Hotel. It exhibits a variety of unusual transit modes, from carriages that were once part of Julie and Spencer Penrose’s private collection, to just about everything related to the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. Curator Jason Campbell said, during the past 12 months, the only thing climbing faster than the race-cars has been museum attendance.
“The response has been tremendous. We’ve doubled and, in some months, tripled our guest counts [compared to last year],” Campbell said. “We’ve become a destination museum now. The [Indianapolis 500] has its own museum, Daytona has one, the [Unser family] has one. We had [racecar driver] Al Unser, Sr. in here the day before Thanksgiving last year and he said we hit a home run with our design. He was very pleased.”
Campbell said “the Who’s Who” of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb have visited the museum, from competitors to crew to organizers — “they’ve all been here and seen the museum. It’s a love affair.”
Campbell said the museum welcomed nearly 1,800 visitors in May compared to 700 last year. April saw similar numbers, March doubled last year’s same-month total of 1,300 visitors and February welcomed more than 1,000.
“These are traditionally pretty slow months,” he said.
A living time line
Visitors can explore carriages from the 1800s and 1900s, as well as some of the highest-tech modern racecars, creating a living time line of transit, Campbell said.
“I don’t know that there is another museum like this in the United States, if not the world,” Campbell said. “You can see the transition in transportation from one era to the next. You could classify us as a transportation museum.”
On the carriage side, visitors can explore 12 models across several dozen carriages that made up the private collection of Spencer and Julie Penrose. Many were gifts to the couple from friends and business partners.
Campbell said most are in their original condition, including two presidential carriages — a Brougham model used by William Henry Harrison during his presidency beginning in 1841, as well as an 1862 C-Spring Victoria, which was the presidential carriage used by Chester Allan Arthur in 1862.
“The carriage that Arthur owned was 20 years old by the time he was president from 1881 to 1885,” Campbell said. The museum also houses two carriages that were shipped by the Penroses from the Philippines to their vacation home in Hawaii where they were used to transport guests to and from the beach.
The carriage portion of the museum exhibits an air of luxury and leisure. But the vibe provided by the 4,000 square feet that houses the nearly-$4 million PPIHC Experience is one of muscle and a different sort of horsepower. The Hill Climb displays include, among others, two Unser family cars — Al Unser Sr.’s class-winning car from the 1964 Hill Climb and Robby Unser’s car used in his record setting run in 1994. That record stood for 20 years, before falling to regional native Clint Vahsholtz.
“We have Clint Vahscholtz’ Mustang that, out of 21 tries in the stockcar division, won 19 times,” Campbell said.
The museum also displays the first motorcycle to break the 10-minute mark, a propane powered Shelby Cobra driven by Randy Schranz, as well as Jeremy Foley’s infamous Mitsubishi Evolution 8, which plunged off the Pikes Peak Highway in 2012 before rolling a dozen times. A cracked helmet from that crash is also on display. Foley and his co-driver, surprisingly, walked away with minor injuries.
Busiest week ever?
“We’re expecting a record week,” Campbell said of the days leading up to this Sunday’s race. It’s the first year the exhibit will be open for Speed Week, the event-filled days leading up to the Hill Climb.
“No. 2 is the race itself,” he said of reasons behind the expected turnout. “The promotion of the race is so outstanding now under the Colorado Springs Sports Corp.”
He said the seamless organization has boosted the race’s reputation on a global stage, which, in turn, draws bigger crowds.
“Last year’s [Hill Climb] winner was multiple Le Mans winner Romain Dumas. That’s the caliber of people we’re getting,” Campbell said. “This year, Indy car great Justin Wilson is racing in a [prototype car] that raced the 24 Hours of Daytona.”
Campbell, a Colorado native, former race car driver and lifelong Hill Climb fanatic, said, as records continue to fall, the museum will be there to chronicle it.
“There are things I never thought I’d see happen,” Campbell said. “Like two years ago when nine-time world rally champion Sebastian Loeb raced up the mountain in eight minutes and 13 seconds. I never thought I would live to see that type of time. … He averaged 87.4 miles per hour — 156 turns in 12 miles. That knocked my socks off.”