Auto racer Paul Dallenbach recounts scary crash at Pikes Peak hill climb
August 14, 2012
BASALT – It happened so fast – no more than a few tense seconds – that only one thought raced through Paul Dallenbach’s head.
“‘This is it. I’m dead,'” the Basalt resident said Tuesday, his voice trailing off on the other end of the phone.
A quest for a seventh Pikes Peak International Hill Climb title on Sunday ended in near disaster after only two turns up the famed fourteener. Mechanical failure caused Dallenbach’s 1,400-horsepower, open-wheeled car to careen off the pavement and into a heavily wooded area. The vehicle crashed through four pine trees, splitting them in half, and uprooted another before skidding to a stop.
He was covered in dirt and disoriented, but somewhat miraculously, Dallenbach suffered only minor injuries.
“The worst I got were some stitches in my hand. My elbow and both wrists are swollen, and there’s a whole lot of bruising,” Dallenbach said. “I’m flying out tomorrow to go shoot a Jeep commercial in Lake Tahoe, and I told the production team they’re going to have to find a hand model to do the interior shots.
“I consider myself blessed, lucky. I’ve been bombarded with phone calls and messages from people who can’t believe I’m alive. Even people in racing can’t believe I made it.”
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With good reason.
Less than 30 seconds into Sunday’s run, Dallenbach shifted into fifth gear as he approached the second turn. He estimates that his speed had reached 130 mph.
Without warning, everything went wrong.
“My throttle got stuck wide open,” Dallenbach said. “At that moment, you’re thinking, ‘How am I going to get out of this? What should I do?’ I tried to hit the brakes, but nothing was happening. The front ones locked up. The thing I needed to have was a kill switch, but I don’t know if I would’ve had enough time to be able to use it.
“That’s when I ducked my head and closed my eyes.”
Dallenbach’s car veered off course, perilously close to a group of wide-eyed, aghast spectators. One of them captured footage of Dallenbach barreling through a row of orange safety netting.
“If you go to YouTube, you can see how fast it was,” Dallenbach said, “how violent it was.”
He disappeared into the trees, momentarily losing consciousness as he cut a swath through the dense forest. The force of the impact cracked his new helmet.
“I could feel the car hitting the trees and was waiting for the one big one. I never felt it – I guess the trees were just the right diameter. … It was surreal. There was really nothing I could do.
“Thankfully, the head-and-neck-restraint system worked. If I didn’t have that, I would’ve broken my neck.”
Friend Tony Thompson, president of Alpine Bank in Basalt, was the first to reach Dallenbach.
“All of a sudden, there was a ‘pop, pop, pop’ and the screeching of rubber on pavement followed by the loud cracking of tree branches,” Thompson said in a statement. “I never ran so fast. I thought he was on fire.”
Dallenbach’s head was slumped when Thompson reached the car, prompting Thompson to motion to Dallenbach’s wife, Torre, to stay away.
Dallenbach came to a few moments later.
“He asked me if anyone got hit,” said Thompson, who remembers his legs being splashed by fuel spewing out of the vehicle. “I just kept throwing dirt on him so he wouldn’t start burning. Then the rescue crew arrived. They got there so fast.”
Added Dallenbach, “Tony said my head was moving, but my eyes were closed. I was a little dazed. When I came to my senses, Tony waved to my wife to say everything was OK.”
Crews cut the roll bar off the car, extricated Dallenbach, who was complaining of neck pain, and airlifted him to Penrose-St. Francis Hospital in Colorado Springs as a precaution.
There, he received three stitches for a puncture wound believed to have been caused by a tree limb.
He returned home Monday afternoon. His car, the one he used to capture his six hill-climb titles, was retrieved from Pikes Peak earlier in the day and taken to Greeley.
“I hear the engine and transmission are still intact. They said the throttle is still stuck wide open,” Dallenbach said. “Mechanical failures are tough. You know it wasn’t supposed to happen, but I know it didn’t happen because of a mistake I made. You never want to question yourself as a driver.
“I’ve had some close calls before, but this was the closest I’ve ever come to getting killed. I guess it just wasn’t my time. It doesn’t really shake me up that much – it shook the people that were close to me more. This just comes with the territory. If they held a race this weekend and I had a car, I’d go do it.”
Dallenbach has watched the video clip several times and on Tuesday afternoon said he was in the process of downloading in-car footage. He’s already pondering his next Pikes Peak ascent.
“I think it’s a good idea to see it, to see if I could’ve done anything different,” Dallenbach said. “It’s a learning experience, my first crash up there in 18 years. We were going up there to win this race, no doubt about it. I can’t go out like that.”