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High speed heritage

Tim Mutrie

During summertime in the early 1980s, the Woody Creek race track filled with families and fumes twice a week for a series of stock car races.And Basalt’s Dallenbach family quickly became fixtures.Brothers Wally Jr. and Paul, who is defending his overall championship in the Pikes Peak Hill Climb on Saturday, June 26, salvaged a Mustang from a nearby junkyard and fixed it up at the family ranch in the Fryingpan Valley. Wally Jr., who is four years older, started racing the Woody Creek series in 1981 and Paul began at age 15, in ’83. At the time, both were Basalt High School students.”It was a run-whatcha-brung kind of thing,” remembered Paul, now 37. The races featured three classes: Slow, fast and superfast.It might sound a little dicey to non-racing folk, but Paul Dallenbach was born into this sort of thing. His dad, Wally Sr. of Basalt, is a well-known name in auto racing, having driven in a dozen Indianapolis 500s in the 1960s and ’70s and winning the California 500 in 1973.That first summer in Woody Creek, as if completing a high-speed rite of passage, Paul was initiated to the sport.”It was the biggest crash of my life,” he said recently at his new home in Basalt’s southside neighborhood. “I lost my brakes at the end of the long straightaway and I hit [the wall] a ton. A ton. If you look at the video, it looked like a fatality.”And there I am – I’m in third place when I lose it – and I’m still trying to start this totaled car as my dad and mom and folks are rushing out to see if I’m OK. … And all along I just should have pumped the brakes.”Dallenbach was fine – his whiplash was less serious than the sprained ankle his mom suffered running to his aid.”We’re a racing family,” he added, chuckling at the memory. “If that’s not already obvious.”Race to the CloudsDriving a prototype hill-climbing car taken from Indy designs and parts, Dallenbach returns to the 82nd annual Pikes Peak International Hill Climb as the defending overall champion on Saturday, June 26.Last year, he and his 850 horsepower Sherpa reached the summit in 10 minutes and change. And in the last decade, Dallenbach has set course records at three different Colorado hill climbs, including the internationally renowned race up Pikes Peak in 1993.Infamous for its gravel and dirt track and 156 turns that twist, with no guardrail, up a vertigo-inducing mountainside, the so-called “Race to the Clouds” climbs about 5,000 vertical feet over 12.5 miles. The finish line is at the summit, elevation 14,110 feet.The second oldest motor sports event in the United States, the race typically includes 150 drivers – of motorcycles (with and without sidecars), semis (as in tractor-trailer rigs without the trailers), and all manner of race cars.Drivers are started in 3-minute intervals, based on seeding and class, and race against the clock. Top speeds exceed 120 mph in the elite divisions. Sometimes it’s a balmy 70 degrees at the start and snowing at the finish.”If the road gets hard, if the groove gets right, it’s almost like a road race,” said Dallenbach. “But depending on conditions – if it’s loose, particularly – it’s tough.”Last June, as Dallenbach drove to a 5-second victory, he spun out near the top of the course. “Because I lost my brakes, again,” he said. “You’re looking at probably 50 hairpin turns and you just slide when you hit the brakes, then try to power through.””The way the cars are built, by the time you get to the top, they’re over-heated and about to die …”What a rush.”Fast-moving familyWally Dallenbach Sr. specialized in Indy and Formula car racing, and enjoyed his greatest success in the 1960s and ’70s. Last year, he retired after 19 years as chief steward of the Champ Car Series (formerly known as CART).But Wally Jr.’s talent lies in the NASCAR oval, where he raced for eight years. Now a Texas resident, Wally Jr. works as a NASCAR analyst for NBC and occasionally drives in select events.Colleen, the Dallenbach sister sandwiched between Wally Jr. and Paul, works for an Indy car team in Indianapolis and has married into another auto racing family.The Dallenbachs moved from New Jersey to Basalt and the Fryingpan ranch in 1973. “After Dad won the California 500, he knew what he’d won and he went looking for a ranch he could fix up,” said Paul. “This is the one he found, and that’s how we ended up here.”Paul was 7 at the time, and remembers driving Jeeps and motorcycles around the ranch as a kid. He played football for BHS, but shunned basketball in winter (“because they didn’t want you to ski and I was a skiing fanatic”) and track in the spring (“because I was on the river fishing every day”).By the spring of 1985, when he earned his diploma from BHS, Paul was already three races into a summer-long, nationwide VW Cup series.”It was just me and another guy who lived at the ranch, traveling around,” said Paul. “I miss those days. All I had to worry about was racing.”At 18, Paul began racing Junior Lites, a Formula car developmental series. He then moved on to stock car racing briefly and in 1991 raced his first Pikes Peak. Two years later, he set the course record and solidified himself as a niche talent.”I just took to hill-climbing really fast and it has become my specialty,” he said. “But it took a lot of jumping around. Racing is really a life of finding sponsorships. Everyone thought we were rich – we weren’t, but my Dad had land.””And Pike’s Peak is a big enough attraction,” he continued, “that we can get just as much exposure out of this one race as we might be able to throughout a whole season elsewhere.”Twelve years ago, working as a ski rental technician at Snowmass Sports, Paul met his future wife, Dana, when she came into the shop for equipment.And more recently, stemming from some of his hill-climbing successes, Paul has developed a career as a stunt driver for automobile commercials. He does all the driving for Audi and Pontiac (the two brands in his Basalt garage), and occasionally drives other high-profile events like 24-hour races.His wife, however, won’t be at Pike’s Peak on Saturday. “She doesn’t like racing,” Paul said, “but as long as she doesn’t tell me not to do it, we’re fine.”People often assume that Paul lives in Los Angeles, close to the hub of commercial shoots, but he has no plans to leave Basalt. He hopes to continue racing hill climbs, driving for commercials and teaching driving on the side.”My brother and I talk about trying to get back into a very active racing schedule all the time,” he said, “but it’d be tough for me, partly because the commercial stuff is so good, and because I’ve got to think about making a living at my age. This sport doesn’t wait up for you.”Wings to stay groundedThis year, Dallenbach’s Pike’s Peak racing team landed the Colorado Springs-based Peak Bar company as its main sponsor. The arrangement has enabled mechanics and the car’s owner/engineer, Leonard Arnold of Greeley, to work on the car extensively during the winter and to gear up for Pikes Peak and a couple other races this summer – if the car holds out.At Pikes Peak, Dallenbach expects to be challenged by about eight elite cars and drivers, including drivers from Sweden, Japan and England, and cars by Saab, Subaru, Ford and Mitsubishi.And while Dallenbach will be racing in the open-wheel class, owing to the overall Indy design of his car, vehicles in the race’s unlimited class will likely test him, if only on paper.Dallenbach’s car – the No. 98 PVA-01 – features rear-wheel drive, knobby tires and about 850 horsepower. Huge wings mounted fore and aft limit the car’s top speed to about 130 mph, but also provide the downward pressure needed to keep the rear tires in contact with the dirt.”It’s a different approach than a lot of hill-climb cars,” he said. “We made more of a road-race car with a lot of down force, versus, like, a dune buggy or rally-type car… Some of the unlimited cars are all-wheel drive and 1,000 horsepower, but we’re still running right in there with ’em.”A week after the 2003 Pikes Peak race, the two rally-circuit drivers from a Factory Subaru Team, which finished runner-up in the overall standings to Dallenbach, were killed in a rally race in Oregon. “Bad brakes? Stuck throttle? Bad pace [for navigation] notes? I’m not sure. Nobody really talked about it,” Dallenbach said.Despite the inherent dangers, however, Dallenbach maintains the safety record at Pike’s Peak is “very good.””A driver was killed a couple years ago. He hit a tree. But before that, they’d gone 40 years without a fatality. When you compare it to Indy, it’s like night and day. But it is weird, kinda eerie – you just know where you can go off [the road] and where you cannot,” he said.By the time race day arrives, drivers and teams will already have had several training runs – a few in May and more earlier this week. And since this year’s track includes a new element – about three miles of fresh pavement at the start of the course, as part of an anti-erosion effort – drivers and teams are hoping to take advantage of training sessions.”I know the course,” said Dallenbach, “but you never run the whole run ’til the race day. One run, that’s it.”And we’ll be going for it.”Tim Mutrie’s e-mail address is mutrie@aspentimes.com


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