Basalt driver guns it up for Pikes Peak Hill Climb | AspenTimes.com

Basalt driver guns it up for Pikes Peak Hill Climb

G. Sean Kelly
Glenwood Springs correspondent

Peak Moments Photography photo

Respect, and a bit of fear.

Basalt resident Paul Dallenbach has proven to be adept at balancing both these elements, which, along with a fast car and the flat-out skills behind the wheel, are keys to success in the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.

“I think you have to have some fear, otherwise you’re going to crash,” Dallenbach said. “You have to respect Pikes Peak, or it will chew you up and spit you out.”

Saturday’s 83rd “Race to the Clouds” isn’t some NASCAR trip around the oval. The 12.42-mile course transitions from pavement to gravel, features 156 turns and gains more the 4,700 feet in elevation. The open-wheel class, Dallenbach’s division, features cars weighing around 1,800 pounds and producing 740 horsepower, about the same power-to-weight ratio of an Indy car.

There are no guardrails, despite 2,000-foot dropoffs, and competitors hit speeds in excess of 100 mph on the straightaways ” which actually can be a good thing, according to Dallenbach.

“It’s almost better to go in a race car and drive, than go in a rental car and look,” Dallenbach said. “When you’re in the rental car you go, ‘Man, I didn’t know that was there.'”

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Dallenbach has chewed up the course himself a few times during his eight previous runs at the second-oldest motor sports event in the United States, second only to the Indy 500. He won the open- wheel and overall titles at Pikes Peak in 1993 and 2003, and also claimed the open-wheel championship and split the overall title last year.

“There’s a lot of keys to it, but to win, of course you have to have a good car and then you have to make the fewest mistakes,” Dallenbach said of his favorite race. “With 156 turns you’re going to make mistakes, you just try to minimize them.”

Familiarity helps minimize those mistakes, but even someone experienced on the course, like Dallenbach, can never know how the weather and the wheels of previous racers will affect the course.

“You can’t attack it like you can attack a road course,” Dallenbach said. “You come around each corner and it could be different” from the last run.

Dallenbach breaks the course into thirds.

The bottom is the fastest, particularly on the pavement, but “if you go off, you hit a tree.” In the middle section there are still some landmarks to gauge speed and keep track of where the turns are. At the top things get a little hairier.

“Up top, above tree line, there are no reference points to tell you where the turns are. There are no marks on the road, signs or trees or anything that tells you where you need to start braking,” Dallenbach said. “Up top is a little scarier to drive, then there’s that last right hairpin and about a 1,500-foot straight drop.”

Dallenbach was born into car racing as the son of former Indy-car racer and Championship Auto Racing Teams chief steward Wally Dallenbach Sr. Paul’s brother, Wally Dallenbach Jr., was a NASCAR driver, and is also returning this year to Pikes Peak for his second time after a 10-year absence.

Paul has competed on a number of circuits and was the VW Cup Series rookie of the year, but now limits his races to primarily a couple of hill climbs and the 24 Hours of Daytona.

He still pays the bills driving, however, working as a driving instructor, in commercials, and he was also a stunt driver in the 2000 motion picture “The Watcher” starring Keanu Reeves.

“(Racing) is more of a hobby, but it’s a tool for me to get work,” Dallenbach said. “Directors really love that I race. They don’t worry that I’m going to run over the cameraman. But you never see me. You see the actor or me dressed in black.”

And every time he thinks he’s out of racing for good, it seems to pull him back.

Dallenbach estimates the cost for him and his brother to compete in this year’s Pikes Peak to be around $80,000. He wasn’t planning on running the race until Vortex Valve got on the sponsorship wagon for both Dallenbach brothers.

“It just kind of hooks you,” he said. “You get frustrated looking for sponsorship, and right when you think you’re done, you get one. I thought I would be done 15 years ago.”