Calling Pikes Peak "challenging" is both misguided and a serious understatement. There’s a reason why the winner is called King of the Hill. The course is 12.42 miles long with 156 corners and a grade average of 7.2° – can you say steep? Plus, the elevation at the finish is 14,110 ft. Rod says, “Pilots know that when flying above 10,000, you need a pressurized cabin or you’re supposed to wear oxygen. We’re racing at 14,000 feet – so your brain slows down and the engine loses power – it’s a challenge!”
The Pikes Peak Hill Climb is also known as The Race to the Clouds. It was started in 1916 with a winning time of 20:55.60, and until 2011, it was a gravel road, which made the race exciting, to say the least.
In 1994, Rod Millen raced a purpose-built Celica GT AWD Turbo up the hill in 10:04.060, breaking the old record by 39 seconds. That record stood for 13 years and the only reason it was broken – the lower section of the course was paved. So Rod’s record racing on an all-dirt course will never be broken. Quite an accomplishment!
There’s an old saying that “records are meant to be broken.” And typically, records were broken every year at Pikes Peak – one second here, two seconds there – nothing dramatic. That is, until 1994 when Rod Millen brought a tube chassis Celica GT AWD Turbo to the race.
That car was built with one purpose in mind – to be the quickest to the top of the mountain. And Rod Millen was the ideal pilot – his resume included numerous international rally wins, he was the 3-time Mickey Thompson Stadium Off-Road Grand National Sport Truck champion (the first driver ever to earn three straight championships), and he knew the mountain, having raced there since 1989.
“The key is knowing the course. There are a lot of sequences that look very similar and often, people forget where they are, and that can be dangerous. I can see all 156 corners in my head.” And on July 4, 1994, Rod pulled his seat belts tight and rocketed up the hill in an amazing 10:04.060 – breaking the old record by 39 seconds!
“Growing up, my parents talked me into having a career (as a surveyor)—and I liked working out on the land,” said Rod. “But my passion was surfing, and the best surfing spots were remote parts off gravel roads. I found I really enjoyed sliding around on the gravel road so much that the surfboards came off the roof and the twin carbs went on the engine!” Rod starting competing in hill climbs, which led to rally racing, and soon, Rod won the New Zealand Rally Championship from 1975-1977.
“I realized to go further with my racing, I had to go to the U.S.” Rod continued rally racing in the States, winning the North American Race & Rally Championship 1979-80, SCCA PRO Rally Championships in 1981, 1985, 1987, 1988, and 1989, and the F.I.A. Asia-Pacific Rally Championship in 1989, plus countless other wins, like the Baja 1000.
Rod’s two sons are also racers: Rhys set the record in the electric car class this year at Pikes Peak, and brother Ryan won his class in 2015 driving an electric RAV4. Ryan also races a RAV4 in Rally America; this year, he already has two wins and one second place.
“I was racing in the Mickey Thompson Stadium Off-Road series and we were sitting around when we agreed we’d love to build a Pikes Peak car with a turbo engine to counter the effects of the altitude. Well, someone from TRD said there are some motors leftover from the Dan Gurney All American Racer Formula 1 days – and off we went. As the build progressed, we brought in aerodynamicists because we wanted a lot of downforce on the dirt road. So the wings and spoilers all got really big because the air is so much thinner at the top, and we took that body to the dry lakes to test it out. B.F. Goodrich even developed special tires just for that car. That car even included underfloor venturi tunnels – but when testing, we found out they didn’t work when you’re sliding sideways – so the engineers understood what I wanted, and they adjusted to give me a 15º slip angle.” And the rest is history.
While Rod was still living in New Zealand, he read about the Pikes Peak Hill Climb – “the ultimate hill climb,” as he calls it – so he set his sights on racing it once he moved to the States. Up until that point, the race was dominated by NASCAR-style stock cars and open-wheel cars. On a trip back to California after one race, they passed through the area and talked to the organizers to see if they could see how a rally car would perform on the course.
“The organizers closed the road for us and one official was on-board with me. About half-way up the course, the official said, ‘wow… with that time you turned, that would put you in the middle of the field – and you’ve never driven the road before!’”
Needless to say, rally cars were included for the next race, and the stage was set for Rod to make history. “In rally racing, you don’t get to see the road before the race, so you have to adapt because you have one chance to get it right. Today, the road is paved – it’s different – it’s a bit narrower and there are guard rails on the bad corners, which acts as a reminder.”
“Working with TRD over the years, my experience with these engineers is that they don’t give up – they’re the finest engineers around and Toyota gives them an opportunity to be their best. That dedication carries over to the TRD products consumers can buy – these products are built to the highest standards and they’re proven before they’re available to the public.”
Case in point, TRD Shock Absorbers are unlike any other shock absorbers on the market. That’s because TRD does not make one shock absorber for all applications. The engineers fine-tune each one for its specific application to give the driver the right mix of handling and comfort.