Lesson one: at that altitude, you get drunker, faster. Dinner and conversation had paused while Jeff Zwart, Pikes Peak racing champion and an absolute joy of a man, spoke cheerfully about driving a 911 off the side of the mountain, where it was caught by the treetops below. On the same road where I was going to drive the new Porsche Macan GTS the next morning at dawn, as fast as I could manage. Zwart got lucky; I’d never driven Pikes Peak before. Lesson two: consider wearing a diaper. I was on my second beer at a brewery in Colorado Springs, sitting at 6,035 feet above sea level — roughly 6,035 feet higher than my local bar in Brooklyn.
“I have never left the road so fast,” says Zwart. “There wasn’t a sequence of events; there was just an event. Fortunately…the trees cushioned the blow. That was the first day of practice.” For Pikes Peak racers, “practice” consists of running up the mountain in thirds only a handful of times — before you race you don’t run the whole thing at once. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the International Hill Climb and the 94th race, during which, Zwart says with a smile, “the confidence level is really important.”
2017 Porsche Macan GTS
Engine: 3.0-liter V6
Transmission: 7-speed automatic; all-wheel drive
Horsepower: 360 horsepower
Torque: 369 lb-ft
0-60 mph: 4.8 seconds
Top Speed: 159 mph
Curb Weight: 4,178 pounds
MPG: 17/23, city/highway
Towing capacity: 4,409 pounds
MSRP: $67,200 (base)
Until 2002, the entire 156-turn, 12.42-mile-long road was dirt and gravel; for a lot of that time, there were no guard rails. “I feel sorry for the rookies,” Zwart says. Yeah, the rookies also feel sorry for the rookies. This guy and his understatements.
Nowadays, the road is paved, thanks to, counterintuitively, a winning lawsuit from the Sierra Club, which alleged that gravel used on the surface was polluting the local environs. Logic dictates, and Zwart affirms personally, that this was “the biggest transition in the whole event.” (Shoutout to the Sierra Club for allowing me to see another day.)
In the morning, Zwart will drive the 911 GT2 that won him the hill climb’s top prize in 2002; we’ll follow on those aforementioned smooth roads as best as possible in Macan GTS’s wrapped in liveries that echo many of Zwart’s winning cars over the years. He’s won eight of the 16 races he’s done, and my Macan is wrapped in a livery that mimics his first win in 1994.
Even so, I don’t anticipate doing anywhere near as well as our fearless leader, paved road or no. The Macan GTS is a hot-rod beast, with its 360-horsepower twin-turbo V6, but it’s no 911 race car and I’m no Jeff Zwart. “In the dirt days with twin-turbo Porsches…I saw — once or twice — 102 mph. Last year, in the twin-turbo cup car that I run, it was 146 mph. So there’s just a huge difference to it.” Now I really feel sorry for the rookies.
I’ve never been up Pikes Peak, though I’ve seen race footage. I have driven on very twisty roads — in Porsche 911’s, no less — but this smacks of something more than a possible ticket or bent fender. This has more of a full-bodied “death” note to it, with teeth-clenched mouthfeel and sour adrenaline aftertaste.
Group B Evoluzione by Autodromo
Automotive-themed, limited-edition watches from big Swiss brands have a tendency to irk me — they’ll slap on an “homage” logo or some stripes and call it a day, then inflate the price to increase the “limited-ness.” That’s not the case with Autodromo’s limited-edition “Evoluzione” Group B, which, compared to the original watch, takes things a step a further. In that way, it’s not unlike the Group B rally cars and other insane machines that race up Pike’s Peak. Which is why, when Nick told me he’d be driving this hallowed ground and needed a watch, the Autodromo seemed to make perfect sense.
The major change here is the new 41mm case (the standard group B is 39mm). It has adopted a “cushion” shape and, despite getting bigger, has dropped 13 percent of its weight by replacing the old watch’s stainless-steel bits with CNC-milled aluminum; the rest is titanium. The result is noticeably light and comfortable, especially if you’re on a sweaty-palmed ride up one of the most intense roads in the US.
If there’s a downside, it’s also the watch’s biggest draw — this thing is visually loud. The case is big and avant-garde, and the straps are striped and bright. Maybe it’s flashier than austere German performance crossovers (sans livery), but I think I’d rather be behind the wheel of Zwart’s winged, red-white-and-blue 911 anyway. – Andrew Connor, Associate Staff Writer | Buy Now: $1,100
We rouse early. The line of mental-looking Macans pulls away from the hotel, single file behind Zwart’s GT2 at 5:45 a.m. We’re at the gates by six. We’re waiting in line for the proverbial green flag by 6:10. Porsche has somehow managed to convince Colorado Springs to close the entire road for us — it’s normally a plodding, public two-lane. Today in the crisp, very thin 50-degree air, the snowy peaks loom large and there’s not a car in sight. Words from last night are bounding about my skull: “There’s a lot of turns where the entrance, the apex, the everything is against the sky,” Zwart had said. “There’s literally no markings whatsoever that you’d use in traditional road racing… There’s nothing.”
I’m thinking not just of myself but of the Macan GTS: will this lifted family hauler — this decidedly non-911 crossover — actually make it? “There’s always issues of cooling because the air’s thin. The brakes even cool less. Everything is maxed out going into this type of altitude. 14,110 feet — you’re required to wear oxygen in an airplane below that, so it’s a very complicated place from the car standpoint and the human standpoint.”
Our nightmare caravan is linked by walkie-talkies, which we’re told Zwart will use to inform us of any road hazards like snow or wildlife. Instead, he calmly provides us color commentary the whole way up, pointing out his favorite turns, suggesting racing lines, and explaining the path ahead in detail. While driving a manual-transmission race car. Up Pikes Peak. While juggling a second walkie to chat with park rangers. At one point, he suggests we “hug the white line” at the road’s edge around a sweeping left-hander. I heard him say this, considered the fall, thought about maybe having a family someday and muttered a curt “the fuck I will.”
This has more of a full bodied “death” note to it, with teeth-clenched mouthfeel and sour adrenaline aftertaste.
But we all made it alive. Once I tested the GTS’s brakes a bit, once I saw the temperature gauge didn’t spike, once I understood that the Sport Plus transmission setting just wanted to have fun, I loosened up in a “might as well drift around hairpins” kind of way. The Macan was a blast. And Pikes Peak is the reason steering wheels were invented, a worthy pilgrimage for anyone who has ever turned a car or accelerated in one.
At dinner that night, before cocktail hour, I asked Zwart about the day. He wouldn’t be racing the Hill Climb this year, so our early morning journey was the only chance he’d get for some time on his mountain. “You were looking good back there,” he recalled. “I don’t usually have this many people following me up Pikes Peak.” As long as he doesn’t lead me into a tree, I’d do it all again. After all, I’m not a rookie anymore.
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