The Best View Comes After the Hardest Climb (Part II)

July 21, 2022

By Laura Hayes


In a matter of hours, I was walking through the IMSA paddock at Watkins Glen to jump into my MX-5 car. It was a busy Thursday with two practice sessions to get reacquainted with an entirely different platform and a track I hadn’t driven in years. I’ll admit: There may have been a couple naps squeezed in that day too.

We qualified on Friday morning and it didn’t go as planned, so we started deep in the field that afternoon for the first race. Caution flags plagued the 45-minute sprint, and I got to see most of that action as I narrowly avoided three accidents coming out of the Bus Stop.

Race two was early Saturday and this time, we went green to checkers without incident. I had a great start and some good battles but got hung out to dry at one point. I lost the draft and it became a lonely race in the end. I finished inside the top 20 in both races, and although I was not happy, my crew had a clean race car for the following weekend at Road America.

Then just like that, I was on a plane again, heading back to Colorado. I set up my laptop on the tray table and tried to soak up all I could for the big day.

I arrived in Denver at 11:00pm and went straight to the mountain. Rain sprinkled the windshield, which meant it was snowing at the summit.

We sat stationary for hours as the PPIHC staff tried to work the race teams and the record number of spectators through the single lane Gateway. Finally, we made our way to our trailer at 3:30am for a couple hours of rest on air mattresses and sleeping bags.

At 5:50am, we set out for our pit area to begin prep and putting the tire warmers on. The drivers meeting started at 6:30am and race officials informed us that conditions on the course were less than ideal. Fog and cold temperatures blanketed and summit crews had worked through the night to clear the road for us to run the full course.

I was the 39th car in line. As we waited, we watched what we could of the other drivers’ runs. Due to the weather, the camera helicopter that chases cars up the mountain was grounded, so that limited our decision making to sector times and the four camera angles at key locations up the mountain. Some of the road was drying, however, the fast upper section remained wet and visibility could be a concern. With the limited information we had, we chose a conservative approach and bolted on Hoosier rain tires.

As we neared launch time, Sabine was as ready as she was going to be. I climbed in and gave a few extra tugs on my seat belts. The tire warmers came off and I rolled to the start line. It didn’t matter that I was running on only a few hours of rest because the adrenaline that coursed through my veins at that moment had me at an entirely different level of focus.

Just as I was about to go, something happened on the course which delayed my start. As the minutes passed, the tires cooled quickly and my heart rate lowered. After what felt like an

eternity, I got the signal to get ready. I received some last-second fist bumps from my crew, and the crowd was cheering as I put the car into first gear. The green waved and it was foot to the floor as Sabine and I slid sideways and disappeared into the fog and around the corner under the famous Start Line.

After a couple of corners, the road was dry and the rain tires were already fighting my inputs, but I’d have to make the best of what I had. A couple miles later, I emerged from the fog and into a different world where the sun was trying to make an appearance. I had one of the fastest first sector times - and a respectable time in the second sector - even with a few mistakes.

As I raced passed the brake check station at Glen Cove, everything was going well but I prepared for tricky conditions ahead. Once I reached “the Ws,” the road changed from dry to damp to wet, with the pesky clouds moving in. At exactly the point where the final
section began (the section I missed in practice), I hit a wall of fog and visibility all but disappeared. In an instant, I weighed risk versus reward and chose self-preservation. Breaking a record wasn’t in the cards so I crept, blindly feeling my way to the summit and across the finish line.

It’s hard to describe the emotions after such a week of sacrifice, mental and physical exhaustion. I was let down by something completely out of my control and I couldn’t help but be utterly disappointed after a year of anticipation for my one shot. But as the locals say,
“the Mountain decides.”

Fortunately, a big team of supporters – the rest of my competitors – were waiting at the Summit House to bring my spirits up. One of the highlights (and this could be my favorite part of the entire event) is the Parade of Champions, where we drive back down the mountain together. As luck would have it, the weather had moved out at this point.

While I drove down the mountain, I took in the beauty from what felt like the top of the world and reminded myself of what I just accomplished. The fans lined the road and shouted our names, giving congratulations and high fives. This must be what rock stars feel like! The best part was climbing out of the car and being reunited with the best team in the world and celebrating with 14,115-foot donuts I brought back from the summit.

There is nothing like the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. Many people say they have no desire to try it, and I would have said the same a few years ago. Yes, it’s dangerous and it can be an ultimate test for a driver. But once you experience it - the people, the early wakeup calls, the sunrise from 13,000 feet, the slides around the hairpins and the chance to make history - you’re hooked. I’m hooked. And I’ll be back to try again in 2023.

I must thank my Thunder Bunny Racing family for believing we could pull off a month like this. Thank you to Jim Keown for having faith and trust in me. A huge thank you to Gregg Randolph and my friends at Winslow BMW of Colorado Springs for their support the past two years. This also wouldn’t have been possible without support from EPC Power, Hoosier Tire, Hawk Performance, Century 3 and Sabelt. Also, a massive thank you to Mazda Motorsports and their partners for providing our team this incredible opportunity.

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