It’s a special feeling to know that my team – Thunder Bunny Racing – is now part of motorsports history and I have memories that will last a lifetime. As I write this, I’ve just concluded a week in Colorado Springs, where I competed in the 100th running of the famed Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.
I’m excited to give you a glimpse into my whirlwind racing tour, the improbable turn of events that led me to the mountain and all the adventures that 2022 has brought.
In addition to my racing career, I oversee the motorsports division of Thunder Bunny Racing (TBR). Early this year, our little team took a big leap of faith and moved locations. Prior to the move, we were operating out of a high school automotive department for many years. The move took us to a larger, dedicated facility in Greenville, SC.
I was offered a full-time position to lead racing operations and although this meant backing off from full-time to part-time at my BMW Performance Center instructing gig, I was ready for a new challenge. It’s been an unreal ride. In addition to the day-to-day shop operations (we also work on street cars offer storage services), our race season filled up instantly. Before we knew it, we were competing in World Racing League (WRL), making a rookie run at Mazda MX-5 Cup and attempting the Pikes Peak climb for a second time.
The June and July calendar was stacked with races throughout the east coast. My heart sank when I realized Pikes Peak and the Watkins Glen MX-5 race fell on the same weekend. This year was the 100th running of the climb and I didn’t want to miss it for the world. At the same time, I’m a scholarship recipient for MX-5 and it’s an important commitment. I worked hard to see if we could piece the weekend together and do both. Theoretically, it seemed feasible but I knew that the TBR crew and myself would have to make sacrifices. In the end, we love a challenge and we decided to give it a shot.
June started with the 14 Hours of Daytona race in WRL. As I suited up for Friday’s qualifying, I received news that a great friend and mentor of mine had suddenly passed away. I was devastated and somehow had to go drive, even though I felt like I couldn’t focus. I didn’t want to be there but I knew I had a job to do. Before the race, I pieced together some spare decal letters to put “J. Clark” on my car and he rode with us for the weekend.
We didn’t qualify well, as early car issues kept us in the garage. We took the green from near the back of the GT0 field and I let my emotions help me drive to the overall lead. Later that night, we earned a respectable fourth-place finish with no time to celebrate. We had four days before Pikes Peak.
It was all hands on deck for the Bunnies as they prepared my M2 – which we call Sabine – to race up the side of the 14,000-foot mountain. The turnaround meant Sabine lost some weight, got the big tune, Hoosier slicks and was rewrapped for the big show. Finishing in the nick of time, we were off to Colorado. In the meantime, our MX-5 machine was being prepped and loaded for Watkins Glen, NY.
On Saturday evening, after two days of driving, we arrived in Colorado Springs. On Sunday, we took a trip to America’s Mountain so our small crew of four could appreciate what we were about to undertake.
Monday morning was technical inspection for our class, called Time Attack 1, which includes production-based cars that must maintain their original manufacturer driveline configuration. Some of our competition included a 911 Turbo S, an Acura NSX, and Pikes Peak legends David Donohue (driving a Porsche GT2 RS Clubsport) and Jeff Zwart (driving a Porsche 935/19).
Although you’re racing competitors, Pikes Peak is a race against the mountain. During the 4,720-foot accent, there are 156 turns over 12.42 miles, with countless corners you wish were lined with more guardrail. But all you get is the bright blue sky – or clouds and rain – as a reference, and your memory. There are no second chances. Veterans say it takes about five years to learn the course.
Many teams attended the test days in early June to dial in their machines and pocket valuable seat time. I had my work cut out with zero practice, on top of my goal of being the fastest woman ever up the mountain.
On Tuesday, our alarm clocks went off at 2:30am to head to the mountain and arrive in our sections. The mountain is divided into three sections and groups rotate throughout the week. Qualifying always takes place in the lower section and determines the running order for race day.
Once the sun came up at 5:15am, the first car was sent. Since it was still somewhat dark, I used my first pass to shake down the car and try to mesh reality with my memory, and the many hours of video I had watched. As I lined up for the second run, it was time to send it because this could be the last attempt. I shaved 18 seconds off my first run time, then another two seconds for my third run. I was extremely happy with my P5 starting position.
On Wednesday, we moved into the middle section of the mountain, where the climb really begins. This section includes the steep switchbacks known as “the Ws” and the dangerous blind corners where your right foot and your mind begin to fight one another. We finished P4 that day and although I would’ve loved to stay for the final practice in the upper section the next day, I had a flight to catch for Watkins Glen.
TO BE CONTINUED IN PART II…