Through a series of improbable, seemingly impossible, and loosely planned circumstances, I found myself behind the wheel of a handbuilt million-dollar prototype Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8. Without a single journalist mile on the odometer, I stabbed the throttle a few times to clear its throat, and the echoes sounded like an octet of pissed-off 200-pound Rottweilers. Mile-marker seven on the Pikes Peak Highway, or a nondescript telephone pole, is the unremarkable starting line of the infamous, sometimes deadly Pikes Peak International Hill Climb (PPIHC). From this vantage point, one can see a series of switchbacks cut into the mountainside eight miles up the road, 3000 feet above. The mountain seems to be saying, "You reckon, do you?" What have I gotten myself into?
Because everything happened so fast, I hadn't fully researched the ramifications of agreeing to do this. Sure, I'd heard all the tales of how dangerous Pikes Peak is, seen the "Real Men Don't Need Guardrails" T-shirts, and read about the Unser family's legacy there. But now it was real: real big, real scary, and there would be real consequences for doing something wrong just once on any of the 156 turns. Postrun research revealed that since 1916, thousands of famous race drivers have made the 12.42-mile run up the 4720-foot ascent to the finish, literally in the clouds at over 14,000 feet. There's even a record for pushing a peanut up the mountain with your nose. In a four-wheeled vehicle, though, Rod Millen has held the overall driving record since 1994 with a 10-minute, 4.06-second blast--eclipsing the prior mark by 40 seconds. Also, better drivers than me have wrecked there; three have died, as did an inattentive corner worker.
Did I mention I was seated in a prototype vehicle intended for glamorous advertising shoots and there were no fewer than 15 other people waiting to get their hands on the one and only SRT Grand Cherokee that existed at that time? Photographers, videographers, ad-agency observers, and a vehicle-prep team were all clamoring for my temporary loaner as I waited for my walkie-talkie to announce, "The highway is clear. Go, go, go!" Oh, and I had two very brave, back-seat passengers: the freelance writer of the SRT Adrenaline Tour magazine insert (Motor Trend, January 2006) and this story's enthusiastic photographer.
I glanced at a sheet of paper handed to me just moments before. It was a course map of the Hill Climb. Trying to memorize it, even with enough time, would be like remembering every nuance of a foot-long spider-web crack in a windshield. "This is worthless to me," I thought. The Australian writer in the back seat urged me to keep in mind that I was the only one in the Jeep wearing a helmet. Doing my best to reassure him, I said that I too had a one-year-old daughter waiting for me at home and that I would only drive what I could see.