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Pikes Peak: The race to the clouds with Volkswagen Touareg TDI.

Has the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb become less renowned than when Louis Unser ruled the hill? Even in 2006 Leonard Vahsholtz and David Donner, hardly household names outside Colorado, define the race, as do younger members of the Dallenbach clan, Paul and Wally.

Despite the essentially local nature of the Pikes Peak Hillclimb, it remains one of the few Internationally known and revered races in the US; only the Indy 500, Daytona 500 and 24 Hours, and Sebring have similar stature in the racing world. Pikes Peak remains a challenge in the minds of competitors in New Zealand, Japan, Germany and elsewhere.

Thus an invitation to revisit the Hill, a place I cut my journalistic teeth on 25 years ago, was welcome. Volkswagen proposed to tackle this intimidating hill climb, populated with 700 horsepower Pro Trucks, purpose-built hill climb specials, rally cars and (thank God) a few upright sprinters - with three bog-stock Touareg SUVs.

It’s not as crazy as it seems, though Touareg’s V10 TDIs have 308 horsepower and weigh 5,086 pounds, their turbodiesel engines give them an awesome pavement shredding, dirt gouging 553 pound-feet of torque. Mated to Volkswagen’s 4XMotion all-wheel drive system, it provides four driven wheels and traction control with front-to-rear and side-to-side biasing.

Note that these were 2006 50-state legal vehicles, on sale September 1 and running on sponsor Shell Oil’s ultra-low sulfur fuel, the kind of fuel that will be mandatory for all US diesels this fall.

Any racing fan knows that when accelerating out of corners, torque, not horsepower, is king. Plus, turbocharged engines loose a fraction of their power to altitude while normally aspirated vehicle loose nearly half their ponies. So there was method in this Teutonic madness.

There were another three aces in VW’s sleeve, Ryan Arciero, Mark Miller, and Danny Sullivan. The later two best known for their incredible off road prowess, and Danny for his 1985 Indy 500 win. Mark piloted one of the fantastic pure racing Touareg’s in the 2006 Dakar Rally and holds first place wins at Baja and other off road races. Ryan has won three Baja 1000 races among 40 career wins. Danny, Mr. "Spin And Win" first drove Formula 1 Cars for Tyrrell, followed by a 12-year career in Indy Cars, and drove sports cards for Porsche, BMW, Alpha Romeo, and Jaguar. Good drivers, great vehicles, altogether a plan.

We arrived in Colorado Springs and the first thing I recognized was Bobby Unser; truly there is justice in the world. Though not a competitor, he drove the Porsche Cayenne pace car, the first time Porsche has taken that position.

As late arrivals, we tried to pick up on the local buzz, which is better appreciated from near-antique motels in Manitou Springs than race HQ in Colorado Springs. If you’re visiting and don’t insist on "starred" accommodations, stay in Manitou Springs, it’s way cooler than any place you’ll find in the city.

The buzz surrounded the VW entries; a Suzuki Gran Vitara entered by Japan's Nubohiro Tajima, President of Suzuki Sport Company, Ltd predicted have a shot at beating Rod Millen’s 1994 record-holding run of 10:04 in an AWD Celica; local hot shoes like Vahsholtz, Bobby Regester, the Dallenbachs in their Stock Cars and Open Class specials, and almost 100 riders of motorcycles, quads, and sidecars.

Two purpose-built diesel big rigs, one Freightliner driven by Mike Ryan (1250 hp/2,700 lb.-ft torque!) and New Zealander Shane Chapman’s 14-liter twin-turbo (1,400/3,000 lb.-ft. torque) with 2004 Panoz Racing chassis. Yep, "awesome" is an appropriate word for those trucks, and the whole cast of drivers brave enough to race without guardrails.

Race day morning we arrived at the start line, consumed ritual breakfast burritos and coffee, and attended the driver briefing. Mark and Ryan brought their crew and team transporter plastered with the logos of sponsors Red Bull, Oakley, VW, Shell Oil, NAVTEQ, and Nitto Tires.

From atop the transport’s rear deck, officials announced the day’s order. Vehicles would go in singles (cars) or groups (cycles) at two-minute intervals with five minutes between classes. As the VWs were running in Exhibition Class, they were the last to run before the cycles, and were fortunate to do so.

First off were two Cobras, the big rigs, then cycles, followed by all three Touaregs. Prior to the start, several modifications had been made to turn Touareg into race car, like ripping out the back seat cushion, front seat replacement with a Sparco racing seat and multi-point safety harness. Arciero Miller Racing built and installed roll cages and arranged for Nitto Tires to fit Terra Grappler tire.

VW engineers disconnected some systems you’d never mess with (or know how to) like the ABS, Electronic Brake Distribution, Electronic Stability Control, and the air conditioning. All to make race trucks out of stock vehicles. Additionally, the vehicle was locked in Sport chassis mode - lowest ground clearance - and the flashing warning lights were taped over. There were no engine changes, nor chassis modifications.

Proving that pundits were correct, Len Vahsholtz took top honors at 12:06 on a full course run. Tajima shared first place honors on a weather-shortened course, and Volkswagen finished 1-2-3 in their class. Miller posted 14:08:917, Arciero 14:47:954, and Sullivan 14:51:272. Miller was so much faster as a technical glitch slowed Sullivan and Arciero (the TDI engine can be brake-torqued, allowing the boost to spin up. After 10+ seconds the boost is shut down to prevent damage. The flagman waved "ready" and then waited to waive Ryan and Danny off. The engine quite properly got confused, and slowed. "Launch Control" was an issue never seen in practice and therefore never discussed.)

Post-race Sullivan, says "it’s the real thing. We’re not competing against field, but the car is capable. To be really fast, you have to know the turns cold. The trick is to be smooth, racing between corners - some I do remember - and you have to be respectful, a mistake and what are you going to do?"

Arciero says the SUV is "so stock we could even listen to the radio on the way up," but "no way we’d memorize all 156 turns" VW team members speak about the International import of stock diesels competing and winning. "This is the perception change," one says, "momentum," says another, "we go dormant and we’re screwed" (we loose the image of diesels as clean and powerful.)

Miller admits he’s used the onboard NAVTEQ navigation to glance ahead for the really big hairpins in practice, makes no mention of dividing his attention during the race. Mark says he "could have gone faster," as does every driver I’ve met. "Maybe could have done 13:59, 13:58. (I) messed up one of the "Ws" and the second W was not fast, maybe (I) lost 10 seconds." Mark said that in his opinion, "everything went as planned, those guys (team) over delivered." While 14:08 minutes won’t rewrite the entire record book, it does establish a Luxury SUV record, a stock diesel record, and proves that this absolutely stock grocery getter and soccer practice transport can beat Baja Pro Trucks, many Hill Climb Specials, and those wonderful upright Championship cars to the top of Pikes Peak.

Race over, Miller and Sullivan head for the airport, Tunisia and more racing. The rest of us go back to the hotel for a victory celebration. It’s not every day a team finishes 1-2-3 and writes new history for a race and a company.

2006/07/07 I 12:51 CET I Editor:

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