When you think about all the different motorsport disciplines in the world, the thing that you associate with each of those disciplines is what surface they race on. For example, GT racing will always be associated with big road courses, NASCAR will always be associated with super speedways, drifting will always be remembered as being born in the mountains of Japan and Pikes Peak, which is entering its 89th running, will always be remembered for its gravel, dirt, and dust.
As of 2011, Pikes Peak is 90% paved. Next year, it'll be completely paved. During day three's practice session in the lower part of the course, I thought I'd spend a good amount of time with the last bit of gravel section. I needed to see the dust get kicked up one last time.
While I was camped out in the dark woods of Gilly's Corner, Larry Chen was at the starting line surveying the pit lane and its going-ons. Here's video guy, Justin Shreeve, happily mounting cameras in the confines of a Porsche GT2 RS.
It is never a dull moment before the cars go out. You might trip over a floor jack handle or something if you are not careful.
Monster Tajima's pit crew worked with headlamps in the dark of the early morning.
The drivers meeting has one emphasis: be safe.
Pre-race Interviews are done by the aid of car headlights.
You won't find any car on the grid without on-board video cameras. It is the only way for the crew to view the runs.
Last minute adjustments are made on the fly with the aid of flashlights.
Harald Demuth may not know, but he is driving one of the most photogenic cars on Pikes Peak this year, the SEAT Leon Supercopa.
The sun is the enemy in the morning as you are completely blinded going into some turns.
It seemed like every driver had their own morning routine.
Members of the media and the race staff drive by the pits on the way to the top right before sunrise.
Back at Gilly's corner, the sun started to warm up the night sky…
…and cars started their first runs of the morning practice session.
There are not many places to "get away" from the chaos that is Pikes Peak. Luckily, Jeff Zwart has a trailer that he can relax in.
It's only natural to see an Audi tackle the gravel.
Toshiki Yoshiyoka watches on as Rhys' crew gets the RMR PM580 together for it's first run of the day.
Kenneth Stouffer's S14, which has seen an increase in horsepower by 50hp, was looking solid during the morning's practice session.
I've said this time and time again, no matter where you are on the mountain, you'll always be in awe of its beauty…
…especially when you see machines like Rod Millen's (which is Rhys Millen's Formula D car) Hyundai Genesis…
…or Rhys Millen's RMR PM580 tackle the course in the faint morning light.
I can only imagine what goes through these guys heads when they are waiting to go on the grid.
Seeing Paul Dallenbach's 1307 horse power unlimited car ride up a dirt path while kicking up tons of dust during the sunrise hour is truly a sight to behold.
Jeff Zwart stares off into the distance…
…while Monster Tajima stretches his legs.
The combination of the light during sunrise and the passing of race cars kicking up dirt made for some rather amazing atmospheric shots…
…especially when they're kicked up by the master of dust, Paul Dallenbach.
Mitsubishi Evos are also masters at kicking up the dust.
The SEAT getting sideways in the dirt!
Pikes Peak, 360 degrees of gorgeousness.
After all cars finished their practice runs, they headed back down the mountain start another practice session. They try to squeeze in as many sessions as possible during 5am till 930am.
Stephan Verdier tells his crew how the car ran after his first session.
If this car wasn't out on Pikes Peak tearing up the mountain side, it would look at home at a Hellaflush meet with its bright colored wheels.
Autoblog's Drew Phillips practices his standing-in-line skills (or queuing skills for you non-North Americans) at the Porta-potty before race day.
Jean Philippe adjusts his breath-easy strips before his first run. He is going to need all the oxygen he can get to keep his focus while driving the Dacia Duster.
How can you hate on an Acura Integra Type-R climbing up Pikes Peak? Massive amounts of respect for the driver, Ryan McLaughlin.
Drew Philips and I stood at the same corner, at the same spot and battled for the same shot. Who walked away the better man? Check out Drew's shots here.
Lauchlin O'Sullivan looking and sounding as good as ever in the dirt section of Heitman's Hill.
Formula D driver, Toshika Yoshioka, lives in a world where you can only drive sideways –especially in an S15. Driving straight is impossible.
Getting "the shot" has its dangers but totally worth it –even when getting pelted by rocks.
Day three was also qualifying day. The first place qualifier in the 4WD Time Attack class was Stephan Verdier. He drove the Crawford Performance STI in the lower section to a time of 5:05!
The second place qualifier for the AWD Time Attack class is David and Allison Kern with their AMS Evo. They completed the course with a time of 5:09 –four seconds slower than Stephan.
The competition in the 2WD Time Attack class is looking real close. Jeff Zwart piloted his Porsche GT2 RS to a time of 5:15 which placed him as the number two qualifier in his class.
First place in the 2WD Time Attack class went to Rod Millen, who was only faster than Zwart by a second. He completed the lower section with a time of 5:14!
Will Jeff be able to hold keep or break his 2WD record on the mountain or will Rod Millen be crowned as the new king of the 2WD class?
The amazing Dacia Duster, driven by Jean Philippe Dayraut, qualified a very respectable 3rd with a time of 4:51.
On race day, Rhys Millen will be running oxygen but it is too much trouble during practice.
In the unlimited class, Rhys Millen ran the lower section and qualified with a time of 4:48.
But the number one qualifier in the unlimited class is Nobuhiro "Monster" Tajima. He ran the lower section with a time of 4:33. That's 11 seconds faster than the second place qualifier, Rhys!
With the course being 90% paved, the big question that will be answered tomorrow is if one of the unlimited guys can break into the 9s. Monster Tajima is looking real strong, especially with the 11 second gap between him and Rhys in the lower section. But Rhys brings on new technology and also the sort of car that we'd most-likely see in the coming all-paved Pikes Peak era.
Next year, the entire Pikes Peak course will be paved and this year will be the last year we will get to experience the magic of gravel. This year is also an end to an era, the era big-wheeled, big-tire, big-winged gravel specialists like Monster Tajima's Suzuki SX4. Finally, it'll be an end to the massive drifts everyone loves to see at Pikes Peak.
With the onset of the tarmac era in the 2012 race, we'll most likely see the more tarmac specialist entries. Maybe we'll see open wheeled F1-style cars, time-attack prepped cars, radicals and maybe even some of those insane european tarmac hill-climb specialists. But that's 2012, we still have to finish the 2011 race tomorrow.
Only after tomorrow can we start to speculate what the future of this hill climb of hill climbs will hold. Let's enjoy the gravel and the big drifts one last time. Let's hope someone breaks into the 9s and give the gravel a triumphant send off.
This is our ode to the dust.
-Linhbergh & Larry