The Hardest Mountain to Climb ~ Paul Gerrard (Part 1)

Editor’s Note: You may recall our Podcast episode featuring professional driver Paul Gerrard and his new book, Optimum Drive. In our podcast, Paul mentioned he was getting set to take on the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb and we are elated to share part 1 of his amazing journey. Paul gives us a rare insight into the world of motorsport and the unique challenge of this iconic race in Colorado. We hope you enjoy part 1 of this terrific driver’s amazing journey up Pikes Peak. Stay tuned for part 2. 

Written By: Paul Gerrard

Photos: courtesy of Dave Liddle

It started with a photo on Facebook. A single picture on the Performance Race Industries (PRI) news feed. It showed a rolling tubular chassis with a twin turbo Chevy LS (of course!) sitting behind a tiny driver cell with giant meaty tires hung off a formula style pushrod three spring suspension. “Interesting”, I muttered as zoomed in trying to gobble up any details I could, “that looks like it would be a bonkers Pikes Peak car”.

My scanning came up with a name: LoveFab. A quick search came up with a YouTube Video, a video with a lot of views and a lot of fire. “well that’s not good…”. Against my better judgment, I didn’t let it go, I messaged LoveFab and got a response from a guy named Cody Loveland… the builder and pilot of the fireball. We exchanged pleasantries and quickly cut to the chase:

Me: “is this car built for Pikes Peak?”

Cody: “yes”

Me: “I’d like to drive it”

Cody: “….” (he googles me while I wait for a response)

Cody: “how tall are you?”

Me: “5’7” “

Cody: “OK”

The first tiny steps in a journey up a 14,115ft mountain, one of fifty-eight “fourteeners” in Colorado, but this one is special, it has a road all that way to the top and unlike Mt. Evans (which you can also drive to the top of), Pikes Peak happens to have hosted a Race To the Clouds for nearly a century – the only older race in the United States is the Indy 500. Why does this race persevere? Why is it adored internationally? It is impossible, that’s why. You see, it is a public road for 364 days of the year and it moves. That’s right, the paved road physically moves, the whole mountain is constantly shifting geologically. That was OK when it was gravel since it was always graded smooth but the Sierra Club got a bee in its bonnet in 1998 and decided to make a statement on America’s Mountain. It took 13 years until the paving was complete…on top of a continuously shifting and heaving mountain.

We now had a paved road – game changer – , no more beautiful arcing drifts performed buy everything from Stock Cars to Wells Coyotes or occasionally exotic Foreign factory built 1000 HP fire breathing AWD monsters (go to YouTube and watch “Climb Dance”). Couldn’t you now just show up with and Indy Car a F1 car or group C Prototype and rule the roost, rewrite the record books? The mountain moves. You now had more grip but more bumps, the Wells didn’t have the grip for pavement but it had the travel for the bumps while the Le Mans car had the grip but not the wheel travel. Suddenly (well, over 13 years suddenly), there wasn’t a car that could tame the mountain. The mountain is and always will be in charge from its continuously undulating surface to its ever changing unpredictable and often violent weather.

The fireball guy (Cody Loveland) knew this, in his small shop in rural Michigan he hatched a plan. Build a modern Pikes Peak Special, there have been many Pikes Peak Specials over the hundred years but this one – this one was the first purpose built car to come with the moving pavement in the crosshairs. What did it require? A prototype with suspension travel. Steal all the positive attributes from the old-school dirt cars and marry them to a modern prototypes’ downforce and grip.

The Enviate (NSX+V8, an homage to Cody’s prior builds)

It’s a hybrid> Oh don’t worry, not the gas sipping left lane sitting kind of hybrid, the cool kind like a lonely werewolf meets a vampire kind of hybrid… that chugs Sunoco 118 octane like an army of frat boys with beer bongs. It’s got it al: travel, downforce and grip. Perfect uphill weight distribution that lets it launch off corners like it was AWD without the added weight and complexity of AWD. It’s designed for today’s very different and difficult Pikes Peak.

If this were your typical marketing story from a manufacturer it would be simple matter now of sending Cody’s bank a rather large seven figure check and then ordering some champagne to spray at the top when the deed is done. We can dream, can’t we? Because I the driver/writer am not employed by a corporation and sitting writing this in a spotless and spacious corner office, I am a dude who likes to drive for a living and has to scrape together every possible potential opportunity that comes my way. Cody knows the feeling all too well but his scars run deeper, yeah, there is the fireball moment but he also has to foot the bill, the car is his, the financial reality of his dream. Dreaming is free but reality is expensive.

Day by Day, Dollar by Dollar

It begins, we have a car, we have a driver, we have a goal, the 2016 Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. Now you’ll probably be asking yourself if the year is a typo. No, that’s racing as they say. The best laid plans and all that. Pike Peak is a unique event, you see you have to be invited. This presents a problem to small new team especially if they have already done something quite memorable on the mountain (like burst into flames for example). The problem is universal, we have a dream and an actual rolling car but no sponsors and the one thing any sponsor does not want to hear is that we might get in. Please send us stuff and/or money because we might be able to fulfill our obligations to you is not a strong marking pitch. The other tricky bit is that entries are not confirmed until February only giving you (a practically useless) four months to make it all happen. I would love to see that all become more sponsor friendly in the future but that is today’s reality. So, 2016 was not meant to be but a least we now had a more realistic block of time to get things accomplished.

Switzerland, Home of Fine Chocolates, Diamonds, Watches and…

A simple Facebook photo, it got my attention but I wasn’t the only one. A small village called Hinwil near Zurich appropriately at the base of a large mountain sits one of only two Formula One teams not to reside in the United Kingdom (the other being Ferrari). Sauber, it’s a medium sized F1 team (300 employees) with a long and storied history of being gritty, determined and always punching well above it weight (budget). Out of the 300, many (as you might guess) are engineers and as you might also guess, many have Facebook accounts. Formula One may be the ultimate expression of motorsport but it certainly is not the paradigm of self-expression. Formula One is about two things: Rules and Money. Two things that box all 300 of the Sauber employees into the midfield at best. No dreaming here, just cold hard facts, rules and boxes that the car, the team, had to fit into. Somewhere deep in the inner workings of this fine mid-priced Swiss watch was a cog with an imagination, a cog with a dream…and Facebook.

Sebastien Lamour: F1 Aerodynamicist

When Cody is sitting in his cold, dark shop in Michigan in the middle of a long bleak Midwestern Winter just looking for something to weld so he might stay warm and hears his cheery Facebook messenger chime and casually has a peek at his phone (which is permanently attached to the front of Cody’s face, welding or not). “Hmmm Se-bas-tien La-Mour, who is that?”

Seb: “ello Cody, I work for the Sauber F1 team”

Cody thinks “and I’m the president of the United States…” but actually asks for more information and starts Googling immediately…he is legit. Cody answers: “what do you do there?”

Seb: “I am an aerodynamicist, I saw you picture and I have always wanted to do Pikes Peak”

Cody: instantly sobbing uncontrollably types “yes please”

An Unlikely Alliance

So, you have an old school tubular chassis (albeit it with perfect geometry, thanks to a guy named Aric Streeter, mated to an old school Chevy LS Twin Turbo, driven by a part time lifetime pro and soon to be wrapped in state of the art carbon fiber designed by one on the best in the business all being done on a shoestring budget by Cody. He had to learn how to build carbon fiber parts but if you know Cody, it doesn’t matter, zero fear in that man, with a talent for learning things nearly instantaneously.

Seb is sending CAD files, and running it all virtually in the wind tunnel with the help of college professor Timoteo Briet (whose CFD super computer wasn’t tied up 24/7 like Sauber’s) and Cody and I are out on our own sponsor hunting but we are not alone, we are not the only people who saw that photo. I mentioned Aric Streeter, the cheery race car hobbyist and Sirius/XM engineer as his day job, Manuel Grenier also from Sauber (specializing in suspension and vehicle modeling), Shawn Zimmerman the crew chief, Adam Peeling the engine tuner, Tyler Hassing the engine builder, Nick Jesaitis mechanic, Cole Duran the Colorado Springs shop owner and the jovial Dan Piper, and finally Jessica Crowbridge who gets the unenviable task of making us somehow seem presentable. All of us from different parts of the world with distinctive pieces of a common puzzle, and a common dream – Cody’s crazy dream. He and the mountains cast a spell on us, we had to see the car to the top, the ultimate underdog story. Can David really slay Goliath?

Reality Bites

While I did sit in Enviate at the PRI show in December 2016 I did not get to drive her until June 2nd 2017> It didn’t go very well. On just my second lap in the car the throttle stuck wide open. Now if you know driving you know this is not a small thing, especially when you are unfamiliar with the car. Fortunately, my first reaction was to swipe the switches I had just been walked through a few minutes prior and crisis averted. After that was resolved, I was able to sample the awesome pace and visceral power of a car with a one-to-one power to weight ratio, perfect weight distribution, big sticky tires, and carbon brakes. It means in every direction this car, without the aero downforce (low speeds) can generate about 2Gs of force – that’s accelerating (very rare, usually only drag cars), cornering, and braking, then you add in the aero component and the cars speed very rapidly increases and you soon can corner and brake well above 4Gs. We called it good after the cooling system starting showing signs of overheating, we suspected due to the low speed nature of the IMI track, but as it turns out this issue would haunt us all the way to the top of Pikes Peak.

Reality Really Does Bite

The next time I drove the car was at La Junta which was once a WWII B-24 base. It’s rough. Perfect, it would test the suspension and we would see if it would be up to the rigors of Pike Peak (or so we hoped). Again, the car showed staggering speed (close to the track record in a few laps) but as fast as it went, the temps would also rise, which limited us to short runs. On the second run, accelerating over a bump on the exit of the corner, a rear suspension pushrod folded in two, instantly dropping the right rear on the deck. I dutifully slowed the car and the team rolled out to recover me and the stricken Enviate. It was late, just after sunset, and evidently a significant proportion of the mosquitos in the world live at the track and sleep until sunset. We were mercilessly attacked as we tried to load the car with each of us suffering from hundreds if not thousands of bites in what seemed like an eternity getting the bottomed out car into the trailer.

The car may have been loaded and us on our way but we still had a two hour drive to the shop in Colorado Springs> Did I mention the next morning was our mandatory official test on the mountain? Did I mention we were on double secret probation with the Pikes Peak officials because fireball? This was the first of many, many all-nighters to come from the crew. We were mere weeks from the race and driving the car in anger for the first time (#teamnosleep became a thing). The ticking from the clock was getting overbearingly loud.

The Test

Pikes Peak mountain is big – so big that you never get to drive to the top in a single run. For testing they break it into sections to spread people all over the mountain and maximize driving time, albeit one section at a time. We were on the bottom on the first day. They also are pragmatic in another sense, it’s a toll road so they don’t want to lose any potential revenue so we test early, really early. Usually from 5 AM until 8:30 AM, that means we usually have to leave by THREE IN THE MORNING to be set up in time. Somehow Cody Aric and Nick with the help of Cole and Dale had managed not just to repair but completely reengineer the pushrods on both sides and replace the bending heim joints in the rear suspension, re-align the car and get it to the mountain, that’s after being eaten by mosquitos and arriving at the shop at 11PM. The first of many nights catching a few minutes of sleep on a couch (this was to become a really miserable version of Groundhog Day by the time race week arrived).

We are in line, I am excited and a bit apprehensive (suspension failures and sticking throttles tend to do that) but my job is simple on Groundhog Day – wipe the slate clean and just drive the car. I have one job – to drive the car at its current possible limit while keeping it on the road (oh and provide feedback to the team). First run and I’m off, and it feels like the car has a mind of its own, darting all over the road. What felt good on a racetrack felt positively diabolical, leaping from side to side while going straight braking or cornering, only under power did it feel just OK. It was a test though I couldn’t just cruise up the segment – they were watching. On the last run, I just went for it taking a huge chunk of time off and as we found out after passing our probation test as we were now officially in! We had made that mistake, that assumption that I am sure countless teams have made: “Pikes Peak is probably about as bumpy as a bad race track”, and “I can go test on a bad race track therefore and get my Pikes Peak setup dialed in without having to really go there”. Wrong Wrong Wrong – Pikes Peak is so much bumpier (and maybe more important: undulating) that you can’t compare it to anywhere else. We were in but we had a lot of work ahead of us.

The Leap of Faith

As a racing driver, leaps of faith are bad ideas. I talk about it in my book Optimum Drive. Be rational and incremental, earn your speed step by step. It is sound advice, but there is a problem. Some setups, especially on aero cars, feel so bad when they are driven slowly that you never feel safe enough, confident enough to get into the window where the car is actually working. Supercross bikes are the same way, the suspension is so stiff that unless you are a Supercross rider that can comfortably hit those jumps with full commitment you’ll swear the suspension is broken, locked solid. Aero cars and racing tires work the same way, they operate in a window that it takes years of experience to reach. OK, now try that on a crazy surface that is much bumpier than any track, and you see the problem. It’s so much harder to reach the operating window so it never feels happy. I had to trust the aero so much more than when I had driven similar cars on smooth track, which, as it turns out, is relatively easy by comparison. The other factor of course is safety. Pikes Peak is a mountain road, not just bumpy, but narrower than a normal race track, about a 1/3 to ½ narrower in fact. Then there is the cost of failure – no gravel traps, paved run-off zones, buffers of any kind, in most places there are no guardrails protecting you from the cliff rocks and drops. So, add the leap of faith comments to the safety comments and you see why driver confidence and comfort pushing the car to the limit are difficult to achieve but essential is success is to be the outcome. Dropping one wheel off could not only hurt you physically but it could do so much damage that you would be out of the event. The pavement may be undulating bumpy and narrow but it’s a good bit better than going off the road.

The Grind

We had discovered when I had pushed the car on the final run at the Pikes Peak Tire Test that the car was darty, the suspension got better as I pushed harder but was still not nearly ideal. We decided to put in a slower ratio steering rack to reduce the twitchiness. The problem was that the car and Cody were now in Michigan and I was not, and we needed to test it locally. As luck would have it, there was a GridLife event that weekend GingerMan Raceway so I flew out there and hopped in the car for what I hoped was a productive day of testing. Three laps for 20 hours of driving, that’s what I got, two flying laps after a warm up and oil spewing out of the too small catch can then started a small fire that burned ignition wires and ended our day. Was it a wasted trip? Far from it, the steering was much improved, we had taken a large step forward.

To be continued in Part 2 of the Hardest Mountain to Climb.

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I’m hooked, Pikes Peak is a heroic event, on to Part 2!