- The Washington Times - Friday, August 13, 2004

PIKES PEAK, Colo. — We are doing the automotive equivalent of the Paul Simon song, “Slip Slidin’ Away.”

It’s an intense, adrenaline-pumping ride on the upper reaches of Pikes Peak — the same 12.42-mile road raced every year by the death-defying drivers of cars, trucks and motorcycles in the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.

As fast as I dare, I’m driving a 360-horsepower Porsche Cayenne Turbo SUV, and there are sharp jolts of pain at different places in my head and neck. I don’t know if it’s the altitude, or the big black helmet bobbing on my bean.

I decide that I’m tense, and there’s no need to be, because riding shotgun is Jeff Zwart, who has won the race six times. So I force myself to relax, and the jolts disappear.

Mr. Zwart has the entire map of the Pikes Peak highway branded on his brain. He has intimate knowledge of every one of the 156 turns and all the 800-foot drop-offs — without guard rails — and he can even remember many of the kinks and gullies in the road surface.

We are connected electronically by headphones, so his advice slips right into my consciousness.

“Next is a long sweeper to the left, followed by a tight left hairpin,” he says, advising me with a stream of information I do not have because I have never driven up Pikes Peak before.

I have asked him to keep me informed because I know that, for me at least, 90 percent of driving in any race is knowing the road.

It’s like playing chess. Mr. Zwart keeps me two or three moves ahead.

I soon forget about flying off one of the cliffs and concentrate on smoothly picking a line through the constant twists and turns, and the switchbacks they call the W’s, for obvious reasons.

I’m not a race driver, though I’ve driven on race tracks many times. Earlier, I had been in the shotgun seat as Mr. Zwart drove the lower half of the highway. I wanted to see how he did it before I tried it myself.

Ideally, it would be great to get a couple of practice runs. But even that wouldn’t be enough. It takes years even for pros such as Mr. Zwart to learn the course.

Also, there wasn’t time. The Porsche folks had reserved the highway for three hours, starting at 5:30 a.m., to give a group of automotive journalists a taste of Cayenne and the Pikes Peak hill climb, which is the second-oldest — and among the most famous — races in the country. Only the Indianapolis 500 is older.

The lower part of the road is paved with asphalt. Up higher, above the tree line, the surface is dirt on granite because Pikes Peak is made of granite, and the dirt is used for road maintenance. Mr. Zwart likes the dirt best because it allows you to go into four-wheel drifts and steer the Porsche around the turns with the throttle as well as the steering wheel. I decide I like it, too, though I don’t do it with the same aplomb. My drifts are fewer; my lines through the turns are carefully selected and slower than Mr. Zwart’s.

We have it relatively easy because it’s a beautiful morning, with bright sunshine that sometimes blinds me as I come around a turn. But Mr. Zwart knows that, too, and warns me in time to slow down.

Aside from its natural pitfalls, the challenge of Pikes Peak is that conditions can change almost instantly. It’s not unusual for the weather to go from bright sunshine to horizontally blowing rain and hail, and sometimes fog or blizzards — even in midsummer.

The Porsche Cayenne Turbo is a $90,000-plus all-wheel-drive machine purposefully designed to handle just such duty. Because it has twin turbochargers, it maintains most of its muscle at the high altitudes that strangle normally aspirated engines.

The Pikes Peak race course starts at 9,400 feet above sea level and the checkered flag waves at 14,110 feet. At those altitudes, brake fluid boils and engines sometimes quit. But turbos, because they suck in air and force it into the engine, are somewhat immune, but not entirely.

In the hairpins, where I have to slow way down to make a 180-degree turn, even the Cayenne bogs down until the revs build as I floor the pedal. I’m driving in full automatic mode, though I could be manually shifting the six-speed automatic. But I figure that’s one more thing I don’t need to think about.

I also don’t need to think about my ride. The Cayenne Turbo is a willing servant, easily reacting to whatever I command, and even forgiving my lapses. It has more than enough power, and the all-wheel drive and the taut air-suspension system keeps the wheels planted.

Because of Mr. Zwart’s knowledge and calm, steady advice, I’m mostly smooth. At least, I think so because I haven’t heard any screams of terror through my headset. I don’t ever lose it, though I make a few stupid mistakes that slow me down. I also have to avoid the marmots that occasionally scurry across the road.

Too soon, I see the double checkered flags up ahead, and I floor it to roar past.

Rats. It seems as if I’ve been driving only a couple of minutes, and now it’s over. I itch to give it another try, but there’s no time. There are others waiting to drive, and the road opens to the public at 8:30 a.m. For $10 a pop, the hoi polloi — as many as 2,000 a day — get to drive to the top and back. But for them it’s two-way traffic with a 30-mph speed limit.

Mr. Zwart drives the return because going down at speed is trickier than going up. He confesses that he has not even tried to precisely learn the down route because the race is always to the summit.

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