Peak Performance: Part 1—The Plan
by Chris Leone // Website // Twitter
Images via Acura
As times continue to plunge at Pikes Peak year after year, one manufacturer found itself rewriting the history books in 2018. Join us at Rally-America.com and iRally every day this week as we take a look back at Acura's 2018 Pikes Peak International Hill Climb program!
Not everything always goes to plan at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.
Now in its 96th running, the famed 12.42-mile run up the mountain has evolved dramatically over the years. Once an all-loose surface course, the mountain was gradually paved throughout the early 2000s until there was no dirt left. Since then, course records have fallen dramatically as drivers find new ways to push themselves faster and faster.
But there is one thing that has remained constant, yet unpredictable as ever over the years: the weather. And as has happened in years past, unfavorable conditions caused the early cessation of the event in 2018, just as Honda research and development engineer Jordan Guitar, a PPIHC rookie, debuted his 2019 Acura RDX on the course.
Skillfully adapting to the conditions, Guitar placed his RDX on the Exhibition class podium on an abbreviated course. But had he been able to make a run at the full course, the way teammates Peter Cunningham and James and Nick Robinson had, there’s a great chance that he’d be right alongside them in the record books somewhere.
Up until the weather came, it was just that kind of perfect day for Acura—right according to plan.
Of course, for such a specialized event, no program is built in a day. It takes months, sometimes years, of hard work to make any sort of competitive race program happen, and a uniquely challenging course like Pikes Peak is no exception.
“We usually start about 11 months out,” says James Robinson, one of three Honda R&D engineers on the driver roster. “It’s a pretty involved effort. The reason why is we try to really incorporate all aspects of the Honda company together at the event. We’ll try and fold in the automotive and PR side of it, but we include our powersports group—we bring side-by-sides and ATVs for support—and we’ll also bring in our power group, Honda Generators.”
“The dreaming might be for more than one year, maybe a two-year kind of dream, but the actual hard planning and proposal-making is honestly kind of clinically wrapped around our company’s fiscal year,” adds his brother, Nick. “We just wrapped up, obviously, with the 2018 event, and almost always we end up driving back the big rig to Ohio, so we’ve got 18 to 20 hours of time to decompress and begin the dreaming again.
“It happened again this year—we came back and asked, ‘what can we do, what can we showcase from the company, how can we make this beneficial to the company?’ We came up with a short list, a back-of-a-napkin kind of thing, and that’s the seed.”
Cunningham, meanwhile, is the exception in the group. A professional racer who has spent over three decades competing for Honda and Acura in various series, he’s won championships in everything from road and ice racing to rally and autocross. And the yeoman’s work on his TLX GT, a converted Pirelli World Challenge car, had actually been done before last year’s event.
“I believe it was in March (2017) that we got the green light to do the event, but the car that we needed to use was a four-wheel drive TLX that had been last raced in the 2015 season,” he explains. “It had been stripped of parts at the end of that season because we built a whole new rear-wheel drive TLX, and converted another chassis to two-wheel drive. So the eventual Pikes Peak car was pushed into a corner and stripped of parts, and it was just laying there for a couple of years.
“(When) we got the green light, we had to put it back together, find parts that had been stolen and reconstituted, and get it going. That was a little bit more of a to-do than this year; we probably got a green light at about the same time, maybe a little bit later, but since we were using the same car that, when it was last driven, had gone pretty fast and didn’t have any parts fall off, it didn’t take that much to be ready to go this year.”