Hillclimbing greats gather at the mountain
PIKES PEAK CELEBRATES CENTENNIAL BY REUNITING FORMER KINGS
To talk to Rod Millen, a member of rallying royalty, is to punch an all-access ticket to the man — his history, thoughts, and passion for rally laid bare for all to see, even though it's been several years since he pursued the sport professionally.
Meeting for lunch with Millen and his adopted American accent, the setting is a central Auckland eatery — about as far a cry as is possible from the mud and dirt he and his craft are more often associated with. We're here to talk about Pikes Peak, where he and his most famous of steeds will return later this month.
2016 marks the 100th anniversary of the first Pikes Peak event, won by Rea Lentz and his Romano Demon Special. Since then, the event has undergone radical changes and phases — several of which can be linked to the New Zealander.
Rod Millen and his Pikes Peak Toyota Celica.
To celebrate the centennial, Millen will travel to the Colorado summit — taking the Toyota Celica that helped him to claim three of his five overall Pikes Peak crowns; remembered best for obliterating the track record and setting a time that wasn’t beaten until 2007.
“It’s fun and special to go there. The Celica held the record for the longest of any vehicle during those 100 years, so I’m thrilled and honoured to go there,” Millen told Driven.
“The record [used to] be lowered five or 10 seconds each year, and it was always held by the open-wheeled cars. Then along came Audi with Michelle Mouton and she broke the overall record, and Walter Röhrl broke the record, [Ari] Vatanen broke the record. But each time it would only come down 10 seconds or so.
“When I took the Celica there it came down 39 seconds, and sort of stuck for 13 years. It was only once it got paved, or three quarters paved, that the record was broken.”
The Celica, like many other cars he raced through the 80s, 90s, and 00s, is still owned by Millen. But despite being “retired” from service in 1997, the devastatingly quick machine still manages to escape from its cage from time to time, having competed at events such as the Goodwood Festival of Speed in England, and Millen’s own Leadfoot Festival in Hahei.
“There’s no other motorsport event like that [Leadfoot] in New Zealand, so we want to stay true to that. We want to keep it unique and different — it’s more about a celebration.”
Although the Celica is still a competitive hill-climb car, having downed a number of much newer and theoretically more advanced cars since its apparent retirement, it won’t be entered competitively at this year’s event. Instead, it will take part in a demonstration run to the half-way point at Glen Cove; Lentz’s 1916-winning Romano Demon Special also set to do some demonstrations.
Millen had considered entering the car to compete outright, but jettisoned the idea.
“I was going to re-gear it because now that it’s paved it can go faster. I went and did a couple of things, the turbo’s been rebuilt. There’s an opportunity to make the aerodynamics work even better, and my feeling is that the design of the car is still relevant. I think everything’s relevant.
“Is it the overall winner? I’m not sure. I’m still here; I wouldn’t want to go there to take the risks I used to.
“Keep in mind when I did run there we would spend many days practising, practising, practising. All different tyres, different set ups, and so on — so the race was just a formality for us. That’s when I stopped and thought ‘I’m just better off doing a demo run’.”
He will instead cheer on his son Rhys, who lines up this year to try to defend his victory last year in the Electric Division.
“I talked to him this morning, and he just got back from testing today in his electric car. Of course he’s got the bug, and I’m thrilled that he’s trying his hardest to do better and better. He’s had the thrill of holding the record for a year, and now he’s coming in with this new class of car.
“He’s not expecting to break the record or anything with that car, but I think he has a good chance for winning overall.”
While the majority of attention paid to Millen’s connection to “The Race to the Clouds” is based around his victorious years with the Celica and then his Toyota Tacoma, the racer’s role at the mountain goes much deeper.
Through the 1970s, Pikes Peak was strictly the playground for open-wheel and stock-car creations, with no true home for the rally cars that competed in national championships all over the world. Millen helped change this when he made his first appearance there in 1981.
“We were coming back from one of the US national rallies and I was approached in 1981 to do a demonstration of a rally car.
“They closed the road early one morning and I did a run to the half-way point at Glen Cove. It was the first time I’d been on the mountain, and it turned out that I’d turned a time in the middle of the pack in the stock-car group on my first run. So they thought ‘wow, we need the rally cars’.”
Fittingly, earlier this month Millen was inducted into the Pikes Peak Hall of Fame for his services and successes. But, he’s still quick to voice his feelings about the meeting ditching the dirt and replacing it with a paved surface.
“I’m a bit disappointed, and I think a lot of people are. I loved it when it was dirt. It was a whole different challenge. It’s like I’ll tell Rhys: ‘When men were men, we raced on the dirt’.