by Jacob Guilez
El Pomar Foundation wouldn’t just pick anyone to be curator of the Penrose Heritage Museum. The ideal curator would have a vast and personal knowledge of both the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb and Spencer and the Penrose’s extensive collection. Having only missed a handful of races in the past 45 years, Jason Campbell, curator of the Penrose Heritage Museum, isn’t just anyone.
The narrow carriage road that he had just finished converting into the Pikes Peak Highway provided an opportunity for Spencer Penrose to establish the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb in 1916 and draw thousands of visitors to the region. Since then, the Race to the Clouds has transformed from a local event to an international attraction.
“The first time I went to the Hill Climb was in 1972 – I was seven years old.” Campbell’s family owned a printing and publishing company in town that handled orders from the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, amongst other local organizations, and as a result, Campbell was often able to get free tickets.
Fifty-six years after the inaugural event, the scene around the race was largely unchanged. “It was a more local event, competitors would come from neighboring states, but it was mostly racers from Colorado,” says Campbell. Nonetheless, his enthusiasm for the race was always there.
“My buddies and I used to take the entire week before the event off from work. We would camp out on Engineer’s Corner the night before so we could be there for the early morning practice sessions.” Campbell reminisces on the surreality of sitting in the trees in dead silence interrupted only momentarily by the brief roaring of an engine and a blur of color as a car zoomed by.
When asked about his favorite memory of the Hill Climb, Campbell’s face lights up. “It would definitely be when I found out that Michèle Mouton wore the same helmet as me,” he says. Mouton was a French rally driver with Team Audi at the time and came to race Pikes Peak in 1984 and ’85. “She had brought a helmet from Europe that you couldn’t use in the United States, so we brought her along to a friend’s shop and it turns out she used the same kind of helmet that I used to race pro-rally in.”
Prior to Mouton’s visits, the PPIHC’s celebrity competitors were the Unsers of Indianapolis 500 fame. Mouton was different though, as she had an international audience in the world of rally cars, and in subsequent years, the Hill Climb found itself the host of many more foreign racers.
Campbell attributes this success to the nature of the race, in addition to Mouton’s visits. “It was one of the last remaining races in which rally cars were not outlawed.”
In the following years, the PPIHC was visited by other racing legends. Jason recalls “After Michele, Walter Röhrl set a new record in 1987, followed by Rod Millen in 1994 and then most recently Sébastien Loeb, 9-time World Rally Champion, set the current record for unlimited in 2013.
“Pikes Peak is one of the few races left that allows for innovation,” remarks Campbell, “and that’s what sets it apart from any other race.”
From its inception 101 years ago to the current day where it is now the second-oldest sanctioned race in the United States and host of competitors from 13 different countries, the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb embodies the lasting legacy of Spencer Penrose.