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Sam Moses
July 17, 1989
Robby Unser gave his racing clan its 30th Pikes Peak victory by winning the Unlimited Division of the Hill Climb
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July 17, 1989

One Family's Mountain

Robby Unser gave his racing clan its 30th Pikes Peak victory by winning the Unlimited Division of the Hill Climb

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Looming in grand isolation at the eastern edge of the Colorado Rockies, 14,110-foot Pikes Peak was named in 1806 for U.S. Army Lieutenant Zebulon Pike, who was exploring the region after the Louisiana Purchase. In 1916 a mineral tycoon named Spencer Penrose completed a dirt road to the summit—the highest thoroughfare in the world at the time—and decided to celebrate his achievement with a race. Thus began the Pikes Peak Auto Hill Climb, the country's second-oldest motor race after the Indianapolis 500 (first run in 1911). The course—12.42 miles long and rising 4,708 feet from its starting point, more than halfway up the mountain—contains 156 turns, some hanging over nearly sheer drops of hundreds of feet. None of the turns are protected by guardrails, or even by dirt curbs.

Pikes Peak is also known as Unser Mountain. In the 50 climbs that have been held since Louis Unser first won, in 1934, seven Unsers have won 30 class championships. Three-time Indy winner Bobby Unser, Louis's nephew, leads the clan in Pikes Peak victories with 13. "There isn't a human being alive who knows more about this mountain than I do," says 55-year-old Bobby.

The latest Unser to tackle the peak is Bobby's son Robby. At 21, he has been driving race cars for six years, and a year ago at Pikes Peak, in only his second try at the mountain, he won the open-wheeled class in a record 11:18.27. For Sunday's 67th Pikes Peak Hill Climb, Unser had been hired by the Peugeot team to drive its astonishing Unlimited Division rally car, a four-wheel-drive, four-wheel-steering, six-speed, ground-effects, turbocharged, wildly winged Peugeot 405. Its tiny, 1.9-liter engine produces about 700 hp, nearly as much as a Formula One car.

Last year, Peugeot's ace driver, Ari Vatanen of Finland—winner of the Par-is-to-Dakar rally for the past three years—set a record of 10:48.22 up Pikes Peak, and this year he was back in the No. 1 Peugeot, with Unser in No. 2.

Young Unser faced a formidable test. The Peugeot is extremely difficult to drive. Furthermore, a driver's feet must constantly dance over the three pedals, and Unser's right leg was still healing from surgery performed last winter. But by Friday's qualifying round. Unser was only seven seconds behind Vatanen.

Vatanen was expected to win and set a new record, while Unser's personal goal was to beat his teammate's '88 time. Unser knew that his role was to provide backup support for Vatanen; if anything should happen to the favorite, Robby would be there to claim the win for Peugeot, a company that places enormous value on the publicity derived from this event. "I'm so honored to be part of this team," said Unser. "I feel great that they've accepted me."

At the same time, Unser seemed unaffected by the pressure. "I haven't quite figured out nervousness yet," he said. "I know what I have to do, and that's all there is to it for me."

On Sunday, 63 cars in six classes raced against the clock, with the Peugeots' Unlimited Division fifth in the starting order. Unser roared through Engineers Corner, two miles from the start, where the switchbacks begin climbing through the evergreens to the timberline, his progress traced by a tail of dust. As the tan plume faded out of sight, Vatanen's engine was heard echoing in a hollow farther down the mountain. Vatanen raced through Engineers so fast that the crowd oohed as if his passage were a burst of fireworks.

Robby finished his run in 10:48.34, 1.12 seconds more than Vatanen's record. Behind him, at the nine-mile mark, Vatanen was running 10 seconds ahead of his record pace. Moments later, the Finn's car slid off the road and slammed against a boulder; he limped home in 11:12.54. "It was a simple mistake." he said. "I was going for it and got a little too wild."

Said Robby Unser, the new champ, "I'm a little disappointed that I didn't set a new record for Peugeot, but the run was about as good as I could do." Then he hitched a ride on a helicopter to Devil's Playground, a few miles down the mountain, where the first family of Pikes Peak was preparing to celebrate. For at least a year, the Unser name would be back on top of the mountain.