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Race to the Clouds

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On June 7, I will present “The Penrose Legacy: Ventures, Vogue, and Vagary,” at the Pikes Peak Regional History Symposium at the East Library in Colorado Springs. Spencer Penrose was a roguish character who led a colorful life, and made many contributions to the Pikes Peak Region and its culture. One of his ventures was improving and rebuilding the Pikes Peak Highway to the famous mountain’s summit, and the resulting inception of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb Auto Race.

Pikes Peak Highway EntranceIn 1915, Spencer Penrose and his associates pooled 25,000 dollars to widen, grade, and reinforce the carriage trail to the 14,110 foot summit of the Pikes Peak highway so the road would be accessible to cars. Keep in mind, automobiles had only been in use in Colorado since the turn of the 20th Century. Ford’s Model T became available to average citizens when it was first produced in 1908. Penrose liked excitement, and he liked fast cars. He visualized an auto race to the clouds above timberline, to the top of Pikes Peak, as an attraction to bring tourists to Colorado Springs, which had leveled out with a population of about 30,000.

Progress on road construction stalled when money ran out only two miles up the road’s nineteen mile thoroughfare. Investors were disgruntled, so Penrose invested more than $250,000 from his own finances to complete the project. In 1916, when the first race took place, the Penrose Trophy was won by Rea Lentz, driving a modified Romano Special powered by an airplane engine. He completed the course in a blazing 20 minutes 55 seconds. Those cumbersome early models were exciting to watch as man and machine hugged 142 hairpin turns, with dust and crushed granite flying from spinning tires. A mechanic was allowed to ride shotgun with the driver, for good reason.

Loesche Race CarWith the race’s starting point at mile marker seven, records set on the twelve miles of unpaved raceway, which rose 2,200 feet in elevation, were reduced over time to ten minutes and less. Pavement was completed in 2011 when the last 30% gravel section of roadway was surfaced. The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb tradition continues its thrilling legacy mid-summer every year. To see vintage Hill Climb race cars and displays of Penrose’s vehicles, visit the El Pomar Carriage House Museum across the street from the Broadmoor Hotel. Coming soon: watch for the opening of the new Pikes Peak Hill Climb museum. Also, watch for my new Spencer Penrose biography from Filter Press.

Resources: Here is a link to history symposium registration form. It fills up fast, so register early!

http://ev.ppld.org/evanced/lib/eventsignup.asp?ID=65546&ret=eventcalendar.asp

The PPLD History Symposium is free to the public, and is streamed on the internet. Antique vintage post cards and illustrations are from the Joyce B. Lohse collection. To view the 1920 Pikes Peak Auto Hill Climb, go to: http://vimeo.com/69280772 . The race was won by Otto Loesche driving his #7 Lexington with a winning time of 22:25.

Happy Spring! – Joyce and Don

   
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