Speedway Motors History at Pikes Peak
In 1915, a Colorado businessman named Spencer Penrose finished converting the narrow, sketchy carriage road that led to the top of Pikes Peak into the Pikes Peak Highway. All the better for luring tourists to the beautiful mountain and to his Broadmoor Hotel. To further capitalize on his investment, he staged an automobile race to the summit of the peak in August of 1916. Thus began an annual tradition that continues to this day, interrupted only by a couple World Wars.
2022 marks the 100th running of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. It’s also Speedway Motors’ 70th anniversary, and we happen to have a little history on the Hill. Here’s the story behind a few of the cars and people who made that history.
Before we get into this wild record setting contraption, we have to introduce Robby Unser. Those of you familiar with Speedway Motors may know of the age-old history between our company and the Unser family, and this is the moment where it really began.
Fresh off a whirlwind year that started with a broken leg from a crash in a Champ dirt car and ended with an FIA World Hillclimb Championship, an 18-year-old Robby Unser is loaded into an airplane by his dad, Bobby, and flown into Lincoln, Nebraska to meet “Speedy” Bill Smith and his sons. They’re there to discuss a seat in the newly formed American Indycar Series. What does this have to do with Pikes Peak? We’re getting there.
To somewhat shorten a longer story, Robby, his cousin Johnny, and Speedway’s own Jason Smith have a very successful season behind the wheel of their small block Chevy-powered Indy Cars. Perhaps most important for our Pikes Peak narrative is the fact that Carson Smith and Robby develop a friendship and strong working relationship. As Robby put it in our What Moves You podcast interview, “Anything I want, Carson just builds.”
You see, in addition to growing up with Speedway Motors and in the middle of “Speedy” Bill’s racing exploits, Carson was also trained as an engineer and was phenomenally talented as a fabricator and at just knowing what would make a race car work. Robby also happened to be pretty darn good at wheeling a race car. They respected each other and realized that they were capable of doing some pretty amazing things together.
After his win in ’86, Robby began construction of an Open Wheel class car of his own for Pikes Peak, based on a Wells Coyote. Going in to practice in ’90, the car was a mess. According to Carson, it was “almost undriveable.” Carson boarded a plane with a suitcase full of parts and tools, and proceeded to completely rebuilt the car in the next five days. The result of all that work? King of the Mountain. Fastest car at the event for that year. Not bad.
After his win in ’90, Robby drug his Coyote carcass back to Lincoln, NE for Carson and the Speedway crew to take stock of what they had to work with. Not much, as it turns out, so they decided to start from scratch. The first “Winged Wonder” was born.
The car would use a custom chassis and suspension, but re-used some refugee speed parts from the ‘90 car. That means an injected Chevy engine behind the driver followed by a DG300 transaxle. Our heroes figured that some bigger wings might do a better job of sticking them to the track. A few calls made to old racing buddies got them hooked up with a couple that lived in a remote, off the grid location, but also happened to do stellar carbon fiber work. The trademark giant, multi-element wings were the result. The result was a wild looking car that got laughed at by the other racers when in came off the trailer. The Speedway team had the last laugh when Robby’s practice time was 5 seconds off the record and Robby ended the week as King of the Mountain again.
It was obviously a great car, but the team knew it could be better. In particular, it was so hooked up that it was regularly breaking the DG300 transaxle. Back to the drawing board and on to a new car with a new and more tunable suspension as well as a Hewland 5-speed transaxle straight from a Lola Indy car to replace the feeble old DG300. And they were going to need it. Local engine builder Chuck Spanel put together a stout 414 inch Chevy with a game changing Motec engine management. The race ends almost 5000 ft higher than the elevation at the starting line. The tuning challenges with a mechanical injector were obvious, but that EFI was capable of the massive necessary adjustments to AFR.
The car was brutally fast, but an ignition gremlin caused an engine failure just past the halfway point. Even more heartbreaking since Robby was 34 seconds ahead of the record when in let go. There’s always next year.
’94 was good to the team. The winged Open Wheeler returned, along with a new member of the fleet (more on that below). Robby was again King of the Mountain and the team won the Open Wheel class, setting a record that has never been broken. Nor will it ever be. How is that possible? Well, that record time of 10:05.850 was never matched by another Open Wheeler until the entire course was paved (and got much faster) in 2012.
Where is it today? The first version of the car is on display in the Broadmoor Museum, while the final version survives, mostly intact, and is currently being restored for display in the Museum of American Speed.
As you might imagine, all this winning caught some attention. After some success working together with the engine on the Open Wheeler, Chevrolet came on board as a sponsor for a ground up effort meant to dominate the truck class in ‘94. Carson, Robby, and crew got to work and created a wild S10 with all sorts of sneaky aero tricks meant to glue the little truck to racing surface. In testing at GM’s wind tunnel, the only “stock bodied” vehicle to create more downforce was a wedge-shaped funny car.
When the truck rolled out of the trailer at the Pikes Peak that year, it caused quite a stir; and it wasn’t all compliments and pats on the back. The truck was so revolutionary that other competitors were just sure that it had to be in violation of at least a few dozen rules. Every racer and car builder has “raced the rulebook” a few times, and Carson and Robby were pretty darn good at it. A few concessions were made and the truck was allowed to run, but according to Robby, “Carson and I are responsible for at least half of that rulebook.” They finished just off the class winning pace, in spite of Robby looping it twice, once killing the engine and restarting it by dumping the clutch while rolling backward down the mountain(!).
You may be wondering how Robby was able to be in two places at once, running both the truck and the Open Wheeler in ’94. Simple, race to the top, then hop in a helicopter for a ride back to the bottom to do it all again in the Open Wheel car. For many of us, one wide-open blast up the mountain would be enough for one lifetime. Robby was doing it back to back, in completely different vehicles.
Pretty cool right? The next part of this story is a mind-blowing example of how connected we all are in the world of cars and racing. When the Speedway crew was finished with their radical S10, it went back to Chevrolet and Carson and Robby moved on to their next effort. The details get a little muddy here, but the truck made a few more appearances on the mountain with the famous Herzog team, ultimately disappearing for years before being re-purchased by the Herzog crew years later to display in their collection.
Here's where things get crazy. Fast forward almost three decades. Speedway Motors has grown exponentially, and so has the Museum of American Speed. In 2021, a plan is hatched between the Herzogs and the Museum to create a display to celebrate the Herzog history of winning in a variety of off-road and NASCAR ventures. As a long line of cars and trucks are being unloaded from trailers and rolled into the museum, Carson was stopped in his tracks. You guessed it, the old S10 that he had designed and built and not seen for almost 30 years just rolled right back into his life. “Hey, that’s my truck!”
We think it’s a fitting place for the truck that broke the rulebook to spend its retirement.
The Corvette was the last in line for Speedway Motors on the mountain. Built to compete in the Unlimited class, the Corvette used a then new C5 body. Underneath that slippery shell was the familiar package of hot injected small block Chevy, Hewland transmission, and full custom suspension. These days everyone is talking about mid-engine Corvettes, but the Speedway crew was already building them in the mid 90’s.
The car only competed in ’98 before being retired to the race shop. Robby went on to run Indy, and the Smith family carried on with the business of Speedway Motors. That means that the car that’s on display in the Museum of American Speed is very original to the way it was last raced. The trademark giant rear wing was recreated by the Speedway Motors R&D team, but the rest of it lives on mostly as originally constructed by Carson and Co. in the mid-90’s.