Electric Vehicles Do Battle On Pikes Peak

When we think of electric cars, more often than not we’re drawn to the environmental benefits and the smooth quiet commuter drives they’re so ideally suited for. However, EVs can also offer screaming performance, most notably due to their instant-on torque that gives them a big boost over internal combustion vehicles.

In recent years, this has led to a variety of independent and manufacturer-supported efforts taking on some of motorsport’s classic events. Today, we’re looking at a handful of recent entries that have tackled one of the most gruelling events in motorsport – the Pikes Peak International Hillclimb.

History

The annual hillclimb runs on the Pikes Peak Highway, which was only fully paved in the last decade. This led to a significant drop in course times thanks to the added grip available.

For those unfamiliar, the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, also popularly nicknamed The Race To The Clouds, is an event run on the highway leading up the mountain of Pikes Peak in Colorado. The 12.42 mile course is a twisted ribbon of tarmac that climbs over 14,000 ft above sea level. (The road was formerly dirt before environmental concerns led to it being gradually paved in recent decades.) The course is known for its treacherous dropoffs that have claimed multiple lives over the years, as well as the famous Climb Dance short film that depicts Ari Vatanen climbing the mountain in the 1988 event in his turbocharged Peugeot 405 T16.

The first competitor to run a sub-20 minute time in an electric car was Katy Endicott, in a converted Honda Civic Shuttle in 1994.

The relatively short distance of the hillclimb suits electric vehicles, which are less capable at longer events involving multiple laps, due to the limitations of battery storage. The tight, winding course also allows EVs to make the benefit of their low-end torque advantage and, in most cases, lack of need to shift gears. It’s thus possible to build a relatively lightweight EV with just enough range to complete the Pikes Peak course on a full charge and be competitive with the times set by internal combustion rivals.

There’s a long history of electric cars competing at the event, with one of the first entrants being Joe Ball in 1981, completing the course in just over 32 minutes in a Sears Electric Car – though well over double the time taken by typical gasoline-fuelled competitors. The first electric entry to break the 20 minute barrier was a Honda Civic Shuttle-based entry, piloted by Katy Endicott in 1994 with a time of 15:44.710. Legendary driver Nobuhiro Tajima was the first to break the ten minute barrier on the now-paved run in 2013, with a time of 9:46.530 in his custom-built E-RUNNER Pikes Peak Special.

Rhys Millen won in 2015 in the eO PP03, custom built for the Pikes Peak event, though it would be a few years before an EV set the overall course record.

In more recent years, the competition has heated up significantly as electric vehicle technology has progressed to the point of posing a real challenge to internal combustion rivals. With highly efficient motors, batteries capable of delivering huge currents, and charging technology able to keep a car running all day, the tide at Pikes Peak began to turn.

The race was first won by an electric car in 2015, with Rhys Millen behind the wheel of a custom electric racer, but it would be several more years before the outright course record was broken by an EV. The time came in 2018, when Romain Dumas piloted Volkswagen’s I.D.R to a scorching 7:57.148 run up the mountain, eclipsing the 8-minute barrier for the first time. Pikes Peak stands today as one of the first major motorsports events to fall to the march of the electric vehicle.

What It Takes

Volkswagen set the course record on Pikes Peak in 2018, the first time ever by an electric vehicle.

Running a competitive Pikes Peak entry is no mean feat, whatever the powertrain involved. There’s plenty of race engineering that goes on in terms of getting the correct suspension setup, aero balance, and to make sure tyre temperatures are optimised for the track surface and ambient conditions. Combine those with a world-class racing driver and you might have a shot at the title. But, when it comes down to running an electric vehicle, there’s a few unique challenges to overcome.

Special insulating gloves are used when plugging in the high-voltage, high-current connector used to charge the ID.R at competition events.

Pikes Peak is a mountain, after all, and not particularly well equipped to deliver huge gobs of electric current to bespoke racecars with empty batteries. Thus, teams must find a way to provide their own electricity.

In the case of a car like the Volkswagen ID.R, a giant generator was used, running off glycerol for cleaner emissions to avoid spoiling the environmental credentials of the exercise. Charging is done at rate of up to 90 kW, and completes in 20 to 30 minutes. This quick charging capability is necessary for a car competing at Pikes Peak, due to the potential short turnaround time between competitive runs. To avoid the batteries overheating, the batteries are actively cooled by fans in the pit area. Starting a run with hot batteries can compromise their current output, so it’s key to performance to keep them cool.

The Palatov D2EV finished ninth overall in the 2019 event, plagued by weather and initial handling issues that stymied its attempts at a faster time.

It’s also important to carefully consider the size of batteries on the vehicle. Unlike a liquid-fuelled car, which can be fuelled heavier or lighter depending on the exact amount of fuel needed for a run, an electric car has to carry the full weight of its batteries all the time.

Swappable or modular packs are possible, but can come with efficiency penalties due to power lost in connectors. Ideally, the pack will be sized just large enough to complete a single run before running too low on charge, to avoid the car having to carry excess weight which negatively impacts performance.  A great example of the battery weight dilemma is the Palatov D2EV, which ran in the 2019 event. Set up for a 300-mile range on the street instead of pure performance on the 12.42 mile hillclimb, the car had to carry an extra 500 kg of batteries up the mountain, hurting the handling and dulling the acceleration.

Other problems faced on the mountain affect all racers more equally. Rain, snow or high winds are perilous for any vehicle on the course. There’s also the ever-present threat of simply sliding off the mountain, as guard rails are few and far between. Racers have faced these dangers for decades however, and electric vehicle or not, they’re not going away anytime soon.

Conclusion

It’s a simple fact that the torque delivery of electric vehicles is a huge advantage in performance situations. The main thing holding back electric vehicles from dominating more forms of motorsport is the limitation of battery technology, stopping them from competing on longer events like rallies or circuit races consisting of many laps. However, take that hurdle away, or simply race somewhere it doesn’t matter, like Pikes Peak, and suddenly the electric vehicle comes to dominate the legendary internal combustion engine of yore. As technology continues to improve, expect to see the same story told across the world of motorsport.

60 thoughts on “Electric Vehicles Do Battle On Pikes Peak

  1. Was that picture of Katy Endicott’s Honda Civic taken by the author? If not, what’s the source? It’d do well on the wikipedia page for the event (licence permitting).

    1. You know there is a really, really simple way to fix the battery issue for endurance races that would minimize the time penalty of getting more energy into the car. Unfortunately for all those companies that haven’t thought it up yet I’m just going to go ahead and keep it to myself until I get a call and we can hash out patent rights.

      Also before even reading the article I thought to myself let me guess the only had enough juice for the ride up had to wait for hours for it to charge and then did The rundown. Wow from skimming the article it doesn’t seem like that was the case the fact that they had to carry an extra 500 kilos of batteries tells me it might as well have been…..

      Remember when cell phone batteries kept blowing up because we packed too much energy into too small of a package? At least gasoline doesn’t randomly explode because you didn’t fill your car correctly. If you want to pack that much energy into that small of a space get acquainted with the term hand grenading. Or we can just start vilifying car companies because some teenager charge their car overnight under her pillow….

    1. That undoubtedly refers to the Sierra Club v. Colorado Springs lawsuit, which it sounds like you might be familiar with and skeptical of. Maybe actually name what you’re talking about next time instead of referring to it obliquely, as likely only a few readers here are familiar with it. As a summary for those who aren’t familiar, the Sierra Club argued that significant amounts of gravel from unpaved sections were dirtying water and clogging wetlands. The parties settled, and the road’s paving was finished in a relatively timely fashion as a result of that settlement.

      I haven’t researched it enough to know how I feel about the merits of the case, but I’m a little saddened by the result. I was lucky enough to attend the last running with gravel sections. IIRC Rhys Millen just barely missed the 10min mark in his custom peak racer. I saw him slide around a gravel hairpin and high-fived him through the open door on the parade back down the mountain. My fondest memory is of one of the motorcycle heats. We were standing on the outside of a long gravel sweeper, and as the heat flew by, one of the racers was passing another on the outside, oversteering a bit, and seeing us cheering him on he took his left hand off the bars and pumped his fist. One of the most badass things I’ve ever seen.

      It’ll never be the same, and I don’t feel drawn to attend again.

  2. Hot take:
    Pikes peak hillclimb became boring for spectators when it was paved.
    And part of the charm is the high strung combustion engines releasing a symphony of sounds from the various components as they get flogged close to the red line, while the drivers do their best to keep the beast under control.

    1. Trivia: Ari Vatanen’s Peugeot was based on B-class racers, which were basically death traps to begin with and the reason why the series was ended. It was so light and over-powered that he had to ask the mechanics to tune it down to survive the climb. The co-driver didn’t have a seat, so when Jean Todt rode it with Ari driving he was just hanging on for dear life off the roll cage.

      600+ HP, 900 kg car, four wheel drive, four wheel steering, 0-200 kph under 10 seconds. It would turn on a dime and climb up a tree if it would. The legend has it they originally got up to 800 HP out of the engine, but Vatanen just couldn’t control it any longer, and even with the power reduced he was driving it on high gear and slipping the clutch to limit the power around corners. If he tried to change down and push the throttle, he would get instant four wheel spin.

    2. I know you love the sound of dead dinos, but I watch racing for the speed, the display of driver skill, and the technical achievement – not to listen to hydrocarbon detonations.

      To me, the charm of Pike’s Peak is that it is one of the only events where there exists a truly unlimited unlimited class. So long as you meet some basic safety requirements (roll cage, 5 point harness, fuel cell mounted somewhere safe if you need one, etc). you can run basically anything you want.

      This is what makes the EV record all the more impressive. You can build literally anything to take on this hill, but if it isn’t an EV, it isn’t going to win.

      EVs have another big advantage on the peak: they don’t breath air! Gas guzzlers need ever-increasing forced induction as they scale the mountain and performance can drop off severely as you climb. EVs obviously don’t have this issue.

      1. > You can build literally anything to take on this hill, but if it isn’t an EV, it isn’t going to win.

        There’s still a weight advantage. It’s obvious if you have a lighter car with equal power, it’s going to win. The thing that’s going for EVs is that it’s relatively easy to push hundreds of kilowatts out from a tiny motor, but you lose most of the advantage by carrying two tons of batteries.

        A powerful enough FCV could win over a BEV. If you want to go wild, gas turbines have a much better power to weight ratio as well, and more power – what you need is a transmission system that lets you keeps the revs up… etc.

        1. Not being a racing vehicle technician/engineer, I’m not sure if that equation is exactly linear.

          Too light and you have no traction. Too heavy and you can’t make tight turns.

          I would say judging by the results (the EVs are now in front) that in this particular challenge the dynamics of the vehicles sway towards EV.

    3. So you really enjoy watching Pikes Peak being ground away? Part of the charm is realizing how many critters are losing their habitat because you enjoy watching dirt fly.

    1. They may not need oxygen to burn but the change in air density could negatively impact the apparently very important cooling of the batteries. I think I remember a top gear special where they climbed a mountain in South America and the internal combustion engines had just as much trouble with overheating as they did with low oxygen supply.

  3. The balancing act between mass and power to get up the hill still means that you will never see the same battery technology in street cars. A LiPo set can deliver 50C currents, while a Model 3 battery is limited to about 5-8C. Even though Tesla cars aren’t exactly known for their fire safety, and some would argue they have none, you do not want the LiPo set in a street car for the same reason you do not want a car running on raw nitromethanol.

    1. I wouldn’t say a Tesla battery (or cell) is ‘limited’ to 5-8C. I would say its highly engineered to provide a balance of energy density and delivery. AKA it has ‘just enough’ current to do the job, and deliver the kind of range needed. Also Tesla packs run at very high voltages, so 5-8C isn’t so bad, as the pack may have twice the voltage, so delivered energy is the same as a competing EVs 10-16C pack

  4. Pikes Peak. Also known as location of Tesla’s wireless energy transmission experiments around 1900. Maybe one car should be tried with wireless energy transfer …

  5. I would love to see a ~1000km GT/cannonball event with stock production electric cars vs gas minivans.

    Not just long distance driving, but racing fast turns like at Circuit De Monaco for more than just 100 miles.

    Gradually a gap would form, then disappears. Makes for fun viewing.

    Have the course span high/low temps and require AC or heat to be active just to make it more realistic.

    Nail-biting last few laps/miles.

  6. Interesting read – never heard of that event before.

    But my inner mathematician/physicist cringes a bit at this sentence (maybe wrongly):

    > Charging is done at rate of up to 90 kW, and completes in 20 to 30 minutes.

    Calling a currently[:-P] flowing power a “rate” seems odd to me.
    Shouldn’t a physical “flow rate” always be over time?

    Combine that with the 20 to 30 minutes and I have to ask myself if it’s 90kW for said time, leading to an ideal final charge of 30 to 45kW/h or if the accumulators are charge to 90kW/h in 20 to 30 minutes.

    1. The Watt is a rate unit. Joules/second.

      90kW is 9E5J/s energy delivery rate.

      This is nothing in comparison to the GJ/min pumping hydrocarbons through a hose delivers (30l/min rate, which is in the range of common rates at the pump in the US, about 60MJ/s) but quite respectable by EV stanards

    2. 20-30kwh pencils to be the correct value for the pack, 15 ish miles at 1+kwh a mile is typical for even a tesla at this speed but you do need some reserve and power output sucks on the bottom of the pack below the”knee” in voltage curve

  7. There’s no such thing as being environmentally conscious while in support of motorsport. Nobody makes “green” tires, brakes, lubricants, solvents, or asphalt, and motorsport in particular encourages a lot of waste of these products in the pursuit of victory. Not to mention all the money and resources wasted on rebuilding cars after collisions and other mishaps.

    EVs are fun, but don’t kid yourself. Racing is the antithesis of reduce, reuse, recycle.

    1. Recall the old adage that lessons learned here wasting watthours and other resources advances the state of the art. I believe it is the same saying NASA still uses about space exploration. Remember that capt’kirk invented your cellphones

      1. Not really. Electric motorsports spends money on everything else than advancing the science – they mostly buy what’s on the market already and engineer around that.

        You just can’t make one-off specials like you can with internal combustion engines, because the laboratory work is done on milligram amounts of material in button shells. It would cost you billions.

    2. In and of itself, yes. But the research from racing applied to general cars can bring many environmental, resource, technological innovations which will lead to better resource utilization.

    3. This is a problem with most self labeled “Environmentally Conscious” people – they do not have a basic understanding of the English language. Those two words are not synonymous with “environmentally sold out” or “environmental fanatic”. The author’s statement is correct – even if you do not like it.

  8. For long races, can they not have multiple battery packs that swap in/out at a pit stop? There is a passing mention in the article about “connector losses”, but all batteries “connect” somehow. Pit crews can change 4 tires in 15 seconds so why not one battery pack as well?

    1. Well the recycled volt battery i have weighs 480 lbs and is held in by perhaps 32 bolts and at least 10 assorted connectors, some liquid. Not something that changes quickly. Easier to charge and cool

    2. I would like to see a race with the rules 1)500 miles, 2)pit stops no more than 3 minutes 3)ONE recharge per race 4) recharge time same as pit stop time (counts as pit stop) 5) no switching energy storage device allowed ONLY CHARGING! Lessons learned from this could really help the acceptance of EVs.

      1. Perhaps, but the solutions would not be applicable to everyday driving.

        For example, you COULD charge a 500 mile battery in 3 minutes – such batteries exist – but the charger would draw 2.5 Megawatts of power and more. To put that into perspective, that is the average power demand of 800 – 1,500 homes so charging one car could power the whole village.

        1. Well I was just pulling stuff out of my ass, but the idea is to make a race, something companies will pour money into for prestige, that will help develop technologies that could be applied to making electric cars more acceptable to the average consumer, what rules would you put in place for such a race?

          1. I wouldn’t. I find that racing creates solutions special to racing, and the actual innovations are done elsewhere. When you look at technologies that are attributed to motor racing, you will find that almost all of them were actually pioneered and tested completely elsewhere.

            Only in the very early era of motoring when cars would be the preserve of the rich and would break down every 12 miles, you could say that motor racing improved something because they needed to make engines that would last the entire race.

        2. …so put this magic battery in the charging station itself so it can sip power over hours and then quickly charge your mythical fast charge battery in minutes?

          There are ways to charge batteries faster like under specing capacity, reducing capacity by increasing plate size, adding active cooling, etc. But all these methods massively increase cost/size/weight/etc. Just the charging connector size would be a massive hurdle.

          A timed ~1000km course with no ‘time-outs’ is very applicable to everyday driving. The track should run through plenty of turns and elevation/temp changes. If electric cars stop to charge 100 times and still make to the destination faster, then so be it. Reality is they couldn’t. Dump trucks would beat EVs in such a race.

    3. switching battery a worthy challenge

      challenge 1: unmounting and remounting
      challenge 2: coolant disconnect and reconnect
      challenge 3: electrical disconnect and reconnect

      personally i think it’s doable. sliding the battery out of the bottom or the back seems most obvious to me because those are aero areas that would be easy to work around.

      there are physically switchable magnets eg magjig that enable/disable the strong magnet holding force by rostering a knob 180 degrees.

      slide the battery in through the back of the car. along the upper left/upper right rails of the battery pack, install ferrous metal or a strong neodymium magnet. inside the car assembly the bolts are replaced with these rotating magnets that are disabled for swap and enabled once the end stop micro switch or hall effect end stop sensor say it’s ok to.

      quick disconnect coolant connectors already exist and so just a little engineering there to affect a servo or solenoid based disengage mechanism to unlatch the connection for swap. just put connectors on a tapered shape that goes into a tapered holder and any angular tolerances will be gently enforced. preferably connectors on front so final end stop is also coolant connect success.

      as for a connector that is easy and can handle 1000 amps or more, i’m not sure what off the shelf does that. probably worth it to imitate the bullet connectors used in RC electric racing. 2mm 4mm 6mm 8mm bullet connectors, gold plated. specifically the kind that is split into quadrants or preferably more radially spaced segments that push outwards to hold the electrical connection. get one made that is 30mm in diameter, cut the splits to get the spring force, and ensure the tip has a gradual taper to minimize initial insertion force, which is a common complaint with 8mm connectors.

      hope this helps! i genuinely believe that these approaches would yield favorable results, while also recognizing that other people might think it’s a waste of time!

      peace

    4. Yamaha and a couple other motorcycle makers decided on a battery pack to make swappable batteries a reality. Can pull in the pits and grab a battery and be back on the track. It’s going to be good for off road races where a lap if 5 to 20 miles and its nice to have low end torque in the woods, so soon an electric dirt bike is going to be winning hare scrambles and enduros!

  9. Electric may be the future, but the fun is in hybrids.
    Check out the fastest lap times for the Nurburgring – Hybrid a full length in front of an EV, which is another full length in front of a photo-finish for third place between the ICEs.

  10. Question for alot of enthusiast would like to know what do they used the laptop for when setting up on electric vehicle for race and track driving and racing in any form of performance what does it tuned on the electric car.

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