Altitude at start line for the Pikes Peak Hill Climb race is at 9,300 feet and finish line is 14,115 feet above sea level. Air pressure is less any time above sea level . The higher you go the less oxygen you have for combustion. This effect on an engine is explained by a percentage of loss of horsepower as you climb up in altitude. As an example, a car has 100% of it’s available horsepower at sea level , at the Pikes Peak start line (9,300 ft) you only have about 70% of available horsepower. A loss of 30% power. At the summit you are down to about 60% available horsepower, a loss of 40% power. Race car builders for years have thought bigger is better. If you start out with huge horsepower even with the loss as you climb you still have tons of horsepower at the top. The problem is , with more horsepower usually comes with more weight and a loss of traction. Here are a few different approaches to the challenge.
The first race, and a airplane engine.
The Romano Special from 1916. Huge horsepower and a light weight car. The car builder and owner was Jean Romano with Rae Lentz as a driver. Before attending Pikes Peak, Rae and the Romano Spl. won many races on the West Coast. The eight cylinder Hall-Scott Aviation motor developed 125 horsepower. Newspaper accounts at the 1916 Pikes Peak Hill Climb made a big deal of an aircraft engine in the car. At the time most folks wrongly assumed it was the well known Curtiss Aviation motor. The big race for the “Penrose Trophy” was on day two, Event #3. Lentz with mechanic Henry North took the win and a time of 20:55.6.
1923 the “Marcus Special”
The big changes in rules for 1923 had to deal with “Freak Cars” . Yes that is what they were calling the stripped down light weight cars that would go on to be called jalopies in the 1930’s. ( I like to call it the Noel Bullock Rule, but that is another story.)
Minimum weight requirements were set in each cubic inch class. Smallest engines 183cc or less with 1600 pounds minimum weight. Class “C” the 184 -300 cubic inches with at least 1800 pounds. Lastly the big boys Class “E”, with more then 300 cubic inches and no less then 2,000 pounds.
The ” Marcus SPL.” would be running in the Class”E” event.
Not much is known about the car other then the aviation motor, a long and low specially built chassis and the airplane sized wheels. Hal Brinker was from Denver and a favorite for years with Colorado road racing fans. He had been racing Pikes Peak since the first race in 1916 and raced continued until 1924. Fun fact about Hal, he was disqualified from the PPHC in 1920 for Outlaw Racing ! ? !
No time trial results are available for 1923. The high horsepower heavy car with shinny tires must of had traction problems for sure. On race day Hal (Harold) gave the fans near Glen Cove a thrilling spectacle, as he pulled to the side of the road in a cloud of smoke as his car caught fire! ( Gazette 9-4-23).
In those days finishing position went out to anyone that started and based upon how far up the road you made it. Sixteen cars started and even with the fire, and a did not finish, the “Marcus Special” was awarded 12th place.
if you know more information about this car or driver please contact me.
The Butterball with a Steyr tank engine
Bill Milliken is a automotive engineering genesis.
Please read his book ” Equations of Motion”. There is a chapter plus of his time at Pikes Peak from 1947-1953 with his Bugatti , the FWD Miller and the Butterball race car. Tons of great information and detailed charts of his PPHC testing and race day achievements.
Available at amazon
Archie Butterworth built the race car in England ,that would be later nicknamed “Butterball’ by the FWD racing team. The car is powered by a German war-surplus, air-cooled, Steyr tank engine and it is also four wheel drive ! The great news is the car still survives and is available to be seen, by the public at the FWD Museum in Clintonville Wisconsin . Check this article for more info :
Bill Millinken bought the car in 1951 and shipped it to the USA. The FWD team entered it in the time trials at Pikes Peak in 1953, During qualifications the shift linkage broke and the car was stuck in third gear. With no time remaining at time trials for repairs the team did not qualify . The tank engine was just too hard on the equipment.
Limited pictures are available .
Overall results of the aviation and tank engines at altitude
Bringing large horsepower engines to Pikes Peak Hill Climb to commentate for the loss of 30-40 percent of your power as you climb, had it’s disadvantages . Larger motors bring more heat and weight and they are harder on the equipment. In the early days the weight distribution of the heavy motors in the front , also lead to a massive loss of traction with the skinny tires available. Overall just building a race car with an aircraft, or a tank engine is considered a success. Just not the success the the owners and drivers wanted on race day.
In modern times, the development of rear and mid-engine race cars has helped with weight distribution. Lighter materials have helped with horsepower to weight issues and tire developments have came a long way in the means of available traction. The European Group “B” rally cars of the 1980’s has shown the light, on what all wheel drive traction can do and still remains the “Must Have” principle to go fast on the all paved road to the summit.
The faster cars on the horizon of Pikes Peak seem to be in the Electric cars. Those cars are reliving some of the same problems that ,Rea Lentz, Hal Brinker and Bill Milliken had to deal with…. WEIGHT ! The tank and aircraft motors with huge horsepower, were used to help deal with the loss of power by 30-40 percent as you climb. but the trade off was more weight. The electric cars don’t loss any horsepower no matter the altitude, but the extra horsepower needed requires large and HEAVY battery packs.
In the end from 1916 to this years race, have things haven’t really changed that much overall ? Or have they ?
If you like what you read at this site, tell a friend. Sometime in May , I plan to officially open it up to the public. Thanks for being here !