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Interview: Millen Breaks Down Record-Setting Pikes Peak Weekend

Image via Rhys Millen Racing

Rhys Millen is one of the all-time legends of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, having taken class victories in three different decades with some of the automotive industry’s most prominent manufacturers. But his greatest accomplishment on the mountain came this year, when he brought his Time Attack Hyundai Genesis to the top of the mountain in 9:46.164, a new all-time record.

Of course, such an accomplishment doesn’t come easily, as Millen had to contend with other quick competitors, dropping down from the Unlimited class, and the first year of a fully paved racing surface in order to set his record time. We spoke to Rhys about the victory, the unique challenges of this year’s event, and the ever-present issue of safety on the mountain:

Last year, you weren’t running in the Time Attack class, but your father Rod took the class victory in the Genesis. Was that the same car that you took to victory this year? Are there any major differences between the two iterations?

Image via Rhys Millen Racing

The car that my father ran the 2011 Pikes Peak Time Attack in was the same powertrain that I ran this year. The biggest change was there was no compromise in the setup. We had to go different spring rates, different sway bars, more of a rain tire or slightly gravel tire, and several different things. He ran the Euro as well on the car. And what was probably the biggest advantage, why it went so fast with me behind the wheel this year, is we just focused on a full kind of road race, tarmac setup. And surprisingly enough, for a production car, even if you put it against Nobuhiro Tajima’s overall winning time last year on the pavement sections, we were actually equal to his times if not faster going with that tarmac setup in a production.

You’re one of the all-time legends of the mountain, having taken class victories in three different decades, so you’ve known the course through plenty of variation. Now that the entire course is paved, does it have a significantly different character, and do you have to drive it differently?

You know, it’s interesting. The road has always held this mystique of the altitude you’re climbing to, 14,110 feet, I think that’s changed to five feet higher now. And it’s always quoted as having 156 corners. I also think that, with the pavement now, there’s probably more corners there because the road is narrower, and in some cases where it used to be straight line from corner to corner, you actually need to do an additional curve between those straightaways. So the characteristic of the road surface has definitely become more consistent and readable.

The challenges in the past with the dirt were you had to track down a clean line or a blue groove and really race the road. Now that the road is more consistent, you’re really having to pay attention to what your competitors are doing, because the experience of running on the road before is nowhere near as much of an advantage because the road is so consistent. The challenges are still there, but they present themselves in different manners.

It wasn’t very long ago that the 10-minute barrier seemed unreachable at Pikes Peak, but you shattered it with this year’s run. How significant of an achievement is that to you? Do you consider it one of your all-time finest achievements?

Image via Rhys Millen Racing

Yeah, for sure, it probably has to be the highlight of my career, and for many cases. Our effort this year dropped down a couple of classes to focus on Hyundai’s performance of their production vehicles. We were not running in the top category, Unlimited, but we were very confident in the package that we had developed over the years with this vehicle that it was going to be extremely quick. With that in mind, with the focus on a class win throughout the course of the week, it kind of developed and exposed itself that this car was running as quick as I thought it was in pre-event testing.

And although we would never be in contention for an overall victory with some of the fast Unlimited cars participating, if there were only two of the six that were participating in Unlimited that were a threat to us—or we were a threat to them, however you want to look at it (laughs)—and if they had issues on the day, unlike other forms of motorsport, like Daytona 24 Hours or so forth, where a tier two, tier three class, if you play it smart, have a little bit of luck, and put on a solid drive, you can win overall, and that’s what we capitalized on.

You beat second place Romain Dumas by less than a tenth of a second. Were you paying attention to Romain’s run, or the runs of any of the other drivers, and did any of them worry you before or after you took to the track?

We were paying attention to everyone, even though we were confident that we were the class of our field. We were elevating ourselves into the categories above us. Romain Dumas in the Porsche was setting some amazing times, and all week long we were within a second of him, bettering him in some sections where our car worked better and at a slight deficit in others where his worked better. The first day of practice was my first time really running the road race setup on the car on the top of the mountain and we had some issues with power performance, with the boost leak only making about six pounds of boost, and we typically make around twelve.

Image via Rhys Millen Racing

So the time difference that he beat me on the top section by, four seconds I believe it was, we were confident that we could make that up on race day. And, to be honest, the rest of the field—Nobuhiro Tajima with a new vehicle this year, we had him covered by some 20 seconds, and all of the open-wheel cars and stock cars as well. So the race was really between, for the overall, the four of us: Dumas in the Porsche in Pikes Peak Open, ourselves in Time Attack, and Paul Dallenbach and Jean-Philippe Dayraut in Unlimited.

This year’s event saw two major accidents with Jeremy Foley and Paul Dallenbach’s crashes, though neither driver was seriously injured. How do you feel about safety on the mountain? Is the additional pavement a positive or negative in that regard?

Image via Rhys Millen Racing

You know, I think in that event, safety is always number one before you leave the line. I always like to say, and especially tell my wife (laughs) that I leave six seconds on the course for safety, about half a second per mile. And it’s almost like you have to do that. This is not a road course where you’ve done multiple laps, the surface is consistent, and you get to see the race course. There’s a period of 24 hours or more where you never get to see the road, and in that 24 hours there can be thunderstorms, hail, rain, anything that can wash debris onto the road or anything. So if you commit to it 100-plus percent, you’re asking for the danger factor to be increased. We drive within the ability of the car and my control, but still drive very committed to put in a good time.

In the case of Foley’s crash, I would need to hear the navigator’s instructions to see if he led him in on the wrong part of the course, because it looked like he was going straight on a corner that was a tightening left, and it was shocking to see how far off line he really was for that particular corner. In the case of Paul, Paul has never had a bad crash up there. He’s a very conservative driver, drives a very similar style to myself and with that safety factor as well. Unfortunately it was a mechanical that put him off the road.

In the wake of this year’s record time, have you given any thought to the 2013 Hill Climb? Have you thought about changing classes, or trying to crack 9:45 in Time Attack?

Image via Rhys Millen Racing

Unfortunately, I’m not a multi-millionaire! We race with the support of sponsorship, and we needed to conform to what our sponsors did this year, or what they wanted to achieve out of it, which was a racing silhouette of the production vehicle that they sell. This combination that we won with this year is the Hyundai Genesis coupe, running an internally modified engine that comes with that car based on their 3.8-liter Hyundai Lambda V6. So it’s a credit to that combination—it is not a full race motor, the suspension points and many aspects of the car are still production based.

It’s a real credit to their having characteristics and the power that can be generated from their engines, even though we did turbocharge this one specifically for the competition. But yeah, if it was up to me personally, I definitely would have not stepped back out of Unlimited, and for sure my focus is trying to get back into Unlimited for next year to defend that title.

– Chris Leone

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Comments

  1. In talking with Jeremy Foley and co-driver Yuri Kousnetov, it wasn’t navigator error, or really driver error too much. The car understeered hard, and wasn’t correcting. They think it had gotten just wet enough up top for their slicks to loose it. In notes, it was a flat-out corner, but it had washed so terribly wide that there was no room to recover.

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