Pikes Peak will put you to the ultimate test; just ask Randy Pobst and Unplugged Performance
After stuffing a heavy crash near Pikes Peak’s “Bottomless Pit,” Unplugged Performance has begun rebuilding their 2020 Tesla Model 3 in the hopes of being able to meet tomorrow’s pack-in deadline for Sunday’s race. This will be one of the hardest-fought thrashes to ever happen in the name of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, as the team has bought a whole-new Model 3 from a nearby dealership to strip for donor parts, as PPIHC requires that the same vehicle be raced through the entire week with no replacements. Many teams suffer from crashes and mechanical failures, but nothing before has gone through the $55,000 question of how fast a Model 3 can be stripped while another is pulled straight and rebuilt.
Pikes Peak is one of America’s oldest racing events, with only the Indy 500 outdating the 12.42-mile long hill climb that brings masochists racers over 5000 feet in elevation through some 150-plus turns. It is one of the most physically and technically challenging events in the world due to the ever-changing surface, which is barely more than a two-lane road that moves with the mountain every year to create roaming bumps, with every one of those 150-something turns along the way being unique. As you climb ever higher and heat soak the vehicle longer, your ultimate cooling capacity is simultaneously reduced thanks to the lower air density as altitude rises. For a combustion engine, it’s less horsepower with less oxygen to burn, and the same goes for the drivers, who often run a medical-grade oxygen supply to prevent a build up of CO2 in their blood stream.
And when mistakes do happen, parts can be tough to track down (that is, unless you have a Subaru) in Colorado Springs, a small mountain town about two hours south of Denver—especially for a Tesla Model 3, which doesn’t have a widespread parts network like other major OEMs. This led the Unplugged Performance team to purchase yet another 2020 Model 3 in hopes of saving their run at Pikes Peak.
Randy’s crash appears to be a venn diagram of small things. During practice, which takes place between 5 a.m.–9 a.m. on week days in order to respect the mountain road’s toll access for the public, the road surface can be incredibly cold. It’s not unusual for it to lag 20–30 degrees behind the ambient temps after a cold night, meaning that it can be difficult to build heat in the tires on such short practice runs. Plus, with the mountain naturally heaving and moving with the seasons, the paved road is subject to undulations that can be six inches or deeper, which appears to have been the real instigator here during Pobst’s first run of the day—as it has been for so many other racers on the top section of Pikes Peak ever since it was paved. Once the bump upset the car and kicked the cold tires out, the Model 3 was unable to recover as it snapped back around on Pobst.
The damage is, to put it mildly, rather major. In a rolling FB post, Unplugged Performance CEO Ben Schaffer has been brain dumping his thoughts as the team picked the Model 3 apart to inspect its damage. “The race car has nearly everything that can break broken. Frame bent front and rear, sub frames both destroyed, motors destroyed, suspension destroyed, cooling destroyed, steering rack destroyed, potentially battery pack destroyed (tbd). Can we do it? NEVER GIVE UP.”
With a wholesale write-off of most of the Model 3’s parts, the team has a big challenge ahead in the next 24 hours. By Saturday (August 29) afternoon, the car has to be back on the mountain and pre-loaded into the paddock. The team is trying to accomplish a rebuild that that would normally take days, possibly weeks, under normal conditions—but Pikes Peak takes your idea of normalcy and throws it off a cliff. Late in the week, sleep deprivation from the 2 a.m. wake-up calls start to weigh the crew down, longer days leads to shorter nights as little things stack up, and it all happens in a place that’s a sleepy mountain town the other 358 days of the year, with little parts support for more esoteric machines like the Tesla.
But, they can rebuild it; they certainly have the technology. The only enemy here is time.