Pikes Peak in Colorado Springs, Colorado and the Empire Hill Climb in tiny Empire, Michigan, are about as far away on the map as the race courses are different.
The course at Pikes Peak -- the world’s most famous hill climb event -- measures 12.42 miles and includes 156 turns. The course at Empire -- one a little less famous -- is a half-mile and all of seven turns.
Peter Cunningham and his 2018 Acura TLX-GT conquered both in 2018.
Cunningham, who was first in class at Pikes Peak in June, topped the 40-car field with a blistering time of 18.539 seconds at Empire on Sept. 16. Cunningham’s time at Empire beat the overall winner -- Cunningham’s car was entered in an exhibition class -- by more than 2 seconds.
“The comparison I have, having done only two hill climbs in the past, is with the Pikes Peak Hill Climb,” Cunningham said. “I was half-joking when I said I like Empire better because you don’t have to get up at 2:30 in the morning and Empire is all over in one day, whereas at Pikes Peak, if you do all the pre-event testing, you’re kind of there for the month of June.>
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“The Empire event was great. The people were great, the community was welcoming, and it was just a real fun event. Good competition, but a little more low-key, certainly for our car, which was an overdog -- that’s why we were in the exhibition class. It was still very challenging, as short of a road as it is. It was just a blast to be there.”
Make no mistake about it: Cunningham and the Acura was a rock star at Empire. The driver and the RealTime Racing team on-site took it all in stride, from the extra fans crowding the start line when the Acura lined up to the well-wishers that came up to him during lunch hour at Joe’s Friendly Tavern.
“I didn’t get a chance to meet every competitor, but we had a lot of interactions with the competitors,” Cunningham said. “It was just a couple racers chatting it up. I didn’t feel like we were any different than anybody else there, other than our spaceship that we had was kind of prepped to a different level.
“Nobody seemed resentful of that, either, and everyone was welcoming and friendly.”
Peter Cunningham checks out his Acura TLX-GT between runs. Photo by Andy Wakeman
That “spaceship” ran up the hill at Empire with a surprisingly similar setup to the one the team used at Pikes Peak.
“We didn’t do much of anything,” Cunningham said. “We took the oxygen bottle out. The oxygen we used at 9,000 to 14,000 feet at Pikes Peak was not needed at what, 100 feet or 200 feet above Lake Michigan.
“Really, we didn’t hurt the car at Pikes Peak, so we just kind of went through it and made sure everything was set. If our life depended on it, we might have tried to run it a little lower than what we would have run at Pikes Peak, but not knowing the condition of the road and the smoothness of the road, we left the ride height alone. In a one-day event, we didn’t try to reinvent the wheel from morning to afternoon because it seemed to be handling really well.”
The secret to the Acura TLX-GT, according to Cunningham, was its four-wheel-drive system and the engine package that Honda Performance Development created.
“It doesn’t make a stupid horsepower number -- it’s maybe 550 hp -- but it just really is suited to that type of road, be it Pikes Peak or Empire,” Cunningham said. “The car was reasonably quick in Pirelli Challenge GT in its former life, and now it’s had some modifications beyond that that make it faster, certainly, and the gearing for such a short course definitely gives it some magic.”
There was no mistaking the Peter Cunningham ride at the Empire Hill Climb. Photo by Andy Wakeman
The Empire Hill Climb quite possibly was last official event for the team’s Empire-winning Acura TLX GT. Cunningham says there are no plans to race again in 2018.
“We have no plans for 2019,” the 56-year-old Cunningham said. “The car was the last non-GT3 car homologated for Pirelli World Challenge back in 2014 -- really, it was 2013 when it was homologated for the 2014-15 season -- and then we were allowed an additional season by taking off the four-wheel drive and running in rear-wheel drive configuration for 2016, prior to the NSX coming on board for 2017.
“So, this Acura TLX, as built, is really not eligible for any pro series, but it certainly is eligible for any other event, like a hill climb like Pikes Peak or Empire. Our main focus for 2018 at RealTime Racing was the Pirelli World Challenge TCR championship, and we won that with Ryan Eversley. That was RealTime’s 15th World Challenge championship.”
The only real hiccup for Cunningham and the Acura at Empire was an incident on the car’s fifth and what turned out to be final run. The car clipped a county road sign and did just enough damage to the right-rear quarter panel to keep it from making a sixth run up the hill.
The Acura TLX-GT left Empire, Michigan with a few blemishes. Photo by Andy Wakeman
“Our first run was a 21.4, our second run was 20.0, our third run was 19.0 and our fourth run was 18.5,” Cunningham said. “That fifth run was going to be 17-something, I had a good feeling about it. I’m pretty sure I hit some gravel.
“The guy ahead of me clipped an apex and broke off one of his canards and sprayed some gravel on the road. I hit that and rolled right off the road. After the run, he came over and apologized and everything, but I don’t want to make a federal case out of it. I let him off the hook and gave him a poster and said, ‘Hey, that’s part of the deal.’ It could have been a lot worse. It drew some extra attention since we put the photo and the video on social media. People have been eating it up, so I think it was good press.”
More than 40 cars went up the hill in Empire, Michigan, last weekend and each of the four classes posted hot times on the half-mile, seven-turn, tree-lined course. The hottest time, of course, was set ...
Mike Pryson - Mike Pryson covered auto racing for the Jackson (Mich.) Citizen Patriot and M-Live Media Group from 1991 until joining Autoweek as associate motorsports editor In 2012. Promoted to motorsports editor in 2015.
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