This weekend, famed drifting and rally champ Rhys Millen will strap in for the 100th anniversary (and the 94th running; they took a few years off during WWII) of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb in Colorado.
Millen, competing for his 22nd time in the 12.4-mile uphill battle, is driving the all-electric, 1,367-horsepower eO PP100, sponsored by Hankook Tire. Last year Millen set the EV record with a time of 9:07.222 — but still was visibly disappointed after the race, knowing full well he and his car were capable of finishing a full 30 seconds faster. (One of the rear motors had failed on the way up; more on that in a minute.)
Ahead of this year’s race we got Millen on the phone to talk to him about the race, how it’s changed, electric cars, his goals for this year — and what he tells his wife to make her not worry about him plunging over a cliff:
Hunter Slaton: How similar is rally driving to what you do at Pikes Peak?
Rhys Millen: For 90 years, [Pikes Peak] was all smooth dirt road and crushed-granite highway. In the last six years, it evolved into a fully paved, regular mountain road. So back in the day, there was a higher skill set from [the perspective of] vehicle dynamics or car control, to be able to pitch the car sideways and carry speed and conserve tire spin. You had to know the road very, very well because you were using every inch of it, dropping a tire down into a ditch, and then sliding all the way up to the edge where there were no guardrails or anything.
Now, you can drive around that same corner fast, but be six feet to your left, six feet to your right and you’ve still got traction and you’re still staying on the road. As Pikes Peak has evolved, my skill set has evolved into a pure road-racing, circuit-racing style as well, to find a natural balance of being fast on pavement but still having the skill set to control the car if the tire gets a little…
HS: Away from you?
RM: If it gets nervous or a little twitch or whatever, yeah.
HS: You expected to be faster last year, and the reason why you weren’t was mainly because of the engine. Is that right?
RM: Yeah. It wasn’t that there was an engineering design fault or anything in the vehicle. The vehicle really has remained the same. It was a cooling calibration [issue]. When you draw from the batteries to produce power to the electric motors, you create a lot of discharge heat from the batteries. And it’s not until you’re in that environment and you get to really stress the vehicle can you identify the ceiling levels of what temperatures will be.
So, the team set quite low safety parameters, and unfortunately we hit those safety parameters quite early, which just softened up the amount of power that the car would provide me for the remainder of the run. This year they’ve increased the cooling capacity, the flow rate of the water and oil pumps, to cool the motors and controllers. And we’re far exceeding their minimal temperatures, as far as being some 50% below where we were last year, which is enabling them to then increase the power output of the car to make it even faster.
HS: Do you feel confident you can significantly beat your last year’s time?
RM: Our number-one goal is to break the nine minutes.
HS: Are there other electric teams in the race?
RM: There are two completely different approaches this year, with two completely different teams. Our team is from Latvia. We have taken the approach of a very passive mechanical setup, focusing on pure power output to the wheels. There are no traction-control devices. There are no ABS devices. And there are no torque-vectoring devices, meaning speeding up the greater-radius tire. It is a lot of driver inputs, stability inputs, and performance inputs, based on my feedback to the engineer.
There is another team out there from Japan, which is a factory effort from Honda Acura, with a new NSX-body four-wheel drive electric car. Same kind of design parameters to ours, but each wheel has its own power source. They have traction control. They have ABS. They have torque vectoring. They also have 20 staff on the car; we have four. [Laughs.] Their systems are far more complex, far more... I wouldn’t say advanced, but they’re applying all types of technology to maximize the efficiency of the vehicle.
While that is very good, I personally believe that it can only be applied in an environment that is very consistent. [For Pikes Peak], you’re testing in the mornings: The ambient air temperature is mid-40s, mid-50s, and the ground-surface temperature is anywhere from mid-20s to mid-40s. Come race day, all of those numbers change. So that affects your tire pressure, your tire temperature, the road surface, the ambient air temperature, the batteries, everything. So now all of your testing that you’ve done to develop and maximize a setup is kind of completely out the door. Whereas our setup is a very consistent, strong baseline that [allows] a driver with confidence in the machine to mechanically change those inputs out of every corner based on a connection to the car and how well the tire is gripping the surface.
HS: It sounds like your car is the one that’s more fun to drive.
RM: It keeps you lively. [Laughs.] It keeps your attention.
HS: This race is very dramatic, with lots of sheer cliffs. Is this something you think about in this race versus others, or is that not a concern?
RM: So there’s a statement for the media and there’s a statement for my wife.
HS: Sure. [Laughs.]
RM: When the race was all dirt, it was absolutely fun. The average speed was in the 70s, and the fun factor versus fear factor was very heavily on the fun factor side of things. Now that the road is paved it is borderline scary. Speeds that were impressive back then at 120 [miles per hour], we’re now seeing 145, 150.
RM: So the opportunity for — maybe not so much a driver mistake, because it is an environment that I don’t think any driver at a higher skill set pushes 100% — but the opportunity for a mechanical to go wrong, at the speeds that you’re going, it could get very ugly early. You’re definitely running corners now that where [before] it was just absolutely fun, you’re sitting there going, “Man, I sure hope something doesn’t go wrong right now.”
Check back next week for part two of our interview with Rhys Millen, focusing on the unique, “beyond-their-comfort-zone” tires Hankook crafted to propel Rhys and the eO PP100 to (hopeful) victory.
Hunter Slaton is the Content Director for Studio@Gawker.