It was during HOT ROD Power Tour 2016 that we got the call: "Big Red" had caught fire, but thankfully, RJ Gottlieb was OK. It was less than a week before the team had to be in Colorado Springs for last year's 2016 Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, when a fuel-system failure torched the Baddest Camaro Ever during testing at Buttonwillow Raceway. The team was devastated, but also counted their blessings on RJ's good health.
Racing is all about redemption. Whether you're too late to the finish line, rebuilding after a wreck, or repairing mechanical maladies, the attitude of "never give up, never surrender" is probably the most important tool you can carry. You pick up the pieces, find a solution, and return—failure is not in what happened in the moment, but in doing nothing about it to find a path back to success. That's why RJ's core team, which consists of crew chief Dave Ward, engineer Tim Fleenor, lead mechanic Mark Ewing, and engine-builder Larry Mollicone, who along with mechanic Cliff Whetstone, began work immediately on the Big Red Camaro to diagnose the cause of the fire and start the rebuild.
The road to Pikes Peak began after RJ and Big Red set a new personal land-speed best—253.7 mph—at the Mojave Mile in April 2017. From there, the team returned to Hesperia, California, with a breath of fresh air behind them. Nine months of work had started to pay off, and while the road-race conversion took just a few weeks, they were eager to begin testing for Pikes Peak.
Mornings on the mountain are otherworldly, with teams arriving at the gate to Pikes Peak Highway as early as 2 am. Depending on which third of the mountain they're running in practice, teams arrive at one of three pits, and RJ was required to make all four days of practice as a Pikes rookie.
The mission for Big Red was conservative but confident runs to eke out every bit of seat time RJ could while maintaining the car for Sunday's run. The catch-22 of Pikes Peak is that while the 12.56-mile course is split into three sections for practice, the risks are all the same: dropping a tire, locking up the brakes, or any number of minor mistakes can escalate very quickly, and gravity doesn't care what day of the week it is.
Under the broken clouds and starry skies of a Pikes Peak Mountain morning, the team hit the hill with a force. Being the famous "new guys" in town, there's always a little skepticism from some of the harder-knock racers, but drivers, teams, and spectators routinely saw themselves staring into the deep-red paint of Big Red with awe and respect. Not only does Big Red Camaro look meaty on its gold BBS wheels (no doubt setting the look for decades of Pro Touring '69s) but the team ran like a well-oiled machine. Within minutes of arrival, Big Red would be up on stands as Mark, Tim, and Cliff began preparing the car for the task at hand.
Meanwhile, Larry, along with Westech Performance's Eric Rhee (who joined to tune Big Red's new Holley Dominator EFI system), would focus on the tight-tolerance, 555ci engine that required some warm oil to be fed from a heated dry-sump reservoir before the initial fire-up. Once warmed up, it's a short game of "hurry up and wait" until the Pikes Peak safety team finishes their sweeps of the road to look for wet patches, shoo away any wildlife, and double-check weather conditions.
The massive side-exit pipes echo with popcorn thunder through the hill like none other. Pikes is unique in its mechanical symphony: the field is a mixture of production-based, Time Attack cars, miniaturized and liter-bike-powered prototypes, belligerent tube-chassis silhouette cars, space-age EV race cars, and a mixture of open-wheel machines from the banks of Indy to the earlier dirt days of Pikes. The myriad of mechanical soundtracks that escape into the ridges is unmatched, and Big Red's stands out among them as one of the angriest.
Practice was delightfully uneventful for RJ and the Big Red team. The only mechanical drama was an afternoon ratio change and clutch swap on Thursday, otherwise Big Red ran like greased lightning. With a solid week behind them, Big Red and RJ just needed to make a clean pass from Devil's Playground to the Peak to lock in to Sunday's race. The idea was that the sun would be just a little farther in the sky than the twilight hours, but the reality is that a storm front had moved into the area, and more than half the mountain was engulfed in clouds by 7 am.
"Part of a day like today is how variable the mountain is," RJ said. "The only thing typical is that you don't know exactly what you're going to do for the day. It's just the reality of Pikes Peak—everything can change in a heartbeat."
While it's not unusual to be above the cloud line at Devil's Playground—some 10,000 feet in elevation—it's rare to have it climb back up the mountain, chasing racers uphill in a losing battle of visibility. Even stranger was the sheer amount of moisture that began collecting on everything (and everyone). In no time, despite no rain, the road had become slick, as everyone's jackets, gloves, and facial hair became sopping wet; it wasn't long before Pikes Peak ended the practice session as Big Red and the rest of the second-run group carefully beelined back down the mountain
But even through the fog, you could see RJ's excitement—and the team's relief. A year's worth of thrashing, preparation, and hard work had nearly paid off. While, yes, the race was still the ultimate victory, you could see the tension release a hair as RJ climbed out of Big Red, encircled by his racing family.
Race day's sunrise was greeted with the slow crawl of spectators heading up the hill while crew members fought for every last ounce of sleep before the light invaded their compounds of rental cars, tow rigs, and race trailers; of course, Big Red was ready and waiting as others rubbed their bleary eyes.
Pikes Peak's Dan Skoken gave the heads up: It was time to stage, and the team immediately shifted into action. The engine was fired, the jackstands were pulled, and RJ rechecked his quick-release steering wheel.
The Big Red crew, the massive support team of friends and family, and the gaggle of film crew gave RJ a cloud of support as he inched toward the line.
With the skies clear and the peak in sight, RJ thrusted Big Red into the heart of Pikes Peak, and within a few turns, he was out of sight as the belligerent music of that triple-nickel big-block blared out into the ridges. While Big Red could be sporadically found on the live broadcast, it's the timing board that draws teams during their driver's run.
Each section time tells a vague story until the driver sees the peak and can radio down; it's a game of speculation that's often more stressful than the whole week leading to that point. Tim, maybe not one for the suspense, simply waited by the official board of times in a folding chair, calm and collected (and maybe taking a nap).
Finally, the number hit: 11:08.357—placing fourth in Pikes Peak Open class. The crew was elated—they had finally accomplished what they set out to do 376 days earlier: conquer the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. To RJ, it was not only that but also Big Red Camaro has been a part of his life for more than three decades now. That sort of legacy, especially in a competition vehicle, is rare, but it's one that's transcended generations. The more you observe the operation, the more you realize how that generational reach is an extension of the people who carry Big Red through this world, with even fathers and sons hand off eras in the construction and maintenance.
"You really had to be there to understand what I'm saying, but it's why I chose this group. This team was there for me every day on, as they say, 'the hill.' It really was a ballet of motion," RJ explained. "If you were there at Devils Playground at 13,000 feet, you really saw a ballet of people behind what's just a car, an effort, and it's only become something because of this group here. The car doesn't become something on its own."
The front sway bar is relocated lower in the chassis to clear the land-speed 598ci's Pro Charger F3 or sit higher in the chassis for optimal suspension geometry when using the triple-nickel, 555ci, road-race big-block. For land speed, the chassis uses a parallel four-link for high-speed, straight-line stability; in road racing configuration, the team can quickly swap center chunks in the 9-inch and swap the upper links for a beefy three-link configuration. Inside, the transmission is swapped from a Rossler 4L80E in land-speed configuration to a four-speed manual for road racing. With more than 2,000 hp on tap in the blown 598ci, compared with about 1,000 in the naturally aspirated 555ci, two different exhaust systems are also ready—and the road-race pipes used at Pikes were avalanche-inducing (even in June), side-exit boom-tubes. There are hundreds of small changes to make all those big puzzle pieces fit, but you get the idea—modularity, ease of maintenance, and better performance in a wider variety of racing was the name of the game.
Photography by Scott Killeen, Rupert Berrington, Stephanie Urso