They’d spent the prior year preparing a sprint car to handle the challenges of Pikes Peak, but they still had their work cut out for them. Even with a top team and some serious hardware at their disposal, 2018 Spec E30 National Champion Tim Barber, 2014 GTS1 National Champion Sylas Montgomery and the rest of the Montgomery Fabrication Group had to manage a packed schedule and a learning curve as steep as the mountain if they were to get their modified Lightning Crown to the top quickly and down in one piece.
Team MFG dubbed their creation an “ MFG Road Course Sprint Car.” Based on an ex-Silver Crown superspeedway chassis, this machine incorporated parts of an IndyCar, a fuel-injected LS engine, and a few custom aero pieces. The package needed some massaging before they loaded it into the hauler and shipped it east for Colorado, though.
With only a couple of weeks before the car needed to head to Colorado Springs, the team from NASA NorCal made two more vital changes to make the car competitive at 14,000 feet. Performance Shock tailored a set of Ohlins three-way adjustables to MFG’s unique demands, and Marc Sanzenbacher sent them a set of Hoosier tires from a far-off racing series. Turns out, they were perfect for MFG’s application.
Prior testing on different tires had been tough. During cold morning testing in Northern California on their old TA2 Pirellis, they struggled to get the tires up to temperature. Because these tires are designed for a car one thousand pounds heavier, it’s not hard to see why.
With temperatures and time constraints they anticipated at Pikes Peak, having the ability to put the tires at full operating temperatures after a few turns was vital. With Sanzenbacher, their contact at Hoosier, they were able to get their hands on a soft, quick-heating slick that would suit their needs. This tire, made for an Australian formula car series, switches on with a burnout and a few corners to scrub the fronts.
Consider the consequences of understeer on a road like Pikes Peak and you can understand why Montgomery wasn’t interested in running the course with an uncooperative front end. Once the tire issues were sorted, they tried moving the wing a little higher in the airstream to generate more downforce at the front. However, more aero loading up front started to deform the relocated wing, and Barber gave it one more tweak.
Barber changed the mounting position again — this time moving the wing farther forward to help move the center of pressure slightly, then increased the angle of attack, and added a set of larger endplates, from which he mounted the wing to the tube frame. With the car feeling pointy and compliant, Montgomery had the confidence needed to attack the course. Now, the challenging time constraints posed the biggest hurdle for the team.
More than Machinery
Adjusting to Mountain Time is nothing for a trio of experienced West Coast racers, but the bizarre Pikes Peak prerace practice schedule left its mark on the team. Since Pikes Peak makes most of its money from the influx of hikers in the summer months, competitors in the PPIHC have to work around the public’s preferred hours of 9 to 5.
That meant that Montgomery, Barber, and the rest of the crew had to adapt to an unusual sleep schedule. After four-ish hours of fitful sleep, they’d put on a pot of coffee, load the trailer, and arrive at the gates by 3 a.m.
“Getting there early was critical,” said Montgomery, who finished second in Spec E30 at the 2022 NASA Championships. With a spot secured at the front of the line, they set up their gear and Montgomery did what he could to get his head in the game.
“It’s pretty hard to get the competitive juices flowing when it’s still dark out,” he said with a laugh.
Testing begins just after 5 in the morning and ends half-past 8, when the hikers begin to arrive. The MFG team packed up and headed back to the shop, got another few hours of sleep, then worked an afternoon shift to prepare for the following day. Due to several late-stage updates, it wasn’t until the third week in June that they could really rest.
One month prior to the event, the MFG team arrived in town with a plan, a place to stay, and a few hands to shake. They found themselves taken under the wing of the Vahsholtz family, a racing dynasty that’s been competing at Pikes Peak for decades.
It helped that their AirBnB in Woodland Park was mere miles from the Vahsholtz family home and shops, so distance never got in the way of the team grabbing tools, advice, or a few celebratory beers.
“The whole family was unbelievably helpful. I needed tools and they lent them. They left their entire machine shop open to us, and whenever we needed any, they lent us their wisdom. Without them, we would’ve been in a more desperate position,” Barber said.
As calming as it is to be in good hands, MFG was worried about their naturally aspirated engine performing 12,000 feet above sea level. They flew in their tuner, Franz Diebold, to ensure the LS would make adequate grunt in the thin Colorado air. At 8,000 feet, the LS made 380 horsepower at the rear wheels. Not the number they hoped for, but without a blower to help compensate for fewer oxygen molecules, it was all the 6.3-liter would make. A little extrapolation suggested they’d reach the peak with roughly two-thirds of that power.
Uncertainty about performance at the peak was compounded by the fact that, despite logging five practice days in the month before the race, they were only able to run the lower and middle sections of the course. At Pikes Peak, only one third of the track is run each day, and due to inclement weather on the two of their test days selected for top-section running, they hadn’t gotten a shot until the week of the race.
Unfortunately, it’s the top section that can be considered the most challenging. Because the air is thinnest there, the top third tests the aero setup the most. The corners are mostly fast and, since there isn’t much air, downforce is reduced. As if that weren’t enough, the bumps are biggest due to the vast temperature changes buckling the road.
They approached their testing as methodically and cautiously as ever, but with the late-stage upgrades, Montgomery was able to attack more confidently and secure some encouraging times from the start.
Realizing they’d be mixing it up at the front, they felt the prudent thing to do would be to ensure that they were completely compliant in the event they were standing on the podium or vying for a position there, and so, after revisiting the rulebook, Barber took a saw to the car’s sidepods.
As the current rules state for the Pikes Peak Open Wheel class, the bodywork cannot protrude beyond the edge of the sidewall and no bodywork over the top of the tire. Most of the car needed to be trimmed, and some parts had to be removed entirely. Barber chopped the top of the side pods as needed and replaced the removed Dallara DW12 side pods with new wing end plates to showcase partner liveries on the car. Additionally, both front fenders and the sidepods had to be trimmed slightly to run flush with the edge of the tire.
Finding a rhythm on a course like this takes a little more circumspection than a typical track does. In a way, it’s easier to flirt with the limits on a street course lined with solid concrete walls.
“Working through the ‘basic checkoffs’ was my goal for the first few days,” Montgomery said after the first round of testing. “Basically, I was getting an idea of where I could go flat without any problems and working up toward that. I might not do it the first time, but I’ll get there in a few runs.”
That part is easy enough. Where he has to restrain himself is when he starts to get comfortable.
“Once I get a feel for everything on the track, I try to push a little past the limit. That’s my normal progression, but here, I’ve got to watch myself. I can’t afford to make a mistake. I’ve already seen some guys crash in practice, and that’s it. Their team, their sponsors, and everyone involved with their effort has to pack it in. They’re done. I have to remind myself of our goal to make it to the top.”
It wasn’t until the Wednesday before the race that Montgomery was able to run the daunting final top section, where they figured the motor might have the biggest issue. It didn’t overheat, but it was struggling to fill its lungs. For that reason, Montgomery was surprised to get into fourth gear.
“Less drag due to the thin air helped us with speed, and the torque of the motor was still strong enough to spin the wheels in the chicanes,” he said. “It still felt sporty.”
To avoid launching off the side or bottoming out there, straying off the conventional line was necessary from time to time, and, sometimes, the bumps just couldn’t be missed.
“We’d hop, skip, and settle over a few big ones, but as long as the car was straight, they were manageable,” Barber recalled.
Once settling into a rhythm and feeling racy, Montgomery had to remind himself that there was more to the week than setting a scorching time in practice.
“I wanted to keep pushing, but we packed it in one session early that day,” Montgomery said. “Breaking something would’ve cost us much more, especially since, the harder I pushed, the harder the car was hitting the bumps.”
Take a Chance
Thursday, the rain kept anyone from running, but for Friday’s qualifying on the bottom section, MFG’s stars aligned and the weather was ideal. The day started well with Montgomery matching his best ever time on his second run. He was feeling well, and despite his conservative approach, he was tempted to push. He knew he could find another second easily on another run.
Plus, there’s a strategic reason for flirting with danger at Pikes Peak. The closer you are to the front of the pack, the earlier you can make your runs on race day. Being cooler in the morning, an early start can mean a second or so. For that reason, he recognized he had to attempt a risky qualifying lap.
“I knew I could do more. We threw on a set of uncut Hoosiers, and I went 6 seconds faster. This put us 12th overall and second in class!,” he exclaimed.
MFG had put themselves in a pretty competitive position, and a good night’s rest was about all Montgomery needed to perform. Unfortunately, the challenge of sleeping soundly was made harder by the upsetting of his normal routine. For race day, the mountain opened a couple hours earlier for spectators, and eager to get to the front of the line, the team shuttled to the staging area at 8,000 feet a stroke past midnight.
Crucially, Montgomery could squeeze in those last hours of much-needed sleep on the makeshift bed in the team’s support vehicle. When he awoke, he was ready and rearin’. “All those people watching just gets you juiced,” he said, still noticeably giddy while recalling the event a few days afterward.
He took his time getting ready. To quell his mounting nerves, he fixated on finding a rhythm. That would keep his mind from spiraling, and once the muscle memory started carrying him along, he knew he’d be in the right frame to find some time. The first couple of turns were partially for surveying the situation at hand.
“I focused on being smooth through the first couple corners, let the tires come up to temp, and then I found my groove,” he said. There are no lap timers or split times to reference while on the mountain, so Montgomery was monitoring the shift lights in certain sections. “I started seeing shift lights illuminate in new places, so I knew we had a really good run going.”
The first section of Pikes Peak is very rhythmic but the middle section provides a different cadence of sharp switchbacks. Montgomery’s strategy in the second section was to manage the heat in the Hoosier tires and brake conservatively.
After completing the first two sections without a mistake, he knew he just had to survive the top and its wild bumps. With the least amount of practice on the top section, he took a conservative approach and, as he crossed the finish line, felt a wave of relief pass over him. “After driving the hill for my first ever full run, I thought, ‘That’s it? It’s over that quick? It’s going to be a long year waiting to do that again!’”
Montgomery was brimming with anticipation. He hadn’t received any confirmation on his final time. He circled around the summit to park with the other finished competitors as the emotions came flooding back.
Like a comforting grandmother bringing him a warm bowl of soup, touring car ace and Pikes Peak Champion David Donohue was the first to the car to congratulate Montgomery and help him get out of the car. As he undid his belts, Montgomery yelled at the nearest official and asked for an official time. “When I heard ‘9’ starting that sentence, I climbed on top of the car!”
Then the shower of accolades came. Eleventh overall and second in the open-wheel category — just second behind mentor Cody Vasholtz, who’d just set a new class record. Then there was the Rookie of the Year award, and to top it all off, some kind words from driver Tanner Foust.
“I could feel the ground shake when you were gridded behind me,” Foust told Montgomery.
The 25 hours driving back to the Bay Area gave the team plenty of time to think. Twin turbos, better aero, and maybe even a different category would make a return even more satisfying, if that’s even possible. More than their hopes for the future, it was their reflections on a month well spent that pleased them most.
“We made every session we wanted to, we never had to pull an all-nighter, and the car performed without any issues. We went above and beyond our expectations,” Barber rejoiced. “Really, it could not have gone better.”