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Porsche 911 Turbo S Proves Internal Combustion Isn't Dead at Pikes Peak

Here's how David Donner drove a road-legal car to a second-place finish.

Now playing: Watch this: Porsche 911 Turbo S Takes on EVs at Pikes Peak 2022

"Keep it low stress, keep it fun," David Donner breezily says about three and a half minutes into the film above. He might be describing a casual BBQ that he's organizing or a weekend game of golf. But he's not. He's talking about driving up the perilous Pikes Peak Hill Climb, all 12.42 miles of it. And he's talking about trying to do so while setting a record time.

Hold Donner's cheery words in mind and then skip forward a dozen or so minutes. He catches a slide to stop the car from falling into an abyss. Utterly unfazed, he then accelerates hard, plunging deeper into the a cloud. The car is consumed by a white fog. There's another bend ahead, another drop on the outside. But where? When to switch pressure from accelerator pedal to brake pedal? Swap too late and the car won't be able to stop on the slippery asphalt. 

How the hell do you "keep it low stress, keep it fun" in this situation? Just watching it gives me the collywobbles and has my heart rate at a level that no medical professional would ever describe as relaxed. It is phenomenal.

Let's rewind a bit. This film is the story of David Donner's drive in the 100th running of the famous Pikes Peak Hill Climb earlier this year. Donner has won Pikes Peak outright three times and remains the last American to be crowned King of the Hill. This year he wasn't aiming for the overall, instead hoping to reclaim the record he once held for the fastest production car up to the finish line at 14,115 feet above sea level.

The weather was atrocious.

Larry Chen Photo

The plan was hatched along with renowned Porsche magazine 000. And the car chosen for the task was a Porsche 911 Turbo S. It really was a production street car as well, licensed to drive on the road. Champion Motorsport prepared the car, with technical director Tom Pelov overseeing operations and Victor Scanapico carrying out the modifications with real artistry. As you'd expect, various additions and alterations had to be made to meet the safety regulations and these included a cage (built to NASCAR specs in NASCAR country), a competition seat, the deletion of all carpets (for fire safety), a fuel cell, a fire extinguisher system and electrical cutoff (with switches so beautifully set into the central cup holder that they look like a factory option).

There were just a couple of performance-enhancing modifications that could be made, the first of which was a new exhaust from Sharkwerks. This was installed mainly to help with turbo speeds at the higher altitudes. Incidentally, some cars apparently had to replace turbos on a daily basis but the factory items on the Turbo S remained bulletproof throughout.

The ECU was also tuned and the car ran on race fuel, but other than that it was stock. No changes were made to the suspension, brakes, transmission, all-wheel-drive system, wheels or aerodynamics. Even the tires were street-legal Michelin Cup 2 Rs.

Actually, there was one other change that might have helped shave a couple of psychological tenths: the rather inspiring livery. Pete Stout, editor of 000, and his team came up with the idea to put pages of one of the magazine's features (about a 930 Turbo) onto the car. Very fitting. And just as you might assume you need an EV to be competitive on Pikes Peak these days, so too is there a narrative in media that digital is the only way forward and "print is dead." As such the combination of an internal combustion engine car and a successful print magazine is rather a pleasing union.

The 911 arrived at Pikes Peak at the start of the week with just 40 miles on the clock. It had covered 340 miles by the time it returned, under its own steam, to Donner's garage at the end. No consumables other than fuel and tires were replenished, nor did it require any alignment work.

Looks like a race car, but it's largely stock under that livery.

Larry Chen Photo

Yet its performance was hardly slow and steady. The weather for the 100th Pikes Peak was atrocious, which realistically put the record out of reach. However, in terms of the pure 2022 competition, the inclement conditions undoubtedly swung the odds in both the driver's and the car's favor.

Using all his skill and years of accumulated knowledge, Donner put in an incredible performance. I can only assume that driving into that thick cloud must have been like running full pelt into dense white smoke and counting your paces in order to dodge the fire you know is in there. But even on the relatively well-sighted lower slopes the commitment and speed is spectacular, especially given the clearly slippery surface. And given the speed it's very easy to forget that the car is a production road car. For just this reason I love it when the film switches to the over-the-shoulder camera angle, as the view is of an almost entirely standard road car interior. The trim is all there on the dashboard along with the familiar central touch screen showing the tire pressure monitoring display. The everyday competition car.

The result for Donner and the Turbo S was a sensational second place. Not in class. Second place overall. They were only beaten by Robin Schute in his wild Unlimited class Wolf TSC-FS (which has Turbo S-rivaling 600 horsepower but weighs only a touch over 1,100 pounds). Obviously the Exhibition class win was Donner's as well, the Turbo S over half a minute clear of the second place Tesla Model 3.

In fact, even with the atrocious weather, Donner was a mere 16 seconds shy of the record he set out to beat. Next year, maybe. Perhaps with even less stress and more fun.