Jeff Zwart isn't really sure but says he's probably covered around 1400 competitive miles at Pikes Peak since his first race outing there in 1989. Given that the course is 12.42 miles, that's a lot of trips up the world's most famous hillclimb.
A businessman working in television media, Zwart got into Pikes Peak through work, albeit indirectly. “We did a lot of TV commercials for car companies, and one of the stunt drivers we used was Rod Millen. Me and Rod used to have a lot of fun together on jobs, just screwing around with rental cars and so on; then at one point in the late 1980s, he said to me, ‘You know, you're pretty good at this. You should give it a go properly.'
When that advice comes from someone who turns out to be a multiple Pikes Peak winner, you tend to take the compliment and heed the advice. In that first year, '89, Zwart drove a Mazda 323 and picked up the Rookie of the Year award.
But the marque that runs through his veins is Porsche, which is probably also why he's a Nurburgring Nordschleife fanatic. (Maybe it's no coincidence that the Nordschleife is surprisingly similar to Pikes Peak both in length and in terms of possessing a daunting character.) Zwart's first Porsche-powered Pikes Peak attempt came in 1994, with a Carrera 4 that was made from factory Paris-Dakar running gear and a single-turbo IMSA motor (RIGHT), and he's never campaigned another brand there since. However, although this is his 15th participation in the Race to the Clouds, he rarely drives the same car in consecutive years. The 2013 car, a one-off turbocharged Porsche 997 Carrera Cup, will be his 10th different Pikes Peak Porsche. At home, he's got a model of each one.Over the years, Zwart's picked up seven wins in three different classes: Open, Showroom and Time Attack – the latter in 2010, with a Carrera Cup race car that forms the basis of this year's machine.
“We were the first people to come to Pikes Peak with a stock racecar,” he says, “and I knew it was going to be good because I could see the way the event was heading, with more and more asphalt. This was the sort of car we could develop for the future. We broke the Time Attack record by about 20 seconds and finished something like fifth overall.”
Zwart – the most amiable, down-to-earth guy you could hope to meet – nonetheless has this philosophy of always driving the latest and best equipment that Porsche has to offer, in order to tell a different story each time.
In 2011 he took the ultimate road-going Porsche up the hill: the newly launched rear-wheel drive GT2 RS road racer (LEFT), having driven it 1,186 miles to Colorado all the way from Santa Ana, Calif. He stuck some competition numbers on the door and went on to set the Production Car record. Apart from the slick tires, it was a completely standard road car.
Zwart had to miss last year's race due to work commitments, but this year he's back with another new car. He considers the last two cars to have been the best Porsches he's ever driven.
“I didn't drive the Carrera Cup car: I wore it,” he enthuses. “As for the GT2 RS, I've never felt an engine pull so much even at high altitude.”
So it made sense to combine the two. This year's challenger is the Carrera Cup car with the 600hp-plus of the GT2 RS. He describes it as the most awesome, well-balanced car he's ever driven, but it isn't a factory effort: it's a self-built special, in the finest Pikes Peak tradition. This time though he's in for a very different experience because for the first time he'll find a Pikes Peak course that is entirely on asphalt. Does that bother him? Does it hell.
“In terms of where the road goes, I know most of it now: it doesn't make that much difference to me,” says Zwart. “But what the asphalt has done is make it a lot quicker. The braking zones are wild now! One of the things about Pikes Peak in the past, when it was on gravel, is that you always had to look for the cleanest line on the course. As more competitors drove the track, the gravel moved a lot. Now that it's asphalt, you can focus on pure performance. The track is a lot more consistent.”
And that's also what makes it quicker. It's ironic how many people believe that the course is a lot safer now that it's all on asphalt. A car sliding on gravel is already beyond the limit of adhesion, so everything happens more gradually. A car on asphalt either grips or it doesn't. Finding that point (and not going beyond it) is where the challenge really lies. But for the devotees, it's an addiction. That's why people like Zwart keep coming back.
“You get one run,” he says. “There's no warm-up, no pit stops, no second chances. I love the pressure. It's just such an amazing feeling. It might only be 12 miles but once you're at the top, you're panting and you feel you've done everything that you'd have done in a much longer race. It's hard to describe.”
He may be panting, but Jeff doesn't use oxygen: he's lived at 9,000 feet for much of his life so it doesn't bother him. He doesn't much like electronics on cars either: traction control, boost control: you name it; he'd rather do without it. Basically, he's just a pure racer. And that's exactly the sort of person you find at Pikes Peak, where old tech often meets high tech. It's real racing – uncut.