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The best finish line on the planet

The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is as beautiful as it is terrifying

Porsche

This is The Harper Spin, a weekly column from seasoned auto critic Jason H. Harper. He’s raced at Le Mans, crushed a car in a 50-ton tank, and now, he’s bringing his unique style to The Verge.

Never underestimate humanity’s drive to pursue idiotic endeavors. Like that first guy who thought that the best way down a snow-covered mountain was to strap sticks to his feet. Or the chap who wondered how many buses he could jump over on his motorcycle.

Then there are the mountain climbers, the special subset of humanity who see something very, very high and simply must ascend to that place — avalanches, altitude sickness, and deadly falls be damned.

I’m on the heels of exactly one such individual. Jeff Zwart is an irrepressible competitor who loves to conquer heights as quickly as he possibly can. I’m huffing and puffing directly behind him, my brain slowly starving for oxygen as I veer toward the edge of a cliff. I try (and fail) not to look over the abyss. This is asinine, but of course I’m loving it. Turns out I’m just as bad as any of the rest of them.

Zwart’s mountain of choice is Pikes Peak, a 14,115-foot crest outside of Colorado Springs. Rather than ascend by foot, Zwart prefers a Porsche racecar. Once a year, he and his fellow madmen get their chance, taking part in the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, a historic race in which they charge into the clouds using any wheeled conveyance they can think of.

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(Porsche)

This insanity has been going on since 1916. Ignoring a few gap years owing to the World Wars, this year’s race on June 26th will be the 100th anniversary. Other than Indianapolis 500, the Pikes Peak hill climb has been going on longer than any other motorsport race in America.

I’m not insane enough to actually race. Well, I might be that insane, but nobody has ever offered me a chance. But Porsche recently got the mountain closed for a scant 30 minutes in early June, and offered a few journalists a chance to drive up, at full speed, in the brand’s new Macan GTS crossover.

Other than the annual race week, getting to drive up unfettered is a rarity. Officials are loathe to close down the mountain, relying on toll-road fees of the nearly 5.9 million tourists who drive up, slowly, each summer. (You haven’t experienced hell until you’ve followed up an RV to the top of Pikes Peak.)

I’m following his line, trusting that he won’t lead me off a cliff

Zwart, 61, is our leader. He directs car commercials for a living, but in his off time he races. He’s run Pikes Peak 16 times, winning his class eight of them. Right now, I’m about three feet off Zwart’s rear end, chasing after the big rear wing on his older-model 911 GT2 sports car. A huge drop is just off to my left, notably lacking a guard rail, but I’ve got tunnel vision. I’m following his line, trusting that he won’t lead me off a cliff.

The Macan, Porsche’s smallest SUV / crossover, wouldn’t be my first choice. The GTS model, however, is brand-new. Every major model line, from the 911 to the Cayenne, has a GTS variant that’s priced and powered above the "S" models, but less expensive and potent that the Turbos. Porsche often positions them as the models geared toward customers who put performance first.

The Macan GTS starts at around $63,000, and gets 360 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque from the 3.0-liter twin-turbo V-6. Crucially, the all-wheel-drive system is tuned to act more like a rear-wheel-drive vehicle than other Macans. It’s also got a trick air suspension system, a lowered ride height, and better brakes. It’s more of an almost-sports car than any other crossover I’ve ever driven. (That’s a compliment.)

Amazingly, it’s doing a very good job of keeping up with Zwart and his 911. There are five other Macans behind me, each cleverly wrapped in historic racing stripes and livery. Clearly Zwart is taking it very easy on us. But since he’s a longtime racer, I know he’s comfortable with me riding only feet away from his bumper. I’m trying to stay as close as I possibly can.

On the straightaways, he pulls away easily, then allows us to catch back up. But on the very sharp switchbacks, my AWD with torque vectoring pulls through the tight corners in a way that his rear-wheel GT2 simply can’t. While he fights for traction, I can literally feel my front wheels engage and pull me through. It is brilliant.

I’m also impressed by the precision of the steering. I can position the car exactly where I want it, a necessity when I’m riding the very edge of the asphalt, with only a small berm of mounded dirt between the Porsche and oblivion.

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(Porsche)

I don’t always love turbo engines, but I’m appreciating them today. The turbo forces air into the engine, helping to counteract the power-stealing effects of high altitude. The race course actually begins at more than 9,300 feet, twisting its way up 156 turns to the tippy top. Naturally aspirated engines end up gasping for air — just like many of their drivers. While the Macan feels mostly full-powered at the start, it becomes ever less potent as I ascend. Still, impressively, it never becomes sluggish.

The future winners of Pikes Peak will all be driving electric cars, which don’t suffer any adverse effects of the altitude. In 1916, when the drivers wore leather helmets and the entire road was dirt, it took the winner almost 21 minutes to summit. Last year, the winning EV did it in just over nine.

No cars go off the road and into the void today

As the road gets ever steeper, we pass banks of snow and patches of ice — another reason to be thankful for the AWD. The line of Porsches is dancing up the road, and Zwart, sensing the finish line at the top, drops the hammer. Wow, he is fast. I’ve got the advantage of being right behind him so I unleash what is left of the Macan’s power. We reach the top, and I see the light in Zwart’s eyes. He’s alive up here. I understand the feeling.

No cars go off the road and into the void today. (Needless to say, there have been fatalities over the years.) I get out, breathing the thin air, and take in the view from the top of the world. This may be the best finish line on the planet.