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Safety trumps racing at Pikes Peak

The view from the finish line atop Pikes Peak has always been breathtaking. These days it is downright frightening.

Normally, a look to the northeast provides a stunning vista across Waldo Canyon and the Pike National Forest, toward the U.S. Air Force Academy. On a clear night you can see the glow of Denver, 68 miles away.

But right now the canyon below is on fire. It's been that way for a week. As of Thursday night, the flames had burned more than 18,000 acres, forcing the evacuation of more than 35,000 residents, and destroying nearly 350 homes in the Colorado Springs area.

"I know dozens of families who have lost their homes," Tom Osborne said. "It's just so, so terrible. Like something out of a horrible movie."

Osborne is president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Sports Corp. and chairman of the board of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. As he speaks, the pain in his voice is obvious. So is the exhaustion.

On Wednesday, Osborne made the decision that no race promoter ever wants to face: He and his staff postponed the Hill Climb, originally scheduled for July 8. On Tuesday it looked as though the situation would be contained enough to push ahead. But that night the fires were wind-whipped to nearly double their size from Monday, pushed to the mountain ridge overlooking the academy and lapping at the edge of the Colorado Springs city limits.

On Friday morning Osborne was working with city officials, fellow sports executives and local hotels to determine the best makeup date for the 90th running of the PPHIC, likely in August. An official announcement is expected next Tuesday.

The last time the race wasn't held on its announced date was 1942.

"In 96 years of this event, the only thing that had stopped it before this week was two world wars," Osborne said from his office in Colorado Springs, where he could see the column of smoke from the canyon fires. "We did everything we could to try and make this work, but postponing is the right thing to do."

"The Race to the Clouds" is one of America's greatest motorsports events, first run in 1916 with a field that included American auto racing pioneers Barney Oldfield and Eddie Rickenbacker. Its list of winners includes racing royalty, from Unser and Mears to Dallenbach and Andretti.

Ever since 22-year-old Rea Lentz won the inaugural event, racers have gone to Pikes Peak each summer from all over the world, tackling the 12.42-mile course that gobbles up 4,720 feet of elevation and snakes through more than 150 turns. They've run stock cars, sprint cars, motorcycles, pickup trucks, big rigs and the sports car/spaceship hybrids of the Unlimited Division. For nearly a century the course has been primarily dirt and gravel. This year it will be the first run totally on pavement.

Lentz completed the course in his Romano Special at just under 21 minutes. Last year Nobuhiro "Monster" Tajima earned his ninth Unlimited victory in a Suzuki SX4 with a time of 9:52.278.

Normally the spectators and competitors would be arriving this weekend, towing their campers and racing machines west toward Colorado's most famous mountain along State Highway 24, eager to prepare for the open of practice and qualifying on July 4.

But Highway 24 is currently clogged with a different sort of people and machinery. It has become the staging area for firefighting teams, the last line of defense to try and keep the fires contained to the east and in the canyon.

"If those flames somehow managed to jump that highway," Osborne said, "then it could set the entirety of Pikes Peak on fire."

Evacuation of the mountain in that very situation became the biggest concern as soon as Osborne and the PPHIC board held their first meetings on Sunday, the day after the fire began (as of Friday a cause had not been determined). Initially a four-phase plan was put in place that would scale back the size of the event, from canceling overnight camping to limiting ticket sales to holding the race without any spectators at all. The idea being that there would be fewer people to evacuate in a worst-case scenario.

All of these meetings happened with the involvement of local law and fire enforcement. The event relies heavily on assistance from those departments, but all have been involved in the Waldo Canyon and Colorado Springs firefighting and evacuation efforts -- the people lined up on Highway 24.

Osborne said that they all expressed their love for the event and tried to reason their way around postponing it. "But when I saw the sleepless expressions on their faces, the decision was obvious. They knew it, too."

The Hill Climb team quickly spread word of the decision to fans and competitors via social media and its website. Competitors traveling long distances were called immediately. Tajima's team received word as they were boarding their flight from Japan. They stepped away from the gate and the racer posted a statement to Facebook:

"To all my fans and friends in Colorado Springs ... I am devastated to hear the news about the fires, I hope that you all stay safe and well and I will pray that your homes and belongings avoid the disaster. The hillclimb has been postponed for now but when it is rescheduled, I will be back and hope to see you all then!"

"When this is all over, there will be a lot of work to do and a lot of healing that needs to be done in this community," added Osborne. "Hopefully the return of the Pikes Peak Hill Climb later this year will be a part of that. A sign that life in Colorado Springs is returning back to normal."