He is the winner of the Heavyweight class at the 97th Pikes Peak International Hill Climb and the new overall record holder in the motorcycles division.
Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, or The Race to the Clouds as it is popularly known, is an annual Hill Climb race being held since 1916. It is a race to the summit of Pikes Peak in Colorado, USA. The track is 19.99 km long, from the start at Mile 7 on the Pikes Peak Highway, and features 156 bends and a huge elevation change, from 4,720 ft at the start to 14,110 ft at the end of the race. The Pikes Peak Hill Climb is a self-sanctioned event and is contested by various categories of vehicles ranging from cars and motorcycles to trucks and quads. These categories are further divided into classes.
Pertaining to motorcycles, there are 4 major classes; Pikes Peak Heavyweight which can have 2-stroke or 4-stroke motorcycles with not more than 4 cylinders, displacing 851cc to 1305cc, Pikes Peak Middleweight with 2-stroke or 4-stroke motorcycles with not more than 4 cylinders, displacing 501cc to 850cc, Pikes Peak Lightweight which sees 2-stroke or 4-stroke motorcycles with no more than 2 cylinders, displacing no more than 500cc and finally, the Exhibition Powersport class which can have vehicles not eligible for the other classes and is not recorded but the entrants can go for an overall course record.
We talked to our friend, Rennie Scaysbrook, who won the Heavyweight class of the recently concluded 97th Edition of Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. He rode an Aprilia Tuono V4 to victory at the historic event in addition to setting a new overall record. In the process, he also became the first Australian to do so. But this year’s race also saw the tragic death of Carlin Dunne, another Pikes Peak legend, in a crash close to the finish line.
Having worked together before, Rennie was gracious enough to take out some time to quench our questions regarding the Pikes Peak, his preparation, his race and the tragic crash that took the life of Carlin Dunne. Following is an excerpt from our conversation with him.
Rennie, the first thing that we want to ask you is if anybody back in Australia knows how fast you are on a motorcycle?
I am not really sure and to be honest, I am not that quick. It is just one of those things. Pikes just seems to suit my style. I have spent all these years road-testing motorcycles and probably going a bit faster than I should on the street. But I believe if I go to a normal racetrack, I’d probably get smoked. So, it’s just something about Pikes Peak that works for me.
Back in Australia, you cannot really go fast on the roads as many say that it is a nanny state. And yet, in America, you beat them at their own game in their own backyard. How did that happen?
Well, I have been trying long enough, that’s for sure. I moved to the US in 2015. My first race at Pikes Peak was in 2016 with KTM. So for the previous 3 years, I have raced on the KTM Superduke 1290 R. I nearly won it in my rookie year, 2016. Last year, against Carlin Dunne, I missed out by 0.692 of a second. It wasn’t something that I enjoyed a lot, being on the wrong end of that one.
This year, we did a new program with Aprilia and we ran in the Heavyweight class while Carlin raced in the Powersports Exhibition class. He did that on his very very fast… well, it’s basically a Panigale with handlebars on it, the Streetfighter Prototype. So our objective this year was to win the heavyweight class and not realty worry too much what Carlin was doing because he was going significantly quicker. And we managed to win the heavyweight class and even got the heavyweight class record, which was the overall record, at 9 minutes and 44.963 seconds.
It was really cool to get that record and we broke it by nearly 5 seconds but then obviously, the whole thing was overshadowed by the tragic death of Carlin Dunne. He was well on his way to annihilate my overall lap record though he wouldn’t have beaten the class record because he was racing in a different class. It was a real shame because he was a really lovely bloke so. Unfortunately, things like that can happen when you are racing on a mountain.
That’s true and it could have been anyone. A lot of people are saying that there was a bump on the road that should not have been there which caused Carlin’s crash. What do you think?
That’s rubbish. I mean he hit a bump for sure but he also hit 300 other bumps on the way up there and so did the other competitors. That particular section, the last 2 miles of the course, is by far the roughest of the whole course. People kind of forget that it’s road-racing. It’s a race unlike any other and then it’s a mountain race. As a result, you are racing on a frozen mountain and the mountain is always expanding and contracting. I have been there in years where bumps have formed throughout the race week and like proper-sized bumps.
Carlin definitely hit that bump, there’s no doubt about that. But he knew that the bump was coming, I did too. I hit the same one in practice. It is where two pieces of pavement join. Now, if you run over a bump when you are on the side of the tyre and under power, like when you’re on any big racetrack, it’s going to kick the bike sideways.
I hit that bump pretty much straight and it kicked me sideways a little. Carlin might have hit the bump when he was still cranked over and on the power which unfortunately caused the crash. I haven’t seen the footage and I don’t want to see the footage. But piecing it together in my mind, I can imagine that the bump kicked him, pitching him off and he went on the highside instead of a lowside.
If it was a lowside, nothing would have happened. He would have just rolled down the road and he would have been fine. But because he went on the highside and he was on the edge of the track, unfortunately, I think that’s what threw him off the edge. I have heard many stories and I don’t know what to believe in but I am hoping for Carlin’s sake that it was pretty much just lights out and he didn’t know anything about it.
That’s just unfortunate but we’ll let that rest now. So, do you know of any other Australian participated in Pikes Peak?
Yeah, there’s actually another guy, Peter Whitaker, and funnily enough, he wrote for Free Wheeling as well, as you and I have both done. But I think he was going purely there for a laugh as in he wasn’t there to try and win the thing or anything like that. I think there’s been a guy, an Australian, in the cars who’s won at least his class. But I know that there’s never been an outright winner for cars or bikes from Australia.
Can something like this be had back in Australia? And if it does, which mountain would you choose?
I would love to see it but it won’t happen. You cannot replicate Pikes Peak. People would love to replicate stuff like Pikes Peak and the Isle of Man but it just doesn’t happen. In fact, a few years ago, a guy visited me in the US and he wanted to start a road-race up the Oxley Highway in New South Wales. And I was like it’s a great idea but it’s never going to happen. You know as much as anybody how much of a nanny state Australia is. So, I personally would like to see something like that, I don’t think to start something like the Pikes Peak is a feasible thing.
Even for Pikes Peak, the only reason it’s still going is that it’s been going for so long. If you wanted to start one now people would think you are nuts. But if you wanted to start something, I would love to see smaller street races come back to Australia because they are not too difficult to put on. They’re something that a community can get behind. My dad put on the last street race in Australia in the Port Kembla TT back in 1996. Unfortunately, it fell down to a lot of red tapes and that kind of stuff which is a real bummer but there is definite merit for street racing in Australia. I mean we see it with the V8 supercars and the number of people that they bring in. And they run 50% of their races pretty much on the streets circuits.
Another thing is that I don’t know if the riders would go for it. I think there’d be enough riders to fill a grid, no doubt, but I don’t think you’re going to get the top class riders involved in that kind of stuff. So you see at the Isle of Man, you get someone like Peter Hickman, who runs at the front of the British Superbikes Championship. So, I can think of 10 towns right now that’d benefit enormously from running a street race in Australia. But unfortunately, it takes a bit of a leap of faith to get people to do it.
Building on that, do you think the Isle of Man will be different from Pikes Peak for you? Will you choose Isle of Man over it if given a chance?
I would love to race the Isle of Man but I believe it takes a serious amount of learning to be out there and be competent. I have no doubt that I have the skills to do it to the best of my ability. But you need to have a programme in place, you need to be training, you need to be riding a lot and you need to know the course. And also, they won’t let anybody just show up and race in the TT.
I have had a conversation with Paul Phillips, the organizer of the Isle of Man and he’s more than willing to have me on there and have me in a good team. But I need to have a proper platform in place to be able to learn the track and make sure I know where I am going. I would really like to do it because my dad has done it 3 times as a TT racer in the 70s and 80s.
But I’d only do it if I can do it well. I did the same thing with Pikes Peak. I can never go there and just ride around for fun. If I am out there, I am going to try and win. Certainly, I’d never been able to compete with guys like Michael Dunlop and David Johnson. Those guys are pro racers and on a whole another level. I am just a motorcycle journalist. Till then, I’d like to go over there even if I just went over there and drank a lot of their beer, that’d be fun too.
Why don’t you take a chance at ASBK?
It’s money, which is what it basically boils down to. For example, this programme for Pikes Peak, conservatively thinking, it would be around 50,000 to 60,000 USD to put it together. That’s including the bike as Aprilia Racing gave us the bike for nothing as they still own the bike. And then, they have everything that goes into racing from your travel to the race entry fee, testing and all of that. It just keeps going and going. So, I would love to do Australian Superbike but it’s a money thing. I have been very lucky with my job, getting to do this kind of stuff without costing me any money. And I don’t want to push my luck too much.
So if somebody wants to go to Pikes Peak, can they go as a privateer, unlike the Isle of Man?
Yes and no. You need to have a very solid racing background. You need to have good results in various championships. So basically, what happens is that you need to apply for a request for an invitation. I am not sure what their entry numbers are which decides how many people are going to be there but this year, it was about 26 0r maybe 27 riders.
I mean, if you’ve got the money, then sure you can do it. The classes range from Lightweight which is 450cc, like supermoto style bikes to Middleweight, like the KTM 790 Duke and Ducati Monster to the Heavyweight class like Aprilia Tuono and KTM 1290 Superduke R. And then even further the Powersports Exhibition class which Carlin had his bike in. So there’s a class for everything.
But regardless of the way you look at it, it is a very expensive exercise. You’re going through probably, I don’t know, 5 sets of tyres in a race week and then you have the accommodation, travel and everything. It all adds up.
Do you think, for some reason, V-twins and V4s have an advantage in this race?
That’s a good point actually. I believe that the V-twin is the right bike for this race. With the V4, we struggled a fair bit because of the lack of power caused by the electronics and the ECU, put in by Aprilia for safety measures. It took us a while to crack the code and make sure that the bike was good. In contrast, with the KTM, we just pumped gas into the thing and off we went. It had so much torque and such a good chassis that it was like the best thing for getting out of hairpin bends.
On the Aprilia, I really had to push a lot to try and stay throughout the mid-section to keep up with Codie Vahsholtz on the Multistrada. Carlin though was just untouchable. He was on a V4 obviously. And I believe that the V4s and inline-4s have quite similar characteristics in the sense that they make a lot of their power at the top end but the V4s have a bit more torque. You really need to keep them revved to make them go.
But there’s just something about that Multistrada. I don’t know what but there is something about it that just works for this track. Maybe it’s because it’s tall and rides the bumps really or maybe it has heaps of torque because of that motor. But it just seems to work, quite like the KTM. So yea, a V-twin is the way to go at Pikes.
Isn’t it time for Aprilia to come out with a Tuono Pikes Peak Edition, signed by you?
They do have one. They did a run of 25 Pikes Peak Editions here in the US. It’s a little silly to actually release the thing before the race and it looks nothing like the race bike that we had, which is a bit weird. Still, I am hoping they’ll give me one.
What’s your race number?
Normally, my race number is 33. But this year, I ran 34 because it was my dad’s racing number. I kind of wanted to give him a bit of a nod and say thank you for all that he has done for us. Actually, my grandfather’s number was 35, dad’s is 34 and I am 33. I would have put 33 on top but I said to dad that if I put 34, it puts one number on my race digit and hopefully, takes one off the finishing position. That’s kind of how it worked out.
Another question that we have is that Carlin won in 2013 on an electric bike, the Lightning. It’s been 6 years since then and yet no electric bike won or broke records this year. Why do you think that is?
It’s because of Carlin. Because he was that good a rider. He told me many times that he struggled on that bike. It was heavy, it had so much power and so much grunt but it was a struggle to make it go. Lightning was supposed to race this year but they couldn’t get the program together in time. They also have a new bike coming out, a shrunk-down version of the LS-218 called Strike. It is supposed to come to the US a little later this year but I don’t know about the rest of the world.
I believe that if you can get the bike right like really get it right, electric bikes are the way to go. You don’t lose power as the altitude increases. But at the moment, I believe conventional motors still hold an edge. When Carlin set that record, he was half a second from going into the 9s on an electric bike. The fastest this year was something like 10:25 something. Carlin just had something with this place.
Let’s talk about your motorcycle, the Tuono. We believe it was faired and we wonder, why not just go with an RSV4? Also, what other modifications were there on your bike?
When we first started this project, we wanted to win the Heavyweight class. And Heavyweight class is for bikes that, as per the rules, come with a one-piece handlebar as standard. So, even though we could have potentially run the RSV4, in the Powersports Exhibition class, it would mean that we will not in contention for the Heavyweight Class and the prize money that goes with it. So we decided that we were going to do it in the traditional style and within the rules. We knew that Ducati was doing Pikes Peak but they hadn’t actually entered the race by the time we had put down our names for the race.
So we decided to run with the Tuono and we had a few restrictions as a result because obviously the engine doesn’t rev as high and you don’t have as much adjustability in the chassis. You know the headstock, the swingarm pivot and that kind of stuff is not adjustable like it is on the RSV4. But, we actually ran the full fairing. It was more because we just needed space to put sponsors on the thing. Another problem that we faced is that we couldn’t find decent bodywork for the Tunono anywhere, not at this short notice. We could have cut the bodywork down the side but then we would have lost the mounting point for the bracket tree.
After we were done though, a lot of people asked me if it’s a Tuono or an RSV4. But anyway, the bike turned out to be pretty good. We actually ran RSV4 1100 Factory forks which were completely standard. We just re-valved them a little bit but had standard springs, standard oil highs, standard everything, which actually blew a lot of people away. There were guys on the grid there that had full-on World Superbike forks from Showa and Ohlins, I mean forks that would work more than my bike. And we just had a standard front end.
We had that and then we had a TTX 36 Ohlins rear shock. We ran a 0.90 spring in the back so quite a light spring. Normally, if you are running around a traditional racetrack, you’d be going upwards to like a 1 or 1.05. But for this one, because it’s so rough, you need to have a bit more compliance and so we ran a little bit more preload but a lighter spring. We had RSV4 1000 RF wheels, Akrapovic full-system exhaust, a different air filter and the Power Commander. The engine was pretty much stock. We also shortened the gearing significantly and actually ended up with 15/54 gearing which is like stunt riders’ gearing with a really big rear sprocket.
We had Attack Performance rearsets and a thumb-operated rear brake. We had different master cylinders, a Front Racing master cylinder. But the biggest thing out of all these was that we had Nikola Macardo over from Italy when we were facing problems with not getting the throttle response that we wanted. This was on the second day and we were getting pretty fed up. I was riding as hard as I could but the bike just wasn’t accelerating when I wanted it to.
The problem was that the throttle bodies were not opening at the right time. I wanted a 100% power and I would get 80% power. And then it would pass a certain threshold, past, say, 6-7-8000 rpm and it would come. But by that stage, you have lost half a second or a second and if you time that out it every hairpin corner you lose so much time. So Nikola was flown out of Noale and brought with him a Magnetti Marelli ECU which had a different throttle map and different engine braking map.
We plugged it in and boom, it unlocked everything. I open the throttle and I had the full power. After that, we just got faster and faster. The new engine braking map allowed me to brake harder in a straight line and that helped too. It was like from 12,000-12,500 rpm to 9,500-10,000 rpm, it was like a 2-stroke in the sense that there wasn’t much engine braking. But from 9,000 rpm to about 5,000 rpm, it went right up. In the corners, it felt like a ripe pulling you into the corner towards the apex. It took me a little while to get used to it but when I did, we knocked 5-seconds off our time.
And what about the tyres?
I have a good friend named Oscar Selice, who is the road-racing manager for Pirelli. He’s been with me for all my Pikes Peak races. And for this year, he had a few different things for us to try. And we ended up settling on the supersoft front and rear, SC Zero Pirelli Superbike Slicks. It was a bit of a gamble because I only rode two sessions with these tyres and it was quite cool in comparison to the race day temperature.
Getting used to the feeling, especially for the first 2-3 miles of the run, was a bit weird. The front was moving a lot and you had to really trust it to know that the grip is there. And the grip was there but you just have to sort of let it do its thing. These tyres provided a softer and kind of a malleable feel which I really liked. So the tyres were a huge gain for us. And we were running brand new tyres. We didn’t scrub them or anything and it was the first time ever in my life that I did not run scrubbed tyres. Guys from Pirelli were like you don’t need to do that, just put them on and asked me to go for it. I just thought alright and off we went. Within the first two corners, I had completely forgotten about scrubbed tyres!
How much fuel did you have in the tank since it’s just 20 kilometres?
So, I actually just uploaded the video of the run this morning. At about 3 quarters of the run, the fuel light comes on and I didn’t see that in the race. We put 16 litres, which is almost a full tank, of fuel in it and it ran out of it on the way down. But then we had changed a lot of things with the ECU and the fueling so it was kind of expected. It ran out of fuel about a mile back from the pits when I was on my way down and that’s considering that I barely touched the throttle. I just coasted my way down so I think it only just made it to the top during the run.
That was close. So, what do you think about starting from the top i.e. reversing the race direction?
Nope. No way. You’d be mad if you do that. There may be some nut-jobs who might say, “Yeah, this is great.” But not me, count me out.
What’s your strategy for the Pikes Peak or racing in general?
It usually depends on where I am but with Pikes, I knew where I was going. I have done the race 4 times now and I have played the Playstation game, Sebastian Loeb’s Rally Evo probably 6000 times. It came out in 2015 and it has been a substantial resource. It obviously doesn’t tell you about the elevation changes or the bumps, but it shows you where everything goes. And because of that, when I turned up at Pikes for the first time, I felt like it was familiar.
Plus the videos. I have got 4 videos of my runs and in 2017, I had the camera mounted on the chin-piece on my helmet. I wanted to make a really good resource for rookie riders or for anybody else who might need it. It’s probably the best one on YouTube at the moment. I watch it regularly and tells me exactly where everything goes.
The most important thing though is what Jeremy told me about my riding and his help in the areas which needed work. My biggest problem was that I spent too much time on the side of the tyre when getting on the acceleration. I wasn’t picking the thing up. I was riding it like a little bike, like a 250cc, where it’s all about corner speed. But on a superbike, you brake in a straight line (1), get the thing stopped, turn (2), pick it up and go using the chunky part of the tyre to put that power down (3). Spending too much time on the side of the tyre makes you lose time because the tyre patch goes down and you don’t have the same grip anymore. So, it was like 1, 2, and 3, 1, 2, and 3. That’s how I managed to link all the corners. And like I said, I knew where I was going.
Talking about the altitude, a lot of riders carry canned oxygen. Do you do that too?
Yes, I did. There’s this chemical-boost Oxygen that they supply in little, sort of, Oxygen cans. If you are super serious, you can get like a Scuba diving can or one like that of a mountaineer but for me, the most important part is to stay hydrated. For each run, I would come down, have a bottle of water and then go back up. This was a cycle. I would have that Oxygen can that I’d have a go at for a minute or two on the top and it works well. I also had Jeremy’s prescribed altitude tablets with me this year. Effectively, you don’t need the Oxygen can if you have those tablets but I kept those anyway. This time around, I did not feel any mountain sickness or anything but the first year I did Pikes, I got a pretty wild headache and some other things so you have to be mindful of that.
Are you going to race at Pikes Peak next year as well or are you going to give other people a chance too?
I am not sure yet. For, starters, it depends on what happens to the race. Unfortunately, with the happenings this year with Carlin and a couple of other riders crashing, there’s definitely going to be a meeting as to what happens to the race. I really hope it continues.
Aprilia has already asked me if I want to go again. I told them that I’ll consider it depending on whether we have the same team as this year. I have to have the same team at the very minimum. I am not going to go as a privateer. It’s just not worth it. Also, we need to have a better-prepared bike, which we will because now we know what more to do for next year. And more horsepower.
The other thing is that when I look at it, I feel like I do have the record now so maybe it’s an alright time to stop. But then the thing is like, the best rush of my life, going up there and it gets really addictive. Sort of like the Isle of Man. So yeah, I am just going to make that decision later but first, let’s see what the officials are going to do with the race.
Anything you’d like to add?
I have to say that we had an amazing team this year. It’s actually the first time I had a real racing team where I had a data guy, a chassis guy, a tyre guy, a crew chief and a couple of mechanics. It’s also the first time that the bike has been built around me. It was a real thrill. On quite a few occasions, it came to a point where I didn’t really know what to tell these people. The support that we had from Aprilia was outstanding. I mean if Nikola didn’t show up when he did, it’d have been really difficult to even win the thing. It is kind of like flying business-class. You cannot really go back…
Congratulations again, Rennie and yeah, do you plan to go back or has Australia lost you to the US forever?
I think we will probably end up back there at some point. I will have to go back to adventure riding when I go back there. My wife and I have a little boy, Harvey, who is just over 2-years-old now. He was born out here in the US and we’re thinking that we’ll probably have him go to school back in Australia. But we still have a couple of years till that happens.
The American lifestyle has been very good to me. And the industry has been just the best. I have got so many good friends here in the industry. Guys who really appreciate what you do and look out for you so that has been a really cool thing. And Cycle News is the best company I have worked for by a mile! So yeah, I have been really lucky in that regard but I think eventually, I am going to have to give the grandparents some free time with the kids so, we’ll end up back there eventually.
Here’s an onboard video of Rennie’s record-breaking run: