He might look like a friendly old Japanese grandpa with a crazy giggle, but Nobuhiro "Monster" Tajima is the undisputed king of the mountain that matters: Pike's Peak in Colorado. For the last six years, Monster has dominated one of the world's most spectacular and death-defying hill climb races in a series of ever-crazier souped-up Suzuki race cars. This year, it seems he's found one more mountain to climb: the 62 year-old has announced he'll be taking a fully electric race car to Pike's Peak in 2012. Could this be the year that a battery car beats the petrol brigade?
Like most people, I imagine, I'd never heard of Pike's Peak until I saw Climb Dance – a stunning five-minute film produced by Peugeot in 1990. This piece of extreme sports film history showed Finnish rally driver Ari Vatanen, furiously flogging a high-powered rally car up a treacherous unpaved mountain road. Vatanen hangs the back end of his Peugeot out over a fatal drop several times in the video, and at times has to take one hand of his wildly spinning steering wheel to shield his eyes from the sun. Compelling stuff. Watch it if you haven't!
In the 22 years since Vatanen's immortal dance up the mountain, the course has changed a bit. A lot of the road has been paved, and armco railings have gone up to put at least a little bit of a safeguard between drivers and the gaping chasms at the outside edge of each hairpin corner. By September this year, the Pike's Peak highway, as it's known when it's a public road, will be completely paved from top to bottom – to the enormous dismay of rally racing fans.
Of course, the fact that there's now traction available means that the hill climb races have simply gone from terrifying speeds back in 1990 to truly hideous ones today. When Monster Tajima set the unlimited class record of 9 minutes, 51.3 seconds last year, it was almost a minute faster than Vatanen's winning time in 1988, and the first time anyone had broken the ten-minute mark.
You can see Tajima's record-breaking, and yet somehow safer-looking 2011 run, captured from start to finish on a platoon of GoPro HD mini-cameras, on YouTube as well.
Tajima, Chairman and CEO of Suzuki Sport (a tuning and race parts company now known as Monster Sport), had his first win at Pike's Peak way back in 1993, and has been absolutely dominant at the mountain since 2006, winning the unlimited category every year. And now, it seems he's looking for an extra challenge.
This year, Monster is working with Team APEV (Association for the Promotion of Electric Vehicles) to tackle the Peak in his first all-electric race car, and in doing so help stamp electrics on the map as true performance contenders.
This isn't the first electric racer to compete at Pike's Peak – the first electrics wheezed their way to the top in 1981, when Joe Ball piloted a Sears Electric to the top in a fairly underwhelming 32 minutes, and they've been making sporadic appearances ever since.
They've been getting a lot faster, however. By 2011, when Ikuo Hanawa won the Electric class, his time of 12:20.1 would have won him the open class race in 1981. This time was a full minute faster than his 2010 pace, showing how quickly the electric segment is developing.
In some ways, a race like Pike's Peak is an ideal opportunity for electric race cars. It's a fairly short sprint – just under 20 km, or 12.42 miles. As the cars climb towards the peak, 14,000 feet (4,267 meters) above sea level, the air thins out, making it a challenge for gas burners to feed enough oxygen to their raging, 900-plus horsepower engines. Electrics, of course, function just fine under these circumstances ... and of course, at the end of the race, you don't need to drive home. So, the range problems that plague consumer electric cars don't come into play.
In theory, driving an electric should be easier and smoother too. For a relatively low-speed race like Pike's Peak, where the cars rarely have room to break 100 mph (161 km/h) and it's all about low-down torque, the single-gear electrics can deliver big power down low without the interruption of gear changes.
Monster Tajima's team had best get a move on – the race is just a few months away, on July 8. But it will be an amazing thing to see if the king of the mountain can keep his title, and hold the petrol burners at bay in a battery car. On last year's form they're over two minutes off the pace … Has Tajima got a trick or two up his sleeve, or is he putting himself out to pasture?
Either way, the electric field is sure to be strong this year, with Toyota bringing across the TMG EV P001 – the car that just set an electric record of 7:47 around the Nordschliefe circuit at Germany's Nürburgring.
You have to wonder how long it'll be before high-powered electrics push combustion cars off the podium altogether – and whether old Monster will still be grinning madly from behind the wheel when they do. We wish Tajima and the APEV team all the best!