Rhys Millen breaks his own world record at the Pikes Peak hillclimb

In July, Drifting World Champion Rhys Millen drove his Hyundai Genesis the 17 hours from Colorado back to California after shaving nearly two seconds off his record at America’s second-oldest motorsport event – the Pikes Peak Hillclimb. We caught up with Rhys as he recovered before his Formula Drift duties resumed at the Evergreen Speedway in Washington State on August 7.

What brings you back to Pikes Peak?

“It’s such a great challenge. The road conditions change daily, and even on race day they continue to change.

“It’s not like a standard race where you do a certain amount of laps and you can feel the conditions change, and you can’t predict that a corner is going to be grippier because 30 cars have gone over it. So, the challenge is not only doing your homework but also choosing exactly the right recipe on the day. You have to be constantly adapting on the fly.

“And to come away having run close to two seconds faster is a huge achievement.”

Is it the most dangerous race you’ve ever done?
“The Baja 1000 is very challenging and can be very dangerous, but I think it has to be the sprint format of Pikes Peak. Every 10th of a second counts and you’re not trying to make your equipment last 1,000 miles or more, so you can’t spare braking too short or lifting through a corner.

“So, I’d have to place Pikes Peak as the most dangerous race I do. If you make a mistake, the consequences can be high. For the last three years, the race has been red-flagged while the emergency helicopter lifts people off the hill. In the motorcycle and car categories, they’ve had injuries where people have been pushing too hard and gone right off the edge.”

Do those risks bother you?
“There are a few corners that you definitely need to respect. If you don’t respect them, they will bite you. But one of the key things we do is to take advantage of every option given to us, even to the point of running oxygen in the car. I have a nasal breather that’s connected to a bottle of oxygen that we use all the way up the hill. I think there’s only one or two other teams that do that. I’m not too manly to admit that oxygen’s going to help me. It’s going to keep me focused and alert. The startline is at 10,000ft [3,048m] and the finish is at 14,000ft [4,267m], so you know it pays in the end result.”

So, is there no substitute for experience here?
“[Pikes Peak debutant] Marcus Gronholm leaves absolutely nothing on the table in terms of talent and he’s won two WRC world championships – but as a team you have to have prior experience on the hill to really absorb what it throws at you and how challenging it is.”

Who was your biggest challenger?
“We didn’t have many challengers in our class, so it was ourselves and the time we set last year. This year, we had a car that is only four months old, and in that four months it has already competed in four races. So we were trying to break our own record and in a bigger, heavier car with a longer wheelbase, so we spent a lot of time making it handle better and making it more efficient in terms of gear selection and tyre choices.”

You have a background in engineering. Would you say that gives you an edge over other racing drivers?

“Well, I do have a small background in engineering, but my background is mostly in fabrication and machining. I work alongside my team in the initial design and set-up of the vehicle, and then, with my crew chief, we do the spring rates, shock settings and camber settings as we develop the car. So, it’s down to the team.”

How much work have you done to the car?
“It’s by far the most modified version of the Hyundai Genesis in the world, and we’ve done everything in-house. We’re the first to develop internal performance parts for the engine and develop the engine to close to 600bhp using the 3.8-litre V6, and we also do all the carbon fibre bodywork and aerodynamics in-house as well.”

What’s it like coming from a family full of racing drivers?

“We have a very good-humoured rivalry. If I’m with my younger brother [Ryan] or my father [Rod], there’s always some level of competition. If we’re leaving a restaurant, we always want to be the first one home.”

Who is your hero?
“I’ve always looked up to my father for his ability. I’ve always wanted to beat his times – not just because he’s my own father, but because it just so happens that the person I want to challenge the most in terms of ability happens to be him.”

Will we see you ever trying to flip a truck again? [Rhys narrowly failed to land a successful backflip in a truck at Red Bull: New Year. No Limits last New Year’s Eve, having broken his back in an earlier attempt in 2007.]

“There are so many details involved in getting that right, but I think we got as close as we could. I mean, sure, one more change and I know we could get it right, at least I got it to land on its wheels, so it worked out better than it did the previous year.”


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