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SPORTS WEEKEND

Millen Is Hoping for a Peak Performance

Rally racing: Rebuilt truck is relatively untested, but it holds key to breaking 10-minute barrier Sunday at Pikes Peak.

July 02, 1999|MARTIN HENDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rod Millen's rally racing career has taken him around the world, but his Holy Grail sits at the top of it.

Pikes Peak in Colorado presents a 156-turn demon, a 12.42-mile stretch of road that has a starting line 9,390 feet above sea level and a finish line nearly a mile higher.

Millen's quest to break the elusive 10-minute barrier continues Sunday with the 77th Pikes Peak International Hill Climb in Manitou Springs, Colo.

In the past, Millen felt the 10-minute mark could fall under perfect racing conditions. This year, he has needed luck. Lots of it.

The crew at Millen's Huntington Beach shop has been under duress the last two months.

While Millen was testing at Willow Springs, lapping speeds at 140 mph, the turbo-charged Toyota Tacoma specially designed to take down the 10-minute barrier caught fire. Millen suffered second-degree burns on his hands, but the truck got it worse.

The fire burned the carbon fiber upper body, the under wings, burned through the rear wings, melted some of the suspension parts, all the wiring harnesses and the data acquisition sensors.

In short, all the custom-made things designed to make it go extremely fast were destroyed.

"Very time-consuming," Millen said, "and very expensive."

Without a backup truck, Millen opted to rebuild with fiberglass, which is heavier than carbon fiber.

Millen wanted to test the rebuilt truck last week, but it never got out of the shop. A transmission problem scuttled the test session.

In total, the fire cost Millen six days of testing. He arrived in Colorado on Monday with a truck that's a complete stranger.

"There's a lot of potential for sliding off the road," Millen said. "It's extremely important to be confident in your machine, and that comes from testing. The seat time a driver needs to drive committed, we haven't had that. I'm not as confident as I would have been if we'd have had the planned testing."

But it might be OK. Millen said Wednesday, after two tests on the mountain, that he thinks he and the truck will be dialed in on race day.

"I've had a good two mornings on the course that have been, at times, a little hair-raising, but already it's getting better," Millen said. "In some cases, I think you create your own luck."

This is one of those times. His crew is up at 3 a.m. to go testing, and still in the garage at 10 p.m. preparing for the next morning.

Before the fire, the Tacoma was 10% lighter and 10% more powerful than the Toyota Celica that Millen used to set the hill climb record--10 minutes 4.06 seconds--in 1994. A seven-time champion, Millen has lowered practice session times by as much as 15 seconds off the record pace through different stages of the course on several occasions. "But on race days, the road's been trash," Millen said.

"If the [loose dirt and gravel] road is in good condition, there's a chance we could go under that record a good 10 seconds, but you have to be able to drive the car the way it has to be driven."

And, as Millen knows, there are no guard rails, no easy answers for mistakes. The weather can change from sunshine to rain to snow from one bend to the next while trying to reach the finish line 14,110 feet above sea level.

Though Pikes Peak has monopolized Millen's time, the hill climb isn't his only race this week. Millen, 48, a Newport Beach resident, competed Sunday in the Championship Off-Road Racing series in Crandon, Wis. It represents a return to off-road racing for Millen, who last raced in an off-road series in 1994.

Millen initiated discussions to debut Toyota's newly-released Tundra, the company's first full-sized truck.

Millen didn't finish any of three weekend races. "It ran within a second of the leaders, and we're impressed with its potential performance," he said. "But it's not even developed yet. Initially, we're encouraged. We had maybe 15 minutes of testing time in it before we began racing."

Which is 15 minutes more than Millen had before arriving in Colorado on his 10-minute quest.

"Pikes Peak is a classic event, and it's unique," Millen said. "It challenges you in many different ways. This year, it will challenge us a little differently."

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