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Japanese 'Monster' tackles Pikes Peak

The annual Pikes Peak Hill Climb will be held Sunday and Japan's Nobuhiro Tajima intends to win it again.

By Wheels Wheels.ca

Jun 24, 2011 4 min. read

Article was updated 11 years ago

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In 1950, a Monster was born in Japan, but no one would know that for more than 20 years.

Arriving on June 28, 1950, Nobuhiro Tajima grew up in Komatsu City, Japan. At the time, the region was rife with twisting gravel roads.

Tajima, who started driving in 1965 when he was 15, loved to tackle those twisty roads, often going as quickly as possible.

It was about the same time that Tajima saw a picture of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, which started in 1916 and will be held for the 89th time on Sunday.

“I was amazed by the photo and I said, 'I have to do this,' ” he said. “I grew up in the countryside and so I learned how to drive sideways on gravel and snow.”

Tajima started rallying in 1968, first entering a local regional event.

“It was not sanctioned by anybody and it was very grassroots style. I had no competition and finished first,” said Tajima.

“I did a proper rally when I was 20. It was the All-Japan Rally Championship. I rolled on the very first corner of the stage. I was too excited to see so many spectators and photographers.”

Tajima's enthusiasm for flat-out driving kept him actively involved in rallying, and caused a few crashes along the way.

At some point in the 1970s, an Australian newspaper reported that a “Monster” had arrived in the country to race, which was perhaps a reflection of how his sideways style was counter to the typical calm and smooth approach of other Japanese drivers.

The nickname stuck.

In 1981, Tajima made his World Rally Championship debut in a Datsun at the Lombard RAC Rally in the U.K.

He never made it to the finish and it would be five years before he returned to the WRC.

In 1983, Tajima founded Monster Sport, a rally preparation shop that catered to Japanese cars. Three years later, the shop formalized its relationship with Suzuki, becoming Suzuki Sport, a tuning division for the brand.

It was in 1988 that Tajima first competed at Pikes Peak, in Colorado. The dream spawned by a photograph 20 years before had finally come to fruition.

“I was in a Mazda 323 GTX and finished 3rd in class, showroom stock,” said Tajima. “Since then, I have competed at Pikes Peak perhaps 25 times.”

In 2007, Tajima set the Unlimited class record at Pikes Peak, completing the 19.98 km course in 10 minutes, 01.408 seconds, the fastest time in any class. It was Tajima's second win on the mountain, and he has won every year since then.

“This hill climb is the greatest in the world,” said the 60-year-old driver. “Weather, altitude and the surface is so difficult. Knowledge is so important. I am a five-time champion, but I must always think of next year.”

Pikes Peak is also known as the Climb to the Clouds. Starting at 2,862 metres (9,390 feet) above sea level, the 156 turns of the course snake up the mountain to a peak of 4,300 metres (14,110 feet). There are no guardrails, and half of the course is gravel.

Tajima breathes using an oxygen tank to keep his mind and reflexes sharp.

Breaking the 10-minute mark and his own record this year — if he succeeds — will be especially rewarding because, by the 2012 running, the remaining portion of the course will be paved.

“My background is gravel, ice and snow,” sighed Tajima.

“I can do tarmac, but I like gravel. For next year, I will have to build a brand new car. Our car is the best on gravel, but it will be no good for tarmac.”

Tajima's smile disappears for a split second as he considers these changes.

“It is a good question, but Pikes Peak is big fun.”

The smile returns even larger than before.

Tajima has many loyal fans in Colorado and as he walks through the paddock a week before the hill climb, he can only go a few metres before another person reaches out to express their admiration.

Tajima smiles, his eyes flashing as he talks with his fans. Though more than 40 years have passed since he first saw the photo of a car racing up Pikes Peak, he is still very much the same enthusiastic kid in awe of the mountain.

“Never retire, be like me,” said Tajima.

Watching him, one wonders if he means, “Never grow up.”

Pikes Peak

Hill Climb

RACE DAY: Sun., June 26, 2011

COURSE LENGTH: 19.98 km

START ELEVATION: 2,862m

FINISH ELEVATION: 4,300m

CURRENT RECORD: 10:01.408 – Nobuhiro “Monster” Tajima

FIRST RACE: April, 1916

COMPETITORS IN THE UNLIMITED CLASS: Nobuhiro Tajima, Jean Philippe Dayraut, Rhys Millen, Paul Dallenbach, Dave Carapetyan.
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