10 Questions: Carlin Dunne, 2013 Pikes Peak Champion

He’s the fastest motorcyclist up Pikes Peak, three years in row.

Carlin Dunne headshot

By now, most motorsports fans know that Sebastien Loeb, the nine-time World Rally champion from France, absolutely dominated this year's Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, setting a new course record of 8 minutes, 13.878 seconds in his 875-hp Peugeot 208 T16. But what happened with the motorcycles? Well, for the last three years, Carlin Dunne of Santa Barbara, California, has been the fastest motorcycle racer up Pikes Peak. In 2012, the first year the 12.4-mile, 156-turn hill climb course was fully paved, Dunne raced a Ducati Multistrada to the crest of the 14,110-foot Colorado Rocky in 9 minutes, 52.819 seconds, breaking the 10-minute barrier and setting a motorcycle record that still stands. And this year, on a Lightning Electric Superbike (a 500-pound bike with a monocoque chassis, lithium-ion composite batteries and a 200-horsepower electric motor that has "twice the torque of a Suzuki GSX-R 1000"), Dunne was again the fastest motorcycle up the mountain, winning the Exhibition Powersports class with a time of 10 minutes, 0.694 seconds. A few days after the event, I chatted with Dunne by phone from his Ducati dealership in Santa Barbara.

How’d it go this year?

“All things considered, really well. A big storm came in Friday evening and it rained heavily all night. And Saturday, the same type of storm really hammered the mountain. So on Sunday, the course was really green. We had qualified on a really bed-in course. But Sunday was completely different. A good amount of the motorcycle field crashed out. Micky Dymond went first and he crashed, which was pretty shocking because he’s so good there. We were happy he was okay. Riders were dropping out left and right, and there were rumors around the pits that there was fluid on the course.

“After we whipped the tire warmers off and rolled up to the start line, I asked one of the race directors if the course had been cleaned. He didn’t know! That’s not exactly what you want to hear before making what could potentially be a record run up Pikes Peak! So I kind of reverted to my Baja style of riding and got ready for anything to happen at any time. Pin it, but keep something in the tank just in case you need to make an evasive maneuver.

“Then, it was go time. I took a few deep breaths and let it rip. I was smooth, but noticed out of the gate that my bike was really loose. Sometimes, tires will come in and make the bike a little more stable, but I couldn’t lay the power down like I had throughout the entire week of practice. About seven turns in, I got the bike pretty out of shape. The track was just too green. Right then, I came to the conclusion that we didn’t have the traction we needed to beat our record run from last year.”

Carlin Dunne Pikes Peak race action shot

How did you find the first section of the course?

“It’s really fast and flowing, great for the Lightning. But the back was fishtailing. The thing was just loose, loose, loose. The rear end wanted to come around a couple of times. I remember how fast I went last year, and knew how fast I’d need to be to beat the 9:52 record we had set last year. In my gut, I felt that if, hey, I’m going to push that hard, I might not make it to the top. So I rolled it back just a little bit. I focused on working that fine line, trying to keep traction. And I stopped trying to go so hot into the turns. I just focused more on getting my drive out. Getting that good run out helps us at the end of each straightaway. You can think of the race as a bunch of small drag races. Getting out of the hole is a big thing.”

How about the rest of the race?

“All in all, fairly mellow. I did have to avoid a spectator at one point, which was unnerving, but once we figured out the pace, and what the mountain was going to give us, we just tried to keep it on two wheels and take it to the top. We made it up in a time of around 10 flat. Even though deep down I know that’s all we could do, in hindsight, I realize that I could have braked a little bit later here or a little later there.”

You were the fastest motorcycle up the mountain this year, but you technically didn’t win a motorcycle class. Please explain.

“That’s the catch. We had to run in the Exhibition Powersports class, which is for vehicles that don’t necessarily fit into a certain class. Our Lightning didn’t have an electric-bike class yet. So, it was a bit of a drag.”

Do you view yourself as the winner of the motorcycle class this year?

“Yes, sure. I had two wheels, everyone else had two wheels. We set the fastest time, so I hope so. Basically, that’s the way everyone looks at it. The details are details, but at the end of the day, we were the fastest motorcycle there.”

Why switch to an electric bike?

“On paper, an electric motorcycle makes sense up at Pikes Peak because the altitude and the amount of torque you need to get out of the hole. You’re not losing any power because of the altitude. So, on paper, it seemed like a great idea, and I liked the new challenge. It seemed like a good opportunity. Electric bikes, are they going to beat a normal internal combustion bike head to head? Probably not right now, but they’re getting close. All of the sudden, they are a viable option. And inevitably, we’re going to have to have something like it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been black-flagged at Laguna Seca because I’ve set off a noise meter. We can’t even ride our favorite tracks because of noise restrictions, and fuel is going to get more expensive. Don’t get me wrong; I’m a gearhead through and through, a petrolhead to the core, but I do realize that we have to have an alternative.

Carlin Dunne race action from Pikes Peak

What’s it like to ride the Lightning?

“When I first rode the Lightning, it was tough. I got on it and felt odd, a little confused. Everything you’ve been wired to know about a motorcycle doesn’t really apply. You lose a major sense: sound. At racetracks, you know in your head that you can go through a particular turn in fourth gear at half throttle. Or this is a fourth-gear, wide-open section. You can only go so fast in a certain gear and you listen to the bike, to the revs. If you ride a bike long enough, you can tell where you’re at in the rpm range just based on the sound. We do it so much, we don’t even think about it. That’s just who we are.

“Now, take that all away, and you’re left high and dry on that first ride on an electric bike. You overcook it into turns, and you don’t know how fast you’re going. It’s really tough. I’d be lying if I said my first ride on the bike wasn’t a confusing, frustrating one. So, I sat there and looked at the bike, and came to the conclusion that I’m going to have to forget everything and try to go fast a different way. I started slow. I started going a little bit faster. I put earplugs in to make it even quieter. I worked my way up to speed, and all of the sudden, it started to click. I felt really calm. You’re just riding. And the more I ride the bike, the more I like it.”

How did the Lightning compare to the Multistrada you rode to victory last year?

"It's just different. You could get the Multistrada really loose and be able to pull it off. You could get the back end trying to pass the front end and get out of the situation. It was a very friendly bike with very usable power. It's a fun bike to ride. I love the Multistrada. It's a great bike.

“The Lightning is a little bit more of a track bike. More of a scalpel. It needed to be respected and treated properly to go fast. But if you’re doing that, it would go. If you got it up on the meat and were really smooth on the ‘throttle,’ it comes out of the hole like nothing else. It has incredible torque. You can get out of the hole faster than any other bike out there.”

Did you have to stay on top of the mountain all day and sit through the rain, hail and snow?

“All day. You can only drink so much coffee and eat so many doughnuts from the snack shack up top. It started hailing, snowing and raining. It was as extreme as it gets up on Pikes Peak. because there was a certain amount of pressure from Sebastien Loeb’s team to get him up before the weather came in.”

So, you got to hang with Loeb, a nine-time World Rally champion, for the day?

“Yeah. It was cool. The great thing about Pikes Peak is that there is mutual respect among everyone there. Everyone knows that they’re getting into something that needs to be taken seriously. It’s similar to Baja, and that’s why I dig it. It doesn’t matter if you’re the guy riding out of your van with a clapped-out 450, or you’re a guy like Loeb whose team has dropped millions and millions of dollars. You’re all doing the same thing. You’re all racing the same mountain. And you’re all doing it because you love to do it. There’s not a ton of glitz or a ton of glamor. It’s a labor of love. But there is that mutual respect. So, when you’re sitting there at the top at the little doughnut shop up top, we can all sit there together. Superstar and wannabe.”

View images in photo gallery:

Carlin Dunne conversing with team

Nancie Brown

Carlin Dunne

Nancie Brown

Carlin Dunne race ready

Nancie Brown

Carlin Dunne Pikes Peak race action shot #1

Jeff Allen

Carlin Dunne Pikes Peak race action shot #2

Jeff Allen

Carlin Dunne Pikes Peak race action shot #3

Jeff Allen