Driving anything up Pikes Peak is one of the single greatest challenges in all of the vast valleys and fields of motorsport. Le Mans winners, F1 world champions, Indy 500 winners, and WRC champions have all looked at the 14,115-foot mountain with the same kind of respect (read: fear) afforded to dangerous contests like the Isle of Man TT. Rivian engineer Gardner Nichols gazed at that same mountain that entranced the world's greatest drivers from a young age and decided he needed to conquer it at all costs. His weapon of choice: a 2022 Rivian R1T.
This past June, he finally did it. Not only did Nichols pilot the 7,130 lb truck up a mile of elevation to a production truck record at the 101st running of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, but it was also his personal pickup that he bought with his own money, his daily driver. It was the fulfillment of a dream he had growing up in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains—but it almost fell apart at the very last minute. The Drive was alongside Nichols and his Optima-sponsored crew as they miraculously pulled it off.
Feels Like Destiny
“I have a great, hand-picked group of guys,” Nichols said as we stood outside of Porsche Colorado Springs the day before qualifying of his first ever Pikes Peak Hill Climb. “We all know what to expect.”
Nichols has worked with Pikes Peak royalty, apprenticing with legend Paul Dallenbach for three years as a teenager and lending his hands to folks in the paddock ever since. He went on to become a full-fledged engineer, first working for Chrysler before moving onto Rivian in January 2021. Motorsports was always closest to his heart, though; he interned with BMW Motorsport North America on its Z4 GTLM project in college, then worked with BBI Autosport and Porsche on their Pikes Peak program in 2019. Each stripe on the livery of his truck represents each of these eras in his motorsport career.
Somehow, this June was his very first run up into the clouds. He has plenty of relevant experience, racing karts beginning at age 12 and spending his workdays pushing production vehicles to the limit as one of Rivian’s senior performance test engineers. When he isn’t testing, he’s often racing in amateur series to hone his skills. He might’ve been a rookie to the mountain, but he’s no slouch.
Preparing For The Run
I asked Nichols very simply: Why? What drives someone to take their perfectly good truck, modify it, and enter it in one of the most dangerous races in the world? “The whole thing is a passion project,” he replied. “And it’s really exciting to do it in a cool car, not just another off-the-shelf race car.”
Just bringing a car to Pikes Peak is no small feat, and having a team with experience that deep keeps Nichols in the running. Everything that goes into a timed run takes months of preparation, all for ten minutes of speed and a shot at glory. Testing, testing, and more testing tells the team what the truck may need to get to the top, and how to survive three days of practice in segmented runs. It isn’t until race day that anyone gets a full run up the mountain.
Going for a production record means that the actual modification that Nichols could do to his truck was extremely limited. He was forced to run the truck mostly stock, all the way down to wheels, brake discs, and suspension. All he could do was strip the interior down to the paint (which was a challenge with “a lot of electronics that we had to trick to keep happy,” Nichols said), install a racing seat, and add an extra-tough roll cage that could support the immense weight of the Rivian.
At the end of the day, the truck weighed 100 pounds more than it did from the factory. Nichols didn’t pull any tricks to lighten the truck. The electric tonneau cover is untouched, as is the onboard air compressor, the Meridian stereo, and the tool and medical kits hidden in the gear tunnel doors. When it came to extra performance modifications, the R1T is a set of Hawk brake pads, a pair of Optima 12-volt batteries, a set of Pirelli Trofeo R tires, and a livery designed by his wife away from being a factory truck.
With that, Nichols was forced to prioritize preparation for the run as opposed to outright research and development on parts. Obviously, his day job gives him a deep understanding of the R1T’s systems and their limitations—its stability control, suspension tuning, and torque vectoring algorithms were no mystery. His biggest concern was cooling the battery pack. His not-so-secret combination of vehicle settings for the run was sport throttle mapping, low ride height (but not lowest to allow for bump travel), and stability control turned off.
Conquering the Mountain
Beyond its obvious sheer-cliff danger, Pikes Peak is known for its highly variable weather. Within 30 minutes, there could be rain and hail that turns into beaming sunshine. In another 30, snow could fall at the top. And in another 30, strong winds can kick up and make downforce-based cars extremely unstable.
For Nichols, his first runs up practice sections of the mountain were blessed with excellent weather. He encountered his first issue after his practice runs, with the stock brake rotor cracking severely but thankfully not coming apart at a critical moment. His team had a spare rotor to swap and thus his weekend continued. But the need for temperature management was already rearing its head. Save for a rain delay on what was supposed to be qualifying day, Pikes Peak was unusually warm this year, with temps in the 70s and 80s at the start line.
Nichols and his team were running the truck as close as possible to 100% state of charge for maximum torque. While the Rivian could put out its full 835 horsepower in short bursts, Nichols knew managing the battery pack temperature was going to become an issue on the full run. What he didn’t know was how close he would have to cut it, because practice and qualifying runs only take place on a third of the full course. With his qualifying run netting him 50th on the race day run order, he would be running later when it was warmer.
Race day came in a blaze of sunshine with cloudless skies. It was a rare treat for all competitors to get a truly fair run at the mountain, especially after the absurd fog of 2022. It was nearly perfect, but it was 80 degrees. It would be a hot run to the top.
The effort behind Nichols’ run became clearer and clearer as his folks, teammates, and fellow competitors gathered around as the run order made its way towards number 50. While the brave drivers who brought their machines to the top had to stay there until everyone ran, the support teams remained at the bottom, throwing themselves at last-minute preparations. Most of all, they were there for each other. That camaraderie was striking.
There is a phenomenon that happens to every racing driver that is about to enter the car. A stillness—not a calm—comes over them. Some are wide-eyed, as if ingesting more information than normal. Others are steely and focused, almost gritting themselves against the task before them. In the hours before the run, Nichols was the latter.
When Nichols emerged from his camper, making sure to get as much rest as possible before his run, his helmet and race suit were already fully donned. An invisible beam of focus came from behind his open visor, and despite his team asking last minute questions while strapping him in for good, he stared an unbroken ten thousand yard stare.
Outside his helmet, the commotion around the Optima Batteries trailer reached a fever pitch. As he disembarked, a frantic crowd of his family, friends, and supporters followed the R1T right to the start line. In another blink, his Rivian dug hard into the tarmac and disappeared into the most fearsome hill climb a world over.
Right as his truck rounded the first corner, the crowd turned around and jogged back to one of the big screens in the paddock and started watching his run, cheering louder than anyone else that day when his Rivian appeared on screen. The commotion brought other people in, and the support became infectious.
In the Rivian, however, a different battle raged. Nichols was driving as hard as he could. But throughout his run to the clouds, the battery pack temperature of his truck steadily climbed. This was not unexpected, and he had a plan to manage the truck at the top section to make sure he could make it to the top. What was crucial was using just enough throttle to be quick, but not too much as to overheat the back and force it into a failsafe mode that reduces torque to zero, ending his run.
Nichols climbed ever higher until his real challenge came at the top section. Where the rest of the course is relatively flowing and easier on powertrains, the upper section has the tightest hairpins and thus the heaviest acceleration and braking of anywhere on the course. He exercised his self control and avoided full throttle for the final segment of his run. He crossed the line and into the record books—but only just.
His margin for complete thermal shutdown at the top? 0.2 of a degree. Nichols maximized everything humanly possible from his R1T, and he secured the inaugural production EV truck record. A mile below his triumph, the pits exploded into cheers. His wife hugged his teammates with tears in her eyes. Nichols did it with nothing to spare and climbed the mountain in a blistering 11:23.983.
A Dream Fulfilled
Going up the most famous mountain in motorsports is a privilege afforded to an extremely rare few. That crowd is one of the most dedicated, friendly, and humble I’ve ever seen during my time in motorsports. For all of them, Nichols included, little can ever come close to the allure, the challenge, and the triumph of successfully running Pikes Peak. As his fellow competitor James Clay, driver of the Bimmerworld twin-turbo V8-swapped E36, said to me shortly before his run “It will be the most significant thing I do in motorsports.” That feeling is deeply mutual amongst all who have done it.
For Nichols and his R1T, he isn’t sure of what’s in store for the future of his truck. At first, he wanted to remove the cage and reinstall the interior to use it as his everyday truck once again. Now, he couldn’t see it ever becoming anything else. It’s the truck he defeated the mountain in. To him, it’s highly significant.
Whether it will return as a production truck to Pikes Peak, possibly compete in time attack, or even get the modifications it deserves to become a full-fledged race truck is yet to be determined. When I asked him what was next, he paused for a moment and looked at his truck.
“Well, where do you want to see the Pikes Peak Rivian racing?”
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