Image of a red racecar taking a corner

Family legacies and a race to the clouds

Welcome to the ninth edition of Scenic Route: Voices – a series spotlighting the stories of drivers and enthusiasts from all walks of life. This month, we’re looking at an abridged version of Joshua Paul and David Gray’s incredible story of racing driver and heir to the Unser dynasty, Loni Unser, and her family’s generations-long battle with one of the most challenging races in the world, the legendary Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, aka, The Race to the Clouds.

Joshua is a photographer and founder, publisher, and editor in chief of Lollipop Magazine. David is a designer and photographer.

Return to Unser Mountain

Words and photos by @lollipopmagazine and @david_a_gray

Loni Unser has just been handed a homemade sign with “Queen of the mountain” drawn in large, enthusiastic blue and green letters. Her race number – 92 – has been added to the placard at a jaunty angle. There’s no doubt who the signmakers want to be Pikes Peak champion in 2023.
Loni plays along with the surprise, sporting the easygoing smile that’s her signature. She doesn’t do anything so brash as raise the sign up or turn it outward. Instead, she hangs on to it for a bit as passersby and a photographer pause to exchange a few words, then carefully lays it down. Soon, she is engrossed in preparations for her second year competing in America’s famed and feared hill climb.
Pikes Peak is no normal race: its nickname “The Race to the Clouds” is a literal one. It comprises 156 turns over 12.42 miles, on an unpredictably asphalted surface, with few safety barriers and a weather system that can deliver blazing sun, driving snow, and torrential rain in the same day. The start line is 9,300 feet above sea level, and the finish is on a moonscape at 14,115ft.
Image of a racecar in the distance with words reading, “Pikes Peak is no normal race.”

“Pikes Peak is
no normal race.”

The placard’s prediction is, as things turn out to be premature: Loni will go on to finish her run in a respectable 11:34.709, but it’s not enough to claim the overall prize. The placard showed the deep respect and affection Loni commands — and the high hopes for her on what used to be known as Unser Mountain, a place that was a magnet for young men – and later women – seeking to test themselves.
The first automobile made it to the top of Pikes Peak in 1901. Motorcycles had been ridden to the summit before, but no one had ever taken a motorcycle and sidecar up. Everyone wanted to be the first to do it, but it was the trio of Unser brothers who wanted it most. Their father, realizing they would attempt it no matter what, reportedly said, “If you do try it, just don’t come back until you get to the top.”
Louis, Joe, and Jerry did just that in 1915. “We got written up in a motorcycle magazine,” Louis told author Joe Scalzo. “And that kind of got us started in racing.”
The first Pikes Peak Hill Climb took place in 1916, but the first Unser entry was in 1926, and it wasn’t until 1934 that Louis logged the first Unser win with a time of 16:01.80. In 1946, he set a new record of 15:28.7. And three years later he spectacularly spun out right before the finish, then reversed across the line to come second.
Slideshow of an image looking down a mountain with the road in the distance, overhead shot of a racecar driving on a mountain road, and people standing in-front of a car.
Slideshow of an image looking down a mountain with the road in the distance, overhead shot of a racecar driving on a mountain road, and people standing in-front of a car.
Slideshow of an image looking down a mountain with the road in the distance, overhead shot of a racecar driving on a mountain road, and people standing in-front of a car.
By 1967 Louis’s star was waning, and – now 71 – was only permitted to enter because of his name. The climb did not go well, and Louis wrestled his car to 11,000ft. before an overheated engine compelled him to stop. When, soon after, Louis declared his intention to come back, the sanctioning body ruled that his Pikes days were over.
In all, Louis competed 37 times, winning nine, and set six course records. When he talked about his Pikes days, Louis grew emotional, telling Joe Scalzo, “Before I ever won the hill climb, I used to look up at that mountain… and I’d say to myself, ‘I wonder if there’s ever a way I’ll be smart enough to win up there.’”
The newest, fiercest Unser on the hill was Louis’s nephew, Bobby. He first competed in 1955, coming in fifth, and the next year won his category, setting the first of eight course records. Bobby was King of the Mountain 10 times, more than anyone before or since, and had a personality almost as big as the mountain he raced on. He once stated, “The good Lord put me on Earth to win this race.”
Image of a racecar driving up a snowy mountain.
The Unsers’ grip on the mountain seemed unassailable, and though other Unsers never equaled Bobby or Louis’s fame, they came repeatedly and conquered often. Bobby’s brother, Al, won in 1964 and 1965. Al Jr. had his moment in 1983, and Bobby’s son, Robby, was crowned king in 1989, 1990, and 2004. But no Unser has won since, the longest Pikes has seen non-Unsers take the crown.
For a while, it looked like Loni wouldn’t follow in the family tire tracks. She attended high school in Idaho, where she excelled in skiing, swimming, and running. Following high school, she went to the University of Colorado to pursue a degree in landscape architecture.
Eventually, though, the inevitable happened. She says, “I decided to go up as a spectator on race day. I went up and was like, ‘OK, I know what I’m doing 365 days from now,’ because going in person was that impactful. I was like, ‘I have to do this.’”
Image of a red racecar.
Loni was true to her word: exactly a year from that day, she was racing Pikes Peak for the first time.
For all Loni’s easy acceptance of the Unser legacy, it’s her status as a woman on the mountain, and in racing, that energizes her most. “Being a woman in the sport is fun because you get to prove all of the people who say you can’t do it wrong. I feel it’s my role to encourage more women to be up on the mountain racing, because I’m one of only a handful to do it.”
When talk turns, as it always does, to Loni’s impending 2024 run, Betim Berisha, owner of BBI Autosport and the engineer of Loni’s car, thinks for a moment. “Loni is an icon. With Loni behind the wheel in that car, we have the recipe for success.”
If Loni is anxious about her third run at the mountain, she doesn’t show it. Bobby Unser famously said, “An Unser always wins,” and it’s clear that the family need to triumph courses through Loni’s veins.
Image of a rocky outcrop.