With the recent statement by the PPIHC Board Chairman about changes to the race format in 2020, it’s been confirmed there will be some kind of changes forthcoming. The only question is what kind? That the Board would have to react was plain to most followers of the sport after the death of Carlin Dunne, but the statement has led to some worry and reservation, as well as a lot of speculation. It’s not hard to see why. It’s one of those intentionally vaguely worded statements that keeps their options open, which is expected to some degree. It takes time to design a fair policy, and any immediate reaction would likely be an overreaction, so they want to bide their time. Let’s break down what’s got people worried and what the Board has done in recent years to try to make the annual hill climb safer.

The Statement By Chairman Tom Osbourne

“Motorcycles have been a part of the PPIHC for the past 29 years, and their history on America’s mountain dates back to the inaugural running in 1916. That said, the motorcycle program hasn’t been an annual event. They have run 41 of the 97 years we’ve been racing on Pikes Peak. It’s just time to take a hard look at every aspect of the race, including the motorcycle program, and determine whether or not the event may change.” That’s the meat of the statement made by Mr. Osbourne. It’s pretty much an announcement that there will be changes, and it doesn’t say much else. The issue is that by highlighting the fact that the motorcycle event has not been annual, the statement has given a lot of weight to speculations that the two-wheeled division could be suspended.

Is that likely? The risks of the mountain for motorcycle riders had already been a point of contention before Carlin Dunne’s death. The PPIHC Board had already made a decision banning motorcycles with clip-on handlebars from the event citing safety concerns. To some, the lack of effect this policy had on overall rider safety means it is more likely the next decision could go further. Is that a reasonable expectation, though? The fact that the leadership is making statements that give them a lot off room to move and time to make decisions, that looks a lot like a sign they want to weigh actual data before issuing a hard revision to the event. Common sense points to this being an attempt to design a policy that would have a more immediate and recognizable effect than the clip-on ban did.

Why Buy Time?

This kind of deliberation could certainly come about if there is a lot of behind-the-scenes debate about outright banning the event. It’s pretty likely that there is at least a little representation for that view on the Board, too. It’s an obvious reaction, especially when the motorcycle event has happened less than half the time, historically speaking. That ignores the fact that debate tends to lead to compromise, though. It’s very likely that a long deliberation before setting policy will lead to a less extreme policy, because the people arguing against the extremes will have more time to do the work of getting the sides together. That being said, there are still a lot of possibilities that could fall within the statement as it is made. Here are a few that don’t stretch the imagination, especially if you have followed a variety of motor sports over the last two decades.

  • The motorcycle event could be suspended indefinitely, and it will take petitions to bring it back
  • The event could be suspended temporarily, until the Board makes a more permanent decision about changes to the event
  • It could see a round of rule restrictions specifying more stringent bike qualification requirements
  • The event’s composition could be changed

It’s really unlikely that there is an option for no changes, even with the cagey “whether or not” in front of the language about the event changing. For most fans, the big fear is the motorcycle event being eliminated or suspended. It’s also possible the 2-wheeled division will wind up segregated, with a course that departs from the general course. The difficulty is in trying to predict what looks like it’s going to have the most effect, because no one making the decisions will be able to be certain in advance what will happen. They’re working with likelihoods, and the statement they issued indicates that decision isn’t going to be the easiest to make.

Should Fans Be Worried?

There’s always a good reason to worry that there will be an institutional overreaction to any tragedy, but the less the Board responds to the immediate emotional reaction to a tragedy, the more likely it is that they won’t overreact. They could issue policies that riders find annoying, ineffective, or misinformed. The clip-on ban is regarded as such by many, and there have been quite a few professionals working to debunk the logic it rests on. It’s easy to see that as a rebellion against safety rules, but it really needs to be viewed as a call to make rules that are effective, so whatever annoyance they cause is worthwhile. Consumer automobile safety standards are a pretty good place to look for examples of this being done fairly effectively. There have been some missteps, but generally the requirements about safety belts, airbags, and child safety seats were all put in place slowly, over a period of years that involved piloting the programs and getting data back.

Right now, PPIHC fans can only wait and speculate. Let’s hope the powers that be in this event make a well-informed decision and that they do not suspend the event while they do so. If you are wondering whether that’s likely or not, it might help to look at examples from other motor sports. When Dale Earnhardt died during an event, there was widespread speculation that racing would change in detrimental ways. What actually happened was a concentrated effort by the sport as a whole to put in place standards to better support competitors. It involved changes to the track composition and to personal safety equipment, but it didn’t stop the sport from being exciting. If you’re looking for safety upgrades, don’t wait to check out the best motorcycle aftermarket and OEM online.