Crossing the Great Divide to get to Continental Divide
Photos and story by Harry Kennison
In the summer of '65 I'd just graduated from high school and found myself working as a short-order cook at a desolate outpost called the Nugget Café in Taylor Park, Colorado for 30 cents an hour and free showers (living out of a tent that summer made showers far more important than my hourly wage). For those of you who may not have ever had the pleasure of visiting Taylor Park in the 60's (or this year—it hasn't changed much), picture a trading post, gas pump, one public phone, and the aforementioned café that seated no more than a dozen trout fishermen, hunters, or wayward tourists at any given time. The park was surrounded by 14,000 foot peaks and fed by four dirt roads that I always viewed as my ticket back to civilization.
In order to keep my sanity, I would look forward to my weekly trip to Gunnison, the nearest town, to pick up supplies for the café and also my tattered subscription to Autoweek & Competition Press, which was delivered to the P.O. Box in Almont, Colorado—there was no mail delivery in Taylor Park. It was in those pages that I'd read about a whole new breed of sports racers with names like Lola, McLaren, and Chaparral that were powered by small-block Chevy and Ford V-8's that were part of the United States Road Racing Championship. The series also featured a large helping of Corvettes, Cobras, and Porsche's latest creation, the 904 GTS running in the GT division. While scanning the schedule of coming events with the aid of a flashlight, I was amazed to discover that this racing series would be making a stop the following weekend at Continental Divide Raceway located outside of Castle Rock, Colorado between Denver and Colorado Springs. Now all I had to do was figure out how I was going to get from Taylor Park to Continental Divide Raceway.
I ended up borrowing my folks' Dodge station wagon for the trip, knowing that it was a lot faster than their CJ-5 Jeep. What would follow would be one of the most hair-raising driving experiences of my relatively short life. You see, before you could get to the highway to Denver, you had to go up and over Cottonwood Pass. It's 12,000 feet above sea level, and to get to the top you have to drive up 15 miles of rutted, washboard, dirt road with dozens of switch-backs with no guardrails. I'd watched Bobby Unser wheel a stock car up Pike's Peak, so with that "Walter Mitty" inspiration I set out over Cottonwood Pass with my younger brother riding "shotgun."
Tasked with stopping a weight roughly equivalent to that of a pocket battle ship, the Dodge's drum brakes did little to inspire confidence. But I found that if I slammed it down to 2nd gear and got hard on the brakes, I could crank the power steering around about three times and get the Dodge to plow around the turn just in time to apply massive amounts of opposite lock to keep from sliding over the cliff. I knew Bobby would be proud!
I was beginning to get the hang of these controlled power-slides as I approached the last complex of turns before the top. That's when things got dicey. I hit the brakes but the pedal went to the floor—nothing. My brother sensed my fear, not to mention our eminent death. Somehow, I got it slowed down by dropping it into second gear and then low gear. With the transmission screaming in protest, and gravel spewing like a rooster-tail behind us, we just made the turn and then were able to creep up the rest of the way to the top of the Pass, where we pulled into the parking area and let the brakes cool and reflected on the fact that we were still alive.
The rest of the drive to the race was relatively uneventful, having use 2nd gear all the way down the other side of Cottonwood Pass so as not to cook the brakes again. Dumb maybe. But not stupid.
As for the race at Continental Divide, the Chaparrals started strong and then Jim Hall had a dead battery that forced him into the pits. His partner Hap Sharp in the other Chaparral went on to win the race, with Jerry Grant in the gorgeous Lola T-70 finishing second, and George Follmer in the slick little Lotus 23-Porsche in third (see The Heat Exchanger, February 2007). In the GT class the Porsche 904 GTS's finished first and second in class, beating two of the three factory Cobras in the process.
Over 40 years have passed since that trip to Continental Divide Raceway, but what I remember the most about the weekend was my near-death experience on Cottonwood Pass.