Milestone races aren’t just a celebration of the series’ past. It is often this past that inspires the future.
The 100th race of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb was no exception, courting internationally renowned drivers like Romain Dumas and Rhys Millen and inspiring incredible builds like Ken Block’s Porsche 911 “Hoonipigasus”. Still, one of my favorite entries from this year’s race was one with deeper roots in local racing. It was the return of a Pikes Peak legend: a Ford Bronco-winning beast known as “Bronczilla.”
Bronczilla is the type of construction that lives up to its name. It has an ultra-lightweight all-aluminum tube frame chassis built by John Wells in 1993 with a fiberglass racing body. It’s rear-wheel-drive, with a raucous Ford 351 small-block V8 that slips behind the front axle and a four-speed racing transmission from Auto Gear Engineering.
Leonard Vahsholtz raced it, a racer with 18 class wins at Pikes Peak to his name over a record 32 years of racing there, according to the Colorado Motorsports Hall of Fame. After the 2022 race, the Vahsholtz family has a record of 46 class wins at Pikes Peak over several generations of Vahsholtz, even more than the Unsers who are almost synonymous with racing there.
One of those class wins was at Bronczilla in 1994, which Leonard Vahsholtz rode to a then-record Super Truck class finish of 11:36.630, by the Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph.
Climbing races also run in Jimmy Ford’s family. His father raced at Pikes Peak and was a regular at Colorado Hill Climb Association events, so Ford racing in his vehicles would always be a natural fit. Ford’s friend Chad Grant floated the idea of buying Vahsholtz’s Bronco to compete in Colorado Hill Climb Association events.
Bronczilla was still actively raced in hill climbs before Ford purchased it, which made it easy to race. Its former owner, Tim Walker, had purchased the Bronco from Leonard Vahsholtz and raced it for a few seasons before selling it to Ford. Ford had to make some changes to fit in properly, but it wasn’t long before it was back in hillclimb events.
As the team became comfortable riding the Bronczilla in hill climbs, its participation in the 100th race of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb gained momentum within the team.
“When I went to the Leadfoot Festival in New Zealand, an event organized by [fellow Pikes Peak racer] Rod Millen, after the event, I had a chat with Rod, and he asked me if I was ever going to do Pikes Peak,” Ford told The Drive. “So it was kind of on my mind , and I thought about it a lot.”
“What better would it be to race Pikes Peak for the 100th race in an old Vahsholtz Bronco?” Ford continued. “I thought it was pretty cool to bring back some history for the 100th edition. I had no idea it would be so loved.”
Preparing the Bronco to return to Pikes Peak was a little trickier. Pikes Peak is now paved all the way to the top, which requires a different setup than the dirt road climbs it did before. On top of that, everyone on the Jimmy Ford Racing team has day jobs to do, which means most of their race preparation has to take place on weekends.
“When we decided we wanted to do Pikes Peak and got accepted there, we literally fought from January through the weekend before testing trying to get things from dirt to asphalt” , Ford said. “It’s a lot of changes you have to make in the suspension and the brakes, and [you have to add] some kind of aerodynamics so this big brick can try to split the air a bit.”
On dirt, the Bronczilla rides about 9.5 inches off the ground, but for Pikes Peak that ride height was reduced to about 4.5 inches, which required different shocks and springs. The brakes also needed significant changes, as the dirt setup requires a lot more rear bias than asphalt. Speeds increase as you have more traction on paved surfaces, so much bigger brakes.
Because Pikes Peak is a race at a staggering 14,110 feet to the finish line, the cars now perform extreme aerodynamics to push much thinner air around each vehicle. To help make a very boxy ’90s Bronco body cut through the air, the entire bottom of the Bronco was covered in a smooth panel. The team also fabricated the truck’s other aerodynamic parts to bring it up to modern Pikes Peak specifications.
“We may have had ideas from other vehicles, but as far as manufacturing and everything, we pretty much did it ourselves,” Ford said of the Bronczilla’s new aero.
The Bronczilla still had the Ford V8 Vahsholtz built for it which makes around 630 horsepower, according to Jimmy Ford. Placing the engine behind the front axle gives it better weight distribution than your average ’90s Bronco, which (judging by the video) clearly makes it easier to drive. With so much power in a featherweight tube-frame truck, it’s no wonder it set class records back in the day. It was still pretty light even with all the modern Pikes Peak gear added. Ford said it reduced the Bronczilla’s overall weight to around 2,800 pounds.
Colorado Springs Mod Finishes completed the refreshed build with a new matte black coating with the team’s local sponsor lineup. “All of our sponsors were locals we knew or grew up with. One of the coolest things about running Pikes Peak is keeping it local,” Ford said.
Unfortunately, Bronczilla did not reach the top of the mountain this year.
“We were racing really well,” Ford said. “We were top five overall in the lower section with the time we set. We just passed the picnic grounds to get to 11 miles, [where] I came out of a corner and we lost most of our power. Then about a second later, the motor made some gnarly noises, and that was it. He passed away and that was it.”
“So I drove him home to the store literally that night because I couldn’t sleep wondering what had happened to him,” Ford continued. “I removed a few valve covers from it and noticed that when I turned the crankshaft, the camshaft wouldn’t turn and open the rocker arms.”
A full teardown is yet to come, but Ford suspects it’s either a broken camshaft or a timing chain issue. Either way, the Mountain won this time, but that’s not the end of Ford’s run with the Bronczilla. He will race more Colorado hill climbs and hopefully Pikes Peak as well. Pikes Peak is a tough race with ridiculously early mornings, but starting earlier to find sponsors and work on the truck could make all the difference.
“We’re all going to sit down and talk about it and see if it’s something we want to do again,” Ford said. “I mean, for me personally, I don’t like going on a DNF, you know?”
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