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27 Jul 2021

Rising star: Race to the Clouds

Matt Master discovers how Porsche Club racing enabled one former astrophysicist to take on the 'Race to the Clouds'

Pikes Peak

Elevation: 11,415ft (4302m)

Coordinates: 38°50°26°N 105°02°39°W

Location: Colorado, USA

Info: Named after explorer Zebulon Pike, whose expedition reached it in 1806, Pikes Peak is also known as Heey-otoyoo’, meaning ‘Long Mountain’, in the language of the local Arapaho people. The first organised hillclimb race took place there in 1916. It now begins at Mile 7 of the Pikes Peak Highway and ends at the summit.
A retired astrophysics professor is not the first person you’d expect to find in full Nomex atop a wind-swept mountain, but therein lies the wonder of Porsche Club motorsport.
I stumbled upon the self-effacing Kathy Mead while interviewing Pikes Peak stalwart and film-maker Jeff Zwart in 2020. As one of his students for the newly formed Cayman GT4 Clubsport class at the historic Denver hillclimb, Kathy had impressed Jeff with her focus and natural pace despite an unprecedented challenge and modest experience. The Texan had only started racing four years earlier and was tackling her first Pikes Peak at the age of 61.

As a member of Porsche Club of America, Kathy’s path into motorsport perfectly encapsulates how the grassroots nature of the much-vaunted Porsche Pyramid can prove so successful. Mead bought her first Porsche, a 997, in 2010 and immediately set about learning how to get the best from it.
“I bought a 911 and learned to drive it properly because I like driving,” she says with what proves to be a typical lack of frippery. “Driving is a skill. And a Porsche is an engineering marvel. I don’t want to just park it in my garage and admire it. I admire it by honing my craft so that I can experience its potential.”
Kathy enrolled on several driver education days put on by her Region of Porsche Club of America, content at this early stage to explore the limits of her car without testing anyone else’s. She soon began modifying her 911, however, with more track-oriented suspension, race seats and a roll bar.
As she grew quicker, the limitations of track events where overtaking was forbidden began to frustrate her. “So I had a conversation with myself,” Kathy recalls. “I said you have to either be chill about this or you have to go racing. I decided to go racing.”
Kathy soon zeroed in on a 981 Cayman GT4 Clubsport, a car eligible for several race series, most of which were hosted by PCA. She hired a driver coach and established a small team to maintain the car soon afterwards. “It was very challenging, but it was awesome,” she says of her first season. “The standard of driving was really good and at last I could pass people at any point! I became really studious about driving. I watched videos and studied my data, spending a lot of time on this during and between events.”
Following a positive debut season in 2017, personal matters forced Kathy to take a two-year sabbatical from racing. After such a long break, she was reluctant to jump straight back into a full season and so began looking at alternatives such as time trials.
As luck would have it, a division had been created for the Cayman GT4 Clubsport on the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb and, with the encouragement of her mechanic Mike Conn, Kathy began exploring the possibility of entering her car. “I was aware of Pikes Peak but mostly through videos of people crashing spectacularly, and that didn’t interest me,” she says with a laugh. “But one day in January of this year, Mike told me the deadline for registering was that night. It was decision time. I filled out the forms and it was done.”
The pandemic made travelling to Colorado to familiarise herself with the course extremely tricky for Kathy. In the coming months, she would also have to adapt to the extremes of altitude experienced at Pikes Peak and her own innate fear of heights. Kathy was a diligent student, however, attending every available practice, training hard and adapting her sleep patterns to the 2am starts required to be on the course in time for your start slot. She also studied the 12.4-mile course down to the finest detail.
“I felt well-prepared, but you still have to execute,” Kathy says of the big day in August last year. “And race day at Pikes Peak is the only time that you get to drive the whole mountain. But what I’d learned in practice was just to think about the next turn. So that’s what I did, through all 156 of them. When I crossed the line, it was the most euphoric I’ve ever felt in my whole life. It was the hardest but coolest thing I’d ever done: a complete release after a month of focus and preparation. I was literally screaming in the car.”

With a time of 11 minutes and 36 seconds, Mead was crowned Rookie of the Year – something that gave her even more confidence to return to racing. “Life is short,” she says, “and, at 61, I really want to do more. I will race with the PCA again next year and am going back to Pikes Peak. I’m not good at making plans for the future, but I’m definitely doing that.”

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