Shattering the Glass Ceiling at 14,119 Feet: Michèle Mouton & Her Record Run at Pike’s Peak 35 Years On

words: George Achorn, photos: Audi AG, Volkswagen AG, Audi of America, Audi Tradition, Getty Images

Editor’s note: This article originally ran in the Q3_2020 issue of quattro Magazine. If you would like to subscribe to quattro Magazine, join Audi Club here.

When Michèle Mouton returned to Colorado in the summer of 1985, it’s safe to assume she had some unfinished business there. Audi Sport’s high-profile French driver had taken her first run at the Pike’s Peak International Hillclimb the previous year and may well have won it outright were it not for some engine issues that found her down on power during critical moments of the climb. She’d managed a 12:10.38-minute run, 17 seconds slower than she’d achieved in testing but more than 10 seconds faster than John Buffum’s best-yet run in a long-wheelbase quattro the previous year. That performance (covered in issue Q4_2019, pp. 42-46) had been good enough for a second overall ranking and a class win in the ’84 event. This was respectable, yes, but Michèle knew she could do better – very likely win outright and break the standing record. In doing so this time, she’d be shattering a 14,119-foot high glass ceiling.

That was 1984. The 1985 season brought with it a whole new set of challenges for Audi Sport. A limited World Rally Championship (WRC) program had been decided-upon by the Ingolstadt powers that be due to challenges the Sport quattro S1 faced in Group B. Audi quickly readied an improved Sport quattro S1 E2 for the escalating WRC power wars. This final car’s most noticeable features were its prominent wedge-like front spoiler, boxy rear fenders that were more appendages than flares, and over-sized rear wing designed to generate up to 1,100 lbs. of downforce. The new car’s aluminum block 5-cylinder turbocharged engine developed 476 hp and 354 lb.-ft of torque at 8000 rpm in race trim. Weighing in at just 2,403 lbs., the S1 E2 was capable of 0-62 mph in just 3.1 seconds. The S1 E2 was homologated July 1, just days before Pike’s Peak race week.  Given the arms race brought on by Peugeot and Lancia, the car was desperately needed in the WRC.

With less WRC rounds on the calendar, Mouton and fellow driver Hannu Mikkola had been spending most of their time as development test drivers for the short wheelbase quattros. Michèle logged time in both the S1 and the S1 E2 and considered the E2 to be one of the most difficult cars she’d ever driven, particularly on asphalt where the massive and peaking power combined with the Sport’s short wheelbase, seemed to take the car beyond the limits of human reflexes. She preferred the less frenetic Sport quattro S1.

Fortunately for Michèle Mouton, the Sport quattro unloaded off the truck in Colorado that July race week was not an E2. Unlike her 1984 hillclimb car, the 1985 Sport quattro featured the same familiar yellow and white livery adorned with Audi Sport racing stripes up the side that was as seen on the WRC cars. In fact, it was the very same chassis that teammate Walter Röhrl had used at the Corsica rally in May. Following that, it had returned to Audi Sport’s facility in Ingolstadt for an overhaul.

Audi Sport’s then boss Roland Gumpert outlined some of the improvements to the press ahead of the race. Notably, the team had used more lightweight titanium and Kevlar components to shed over 45 pounds. They’d also completely overhauled the Bosch Motronic fuel injection system that had caused the problems the previous year, setting improved parameters for the thin air and erratic weather they’d come to expect. Turbo boost had been increased to 1.8 bar and output had also raised to about 500 hp. A smaller 30-liter aluminum tank replaced the rally car’s 80-liter unit since a short run up a big mountain required far less fuel reserves. The ’85 S1 was also utilizing new Michelin tires fitted to BBS modular alloys that Audi of America’s rallying efforts had adopted. Finally, sponsor stickers from companies like Coke and Coors were reminders that this wasn’t your typical WRC affair and rather more of an American production.

Audi Sport boss Roland Gumpert would have much preferred the diversity and challenge of the World Rally Championship calendar. The previous year though, Audi of America had lobbied hard for Ingolstadt to consider the Colorado hillclimb, and they’d specifically asked for Michèle Mouton.

The Americans had seen success on the hill in previous years with their own driver, but for 1984 they’d wanted a change. “They didn’t want to go with John Buffum again but insisted on Michèle. They were obsessed with the idea of ​​conquering the mountain with a woman at the wheel,” said the German team’s boss to the press in 1984 when they’d first shown up. Gumpert agreed the race as a great test for his newly developed Sport quattro and also had something to prove given the close-but-no-cigar win in 1984 that he attributed to “bad luck”.

For Audi of America, the 1984 class victory was a public relations boon. The hype triggered by Mouton in the wake of the previous year’s class win was nothing short of fantastic. Getting an outright win, it was theorized, would take everything to the next level. At the same time, 1985 was also a bit of a last hurrah for an icon. It had been decided earlier that year that sales of the roadgoing “ur” quattro would cease at the end of the 1985 model year. Though still popular in Europe, the recently updated quattro wasn’t selling as well as it had in the past. Not long after that July, the only quattros still available for customers were the as-yet unsold examples remaining in American dealer showrooms.

Then there was the remote Colorado mountain itself. The hillclimb’s considerable altitude, beginning at 9,400 feet elevation and climbing to over 14,000 feet in a span of just twelve miles, has earned this long-held race the title of “Climb to the Clouds”. The hillclimb itself dates back to 1916, and in that time has been dominated more than any other by the colorful Unser family of racers. The first Pike’s Peak win by an Unser was logged by Louis, Sr. back in 1934. For historical context, that’s the same year Audi’s forebear Auto Union first took to European Grand Prix circuits and alpine hillclimbs with its Type A “Silver Arrow” racers. By 1984 when Mouton first arrived in Colorado, an Unser had won the race no less than 21 out of 61 times.

The standing record of 11:38.300, logged in 1983, was set by Al Unser, Jr. piloting an open-wheel V8 Woziwodzki Wells Coyote Chevy racer. In the meantime, the overall winningest driver at Pike’s Peak ever was, and remains, the particularly outspoken Bobby Unser who boasted nine of his ten victories here by that time. The competition has also been so utterly dominated by the Unser family that the mountain itself has come to be known as “Unser Mountain”.

Over the years, Bobby Unser has shown he’s not exactly modest about his lineage nor his own particular standing, stating, “The good Lord put me on earth to win this race.”, or adds that, “An Unser always wins.”

Mouton says she hadn’t caught wind of such talk from the Unsers when she was in Colorado, but history shows it wouldn’t have been the first time she’d have to contend with male drivers speaking of her with a tone of superiority. If these sorts of things bothered her, she’s seldom spoken about it and never voiced concern. When asked about it for this story she responded that she didn’t know anything about Unser or the other American drivers at the time. She wasn’t worried about them or who they were, and recounts that the only enemy she was there to beat was the hill itself. Even still, the stakes for 1985 were clearly higher.

The pressure then for an all-out win was obvious to everyone, so Michèle and the team decided she’d make the run without a co-driver. Mouton had run the previous year with her WRC partner Fabrizia Pons riding shotgun in order to more quickly adapt to the 156 death-defying turns over the 12.42-mile course. Without Fabrizia, the car would be lighter, and she could travel at a faster pace. Besides, Roland Gumpert had done the math on the previous year’s run, estimating that without Fabrizia in the car they’d have probably scored an overall victory.

The team also continued to tinker with the Sport quattro. The Motronic fuel injection had proven finicky in the previous year, a setback that likely cost them the win. The 1985 regimen saw mechanics testing the car even more extensively in the thin Colorado air. U.S. rally driver John Buffum returned as advisor, diplomat in dealing with the Colorado natives, and test driver for these sessions. In this, he was multi-talented. One of the team mechanics later recalled a story that was evidence of this. The mechanic and Buffum had been out on a test drive near Colorado Springs in the Sport quattro. John was piloting the car down a dead-end dirt road and blasted past a couple of cowboys repairing a fence on the side of the road. These men had been dusted pretty thoroughly as the Audi sped past, so when the car turned around and came back, they found a welcoming party. The cowboys had placed a log across the road and awaited the car’s return with shovels in hand and angry looks on their faces.

Buffum and the mechanic agreed that nothing good would come from stopping. Even still, the American rally slowed the Sport quattro. Then, just as the car appeared to be rolling to a stop right in front of the cowboys, Buffum yanked on the wheel to the left and stood on the throttle, sending an even bigger cloud of dust into the air. The Sport quattro lurched forward, up an embankment, around the roadblock, and down the other side. It wailed off into the distance, leaving a couple of angry cowboys behind. Needless to say, further test sessions never returned to that particular route.

Playing nice with the locals proved even more of a challenge, applying the pressure even further on Audi Sport and Michèle specifically. On the first morning of practice, the temperature gauge on the Audi Sport team van began to rise while truck idled in line at the lowest toll gate of Pike’s Peak. After passing the gate, the driver of the overheating van rolled to a stop on the side of the wooded road. Michèle Mouton was already up the mountain in the race paddock and eager to get started, but her usually punctual German team were running late and, worst of all, her Sport quattro was with them way down the mountain. Out of time and having no other choices, she caught a ride down to the truck in order to salvage the morning session by collecting the car herself.

By the time she got to her stranded crew, the team had offloaded the short-wheelbase Group B racer. Michéle slid behind the wheel of the Sport quattro and, now definitely running late for her session, made haste up the mountain, through the paddock where she’d been waiting and then on up to the starting point. How much haste is perhaps a matter of debate but she made it in time to take her first test run up the mountain. Even better, she logged the fastest time of the session.

Whether it was her practice session speed or her pace to the starting line that caused a stir may be disputable but by the afternoon, she learned that three of her competitors filed an official complaint, stating she’d passed through the paddock area at dangerous speeds. Michèle’s own recounting of the situation suggests she was traveling about 35-40 mph. Michèle was fined $150.

On the second day of practice, Michèle’s team wasn’t late. As she prepared to make her second day’s run, she employed a trick she’d learned in the WRC, spinning her tires loose in order to put some heat into them. Then, the flag dropped, and she was off, blasting through the course and posting a second fastest time for this second session.

When she returned down the mountain, she learned there’d been yet another complaint. Several competitors, unfamiliar with the WRC practice of spinning one’s tires, had been hit by debris kicked up by the Sport quattro and were none too pleased. They’d made another official protest, and this time she was hit with a $500 fine and prohibited to drive anywhere in the Colorado Springs area other than the race itself. That was okay though because she had no intention seeing the sights.

If she wasn’t angry before, she sure was now. Roland Gumpert had seen Mouton deal with frustration before. He’d seen her lose the World Rally Championship title after a botched transmission repair saw her burn up a 1 hour 20-minute lead she had built during the ‘82 Ivory Coast Rally where she’d have locked down the season title. Even still, Gumpert had never seen her as frustrated as she was that day.

To the cowboys of Colorado, Michèle Mouton and her German team may very well have been aliens. Sure, they’d visited the summer prior and won their class. Now their spaceship had landed again, and this time with the intent of total domination.

It’s about this point in the story where one almost has to consider how any other entrant than Michèle Mouton would have been received in such a state. Conjecture is conjecture, but it is hard to imagine any of the Unser clan receiving such penalties. Likely a breeze through the paddock by a rumbling Unser V8-powered racer would have been received with a cheer or a wave. A spinning of tires by an Unser likely would have been met at most with hooting and hollering… maybe a slap on the wrist… maybe. Good ole boys mean no harm after all.

By revoking her public road driving privileges, organizers informed Mouton that she wouldn’t be able to drive her car from the usual place in the race paddock up to the starting line along with the other competitors because the run up the hill was on public roads. Michèle was having none of it.

Of the situation, Michèle would later say to the press, “Both incidents were really harmless. I don’t understand how you could make such drama of it. But not everyone was happy that we had come back to Pike’s Peak. A European car that drives circles around the competition, and with a woman at the wheel – that went against the grain of some people. With these games they probably wanted to make our lives difficult, wanted to prevent us from being so successful again. Not with me though. If you put pressure on me, I will only become stronger. That was the biggest motivation for me.”

Supportive of her concerns, Audi Sport called a large press conference where she made her case to the assembled journalists, arguing that her safety was just as important. In the aftermath, race organizers offered two concessions. They offered to give the fine money to charity and agreed that she could stay in the car and be belted in, but she wasn’t allowed to put the car in gear. Her mechanics would literally have to push the Sport quattro up to the starting line.

In the meantime, Michèle Mouton never missed a beat. She knocked out the fastest practice time again in the final third session. In qualifying, she set a new record. By all accounts she was so driven that all she could think about was the course record. There was a smoldering fire in her eyes that hadn’t been there in 1984, and her drive was infectious to the team.

On July 13, race day, the image played out dramatically for the cameras, which is fitting because Mouton once likened it to a “movie scene”. Had you been peering down the hill from the start, you’d have seen the Audi slowly make its way up the hill. Mouton sat inside, helmet on, as seven Audi Sport teammates pushed the car. Mouton steered the car while revving the engine in order to keep the highly-strung turbocharged 5-cylinder at temperature. It was reality TV before there ever was such a thing, though nowadays you can watch it all unfold on sites like YouTube.

Then the starting flag finally dropped; a fiercely determined Mouton was off. Michèle attacked the first corners flat-out and harder than ever before. By just the fifth corner, it was quickly apparent that track conditions were different than they had been in qualifying. Rain had fallen the night before and conditions were slippery. In those days, the course was entirely dirt and gravel all the way to the summit, requiring constant drifting around treacherous corners. Finding less grip here than before, Mouton adapted and fell into rhythm. She later likened it to dance and on this day,no one knew the steps to this dance better than Michèle Mouton… even when the road got more slippery requiring her to drift less and focus more on staying as straight as conditions would permit.

Near the top was the biggest challenge. She’d identified three fast corners near the end. In practice, Michèle pushed her limits and learned that she could take two of the three flat-out, but she’d continued to lift however slightly for the second turn during every previous run. Hell-bent thanks to critics, she now decided to stay flat-out. This time her Sport quattro slid further, precipitously closer to the edge of the narrow course. Glancing to her right, the gaping drop was vividly clear. “I had the hardest time of my life, but I managed to do it and I won the race”, she’d later state.

As the Sport quattro streaked past the flag waiver at the summit, the official clock logged a time of 11:25.39, shattering Al Unser Jr.’s standing 1983 record by 13 seconds. At the top of the mountain, her response was measured. She raised a fist toward the sky in accomplishment when her time came across the loudspeaker, but other than a few hugs, that was it. Michèle was still analyzing, still calculating. She’d beaten the nearest competitor by 30 seconds. She theorized she would have been 10 seconds faster had she experienced the conditions encountered during qualifying.

It is said that the often referenced “Uncle Bobby” Unser wasn’t terribly happy when his nephew’s feat had been toppled. Legend has it that Mouton responded, “If you have the balls, you can try to race me back down as well…”

When she did pilot the Sport quattro back down to the Audi Sport encampment in the paddock, the celebrations were decidedly less restrained. This time, they’d won the mountain outright. Michèle was Queen of the Mountain and the Sport quattro was the first car with fenders, blister-flared as they were, to win over an open-wheeled car in a very long time.

For Audi of America’s own motorsport boss Joe Hoppen, it was a crowning achievement. He’d made the decision to bring Buffum and his quattro to Pike’s Peak four years earlier, and then to bring Michèle in ’84. He’d actually wanted to field multiple cars with Walter Röhrl and Stig Blomqvist in 1985 as an insurance policy, but that never came together. Now though, here they were, having won it all with Michèle and Michèle alone. His eyes welled with pride.

Turning to Hoppen, a reporter asked him if he’d be back in 1986. The crafty American motorsport chief had already been setting the plot in his own head and already had an answer that involved a duel of sorts. “I want Al Unser Jr. and Michèle Mouton to race against each other in identical Audis. The King against the Queen. That would be a dream,” he stated.

Joe Hoppen was a showman and likely had every intention of making it happen. In fact, it would be Bobby Unser who he’d bring with Audi in 1986 to pilot a Sport quattro S1 E2. Unfortunately, there was no identical second car and there was no Michèle Mouton. At the end of the 1985 season, Michèle decided to depart with the German team. The long schedules of the WRC seasons had taken their toll. She’d spend part of the next season with Peugeot in Group B, but eventually closed the book on her rallying career in order to return to her home in France and start a family.

When asked about her motivation for a story in the UK’s Telegraph newspaper back in 2004, Mouton was clear that she was never really motivated to prove herself as a woman in the male-dominated world of racing. “For me, we are men and women. We are different. I don’t want to be a man and I don’t want them to be women either. I have never had a problem with this. I have enough personality to know that in rallying, this” — pointing to the watch on her wrist— “is the most important thing. The time.”

She continued, “I think the most important motivation for me was my honor… my pride. I didn’t want to look ridiculous. I didn’t want to be far from them when we were driving the same car. Again, it was my pride. I had the chance to rally and I had to prove that I deserved to be doing that.”

Yes, there were the challenges, the frustrations… and even the stereotypes. To this day, the Pike’s Peak Hillclimb official website features a “Kings of the Mountain” listing of the winners under its “History” tab. There, amongst the kings, is the one and only Queen. Even still, there was also the camaraderie and the hospitality … at least when not being dusted by Sport quattro. Mouton mentioned this after her ’84 race stating, “What surprised me most was the behavior of other riders. They came to me after the race and congratulated me. They were happy that we came. They drive at Pike’s Peak because they enjoy it and they want you to share this fun with them. It’s different in Europe. They drive for money and for this and that. Or they have no time for other people.”

Things are a little bit different on the mountain.

In 2011, Michèle Mouton was named knight in the French Lègion d’Honneur by French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the Élysée Palace in Paris. While her groundbreaking career as a rally driver was part of that honor, so too was her work since that time in running the Race of Champions (ROC) and her work as an ambassador for the FIA representing women in racing.

As for Mouton’s record-breaking Audi Sport quattro, lore suggests its own story wasn’t quite over after Pike’s Peak. In addition to the 1985 Corsica Rally at the hands of Walter Röhrl before its turn at Pike’s Peak, it would also take place in the final Group B WRC round at the 1986 Olympus Rally in the hands of John Buffum. These cars in period are relatively easy to track thanks to typically unchanging number plates, but this car’s registration plate changed from IN NC 46 in Corsica to IN NY 25 a few weeks later at Pike’s Peak. When it was later run by Buffum at Olympus had yet another plate (F344).

It seems reasonable that Buffum may have ended up with the car after the Pike’s Peak hillclimb. Likely it had been left with Joe Hoppen, who would have made it available to the American rallyist’s Libra Racing team. Records of Buffum’s own exploits in U.S. rally racing show he began using a Sport quattro S1 a few weeks after Pike’s Peak at the Budweiser Forest Rally in late September. Buffum campaigned a Sport quattro that could have been the same car in the SCCA Pro Rally series across the U.S. and Canada into the 1987 season. Group B cars like the S1 hadn’t yet been outlawed in SCCA Pro Rally and we know Buffum outright dominated the period at the wheel of an S1. In that time, he racked up 17 wins and just one 2nd place that was his worst showing in that time. He also managed 3rd place at the aforementioned ’86 Olympus WRC round most definitely in the Mouton Pike’s Peak Sport quattro. It’s not known how many of the SCCA Pro Rally races may have been in the Pike’s Peak Sport quattro, but it appears the Mouton record car remained in his possession following the 1985 Mouton victory.

The Sport quattro S1’s current owner, John Hanlon of UK quattro specialist firm Hansport, acquired the car from an unconfirmed collector in the USA. At that time, it was stripped to bare metal and completely refurbished to its 1985 Pike’s Peak specification, complete with the original BBS modular wheels it had used in the race. Its restoration was completed in 2007, and it remains a fairly regular fixture at showcase UK vintage racing events.