Hill Climb stays family affair for Keeneys
Newlyweds drive in event this year

       For the 12th straight year, members of the Westside's Keeney family are racing cars in the Pikes Peak Hill Climb. Jimmy and Melissa Keeney with his open wheeler (left) and her 2WD car during the Hill Climb technical inspection at the 
Sheraton Hotel this week.
Westside Pioneer photo
       This year there is a romantic twist, with newlyweds Jimmy and Melissa Keeney each driving a car. He is in the open wheel division with a greatly customized Chevrolet FX2; she in the new Time Attack 2WD (two-wheel-drive) division with a supercharged Honda CRX.
       “We both like racing,” said the soft-spoken Jimmy. “We might as well do it together.”
       The annual Hill Climb (scheduled Saturday, July 21), is a 12.5-mile race up the Pikes Peak Highway to the mountain's summit. The event is broken out into divisions based on different styles and sizes of cars and motorcycles.
       Jimmy's parents, Jim and Vicki Keeney, married 33 years, have previously driven in the race. Jim initiated the family's mountain assault in 1996, in the competitive truck division (which he won in 2000 with a Chevy S-10). Vicki, who has been a Hill Climb volunteer for many years (including four years as race director) followed in 1997 in the “super sprint” division, which encompassed a smaller type of open wheel vehicle.
       “I'm not a women's libber,” Vicki noted. “But I don't think racing is just a man's sport.”
       Overall, Jim drove five years at the Hill Climb and Vicki three.
       In 1999, it was Jimmy's turn. By then, he already had three years of racing experience behind him, having competed since age 15 in Colorado Hill Climb races, Vicki said. The series offers five races a year, with distances between 2 and 6 miles.
       This year is his ninth Pikes Peak Hill Climb. He hasn't won yet, but he's gotten three seconds. Mechanical problems have plagued him the past two years. In 2006, the transmission got stuck in fourth gear.
       Jimmy was points champion in the Colorado Hill Climb series last year, and took the checkered flag in the competitive truck division in the the series' Gold Camp race this spring.
       He has also done well in national rally car races, picking up firsts and seconds with Melissa helping him as navigator. “It works out pretty good,” she said. “I trust his driving, and he trusts what I'm telling him.”
       The two have actually known each other, through racing connections, since age 9, Vicki said.
       A race driver for four years, Melissa is a rookie in the Hill Climb. In May, she nabbed a third in the Rally 2WD division at the Canon City Hill Climb. “Jimmy has a lot more experience, but I'm getting there,” she said. Asked what she likes about racing, she said, “I like the green flag and the good adrenaline rush.”
       The open wheel division is traditional at the Pikes Peak Hill Climb, going back to its inception in 1916. The vehicles generally look similar to Indianapolis 500-style race cars, and could go as fast if they weren't geared down to handle the tight Hill Climb turns. As a result they “only” top out at about 130 mph, Jimmy explained.
       The average speed in the 12.5 miles to the finish line is about 80 mph, with the record time at just over 10 minutes.
       The crew chief for Jimmy's 750-horsepower open wheel car is Alan Smith, who worked on the pit crew for Phil Giebler, this year's Indy 500 rookie of the year.
       According to Smith and Keeney, the Hill Climb is perceived elsewhere as a major racing event in its own right, but they are puzzled by the lack of community-wide excitement about it.
       “You go out of state and people associate Colorado with the Hill Climb,” Keeney said. “But you go out on Academy Boulevard and people haven't heard of it.”
       By contrast, in the weeks before the Indianapolis race, Smith said, “you can't go a block without seeing a car or a house with a checkered flag.”
       The mechanical challenge for Jimmy's car this year was to keep the weight down so that it could go fast without losing traction on the turns. The “wings” at the rear of the vehicle actually are the opposite of airplane wings, he pointed out, because they are intended to keep the vehicle on the ground, not off it.
       Although some area businesses help out as sponsors, running vehicles in the Pikes Peak Hill Climb can be “very expensive,” Vicki Keeney said. But even at that, they spend half as much for an entire year of racing as some outfits do for the Hill Climb alone. “We're just a local effort,” she said.
       The Keeney family affair extends to their businesses as well. Jim and Vicki Keeney own the Wreckmasters body shop at 315 S. 14th, while next door are Jimmy and Melissa Keeney's Pro Designs, 319 S. 14th St., which does lettering and graphics for personal and commercial vehicles.

Westside Pioneer article