The 1989 HPV Race Across America, a test of machine and man

By Chris Kostman
Originally published in the PBAA Journal, Winter 1989

The question seemed innocuous enough. I had been planning to officiate the first ever HPV RAAM (Human-Powered Vehicle Race Across America) and was receiving regular pre-race mailings from John Marino, the director of the UMCA (Ultra-Marathon Cycling Association) and of the RAAM. At the bottom of one of the mailings, John had tagged the query, would you be interested in being the HPV race director? As an ardent supporter of the UMCA and long-time friend and fan of John Marino, I immediately signed on for the position. Although I had the experience of having officiated two RAAMs and seven RAAM qualifying races (as well as racing two of each as well), I wasn’t exactly sure what I was really getting into.

The HPV RAAM was the first race of its kind: a transcontinental four-man relay race with no holds barred as to the type of human-powered vehicle which could be entered. The major guidelines were that the same type of vehicle be used for the entire race and that no major modifications be made to the chassis or aerodynamic fairings. Much like the recent trans-Australia solar powered car race, the rationale for the event was to foster and encourage new ideas and concepts in transportation technology. To put it simply, this was to be a BIKE race, not a rider race. The burning question for those involved with the race was quite simple: Just how fast could a vehicle be safely and efficiently pedaled from LA to NY?

I spent the next two weeks in regular phone contact with Marino as we rehashed rule interpretations and other technical details pertaining to the race. It was imperative that we consider every possible scenario for the race so that we could develop rules and guidelines regarding whatever might possibly transpire. Due to our relative lack of experience with HPVs, we were apprehensive that we might overlook something which could become a major factor during the race and force mid-race rule modifications. We also hoped that we’d thought of everything necessary to keep the spirit of the race focussed on developing reliable, efficient, adaptable, speedy, safe, and road-worthy human-powered vehicles capable of cycling from coast to coast.

The standard Race Across America, in its eighth incarnation with 28 competitors, was to depart six days previous to the HPVs on August 13. Both races would follow the same 2,908 mile route through 15 states from the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa, CA, to Battery Park in Manhattan, NY. This was a new route for the RAAM and designed to be the flattest, fastest, and shortest RAAM route ever in the hopes of encouraging riders to challenge the three year old men’s and women’s transcontinental records. The route also avoided time-consuming and confusing metropolitan areas wherever possible en route. Easier route or not, though, this was still the Race Across America, the world’s longest bicycle race and arguably the world’s toughest athletic event.

Fellow UMCAer and RAAMer Ed Levinson and I drove down from Berkeley to LA to spectate the start of the standard RAAM and so I could attend the pre-race meetings and get everything organized with Marino regarding the HPVs. Going to RAAM or a RAAM qualifier is always like a family or class reunion and I always look forward to it eagerly. The family of RAAM is a wonderful, close-knit, and exciting group of people and is probably the main reason that I’ve remained involved with the sport for the past six years. At any rate, after hours of meetings and hob nobbing with the RAAM gang, Marino and I took a few minutes to settle everything for the HPV race. John gave me a box of stuff in which everything pertaining to the race was stacked and also gave me eight bundles of the official race magazine, California Bicyclist, to hand out to anyone interested. John also gave me a simple answer to my list of questions which included Who will run the pre-race meetings?, Who will M.C. the start of the race?, and Who will answer the inevitable 100 questions at the race start?. Said John, you will! Nobody ever said racing, or directing, RAAM was easy.

The start of the standard RAAM was exciting and well attended. The riders all looked fit and organized and not a one was lacking some sort of aero handlebars. The color of the day was neon green with numerous riders, including Rob Kish, Paul Solon, Johnny G, and Pat Ward, all sporting the impossible to miss shade on both their bike clothing and their support team clothing. After introductions and the usual race hoopla, the racers were soon speeding east across the Mojave Desert. After helping out at the start and then tagging along for some 200 miles Ed and I sped back north so I could finish up my intensive Hindi-Urdu language program, move out of my apartment, and get ready for the HPV RAAM. It was to be a hectic week, but I survived my class as well as the barrage of telephone calls from riders, crew members, and staff.

Fortunately my prof let me take my final early so I could get down to LA to get organized and hook up with my brother Keith who was going to accompany me on the race. Keith and his wife Marine had crewed for me in RAAM ’87 and on numerous record attempts, but had spent the past two years living in Taiwan. They would be in the States for three weeks en route to France (Marine’s home) and so in order for my bro’ and I to have some quality male bonding time, I had invited him to accompany me. We were both looking forward to the adventure and to getting out on the RAAM again. (That’s a song, isn’t it?)

Race and staff meetings were held the day before the race. Riders, crews, and staff were present at the race meeting where we went over the HPV-specific RAAM rules one at a time. Many needed interpretation and clarification and we were all able to reach a general consensus about them. Of special interest to the teams was exactly how much assistance the rider and HPV could be allowed while entering and exiting the vehicle and also what qualified as a modification to their vehicles. After all that was said and done, I gave the necessary lecture on the importance of safety and alertness during the event, as well as other must do’s such as always calling in at each of the 74 time stations en route so race HQ and the other competitors and staff could track everybody’s progress. After the race meeting was wound up, the riders and their crew headed back to their respective hotels and homes to finish their last minute preparations, while we staff people had our meeting. At the staff meeting, I explained the rules and regulations of the event, what to look for regarding them, officiating etiquette, how to spy effectively, and how and why to impose time penalties for rule violations. We would be traveling 24 hours a day with the HPV teams to monitor and spectate their progress, so we also discussed how to do so effectively and in an alert and safe manner. At both meetings the overriding concern was safety and so in large amount, our role as the race staff was to make certain that everyone involved in the event was exercising caution and good judgment.

Race day was soon upon us and I headed down to the fairgrounds bright and early. Many people were milling about as this was the site of Two Wheel Transit Authority’s huge annual sale as well as the location of the RAAM HQ which was manned around the clock by race personnel Randy Evans, Roger D’Errico, Shawn Nelson, Ron Heyer, Hugh Murphy, and many other loyal RAAM supporters. My first job of the morning was to develop a new route for leaving the metropolitan area. Standard RAAM had utilized a bike path for this, but we wanted to use streets so the hi-tech HPVs could have their support crews handy in case of mechanical problems. We didn’t want anyone getting stranded while the teams rode together under yellow flag conditions (clock is running, but riders must remain together) to the official start of the race in Corona, about 35 miles away. With the help of RAAM statistician Randy Evans a new route was devised which would be easy to follow and support and not effect the overall mileage total of the race. After this I was flooded with seemingly a dozen questions from everybody involved with the event. Riders, crew members, officials, staff, spectators, media, etc., they all had their questions. Next I was interviewed by Fuji Television who would be filming the event for broadcast in Japan. As race start time of 12 noon Pacific neared I prepared to fulfill my duties as M.C. by checking with each rider as to how they wanted to be introduced.

The plan was to begin the introductions thirty minutes before race start, but that time frame came and went as we struggled to get some power to the P.A. system. Finally, with just 15 minutes to go, we got the power and I jumped on stage and began the introductions. Numerous teams had expressed an interest in competing in this historic event, but when push came to shove, just four hardy teams were able to pull it together to compete. They were the following:

HPV 1 was the Diet Coke Lightning built by Tim Brummer of Lompoc, CA, and ridden by ultra-marathon cyclists Pete Penseyres (three category transcontinental record holder), Jim Penseyres (two time RAAMer), Bobby Fourney (three time RAAMer, including 4th in ’87), and Michael Coles (two time Savannah, GA, to San Diego, CA, record holder and first major sponsor of RAAM, in ’85 by his company The Great American Cookie Company). The Lightning was a recumbent bicycle with front and rear nose cones and an adjustable/ adaptable lycra outer skin which covered the bike aft of the front cone.

HPV 2 was the Dupont / The Sharper Image / Gold Rush Easy Racer built by Gardner Martin of Watsonville, CA, and ridden by ultra-marathon cyclist Michael Shermer (four time RAAMer), Fast Freddie Markham (former Olympian and US National Team member, HPV land speed record holder of 65.4 mph in a lightweight Gold Rush), Greg Miller (former U.S. National Team member, cycle-pilot of Gossamer Albatross), and Dan Tout (Canadian national pursuit champion). The Easy Racer consisted of a recumbent bicycle with 55 gears and a ultra-aerodynamic solid Kevlar outer shell which completely enclosed the rider and bicycle.

HPV 3 was a more standard design ridden by Team Chronos. It was a traditional Klein bicycle with a Breeze Cheater fairing with integral lycra suit which wrapped around the fairing and also fit around the rider like a jersey without sleeves. Team riders included Randall Olsen, Brian Spence, Thane Hall, and Paul Anderson. HPV 4 was a similar design utilizing an Orbit bicycle with similar fairing, but without lycra skin, and was ridden by Team Strawberry members Mike Haluza, Greg Ewing, Alan MacDonald, and John Harvey. Team Strawberry also utilized a prototype Power Pacer, a hi-tech cycle computer which measures power output (in watts) and calories burned through a device built into the rear hub. These two more traditional entrants hoped that the hi-tech HPVs would prove incapable of surviving 3,000 miles of real world cycling conditions and expected to be in the position to take the lead when this transpired.

I wound up the introductions with just minutes to spare and everyone got set to start. With ten seconds to go, the crowd did its obligatory countdown and cheered for the departing cyclists and their crews. At exactly 12 noon we were off, next stop: New York! The first 35 miles were harrowing as the somewhat ungainly HPVs struggled through traffic and slowly wound their way out of the LA basin. I was responsible for directing them through this section and so constantly blasted ahead to scout for the next turn in the route. It seemed like an eternity, but finally we left LA behind and headed for the desert. At mile 35 everybody regrouped for a few minutes and then after some last minute instructions the racing began as the riders put the pedal down and headed east. The race official start was at the base of a hill and so Teams Chronos and Strawberry enjoyed an easy lead as the heavier and less biomechanically efficient HPVs struggled up the grade. That changed soon enough, though, as the HPVs got up to speed and took the lead as we headed across the Mojave Desert past Palm Springs. On level ground, the Easy Racer and Lightning were capable of an easy 45 mph and with any amount of tailwind or slight downgrade, speeds of up to 65 mph were commonplace! It was truly amazing to watch these aerodynamic technological wonders blast on down the highway often at the speed of motorized traffic.

At mile 100 the route made an abrupt 90 degree left turn which caused the speed-enhancing tailwind to become a serious side wind which pummeled all of the bikes, especially the two fully-faired HPVs. The Kevlar enclosed Easy Racer struggled at less than 10 mph up the grade leaning heavily into the wind and was eventually thrown into a ditch with Shermer at the helm. Fortunately, no damage occurred to either rider or vehicle. Meanwhile, Lightning’s adaptable design allowed its lycra skin to be peeled back and decrease the effect of the side wind. In this configuration, with Pete Penseyres supplying the horsepower, Lightning made it to the top of the race’s first major grade in first place.

After struggling up to the high desert, calmer wind conditions prevailed and soon Easy Racer, its solid Kevlar body now an asset, moved into the lead. Changing riders every 20 to 60 minutes, and using their ultra-fast HPV’s design to its fullest potential, Easy Racer stretched its lead to 30 minutes by the Arizona Border, two hours by Gallup, New Mexico, and 2:42 by mile 1238 in Ashland, Kansas. On day one, Easy Racer covered 549 miles, 685 miles on day two, and reached the halfway point of 1455 miles in Howard, Kansas with an elapsed time of two days, seven hours, and 50 minutes. Lightning rolled through Howard three hours and 25 minutes later. Needless to say, the pace was incredibly intense for all of the teams and this made the first ever HPV RAAM a brutal and exhausting adventure for everyone involved.

My duties during all of this included being on the road around the clock, regularly calling into race HQ (to check on everyone’s whereabouts and relay messages to and from teams, staff, myself, and Marino), spectating the lead HPV(s), providing rules and routing clarification to the teams, and checking to see that the route had not been changed due to new road work or other variables. My usual schedule was to drive for 20 hours, then turn over the wheel and C.B. radio to Keith for about four hours while I caught some Zs in the passenger seat. After a few hours of rest, I’d get up and do it all over again. The pace was simply so intense that stopping for any length of time was impossible; during the fast sections, if we stopped for 20 minutes, it would take close to an hour to catch back up to the lead HPV! Hence, Keith and I never stopped for a sit down meal or a shower for the duration of the race! Yes, being a race director is very glamorous.

After 72 hours on the road, Easy Racer had covered 1,847 miles and was maintaining a three hour lead over Lightning. Teams Chronos and Strawberry were in third and fourth respectively and doing quite well, but their inherently slower designs weren’t allowing them to keep up the pace of the lead HPVs. And as of yet, the HPVs were still surviving the reality of the event. So far, Lightning riders were rotating at a leisurely schedule of every two hours. This allowed significantly long breaks for sleep and recuperation between rides. After three days, though, Team Lightning realized the need to pick up the pace. They just gotta slow down, because if they don’t, we can’t win commented Pete Penseyres. Team Lightning then decided to take matters into their own hands by putting in high intensity one hour pulls per rider. This was done with the riders paired up and in double shifts; example: Pete on 1 hour, Jim on 1 hour, Pete on 1 hour, Jim on 1 hour, both off for four hours, etc. This allowed a faster pace and helped Lightning to begin closing the gap on Easy Racer as the teams sped across Missouri and Illinois.

Meanwhile, Team Easy Racer was encountering some problems. In Missouri they got stopped by a train crossing for 15 minutes and got lost in a construction detour, and near Casey, Illinois, were stopped by an irate local cop for 22 minutes. Easy Racer’s lead had now fallen to 2:02 by mile 2,096 in Plainfield, Indiana. Easy Racer did manage to pull ahead to a 2:17 lead by mile 2,285 in Columbus, Ohio, but the gap narrowed again as the teams entered West Virginia.

An appropriate description for West Virginia is hilly. This proved advantageous for Lightning as its lighter and more temperature efficient design allowed it to continue to close the gap on Easy Racer. On day four Lightning closed in to 1:48 back from Easy Racer with just 480 miles remaining. The pace and 24 hour continuous intensity of the event was also now exacting its toll heavily on everyone involved with the race. Keith and I were hanging in there on non-stop caffeine buzzes while riders and crews were all doing their best to hold it together as well.

This fatigue factor would prove hugely important to the character of the race as a dramatic turn of events began to unfold before my eyes. Over the past day and now increasingly more frequently Team Easy Racer was beginning to make time-consuming mistakes. Easy Racer had just eight crew members, none with ultra-marathon experience, and they simply were just burning out. Seven crew members were needed just to keep their three vehicles operational and heading east. This left only one crew member to prepare food, wash clothes, do massage, keep the equipment organized, etc. Hence, Easy Racer’s team members had almost never slept, nor had a cooked meal or a shower for the entire race. The riders, too, were becoming fatigued from their frenetic pace which had never allowed a break of longer than two to three hours between stints in the bike. This was compounded by the fact that Greg Miller had gotten sick and had to sit out of the rotation for a full 1,000 miles. This exhaustion factor was causing Team Easy Racer to take wrong turns very frequently, throwing away valuable time. Even on roads without a turn for some 100 miles, the exhausted team members turned off course!

Meanwhile, Lightning was still in second but was closing in rapidly thanks to their faster pace and Easy Racer’s mistakes. All of Team Lightning’s riders and crew had tremendous transcontinental racing experience and this, coupled with their larger numbers and expert leadership of Joanne Penseyres, Pete’s wife, enabled them to remain fairly well rested, organized, and on course. By Grantsville, Maryland, with just 352 miles remaining, Lightning had closed in to just a 75 minute deficit. To say the least, the race was really heating up!

Traveling through Gettysburg and then York, Pennsylvania, Easy Racer made several costly wrong turns. To put it simply, the Easy Racer team was floundering like beached whales and seemed incapable of doing anything to help themselves. Every one of their team members had seemed to arrive at their own personal emotional and mental limits at the same time and the result was devastating. By York, PA, with just 192 miles to go, Easy Racer had only a slim 26 minute lead over Lightning. Just fifty miles later, entering Reading, PA, with Team Easy Racer in a frantic lather, they were caught and passed by the calm, cool, and collected Team Lightning.

Shortly after being passed, Team Easy Racer made their final mistake by accidentally directing their vehicle onto a freeway onramp which dumped out onto the fast lane. With Greg Miller in the cockpit, unable to see to the rear because the rear view mirrors had been shattered in a fall at a traffic light, the Easy Racer nearly collided with a speeding 18-wheeler as it entered the freeway. Visibly shaken, Miller halted the vehicle on the freeway shoulder and declared he would not ride again. The other riders agreed and so loaded up and exited the freeway. In an emotional parking lot meeting, Easy Racer team members decided that they could no longer continue in a safe manner, and so at the Reading checkpoint at mile 2,776 with 134 miles remaining, Team Easy Racer officially withdrew from the race. Said Easy Racer builder and crew chief Gardner Martin, we led this race for 2,700 miles to every state border, but obviously that isn’t good enough. After the race, Shermer added that the team was emotionally disintegrated, enormously fatigued, and essentially afunctional.

After Lightning cruised on in to victory with an elapsed time of 5 days, 1 hour, and 8 minutes, Shermer commented, They (Lightning) legitimately passed us and beat us. RAAM is a whole package deal of physical, technical, and organizational skill, and they had all three and we had only two. Joanne Penseyres commented that We were betting the crunch would come. Speed isn’t everything in an event this long. There’s something to be said for strategy and crew experience.

Teams Chronos and Strawberry rolled in to the finish in second and third place with elapsed times of 6:07:40 and 6:14:03 respectively. Their prediction that the HPVs would be incapable of surviving the event had proven at least somewhat true and both teams were excited with their performance and very enamored with the event in general.

And so this historic event took on the classic tortoise and hare character as many great races of history so often have. This was truly an amazing event, incredibly draining on everyone involved, but a unique and telling experience for us all. And what better way to spend my one week vacation could there have been? Thanks, John!

Note: A version of this account transcribed from the PBAA Journal is located here.

1989 RAAM articles: