The first running of the Pikes Peak Hill Climb was promoted by Spencer Penrose. Penrose had finished widening the narrow carriage road into a much wider "Pikes Peak Highway." He decided to encourage tourists to visit by creating a race to the clouds.
The oldest current class is the Open Wheel division which has been run since 1916 and has been won by such names as Mario Andretti, Al Unser, Bobby Unser, and Robby Unser (the current class record holder, achieving 10 minutes 5.85 seconds in 1994). On July 4, 1966, Bobby Unser won the event overall for the eighth time in ten years. The event was part of the AAA and USAC IndyCar championship from 1946 to 1970. First in the Stock Car class was Nick Sanborn Jr in an Oldsmobile Toronado.
The overall record is held by Nobuhiro "Monster" Tajima from Japan who clocked a time of 9 minutes 51.278 seconds on June 26, 2011 driving the 910 hp mid-engined Suzuki SX4 Hill Climb Special, breaking the previous record (set in 2007 by himself) by more than ten seconds. The winning time in 1916 was 20:55.40, set by Rea Lentz.
In 1984 the first European racers took part in the PPIHC with Norwegian Rallycrosser Martin Schanche (Ford Escort Mk3 4x4) and French Rally lady Michèle Mouton (Audi Sport quattro), thereby starting a new era for the in Europe by then almost unknown American hillclimb. While Schanche failed to set a new track record, due to a flat right front tyre, Mouton (together with her World Rally Championship co-driver Fabrizia Pons from Italy) won the Open Rally category, but also failed to break the current overall track record.
In 1989, an award-winning short film about the 1988 event was released by French director Jean-Louis Mourey. The film, titled Climb Dance, captured the efforts of Finnish former World Rally Champion Ari Vatanen, as he won the event in a record-breaking time with his turbocharged Peugeot 405 T16.
The 2011 running was the last running of the Pikes Peak Hill Climb that had dirt sections of the course, for approximately 30% of the route, as Colorado Springs is being forced by a Sierra Club lawsuit to pave the road all the way to the summit. The paving project was completed in August, 2011.
The likes of Hill Climb champion Rod Millen have warned that paving the road will put an end to the race. However, the 2012 race saw over 170 racer registrations by December 2011, compared with 46 at the same time in 2011. Registration for the 2012 event had to be stopped to allow management of all the registrations they have received. Consideration was made to create a qualifying system for the 2012 race, and to run the 2013 race as a two-day event.
The 2012 race, originally scheduled for July 8, was postponed until August 12 due to the Waldo Canyon fire.
The 2012 race saw numerous unusual occurrences, namely a larger field than ever before and the longest race day in the race's known history. The 2012, 90th running of the race was the first time the race has been run on all tarmac and saw the toppling of several records, notably the overall record, being set by first Romain Dumas in the Open Division only to be overturned later in the day by Rhys Millen, son of the famed Rod Millen, in the Time Attack Division.
Nobuhiro Tajima, the 2011 winner and at the time overall record holder, running in the Electric Division saw a surprising upset when his car caught fire in the lower portion of the course causing a DNF.
One of the unusual highlights, and proof that tarmac has changed the race; Mike Ryan spun his big rig in a hairpin in a section called the "W"s, slamming into the guard rail, he then managed to execute a three point turn and continued on course, at which point he broke his old record by nearly 40 seconds. The race also saw the first ever motorcycle to achieve a sub 10 minute time with Carlin Dunne in the 1205 Division riding a Ducati pulling out a 9:52.819 (only a bit over a second slower than the 2011 overall record).
Due to the race's postponement, weather also caused issues. Towards the end of the raceday, freezing rain and snow closed in on the summit, causing a race stoppage and the eventual relocation of the finish line to Glen Cove.