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Meet BBi Autosport, the Small, Independent Team Taking on the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb

Founder Betim Berisha and driver Tanner Foust on what it takes to perform in the annual "Race to the Clouds."

Renderings of the three Porsche entries from BBi Autosport that will be competing in the 2021 Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. Photo: Courtesy of BBi Autosport.

On Sunday, June 27, drivers and their machines will be tested to their respective limits during one of the most unique and challenging events in motorsport, the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. Aptly called “The Race to the Clouds,” the 12.42-mile course ascends to an elevation of 14,115 feet above sea level and comprises 156 turns—a gauntlet completed in a record 7 minutes 57.148 seconds three years ago.

Since 1916, taking top honors at the mountain has been a goal of major automakers and small privateers alike. Among the latter is Betim Berisha, founder of BBi Autosport out of Huntington Beach, Calif. “I’ve been to Le Mans a few times, done eight Daytonas, eight Sebrings, a lot of endurance racing, and there’s nothing that compares,” Berisha says of Pikes Peak. “The brutality of the elements, how hard it is on the crew, even on the tow rigs—it’s just such a gnarly expression of pure motorsport.”

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A BBi Autosport entry makes a practice run in preparation for the 2021 Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.

BBi Autosport’s Tanner Foust training on the 12.42-mile course up Pikes Peak.  Photo by Larry Chen, courtesy of BBi Autosport.

Making the task even more daunting is that BBi Autosport is entering three out of six total classes, bringing three Porsches, each with a different configuration. BBi’s racers will be Raphael Astier in the Open Class, driving his Optima Batteries Porsche GT3 “Turbocup,” David Donohue behind the wheel of the Audrain Motorsport Porsche GT2 RS Clubsport for the Time Attack 1 category, and Tanner Foust piloting the Optima Yokohama Porsche GT4 Clubsport in what is officially dubbed the Porsche Trophy Class by Yokohama. This year, the team is also using the race as a platform to fundraise for causes that include industry veteran Deb Pollack’s Drive Toward a Cure charity for Parkinson’s research.

Roughly 48 hours before Foust set a record qualifying time on Wednesday, both he and Berisha spoke with Robb Report about the road to Sunday’s race, why the team is competing in multiple classes, and how the causes they’re supporting are a driving force.

Racer Tanner Foust (left) and BBi Autosport founder Betim Berisha (right).

Racer Tanner Foust (left) and BBi Autosport founder Betim Berisha (right).  Photo by Larry Chen, courtesy of BBi Autosport.

Tanner, how did you get into professional racing?

I didn’t take the traditional approach, not that anybody has a real traditional way to get in racing, but it usually begins with your family. You go to the races as a kid and start go-karting. I never did that side of it. I did learn to drive pretty young when I lived in Scotland, but nobody in my family is really a race fan—they’re all doctors. I went to school to be a doctor and graduated from CU Boulder with a molecular biology degree in the pre-med program.

I was working for an inventor of amusement rides at the time, and that’s where I started getting the entrepreneurial bug. He moved to Florida, and I didn’t necessarily want to move there as I was a rock climber and loved being in the mountains. So, on my way back to Denver, I saw Second Creek Raceway [in Commerce City, Colo.], drove my car there and got kicked off the track. The guy who kicked me off the track, well, I ended up volunteering for his race team as a mechanic in return for some seat time so I could get my license, and then figured out how to make a living out of it after that.

A promotional picture of racer Tanner Foust, who will be competing for BBI Autosport in the 2021 Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.

Foust set a record qualifying time for Pikes Peak on Wednesday, June 23, 2021.  Photo by DPT Photo, courtesy of BBi Autosport.

Betim, when did your passion for Porsche begin and how did it get you to where you are now?

I’ve always been obsessed with Porsches. When I was eight years old, living in Bellevue, Wash., with a Porsche 959 poster on my wall, I remember seeing Bill Gates drive by in his gray-market car [a 959] and that just threw me for a loop; I knew I wanted to be a part of it. At age 16 I worked at a car dealership and continued to wrap my head around the 911 before getting a job at a race shop, Fordhal Motorsport. I started by sweeping floors, taking tires out, everything. I then just kept my foot on the gas and began working for Porsche Motorsports. Shortly after that, I started this crazy thing called BBi.

Betim Berisha, founder of BBi Autosport.

Betim Berisha, founder of BBi Autosport.  Photo: Courtesy of BBi Autosport.

How did you start BBi Autosport and what was your vision for it?

It started as a side project in 2006, while I was working for Porsche. I got a small shop in Huntington Beach, and as I’d make a little money, I’d buy a lift, and then I’d buy another lift and then paint the walls. That’s kind of how it progressed.  I just wanted to push things a little further; all the stuff I learned in motorsport I wanted to start applying in different areas, without the restrictions of a sanctioned racing body.

In 2008, I had to decide whether to take it seriously and jump in with both feet on the BBi side, or continue working on the corporate side in the motorsport world. I told myself: “I’m young enough, and who won’t want to hire a failed entrepreneur? Let’s go and try it.”

I really wanted to have a look at what it would take to be able to express some creativity and some engineering, and I thought that starting my own company would get me closer. We evolved from racing for a while and started working on some drag-car 911s and 1,800 hp examples, but my heart has always been in the motorsport world, so we’re back again and trying to take three cars up this hill.

A BBi Autosport entry makes a practice run in preparation for the 2021 Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.

Raphael Astier, in his Optima Batteries Porsche GT3 “Turbocup,” working through some of the road’s 156 turns.  Photo by Jason Zindroski, courtesy of BBi Autosport.

When did the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb first come on your respective radars, and what were your first experiences with it?

Tanner Foust: When I lived in Boulder and was going to school out there, I heard of the Pikes Peak Hill Climb. Then, in 2002, a friend of mine who was a distributor for Beta Tools mentioned that if I got a team together, he could put “X” number of dollars in and maybe I could trade the tools for a run up the hill. And that’s what I did in a Wells Coyote, which is an 800 hp go-kart that weighs 1,600 pounds. I raced a couple more times in the rally class, but it was all dirt then. Now that it’s paved, it’s a completely different race.

Betim Berisha: For me, it goes back to that Porsche shop that I was sweeping floors at. We had a poster of Jeff Zwart in his [Porsche] 993 Turbo sliding through the dirt. It was signed by him and said “six-time champion” and I was blown away by all that. Shortly after I started BBi, about five years later, Jeff walks into our shop and says, “Hey, I’ve been watching you guys build these crazy turbo monsters. I’ve got an idea for a car. It’d be fun for you to take a cup car that’s normally aspirated, put one of your crazy turbo engines in it and go nuts.” And so we did. He brought us here [Pikes Peak] in 2014 and 2015, and we ended up getting first in class in 2015.

I was hooked after that and knew that, at some capacity, I had to get back here, whether with Jeff or BBi itself. In 2019 we brought our own car, with Raphael [Astier] driving it, and got a record in the Time Attack 1 [class].

An entry from BBi Autsport preparing for the 2021 Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.

Foust during a practice session on the mountain.  Photo by Larry Chen, courtesy of BBi Autosport.

From a driver’s perspective, why is Pikes Peak such a formidable test piece?

TF: The elements and conditions change very quickly, and the top of the mountain is almost in the jet stream. The main thing, though, is that the naturally aspirated cars, like the one I’m in, have to carry momentum as they don’t have forced induction and they don’t make a huge amount of power. You have to commit to carrying a lot of speed through these corners that have 1,000-foot drop-offs, even when there could be a bit of a bump or some dirt that you don’t know about. It’s a very committed feeling, and it’s all about memorization.

How did the collaboration between you two start?

BB: I’ve known of Tanner for a long time, I think we were introduced by a mutual friend. Also, Tanner was driving for a rally team that was right across the street from our shop. After he got a 911, we started tweaking on his car and then began getting together with buddies, picking a Thursday to go indoor karting. As the years passed, we knew we wanted to do something together. Lately, we’re both ambassadors for Optima Batteries and that’s where the connection gelled. Then Porsche and Yokohama reached out to us, partners of us both, so here we are.

A promotional picture of racer Raphael Astier, who will be competing for BBI Autosport in the 2021 Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.

Raphael Astier will be driving for BBi Autosport in the race’s Open Class.  Photo: Courtesy of BBi Autosport.

Why bring three drivers and three cars to compete in three different classes?

BB: It’s a funky, perfect storm. First, I’ve always wanted to re-run our Open-Class car, nicknamed “Lucy,” and we didn’t last year because it was no longer eligible for Time Attack 1. Then, David Donohue called us last year mentioning he had a car and tire sponsor but needed the rest of the team, so we said, “Alright, let’s help you out.” We qualified really well but had a mishap that ended our race; we want redemption. And then Tanner’s car—I couldn’t say no to it.

What are the logistics for this massive undertaking?

BB: We have a 15-person crew now, including each driver plus their three to four support people. By the time race day comes, we’ll have probably 18 people here, with the truck drivers, the tire guys . . . everything. It’s a nightmare, I’ll tell you that.

A promotional picture of racer David Donohue, who will be competing for BBI Autosport in the 2021 Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.

David Donohue will be racing in the Time Attack 1 class for Berisha’s team.  Photo: Courtesy of BBi Autosport.

Do you view BBi Autosport’s presence at the race as David versus Goliath?

BB: I do. You’ve got a lot of big-money-backed efforts out here—Bentley is coming on strong, for example, big companies with a lot of racing pedigree. We are a privateer, grassroots shop, but it’s fun to rub elbows with these guys.

TF: Nobody goes into a race saying, “I want to be Goliath.” You always want to be the underdog, it’s a cooler story that way. But everybody’s pushing, even the factory teams are pushing as hard as they can to make it happen. They just have more options.

What are the challenges and advantages of competing as a small privateer?

BB: The challenges are time and money—you never have enough of either. The advantages are that we can adapt and mobilize quickly. There aren’t various channels and committees to go through.

What are the primary difference in each of the three Porsches you are entering?

BB: Tanner’s car is the largest, a spec Cayman GT4 Clubsport. It’s a mid-engine car with no turbos. Of the other two, one is a factory GT2 RS Clubsport that we’ve heavily modified, and then there is the 991 Cup car that we turbocharged and modified. Those two cars make around 800 hp to 900 hp and are close to the same weight.

A BBi Autosport entry makes a practice run in preparation for the 2021 Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.

Astier about to start a qualifying run with “Lucy,” BBi Autosport’s Open-Class entry.  Photo: Courtesy of BBi Autosport.

How do the three classes differ?

BB: Tanner’s class is more about the driver and chassis engineers, because the cars are all the same spec and you can’t change parts. The other two classes are really close to “run what you brung,” just bring the big hammers.

TF: The class I’m competing in is very limited, with cars that are way less than half the horsepower [of the other categories]. These cars are super predictable, everyone’s on the same tires and you’re not allowed to use tire warmers. It’s a great driving car and you can really anticipate what it’s going to do, although you do have to roll a lot of speed on a lot of blind corners to get a good time. But it’s huge fun.

Why did you select the specific charities you are supporting while competing at Pikes Peak?

BB: The Little Warriors Foundation first came to my attention when a member of the Optima Batteries marketing team mentioned that their little cousin has pediatric sarcoma, a bone cancer especially hitting the joints in adolescents, and I wanted to raise some awareness about that. We nicknamed our open-class car “Lucy” after her.

With Drive Toward a Cure, that’s Deb [Pollack], she’s been a longtime friend in this industry and it’s always important, if we have some eyes on us, to utilize those eyeballs for some education and the greater good.

TF: I do a charity for children’s cancer research every year in Colorado, and so when opportunities like these come across the plate, to raise money for great causes, they are some of the biggest no-brainers you can do in this industry, and some of the best time spent.

Racer Tanner Foust preparing for the 2021 Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.

Foust ready to pilot his Optima Yokohama Porsche GT4 Clubsport.  Photo by DPT Photo, courtesy of BBi Autosport.

What does the Lunch with Tanner Foust fundraiser entail?

TF: Yeah, Betim, where are we going? That’s what I want to know.

BB: They have to be local, but it’s about whoever comes to the table the heaviest [donations], and then a lunch with the beautiful Tanner Foust will be raffled off. Who wouldn’t want that? The conversation will be great and it will be cool to connect with someone in the motorsport world through the conduit of a good cause.

Editor’s note: All proceeds from the Lunch with Tanner Foust raffle will go through Drive Toward a Cure to the Center of Excellence for Parkinson’s in Colorado.

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