Uphill Battles

Hillclimbs - The Last Open Road

Burt Levy, a vintage car racer of some renown, (he mooches a lot of his rides), is also a writer of automotive novels that deal with what sports car racing was like in this country in the late 40s and early 50s, with his first book being called The Last Open Road.  Since the beginning in Europe, racing often took place on open public roads that were closed for the day to allow for the races.  The Mille Miglia, Targa Florio, and Rome Liege Rome were some of the significant earlier events.  So, when the road racing rage began to develop in this country after WWII and sports cars of all different sizes, shapes, and brands began arriving on our shores, and a desire to race these cars was growing in popularity, we also had races that took place on the streets and through the villages of such places as Watkins Glen, Elkhart Lake, etc.

Also very popular, as they were in mainland Europe and in the UK, were 'hillclimbs'. Hillclimbs are a branch of motorsport in which drivers compete strictly against the clock to complete an uphill course.  They began being run all over the country, often with big-name drivers and their cars competing.  The early versions of the Mount Washington Hillclimb were some of the more renowned, with the likes of Carroll Shelby driving his Maserati and setting the course record that held until the early 1990s!

The first known hillclimb at La Turbie near Nice, France, took place on January 31st, 1897. The hillclimb held at Shelsley Walsh in Worcestershire, England, is the world's oldest continuously-staged motorsport event, and is still held on its original course, having first been run in 1905.

Hillclimbing today is "The Last Open Road" form of racing on public roads. Here in the US, and especially in the Northeast, there are two major organizations that run hillclimbs. One is in Pennsylvania, and those events are organized by the Pennsylvania Hillclimb Association (PHA - www.pahillclimb.org), often in conjunction with the SCCA.  (While living in Pittsburgh in the mid-60s, I discovered hillclimbing and, besides being involved with SCCA and the Porsche club [I had a 356 race car at the time], I also followed the PHA and its events.) 

The Giants Despair Hillclimb in Wilkes-Barre, PA, is the oldest continuously-running motorsport in the state, and one of the oldest in the world, having first run in 1906. The mile-long course has a 110-degree turn, up to a 20% grade, and a 650’ elevation change as racers overlook the city. 

The Giant is rich in tradition.  In its early years, all of the world’s major manufacturers sent their top cars and drivers to capture honors at the event.  Early notables included Ralph DePalma (Fiat team) and Louis Chevrolet, driving for Buick.  Rejuvenated in 1951, the list of Who’s Who in the driving world included Carroll Shelby (first driver to break the magic minute), Roger Penske, and Oscar Koveleski.  In 2002, Ron (Sam) Moreck broke the 40-second mark.  The hill starts out with a long, gently-rising straight about a quarter mile in length that leads into a fast left-hander that tests both nerves and skill. Then it’s on to a short chute and "Devils Elbow", a sharply-rising hairpin that goes off-camber at its crest.  Next is a series of ninety-degree turns connected by short straights.  Then comes "The Incline", a meandering quarter-mile stretch that rises at 22 degrees to the finish.

Then there is the Duryea Hillclimb.  The Blue Mountain Region SCCA hosts the longest hill in the PHA series.  Named for the obscure automobile maker, and following the same route that Charles Duryea used to test his cars, this is a 2.3-mile hill with an 800’ elevation change located in a beautiful city park in downtown Reading, PA.  With a history dating back to 1951, festivities this year include a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the automobile.  Possibly the most diverse and challenging hill in the Northeast, Duryea boasts eleven turns (most of which are negotiated in the first half of the course), coupled with some high speeds (140 mph) at the top. 

The PHA season starts and ends with the Weatherly Hillclimbs. These two events are held on the outskirts of Weatherly, PA, a quiet little town that has been hosting these events since 1960. If engineers ever designed a public road to be a thrill ride, this is it. The hill consists of uphill straights leading into hairpin turns, one called "The Wall" that has to be seen and driven to be believed, followed by a hairpin turn, a short run to another hard right-hand turn, and then the "Jump" where most cars leave contact with the pavement. From this point, the rest of the hill consists of a short straight leading to a long, sweeping turn to the finish that tests your tires’ grip on the road as well as your nerve. This hill is a rush from start to finish.

There are somewhere in the vicinity of nine climbs that make up the PHA series, my favorite being the old Hershey Hillclimb, now abandoned, as some of the other famous climbs around the country have been. These include some here in New England, such as Killington in Vermont because of the area around them becoming so built up with resorts that the roads could no longer be safely used.

Another extremely popular hillclimb, now relegated to the annals of motorsport s history books, is the Chimney Rock Hillclimb. This very historic hillclimb was run from the base of Chimney Rock Park, in North Carolina, to the upper parking lot. From 1957 to 1995, the event was held fifty times. Through the years, the course was shortened from 2.7 to 1.8 miles. The race met its demise due to ecological, safety, and liability reasons.

My reason for giving this bit of motorsports history is that, as previously mentioned, it is a form of motorsport  conducted on public roads that are closed for the event, and provide us (especially those who compete in them) 'the Last Open Road' form of motorsport s racing available to us. And it’s something that we can do right here in New England! I wonder how many AONE, JANE, and other sports car club members are aware of this.

The Mount Washington Hillclimb, while it was resurrected in the very early 1990s under the auspices of the SCCA's Pro Rallye Division in conjunction with the New England Hillclimb Association (www.hillclimb.org), has also been sadly relegated to history, except for an occasional run for vintage cars that only utilizes the lower part of the Mount Washington Auto Road to about the half-way point.

However, hillclimb racing is very much alive here in northern New England! Those who have the inclination and desire to race on our 'Last Open Roads’ may do so, as the New England Hillclimb Association, with the full cooperation of the State of Vermont, supports these events, of which there are approximately nine per year. To the best of my knowledge, these are the hillclimbs presently being run, all of which are run twice a year, except for the vintage car climbs and the Mt. Philo event, which are only run once.

Mt. Ascutney is hosted by the Sports Car Club of New Hampshire (SCCNH). Mt. Ascutney is located in southern Vermont in the town of Ascutney. Ascutney runs in the spring and fall on a three-mile course with 30+ turns. It is sometimes also run on the four-mile course in the Spring (longer days than the Fall).

The Mt. Okemo Hillclimb is hosted by the Killington Sports Car Club (KSCC). Okemo Mountain  is located in Ludlow, Vermont, at the Okemo Ski Area.

Next we have the Burke Mountain Hillclimb, also hosted by the KSCC. The Burke climb is located in the small town of Burke, VT, which is located just a few miles northeast of St. Johnsbury.

Then there is the Bolton Valley Hillclimb, hosted by the Sports Car Club of Vermont (SCCV), and it is run at the Bolton Valley Resort in Bolton, VT.

The final location, and the only hill that is used just once a year, is the Mt. Philo. climb. It is always the last event of the season.  Philo is located in Charlotte, VT, which is a few miles south of Burlington. 

For those of you who may be interested, I would suggest that you visit the New England Hillclimb Association's website (www.hillclimb.org) and look over their rules to see what you may need to do to your car to make it eligible to compete in these tremendously exciting, adrenalin-filled events. Or, even better, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0NE-Vsg2b38 and watch the video of Canadian Frank Sprongl's record-setting run up Mt. Washington in his Audi Quattro from the driver's seat!

And maybe, just to wet some of our members’ whistles and create a desire to bring back the memories of "The Last Open Road", we could organize a weekend overnight tour to one of these hillclimbs, and possibly even offer our services as volunteer hill workers, something they are always in need of. Sound like fun?Tiny Quadrifoglio

Uphill Battles