The Empire Hill Climb Revival From Shunpikers Journal
EMPIRE HILL CLIMB
Screaming in the Forrest
Presented by AutoWeek
Sanctioned by the Sports Car Club of America, Detroit Region
Story by Steve Purdy
From A Shunpiker’s Journal
The sleepy little Lake Michigan village of Empire comes alive in the middle of September as its three-block main street becomes the paddock for an unusual day of racing – the Empire Hill Climb, a modern interpretation of the early days of motor racing.
In the early 20th century enthusiasts of the then-novel automobile found creative ways of competing and testing these thrilling new machines, one of the most popular being the “hill climb.” Those colorful and historic races involved a twisty dirt road up a long hill out in the countryside. Of course, England’s climate and typography meant the road was often rocky, or muddy, or both making for rough and challenging conditions.
Here in early 21st century Empire, MI the conditions are much better, but the competitive instincts of the racers and their innovative approaches to getting to the top of the hill quicker than the next guy are the same. The hill climb can be one of the purest and most accessible forms of racing.
The competition resembles a short “special stage” in rally-racing - or Pro Rally, as the SCCA used to call it. Our late friend and rally-racing guru, Gene Henderson, used to call it “real cars on real roads going really fast.” In this case a paved, 3/4-mile, one-lane, twisty park road winds up the hill to the Empire Bluffs Overlook trailhead. A good elapsed time is in the mid 20-second range.
It might be a stretch to call these “real” cars. None in the 40-car field is without some modifications from modest to extreme – aero kits, after-market engine mods, headers, racing slicks . . . you name it. And, many are purpose-built race cars. But, it doesn’t appear that many limitations apply on how creative these car builders can get.
They race up the hill from 10 AM to 5 PM, one right after another at barely more than one-minute intervals according to class. Only three classes, defined by displacement and type of aspiration, constitute the main competition. A vintage and an exhibition class fill out the field. All of them make wonderful noises as they blast up the hill, on and off the throttle, drifting through the turns, being cheered by spectators on the cliff above.
A few locals, media and enthusiasts gather on a high, tree-covered sand hill about half way up the course. A pizza trailer stands by to provide refreshments. Many have brought lawn chairs and coolers planning to spend the day watching and listening to the racers charge up the hill. If the breeze is right they might catch a whiff of the crisp smell of spent racing fuel.
The range of competitors extend from a profoundly modified Saturn to a Pikes Peak-winning Acura TLX-GT. (Not sure why that big-time race car with its professional crew came to this little race, but perhaps one of our readers could help with that.) We saw along the Front Street paddock such marvels as a Mercur XR8 (who knew there was such a thing?), a lithe little, open-wheel Chaterham 7 Supersprint, a slew of Corvettes, a nearly-stock VW GTI and even a ’73 Gremlin maxed out on aftermarket gadgetry (see images above).
After the race everyone gathered for packing up and social time. Of course, that included plenty of stories about mechanical missteps, track conditions, tricks of the racing game and plenty of advice to the younger racers – just as was the case in early British racing, we’ll bet.
© Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved