The rumbling echo of exhaust notes, whirring sound of turbochargers and the screeching of rubber peeling on pavement from past events have echoed in the minds of Northern Michigan’s car fanatics for decades, ever since the Empire Hill Climb in beautiful and scenic Empire, Mich. disappeared in the 1980s. Those echoes are becoming reality once again as this historical event drifts into the present day, revived by the devoted people who just couldn’t bear to let it be forgotten.
To reach the nearest race course from Hagerty headquarters in Traverse City, Mich., enthusiasts need to travel at least a couple of hours, so this event is a big deal. Everyone in between who has discovered this revived gem gets through the long winter by feeding off of the anticipation that comes from the thoughts of the beauty and the adrenaline of the Empire Hill Climb
The Empire Hill Climb originally ran from 1964 to 1980, and it resurfaced in 2014 for a trial run. The course takes you through a winding road into the woods of Empire. It is a short but challenging ½-mile with eight wheel-squealing corners, and to top it off, it is just a short walk from the shores of Lake Michigan.
The hill has seen some of the best cars from their respective time periods compete during the original timed races: Jaguar E-Types, Austin-Healeys, AMC Gremlins, Formula Fords, Triumphs, and Corvettes, Porches and even a Ferrari or two. This year – the second year of the event’s revival – there was heavy competition between Subaru WRX and Imprezas, Mazda GTX and Mazda Speed 3, Toyota Celica GT-S and Toyota MR2, a Ford XR8 and Mustang Shelby GT500, and a Mercedes 190E 16V and Volvo 122S.
Spectators are able to get up close and personal with the drivers and their cars before the race begins, and the spectator areas offer high visibility and safety on a hill above the course. On the starting line, spectators can see the purest level of determination and concentration in a driver’s eyes right before take off.
The event takes place rain or shine, and this year – on Saturday, May 31— the course was a bit slick, the drivers were white-knuckled, and the fans watching above were white-faced and standing on their toes to see the action, all the while breathing deeply as the smell of race gas and oil whooshed by.
Todd Tortorelli with the Azzuri Rally Sport team and the Subaru WRX took first place as the king of the hill. Coming in at a close second was Dylan Helferich with his Subaru Impreza. The gang will be back in 2016 with new competition, and until then, the little town of Empire waits in anticipation.