The art of the hill climb is a brief but brilliant sensory overload

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1964 Porsche 356 Cameron Neveu

Back in the fifth-century B.C., Sun Tzu advised military leaders to take high ground to ensure victory, in The Art of War. In second grade I got seven stitches playing “King of the Hill.” I was willing to lay all 90 pounds of my being on the line for temporary claim of the playground’s snow bank. It was an innate will to dominate and protect my keep from an elevated position, where I could see danger coming. So when I heard about the Empire Hill Climb in northern Michigan, I had to see a slice of the action.

The first competitive hill climb for automobiles took place in France on January 31, 1897. Since then, when the cars all had horsepower in the single digits, hill climbing is quite a bit faster and more popular. By the mid 20th century, if you were any driver to shake a tire iron at, you would be at the infamous Pikes Peak Hill Climb less than a month after you and your fellow grand prix drivers crossed the line at the Indianapolis 500.

Acura TLX static
Cameron Neveu

Flash forward to present day, and racers are still trying to shimmy up a slope in record time. Whether it’s a duke’s driveway or a dragon’s tail, participants spend years building their chariots of conquest and days of traveling—all for mere minutes of total competition time.

What motivates someone to rebuild a new engine after the original grenades only 50 feet up the hill? And better yet, why would spectators show up to watch it? You can’t see the whole course—100 yards at best. Wouldn’t it be like watching three seconds of a movie?

To find out, I visited this year’s Empire Hill Climb in northern Michigan to get a better grasp on hill climbing and the people who love it. Of the 40 entries, Peter Cunningham laid it out best: “This is a culmination of all racing disciplines.” The owner-driver of a 500-hp Acura TLX explained that hill climbing is a combination of rally, autocross, and road racing. And that the short half-mile run up the hill in Empire even borrowed a bit from drag racing. Sounds like racing’s ultimate cocktail. No wonder drivers traverse multiple states for just a sip.

Porsche 911 rally sunset
Cameron Neveu

Family is another piece of the puzzle. Over half the participants I interviewed were camping with their family during Hill Climb weekend. Empire is only five minutes away from gorgeous Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. (Hill climbs are often temporary tracks made from picturesque roads in the middle of Mother Nature.) If you want to spend quality time with your family, go camping and just ask them to ignore the race car in tow.

Geoff Hegel promised, “There’s a majesty to it.” His words rattled around in my head as I waded up the hill through wet ferns to find my perch for the race. My skin glistened with dew and sweat, which was a persistent and tasty entree for the mosquitoes.

Rothmans livery
Cameron Neveu
Datsun 280Z motion
Cameron Neveu

Honda CRX motion side
Cameron Neveu

I only had to wait for one pass to understand what Geoff was getting at. It was like reverse skydiving. Blazing neon salvos streaking up a thin line between deciduous barriers. Smelling race fuel in the middle of the woods is a thrill for the nostrils. And for all other senses, automotive fireworks. A faint noise as the cannon launches, then “WHAM!” The racer explodes into view, dances through the trees, and then rockets down the road, out of eyesight. Before you can cram your heart back down your throat, another car comes screaming by.

Sitting at the base of a rotten pine high above turn four, it all made sense. As a spectator, I was ecstatic. I could only imagine what it was like for the contestants. I had my answers and it was time to go home, so I made my way down the steep grade towards the parking lot. There, I saw a staging ’73 AMC Gremlin. I immediately wanted go back up the hill.

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