Hillclimbing is a popular type of competition among many sports car clubs who operate in hilly areas. It’s essentially a time trial (meaning one car at a time competing for the fastest time) road race up a steep mountain road.

My own experience is with the Sports Car Club of NH (SCCNH) who sponsors two events each year at Mt. Ascutney, VT. In association with the Sports Car Club of VT (SCCV) and the Killington Sports Car Club (KSCC), the three clubs cooperate in the New England Hillclimb Association (NEHA) to operate six or more events/year on four mountains in VT.

In addition, SCCNH’s signature event is the Climb to the Clouds, which in recent years has been run every three years at Mount Washington, NH, the highest peak in the northeastern U.S. The race up Mt. Washington is generally recognized as one of, if not the oldest motor sports event in the United States. The first running was in 1904. The winner of that contest posted a time of more than 24-1/2 minutes. The current record, set in 2017, is under 6 minutes.

There’s much more information and history on Mount Washington and its various competitions  here.

General Description of a Hillclimb

Most sports car hillclimbs are run on paved scenic roads from the base to the summit of prominent mountains. Cars returning to the bottom of the hill are not competing. Any mishap resulting from loss of control on the downleg is highly frowned upon, and often results in that driver’s disqualification from the weekend event.

Variations on this theme are the occasional unpaved section such as the mile+/- 2/3 of the way up Mt. Washington, and some cases where the race starts above the base of the mountain or ends below the summit. Other differences prevail at some locations as the organizers are challenged by the specifics of a particular venue.

In at least one case that I know of (Philo, VT) the race headquarters are at the top of the mountain and the cars in a run group go to the bottom of the course when it’s time for them to run. Another difference at Philo to many courses is that there are separate up and down roads over most of the course so the cars need to use only a very short section of the race course to go down to the start of the course, allowing more time for racing.

On most other mountains, once all the cars in a run group have raced to the top of the course, the action must be suspended to allow the cars to “parade” down to the base on the race course.

The road is usually closed for an entire weekend (in the case of Mt. Washington, it is reopened to the public for parts of each day, except Sunday), and wired for timing and communication. The competitors start at one- or two-minute intervals and compete for the lowest time to run the course. A very common schedule is:

Friday – course preparation. In the case of Mt. Washington (a course 3-5 times as long as most) this occurs starting Wednesday. Friday is a practice day at Mt. Washington.

Saturday – practice. 

Sunday – competition runs. Normally these are the only “official” times. Runs before Sunday are counted in official results only if conditions prevent some competitors from making at least one run on Sunday.

Communication is carefully managed so that, if a car crashes and obstructs the road, or if for any reason a car is in danger of catching the car ahead, the faster car is stopped (and allowed a rerun). Of course, if there’s any risk of injury in a crash, all cars below the scene are stopped to allow for safe passage of emergency vehicles.

Venues

Most of the hillclimbs I’ve participated in are run at locations where there is a state of national park, or other location friendly to campers. Sometimes there are hotels within a short distance of the venue. Except for the relatively few participants who live close enough to “commute” (these events are almost always in very rural areas) the players camp or find other accommodations nearby. Hillclimbs in other parts of the world may be in more, or less, populated areas.

Since the campers are all sequestered there’s a lot of camaraderie, and of course associated partying, at night over campfires. So, in addition to preparing your car, camping gear, safety gear, etc. you’ll likely want to pack in some food and your favorite beverage.

There’s always information available on line or by direct communication with people who know the site in question, and they’re all different. Take advantage of advice from people who’ve been there before!

Get this advice early – many times the available campsites or even hotel rooms will sell out several days or weeks before the event.

Register for the event, and pay fees if possible, or find out what you must do to take care of the fees when you check in at the site

Preparation

As a lead-in to this section I’ll explain the rules I’ve worked with in NEHA for unprepared and prepared race cars. Other organizers may have different rules and ways of administering them. Suffice it to say that hillclimbs, although they don’t have traffic risks, are run close to trees, rocks, roadside ditches, steep drops off the side of the road, etc. Crashes happen – usually a few in a weekend, so safety is a major consideration.

Our arrangement required only helmets, seat belts, long-sleeved shirts and long pants (no synthetic fabric in under- or outer-wear, please), and a fire extinguisher mounted in a metal bracket within the driver’s reach – check for required fire extinguisher volume) for unprepared cars. If an unprepared car ran faster than a break-out time specified for each hill in two runs during the weekend, that car/driver combination would be required to have a roll cage in the car, and full safety gear for the driver, to be allowed to run again on that hill. Since roll cages don’t get installed overnight (perhaps they could, with access to a full welding shop and superhuman effort by a good team, but it would be extremely rare!), that car and driver wouldn’t be allowed to run again that weekend. If you’re that driver, perhaps you’ll want to chip in and help work the rest of the event (see the section below on workers and support).

Now, to car and personal preparation (much of this is a repeat of my advice for autocrossers). Many of these items can be arranged several days or weeks before the event:

Safety gear for a prepared car includes, in addition to the items mentioned above:

  • Approved roll cage installed in the car.
  • At some locations, an external electrical cutoff switch, properly labeled.
  • Fire suit (at some venues double layer, or single layer with fireproof underwear)
  • Fire proof gloves and footgear (including socks)
  • Head and Neck restraint (commonly known as a HANS device – there are other brands)
  • At some venues, the car must have an external “kill switch”
  • Some means to prevent the battery terminals from contacting other metal in a crash. At some locations the battery must be in an enclosed container. Make sure the battery is securely mounted – a loose battery is very dangerous for many reasons. 

Otherwise, for all cars:

  1. Wear comfortable closed toe shoes. No sandals or slip-ons allowed.
  2. Select other wear appropriate to the weather (consider the possibility of rain)  Unless there’s thunderstorm activity the event will probably proceed in rain.
  3. Any chance of rain? Arrange some waterproof cover for the stuff you take out of the car (your car must be empty during competition). You’ll want to leave at home any items you don’t need.
  4. Take appropriate suncreen. You’ll likely be in the sun a lot!
  5. Take plenty of fluids (non-alcoholic*, of course) to drink, and anything you want to eat. *See notes above under venue – after the hill is closed for the day, beer and other alcoholic beverages usually flow freely
  6. Plan to arrive with less than 1/2 tank of gas, and be aware of arrangements to refuel. For special fuel, or extremely remote venues, you may need to carry extra fuel in suitable containers. You want the car as light as possible, but you’ll likely use more than a half-tank of gas during the weekend.
  7. Check the oil, coolant and brake fluid levels. You’ll be driving hard and braking hard.
  8. Take a good tire gauge. If you have a compressed air tank or small compressor, take it. If not, go to a service station and air up the tires to 5 psi above manufacturer’s recommended pressures.
  9. If you have any sort of race tires, put them on the car, or arrange to change tires at the hill. Even if they’re not ideal for hillclimbing, they’re probably better than your street tires.
  10. Buy or try to borrow a helmet with a Snell rating within the last 10 years. If you don’t have one available, check with the race organizers – some clubs have loaners. For a prepared car the helmet is one of the less expensive accessories – own one!
  11. Check for abnormal play in wheel bearings. Make adjustments or repairs as necessary.
  12. Ensure that the throttle closes unrestrictedly.
  13. Make sure the brake pedal is solid at a normal height.
  14. Gather medical information – blood type, your doctor’s contact info, and any other required info (check with organizers). This information must be pasted or taped to your helmet.
  15. Be rested! Especially while you’re learning all the routines, it will be a long, tiring weekend.
  16. If at all possible, arrive the night before the event starts (usually Friday night). Things start happening early on race days. If you’re a “rookie” (new to the particular hill, even if you’re otherwise experienced) you’ll be required to do a “rookie orientation” run with an experienced driver knowledgeable about the unique features of the particular hill.
  17. Always check with the organizers of your event. Many clubs and venues have other specific requirements
  18. As soon as you arrive at the site, check in with the organizers, pay any necessary fees, and there will be some forms to sign – waivers, permission to administer first aid, tow your vehicle if necessary, etc.
  19. Get a course map, usually available on line, even if you have to approximate it with Google Maps, etc. – and  study it. Since many courses include more than 20 or 30 turns, memorize the numbers and approach features of the most treacherous ones – usually no more than 3 or 4 – the rest you’ll have to “feel” your way through on the first few runs.

Racing Action!

Remember that I’m describing NEHA events. Others may have variations.

Each driver, each race day, is required to do a familiarization (“fam”) run to see course conditions, any unique obstacles that may have appeared recently, and to generally get in tune with the whole environment. In this run, all the cars in the particular run group parade up the hill at approximately 75% of race speed. When they’ve all reached the top of the course, they parade back down.

Note: Over exuberance, especially if it results in an off-road incident, during fam runs or returns (coming down the hill) is expressly prohibited. An off-road incident during these activities will likely result in the driver being disqualified for the weekend! If you’re new and a bit uncertain, try to get toward the end of the fam run. In any case, run it at a speed you’re comfortable with – faster than a city commute, but allowing yourself to observe things, and get the feel of the course. If you lag a bit behind the car ahead, so be it!

Now it’s time to race!

Usually the cars line up at the bottom of the course in no particular order, except that special positioning of two-driver cars may be desirable to allow the second driver time to prepare for his or her run after the first driver has returned to the start. The second driver will be in the next run group.

Workers and Support

It takes many people to organize and run a hillclimb. All workers are volunteers. Here’s a (probably partial – I’ll add items as they occur to me) list of the positions that must be covered.

  1. Organizers, associated with the club hosting the event – They must:
    1. Secure the venue. In our group, this is in most cases arranged through VT State Parks.
    2. Assign others to be in charge of such functions as meals (lunch, and sometimes breakfast, is usually catered), workers, crash and rescue teams, tow trucks, event sponsors (an important source of revenue), organizing campsite rentals, etc., and coordinate the work of the people assigned to these tasks.
  2. Race control is responsible for the safe conduct of the event. This is a very demanding function – approving the start of each car, knowing where each car is on the course and any incidents of any kind, and directing everyone’s activities in the case of a crash or other incident. The person in this position must be intensely focused. Usually this function will be shared among two or more people to allow breaks from the intensity.
  3. Timing and scoring. This requires coordination between the starter, who releases each car, and the timer at the top of the course, who records the time elapsed for each car.
  4. Staging, starting, and race control support. Organizing the cars for a steady flow of cars ready to start, releasing cars to start the course, running errands at the start area, and supporting the timer at the top of the course, takes four or more people.
  5. Station workers. At each of several points along the course, two or three people are stationed to communicate with race control to report each car’s passing, any issues important to safety within their view (such as an unusually slow car, debris on the course, a crash, etc.) and anything else to keep control fully informed. When instructed by control, they “red-flag” a car to avoid a conflict further up the hill. There must always be at least two at each station, so one can respond to the scene of an incident while one remains to communicate with control. These duties can take 10-30 people, depending on the number of stations on the particular course.
  6. Depending on the location, others may be needed to monitor trail crossings (these are scenic mountains with many hiking trails) or other miscellaneous duties.
  7. For larger events, such as Mt. Washington, upwards of 200 workers may be needed.

There is usually a cadre of people who like working these events for the camaraderie and excitement of the event, as well as the best opportunity to see the action. (Spectators, other than at the start area, are not permitted on the course at most venues. It’s simply too difficult to keep spectators from endangering themselves or distracting drivers.) To supplement the “regulars”, competitors are encouraged to bring friends, and often drivers who can’t compete for whatever reason will volunteer. For established events, which usually occur on consistent weekends every year, the supply of workers is quite dependable.

Tips for Drivers

Much of what I offered in tips for autocrossers applies here.

There are some major differences though.

  • Speeds can be much higher – often 100 MPH+ for higher powered cars.
  • Rocks, trees, and ditches are much less friendly to hit than plastic cones. It pays to be conservative until you’ve learned a particular course. Even then, if you depend on your car for transportation, you’ll probably want to take less chances than someone with a dedicated race car might take. Rollovers are a distinct possibility if you go off the road.
  • For most cars, there’s a lot more shifting. If you have a manual transmission car, be comfortable with quick and smooth up-and down-shifts.
  • Most mountain roads have significant camber changes. Learn the ideal positioning for the critical areas entering and exiting turns. They may differ considerably from where you’d want to be on a flat surface. Entering a turn with the car out of balance because of a camber change may make the difference between successful execution of the turn and a spin or off-road excursion.
  • Except for very short sections, you’re climbing steeply – often 20+% grades. You can brake much later approaching a turn than you would on a level road. Just don’t brake too late – ask me how I know!

In Summary

Hillclimbing can be lots of fun and offers some unique challenges compared to other types of racing.

It offers:

  • Camaraderie – there’s nothing quite like a group of people camping and playing together in a remote scenic weekend retreat.
  • Unique driving challenges.
  • An element of danger – always exhilarating.
  • Relatively low cost, unless you purpose-build a car. More expensive than autocrossing, but much less so than many types of racing.

In all, it’s just plain fun!