Hillclimbing: An autosport in which individual drivers race against the clock on a twisty mountain road.
To get the idea, take your favorite back road—the narrower the better; add bumpy pavement if it doesn’t have some already; then give it a steep tilt and drive up it as fast as you can. Suddenly 45 miles an hour becomes hair-raising. Your tires howl in protest as they claw for grip, propelling you between trees and rocks that once meant scenery. Drainage channels become the Grand Canyon. You learn almost instantly what they never taught you in driver’s ed: that motor vehicle operation and performance driving are dramatically different skills.
Who, When, Where, What… Hillclimbing is an organized sport that’s been going on for decades. Three New England clubs—Killington Sports Car Club (KSCC), Sports Car Club of New Hampshire (SCCNH), and the Sports Car Club of Vermont (SCCV)—hold events at ski areas and state parks across Vermont, using paved access roads to the tops of Okemo in Ludlow; Ascutney in Windsor; Burke in Lyndonville; Bolton Valley in Bolton; and Philo in Charlotte.
…and Why: Speeds on the Vermont hills range from 20 to 30 mph in hairpin turns to 80+ mph on the straightaways. On all these hills, top drivers can average greater than 60 mph. The adrenaline rush and sense of mastery—at any speed—bring them back year after year.
How: For all hillclimbs, a club rents a mountain for a weekend and closes its roads to traffic; this creates safe courses ranging from one to three miles. Drivers come from all over the East, particularly northern New England, and occasionally from Canada and Europe. They range in age from 20 to 80 and work in any occupation. Many come from the automotive and machine trades and build their own race cars. Thus, hillclimbing vehicles range from “run what you brung” daily drivers to purpose-built tube-frame specials.
Minimum Requirements: All cars must pass technical and safety inspections, and all drivers must wear approved helmets. Specially prepared cars must have roll cages and racing harnesses. Rollcages are recommended in stock cars, also, but not required (except for convertibles) unless the drivers of these cars post times which are quicker than the posted breakout times.
Starting in the 2006 season, we adopted breakout times at all our hills. Read the current NEHA rules for more information. For classes that do not require rollcages, they will be driving against their fellow drivers for the best time in their class, but they also must drive at a speed that keeps them below the breakout time. Let’s say the breakout time for a specific hill is 3:30; this means that the driver cannot get a 3:29 because they went faster than allowable for safety reasons. We allow non-caged cars to drive out the events to allow people to ‘test the waters’, but in the interest of safety, a non-caged car is required to keep it a bit more mild going up the hill. Make sure to read the current NEHA rules for the specifics on the breakout rule and the times for each hill.
Getting Started: Clubs welcome novices but recommend that they have previous sport-driving experience. Autocross, rallying, time trials, and road racing offer good training for hillclimbs. Autocross, in particular, teaches car handling in the lowest-cost, safest environment. The skills learned in racing the clock around pylons in parking lots transfer directly to corners on hills.
Risk Factors: Like any form of racing, like any sport, hillclimbing can be risky. Organizers minimize that risk by requiring safety equipment and course controls, plus hiring emergency response crews. But mistakes can be expensive. Trees, rocks, and ravines line every course, and all the courses have off-camber turns or frost heaves to catch the unwary. Thus, drivers must accept the possibility of damaging their cars, and prepare accordingly. Dramatic crashes such as rollovers happen rarely, and injuries beyond bruises are almost unheard of. Like all good athletes, hillclimbers work at prevention as well as success. They memorize the courses, study the rules, practice their skills, and invest in proper equipment.
Camaraderie: Many families hillclimb together. Drivers compete against their parents or siblings or spouses, while other relatives and friends serve as crew or work on the hill. At the state park events, families and friends camp together in a motley mix of tents, lean-tos, and trailers. At all events, competitors help each other prepare or fix cars and tow rigs in the pit area.
Working: Working lets non-drivers or future drivers participate according to their own skills and interests. Tasks can be as simple as counting down the start to drivers or as complex as running three miles of wire up a hill. No hillclimb can run without hard wire and radio communication. Workers stationed at corners keep track of every vehicle throughout the event. They help drivers keep track of themselves by numbering every corner; they keep the course clear of debris; then they return everything to its original state before awards can be presented. Workers also aid drivers who suffer mechanical failures or off-course excursions, and perform registration and tech inspection. Others take care of hill rental, insurance, and lunches (workers get theirs free).
Spectating: Depending on the event, workers must also act as traffic cops, for hillclimbing doesn’t lend itself to spectating. For this reason, the state park events, Philo and Ascutney, rent their roads off season and control their gates. Okemo, however, whose road is open to the public once the snow melts, offers limited viewing from an area at the base of the mountain. Aside from these, events are closed to the public for insurance and liability reasons. The best way to sample a hillclimb is to sign up as a corner worker. Most clubs prefer novices to work first so they will understand the rules and risks before driving.
Event Format: Club events run two days: Saturday for practice, Sunday for times (with registration and tech inspection Friday evening). If weather interferes on race day, then practice times become official results. Cars are divided into classes based on weight, engine size, and degree of modification. In each class, fastest time wins, with fastest time of day given special merit. Club events award trophies plus points toward fancier trophies at the end of the New England Hillclimb Association (NEHA) series.
Competitors get one to five runs a day depending on weather, interruptions, and number of entries. Each day starts with a “FAM” run, a FAMiliarization run that is not timed, in which all drivers cruise the course in a line to familiarize themselves with the day’s conditions. After reversing at the top, the pack returns to the bottom, then starts individual timed runs.
On the larger hills, up to three cars might be on course simultaneously after staggered starts. Each car is called in by workers as it passes so officials always know where everyone is. The way the roads wind up the mountains leaves sight and sound gaps between checkpoints. In case something happens that workers can’t see or hear, the logging of cars past checkpoints allows workers to determine someone is missing and prevent more cars from coming up the hill. Medical and technical help are closer to you on a hillclimb than anywhere on a public road. Only race tracks provide faster response.”