The Empire Hill Climb Revival will be one of the highlights…
My journey up to Mount Washington started a few months ago when Erika Detota announced she had gotten invited to the Rally America event. Erika is partially the reason why I’m even in Stage Rally photography and event coverage, having invited me to my first event, the 2013 Empire State Performance Rally. So whenever I get the chance I like to get to her events and hang out with her and her crew. As the event grew closer, the anticipation and excitement of going to one of the toughest hill climbs in America grew and grew.
My plans started with leaving Thursday night after my graduate course and a full day of work, arriving sometime early on Friday morning. Then they changed to skipping work, sleeping all day, going to class and driving through the night. And finally skipping both and driving through the day. Coming from Atlantic City, NJ meant I had a 10 hour drive ahead of me due to taking I-87 North bound so I could avoid both Boston, Massachusetts and New York, New York.
Tim O’Neil of Team O’Neil Rally School racing his all electric car.
A few miles after getting onto I-87 I got a call from Erika. She needed gear oil for her FWD Subaru Impreza, and not just any gear oil but the incredibly hard to find Subaru Extra S oil. The closest place she could find was Manchester Subaru in Manchester, New Hampshire; a solid two and a half hour drive south of Mount Washington. I agreed to pick it up, having no idea where Manchester was. This apparently sent me about an hour and a half out of my way. I was more than happy to take the drive, partly because adventure side trips are great and also because the rally community tends to help each other out when they can. Once at Manchester Subaru, gear oil was thrust upon me and I was on my way. The quart bottles didn’t quite look like what I expected but I hoped everything was all set. I made a quick stop in Manchester at a Gulf station where I met an awesome attendant, his first question was how I liked my Yokohama’s, best gas station ever.
A few hours later I made it to the rally’s service at the base of Mount Washington. Handing over the oil with a little trepidation, found that these were the exact same bottles they already had, not Extra S. A bit of a scramble and a few hours later the crew managed to barter with a few of the other teams and pieced together enough high-performance oil to flush the trans.
Erika wasn’t the only one running into issues the night before the event. Build Race Party’s Bill Petrow had serious issues of his own. Earlier in the day, Bill and his co-driver Jeremy Neyhart attended the novice driver’s meeting. The meeting primarily consisted of packing all the competitors into the Mount Washington Shuttle Van’s and driving up the mountain. The van’s were driven up the mountain by previous competitors such as Tim O’Neil and Frank Sprongl, resulting in a less than calm drive to the top. As the van’s climbed to the summit Jeremy began to feel discomfort in his abdomen. Once the van’s returned to service Jeremy’s pain continued and eventually Bill and Jeremy made the call to head to the ‘local’ hospital. Bill returned around 10:00PM having left Jeremy at the hospital while he waited for a CAT scan. Luckily for Bill, Ryan Symancek was crewing and is a licensed Rally America co-driver. Ryan agreed to step in as it became clear that Jeremy wouldn’t be able to compete. Jeremy returned several hours later, agreed he was in no condition to compete, but instead would help crew where he could.
Thursday at the mountain was fraught with rain and clouds at the top of the mountain. As dusk settled clouds blew out and the sky cleared. From then on the mountain remained clear through Sunday. Something that very rarely happens. Dry and clear conditions set the perfect conditions for records to be broken.
Friday morning was a rough start as everyone, teams and event staff, began to iron out the procedures for the rest of the weekend. Friday the drivers were set to run the bottom half of the mountain. Parking on the mountain is at a premium so media is driven up in shuttles. The media stop was on the switch back at Signal Corps. If you’ve never been to Mount Washington, you may not realize but eventually you gain so much altitude the trees can’t grow and tundra starts. This tundra region is called the Alpine Zone and requires sufficient hop-scotch skills. The delicate tundra plants can’t be stepped on, otherwise they die off and take 50-60 years to grow back. This meant that jumping from rock to rock was necessary to get around. Signal Corps is right on the edge of the Alpine Zone, the upper half being all tundra, and the lower is part tundra part scrub-pine. Getting into position was tricky, well positioned rocks were few and far between and the scrub-pine gave only small windows to shoot through.
For everyone doing the hill climb instead of the Rally event, Friday and Saturday were practice and familiarization but for the Rally drivers, the morning’s two runs counted toward their overall times for the weekend. Most drivers pushed just hard enough to get times they need but not enough to fully risk an off.
Bill Petrow’s first run didn’t go so well, he and his crew forgot to check his rear tire pressure, 50 lbs of air resulted in the car spinning, narrowly missing a huge rock on the inside of a corner. After recovering and continuing on, his car lost power and they were forced to pull off into a parking area. Because this is a hill climb and not a Stage Rally, Bill and Ryan were not allowed out of their car by the marshals and so were forced to take an 8 minute bogey time. After the run they found that a turbo hose had popped off the inter cooler resulting in a complete loss of pressure. Had the team been able to repair their car while the stage run, they would have easily finished far sooner. They reentered for run two under super rally rules placing the fastest in class for SS2. An incredible feat considering Ryan had to swap in. The night before Ryan spent a late night going over Jeremy’s pace notes and watching in car videos past competitors in order to familiarize him self with notes he’d never seen before for a road he’d never been on.
For the other competitors the day was uneventful, however two hill climb cars also had offs. An Evo 6 ran off the road and hit an embankment. A Subaru WRX ran into the parking area at the switch back in Signal Corpse, thinking it was the finish, only to realize too late and drove over the low rock barrier at the end of the parking area.
The hill climb event’s schedule left the afternoon open for more recce, and repairing of cars. The clear weather gave the teams perfect opportunity to revise their pace notes now that they could actually see the road on the upper half of the mountain. I spent the afternoon riding along with Erika Detota and Mary Warren as they worked on their pace notes followed by a quick photo session with the girls and their car on the side of the mountain before the VIP party, seeing as how I am only mildly important I had to miss out. That evening was a late night hanging out with Bill Petrow and his crew, the car was running smoothly and the team felt they could relax a bit.
Saturday morning the cars ran the second half of the mountain and the shuttles took us up to the most iconic part of the Mount Washington Hill Climb, the Cragway Hairpin. Along Cragway the road turns to dirt and runs along a huge, drop ranging from 30 foot drop up to well over several hundred before a sharp hairpin with a 40 foot or more drop on the outside. The first half of the mountain is characterized primarily by trees with only about a third of the run being visibly on the edge of the mountain. The second half of the Mountain is where the driver’s nerves are fully put to the test. Driving at normal speeds through the top half is unsettling enough for every day driving. But at speeds exceeding 60 miles per hour there is hardly any room for error before catastrophe strikes.
Most competitors began to speed up and test the limits of the cars. Bill began noticing more some setup issues, the rear of the car breaking loose whenever his 240sx began building boost meaning he had to rely on throttle steering to get through Cragway’s dirt section. Erika and Mary, still unhappy with some of their pace notes, couldn’t push quite as hard as they wanted to but managed to maintain 5th place in class.
Nick Roberts ran into issues on his first run of the morning. He entered the hairpin to far on the outside and was rotating too early to properly make it through the turn. This resulted in the rear driver side wheel hitting one of the rocks on the outside of the corner sending the rear of the car into the air before landing on a second rock. The wheel tore off the axle and became wedged under the car. Nick managed to get into the pull off area of the turn before running out of momentum. Soon after Van Way powered through the corner, unaware of the issues ahead of him, missing the car, crew and marshals helping the crew out of the car.
There was discussion of canceling the stage until Nick’s car could be towed to a safer location but the stage was kept open. Nick was confident his crew could get the car back together but was concerned about his struts. The ones on the car were already his spares and the only set he had was a different brand and the change in setup may introduce all sorts of new hardships for the team. Before the second running of the stage a flatbed was brought up to recover the disabled car and bring Nick and his co-driver, Rhianon Gelsomino, back down to service.
A little over an hour later I was back in service with the morning runs over. Nick’s crew had enlisted the help of a few other crews in the effort to tear apart the car and rebuild. By the time I showed up the entire rear sub-frame had been removed and replaced with a new one and in a little over another hour the car was back together and ready for competition. Being one of only two Super Production cars running, Nick and Rhianon need only finish Sunday in order to receive championship points.
Troy Miller and co-driver Steven Harrel ran into issues on the second run. Their R2 Fiesta’s engine loosing compression in one of it’s cylinders. The team worked most of the afternoon trying to bring it back to life with just three cylinders. After hours of work and bouncing ideas off of the other crews, the R2 was finally brought partially back to life but wasn’t in any shape to compete. The team had to resign to the fact that their weekend was over.
After Erika’s car was taken care of for the afternoon, her crew chief, Ian Brown, took a few minutes to adjust my car’s clutch pedal, during the photo shoot the evening before he and Greg Dorman road along with me up the mountain, and noticed how hard my WRX was shifting in first and second. I have to give a huge thank you to him, the car’s performing way better now. Later that afternoon I was driving back up the mountain, this time with Bill and his crew to take shots of his car in its new livery.
Bill’s crew and I also heard a tale of a hidden Packard that was crashed in the 1930s by a bunch of kids racing down the mountain after a night of drinking at the hotel at the summit. We weren’t sure if it was just a local trick or not but we searched around a while and managed to find the twelve cylinder beast, hidden by young pine trees.
On the way down, Bill realized there was something wrong with the car, the rear end would shimmy intermittently. That night Bill and crew spent a late night tearing apart the front and rear suspension checking and double checking everything.
Sunday morning was an even earlier start, and another shuttle ride up the mountain to the Cow Pasture, a plateau between 6 mile and the finish. The full mountain was set to be run twice on Sunday with a mid day service in between. The start order was switched up with the rally cars a few cars before the very end. Erika Detota put in a fantastic first run only to have it thwarted by the Subaru STi in the hill climb class that started before her. The start interval between herself and the hill climb competitor, which is a separate competitor class to the rally drivers, was too short and Erika caught the STi part of the way up the mountain, requiring her to wait behind the car until the road widened enough for her to pass. Erika finished the event 4th in class, had she not been stuck behind the STi she and Mary would have a good shot at 3rd place.
The rest of the morning was went well for the other competitors, with a few hill climb cars not finishing due to mechanical issues. One of the coolest parts of the morning was that Rally America hired a helicopter to follow the cars up the mountain. Having a helicopter fly 50 feet over you while it chases down cars is an incredible experience.
For the second half of the day I was shuttled back down to Cragway and spent the hour and a half break scouting out a different spot to shoot from. I walked all over the hairpin, climbed up a portion of the hiking trail that went to the mountains peak, a roughly 70 to 80 percent grade. Eventually I settled on sitting on a ledge on the inside of the exit of the hairpin. The competitors put everything they had into the final run and the huge talk of the afternoon was David Higgins breaking the old course record with a 06:09.09 run. An incredible performance considering his car was 500 pounds heavier and had 100 less horse power than the car he broke the record with in 2011.
Higgins wasn’t the only one breaking records though. Bill Petrow’s final run set the course record for two wheel drive of 07:09.9. Despite his great runs throughout the weekend, his DNF on the first run forced him into last place in class.
While the Mount Washington Hill Climb is known as “The Climb to the Clouds” the weekend had incredible clear and rare weather, with no clouds to be found. To be on the top of the mountain and to be able to see well over 50 miles was an incredible experience. To see the determination and skill of the drivers as they pushed up the hill was even better. The hill climb is a little sporadic in its run schedule but next time it comes around I’ll definitely be making the 10 hour drive back up to hang out in the clouds.