Racing up Mt. Washington
The 7.6-mile Mt. Washington Auto Road is the ultimate challenge for driver and auto, especially for competitors participating in the "Climb to the Clouds"
The Mt. Washington Auto Road is no ordinary ribbon of asphalt and gravel. The road rises more than 4,700 feet to the summit of the Northeast’s highest peak in a scant 7.6 miles. That’s an average grade of 12%, with sustained sections of more than 18%. But it’s no straight shot. All of which makes the Auto Road an irresistible attraction for the internal-combustion crowd. For “Climb to the Clouds” competitors, the road is a launching pad.
The 160-year-old road winds like an enormous wet noodle across the eastern and northern flanks of the 6,288-foot granite knob affectionately nicknamed the Rockpile. It can be as claustrophobic as a mine shaft below treeline, barely two cars wide. Above 4,000 feet, the road doesn’t widen, but the sense of space does. There are sheer drop-offs and spectacular vistas, but no guardrails, no safety net.
“Mt. Washington Auto Road is a fantastic piece of road,” says Marshall Clarke of Northern Ireland. “It has everything a good rally stage needs to offer a challenge to the competitor, from the tree-lined bottom, gravel section in the middle, and a complete moonscape at the peak.”
Clarke knows. Like scores of drivers with “This Car Climbed Mount Washington” bumper stickers, Clark has gotten an intimate look at the road. He had a front-row seat beside Subaru Rally Team driver Travis Pastrana in September 2010, when the Red Bull-sponsored racer applied his own scorched-earth policy to the Auto Road, producing a record-breaking run of 6 minutes, 20.47 seconds. His average speed? A mind-boggling 72 miles an hour.
“We had more fun with this run than I’ve ever had in a car,” said Pastrana at the time.
On that day a decade ago, Pastrana and co-pilot Clarke, aboard a 400-horsepower Subaru Impreza WRX STI, trimmed 20 seconds off Frank Sprongl’s 1998 record run. That generated the buzz that sponsors at Vermont SportsCar and the Sports Car Club of New Hampshire were hoping for when they revived the Climb to the Clouds after
a 10-year hiatus.
The event returns to the Rockpile this summer following another delayed takeoff. With the pandemic forcing a postponement of the 2020 race, the 27th edition of the Climb to the Clouds is now set for August 15. Sunday is the grand finale of a four-day motorsports festival, formally known as the 2021 Subaru Mt. Washington Hillclimb presented by Yokohama Tire (August 13-15). Normally held every three years, the famed rally was last run in 2017.
“We obviously have to pay close attention to all that’s going on regarding COVID-19, and we are,” says Event Director Paul Giblin, a longtime member of the Sports Car Club of New Hampshire, the race’s sanctioning body. “However, we’re also fortunate that the event was postponed, as we’ll likely reap the benefit of most of the United States as well as Canada having been vaccinated. We have contingency plans to ensure that the event is not only safe but enjoyable for everyone.”
Looking back on his electrifying 2010 run, Pastrana, after getting a full measure of the mountain, acknowledged his unofficial record run was more than just a warm-up.
“Our biggest thing was to not go up there and crash on the first run,” he says. “But I wasn’t giving it any slack. We went for it.”
In 2017, Pastrana went for it again. After Welshman David Higgins set a new official mark of 6 minutes, 11.54 seconds in 2011, and then knocked another two seconds off his mark in 2014, Pastrana punched out a time of 5 minutes and 44.72 seconds (42 second faster than runner-up Dan Novembre).
Pastrana plans to return this summer with a new Subaru WRX STI customized by Vermont SportsCar.
“Travis challenged Subaru to build a car that was 800-plus horsepower that would, in his words, smash the record at Mount Washington,” says Giblin. “They have built that car. That car is coming to Mount Washington.”
Historic road, historic race
Mt. Washington is the centerpiece of New Hampshire’s Presidential Range, one of the world’s oldest mountain ranges. So it’s only fitting that the Auto Road hosted one of North America’s earliest sports car races.
Construction on the road began in 1854, taking seven years to complete. The finished product, first opened in 1861, features more than 70 corners, many of the hairpin variety. Until the first stretch of asphalt was laid down in the 1960s, the road was a strip of dirt and gravel. That didn’t discourage racers.
The inaugural Climb to the Clouds was held in 1904, seven years before the first running of the Indianapolis 500. In 1903, L.J. Phelps set the official “mark” when he chugged up the road in one hour, 45 minutes. The next year, Harry Harkness shattered Phelps’ record, powering his Mercedes to the summit in a time of 24 minutes and 37.6 seconds.
From there, the times plummeted. W.H. Willard nailed a sub-21-minute time (20 minutes, 58 seconds) in 1905 aboard his Napier. “Cannonball” Baker was the first two-time record-setter, claiming a 14-minute, 19.6-second time in 1928, and then eclipsing Ab Jacob’s 1930 run (14 minutes, 23 seconds) with a 13-minute, 26-second romp in 1932.
“Back in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, the race was a proving ground. Motorsports were still fairly new,” says Giblin. “In 1904, when the event first started, it was actually part of a rally, the Glidden Tour. The cars left New York City and traveled all over the Northeast. They used Mount Washington as a proving ground for these cars.”
In 1956, racing legend Carroll Shelby guided his Ferrari up the Rockpile in 10 minutes, 28.8 seconds, a record that stood until Bill Rutan went sub-10 (9 minutes, 13 seconds) with his Porsche-powered VW in 1961. Rutan’s run, which is prized as the last “nonpavement” record, stood for 29 years, as the race went into hibernation.
During that break, the Auto Road got a makeover. Recognizing that the road was a growing tourist destination (an average of 50,000 vehicles and 10,000 motorcycles now travel the road annually), owners began paving sections to prevent erosion.
Asphalt equals speed
When the Climb to the Clouds returned in 1990, racers found a much faster track. Hometown hero and five-time U.S. rally champion Tim O’Neil promptly lopped 88 seconds off Rutan’s record, posting a 7-minute, 45-second time in his VW Rally Golf. The next year, Vermont’s Paul Choiniere, an eight-time US rally champion, set a new mark of 7 minutes, 9.6 seconds. Frank Sprongl nicked a second off Choiniere’s time in 1992, instigating a spirited border war between the American Choiniere and the Canadian Sprongl. Choiniere went sub-7 minutes in 1993 (6 minutes, 46.6 seconds) and then lowered his mark in 1995 before Sprongl eclipsed that record in 1998.
“Back in the day, when they were really competing against each other, they wouldn’t get within 20 feet of each other,” says Giblin of the rivalry. “They wouldn’t even look at each other.”
The rivalries have mellowed over the years. “It’s a great event, great competition, great friends,” says Choiniere. “It’s not really about winning and losing.” Still, longtime racers never tire of testing themselves and their vehicles against the Auto Road.
“The draw for me is the challenge of the course, the camaraderie of the participants, workers, volunteers and organizers,” says Drew Young of Loudon. “This is a family of people who do this for the love of the sport and history of the event.
“The mountain doesn’t need [the race] to make profits — they truly enjoy the event and look forward to it happening,” says the 64-year-old Young, who has participated in every Climb to the Clouds since 1991, or 15 in total. “That’s the same with almost all of the entrants. There are a few who make a living driving cars, but only a handful. The rest are here for the thrill, and being able to say they were here.”
Sprongl won’t be racing this year, but he wouldn’t be surprised if there was another record-setting performance.
“The old road I ran on, that was a real road. Now they’ve paved it, so it’s more driver-friendly,” says Sprongl. “It’s just so fast now.”
There was roughly 15% more pavement in 2011 compared to 2001. Today, more than 80% of the road is paved.
“We are continuing with our quest to have the whole road paved, and get rid of the three-quarters of a mile of gravel road that still exists,” says Tobey Reichert, the Auto Road’s general manager. “Ten years ago, the gravel stretch was well over a mile.”
The twists and turns and exposure, however, remain the same. It’s a high-risk, high-reward venue, with corners that produce the G-forces of a fighter jet. Pavement has resulted in the road becoming even narrower, meaning even less margin for error.
“With rallying, it’s all about car control and the navigation,” says O’Neil, who founded the Team O’Neil Rally School in Dalton, New Hampshire. “If you do everything right, and you have your notes or have the road memorized, there shouldn’t be any surprises. You should always come into the corners at the exact right speed at the exact right side of the road and everything should be perfect.”
The Auto Road and Climb to the Clouds rally are often compared to the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb in Colorado (dating back to 1916). True, Pikes Peak has the higher finish line at 14,110 feet. But the Climb to the Clouds race, because it starts at a lower elevation (1,565 feet compared to 9,390), actually gains slightly more elevation over a shorter distance (7.6 miles versus 12.4), meaning it’s steeper (12% average grade compared to 7%). And Pikes Peak, say competitors, is much more forgiving.
“They’re just different animals,” says Chris Yandell of Vermont SportsCar. “Pikes Peak is wide and smooth, like a highway. Mount Washington is more like a proper rally stage — tight, with lots of small little turns, more ‘gotcha!’ moments, more undulations, more suspension difficulties.”
At Mt. Washington, says Yandell, “you can’t make mistakes.” Pastrana agreed.
“With these cars, if you’re going wide on a corner, if you’re looking at the tree or look at the cliff, that’s where you’re going,” says the 37-year-old racer. “The key is to keep looking at where you want to go.”
Despite the inherent risks, the Climb to the Clouds race has an exceptional safety record. There have only been three fatalities on the hill since motorized vehicles started making the trek, and none during the race. However, there have been close calls.
“I remember in 1996, at mile 5 we had a guy do a barrel roll five times,” says Howie Wemyss, the road’s former general manager. “We needed cables to pull him back up to the road. But the guy walked away.”
The danger is part of the attraction. The Auto Road, says Choiniere, “presents challenges we don’t normally have. You need to be precise, and you can be very quick. If you can get it wrong, it can be very slow, or disastrous.”
And that’s why racers keep coming back.
“For me, Mount Washington is the Mack Daddy of East Coast hillclimbs,” says Dave Patten of Dunbarton, and owner of FutoFab LLC, an online Datsun restoration and per-
formance parts business. “In 1990, when the event was announced it would be run again, the first time since 1962, I was all over entering.
“I’m a lifetime member of the Sports Car Club of New Hampshire, and had been running hillclimbs since the mid-’70s,” says the 64-year-old Patten. “So racing up Mount Washington was a chance of a lifetime..”
A full field and festival
The 2021 edition of the Climb to the Clouds will feature plenty of action. Friday and Saturday are set aside for practice runs, as well as spectator-friendly elements like a Fan Zone and driver autograph sessions. But the true stars are the race rigs, a wild collection of vehicles in over 10 categories, ranging from unlimited and open classes to high performance showroom stock to American rally cross and vintage.
The field of 80 racers is a threefold increase over the number of competitors in the early 1990s, says Giblin. (Organizers had to turn away more than 60 applicants.) That number allows each racer to run the road twice, with their best run counting as their official time.
While Pastrana is predicting a new record, Mother Nature must cooperate. That’s no sure thing. As recently as 2007, the Auto Road’s two annual bicycle races — held in July and August — were both canceled due to freezing rains and hail above tree line.
“Weather is absolutely everything,” says Sprongl. “If the weather isn’t perfect, it doesn’t matter how fast a car you have. You’ll never do the times. I prefer a nice, slight overcast day, but warm. I think those are the fastest conditions.”
According to a plaque near the summit, the Presidential Range once rivaled Europe’s massive Alps. Today, Mt. Washington stands as a testament to the corrosive power of the winds that swirl and occasional rage through this unpredictable pocket of the White Mountains. Here, on April 12, 1934, the highest land-based wind speed in the Northern Hemisphere — 231 miles an hour — was recorded. Conditions can change in a heartbeat, and temperatures have been known to swing from high 80s and sunshine at the base to subfreezing and hailstorms above 4,000 feet.
“There are so many variables. In rallying, that’s how it is. You’re gonna run it, no matter what the weather or the conditions. It could benefit you one time and benefit the next guy the next time,” says O’Neil.
“There’s a rule in rallying — force majeure, or God’s will. Force majeure counts,” he adds. “If you’re winning, and a tree drops in front of you, that’s too bad. Whatever happens, happens. You have to deal with it.”
Even Pastrana couldn’t believe the variations he encountered.
“The most amazing, and most unique thing, is that it was sunny the whole day at the bottom,” he says. “Yet, on the run, I set the record, it started raining halfway up, then it got sunny, then there was fog for the last mile where I couldn’t see 10 feet in front of the car.”
Young, another longtime Sports Car Club of New Hampshire member, isn’t deterred. He says he can’t wait for his 16th race up the Auto Road.
“Where else can you drive a car as fast as you dare, in an area that is breathtakingly beautiful, and with an amazing group of people who are there simply for the fun of it?”
For details, visit climbtotheclouds.com.