History of the Hillclimb

An article from Prancing Horse #174 First Quarter 2010  by John Hurabiell traces the history of what has become the Pacific Region’s “Premier Event”

A scant 30 miles east of the backbone of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range sits Mount Davidson.  Terraced on the east facing the upper slopes of this 7,864 foot peak is the town of Virginia City, Nevada.  It’s an icon of the Old West-a rough and tumble mining town in the heart of the Comstock Lode, the greatest of the silver rushes in the nineteenth century, maker of the Bonanza Kings, Mackay Fair, Flood and O’Brien and playground of Ferraris for more than 35 years.

U.S. 50 runs east out of Carson City.  About five miles down the road, Nevada State 342 heads north towards Virginia City.  Four miles off U.S. 50, 342 forks with Nevada State 341.  This is the truck route, the road for today’s Virginia City Hillclimb.  It was carved out of the hills (at 5,600 feet elevation, they may be mountains to many readers) east of 342 because that highway’s turns were too tight for trucks and buses to negotiate safely.

It all started on the weekend of May 23-24, 1964, when Road & Track joined with the Aston Martin Owners Club, U.S.A., Section West of Northern California, to conduct a hillclimb on 342 from Silver City to Gold Hill on the way to Virginia City.  The course was just 2.6 miles in length.  More than 100 applications were whittled down to 70 entries, and only two were Ferraris-a 212 driven by Chris Cord and a 250GT driven by Dean Johnson.  There were 26 Aston Martins, 14 Jaguars, 9 Lotuses, and a smattering of Cobras, some Formula Juniors and miscellaneous other marques.  The King of the Hill that weekend was Stan Petersen, then of Oakland driving a Lotus 19.  Steve Earle, later of Monterey Historics fame, participated in his Jaguar XKSS.  The event had sponsorship from Martini & Rossi, and the big prize was the Martini Trophy.  In fact, the event was billed as the First Annual Martini Trophy Hillclimb, which also celebrated the Centennial of Nevada Statehood.

The Martini Trophy Hillclimb lasted only one year.  The event was taken over in 1965 but the San Francisco Region (SFR) of the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA).  This second event, staged on September 18-19, 1965, was apparently a flop-precious little information exists and memories are dim.  While it’s mentioned in the Coming Events section of the August 1965 edition of The Wheel (SFR Newsletter), there’s no mention of results in subsequent editions, nor do SCCA SFR board minutes mention it.  It did occur but is lost in the foggy mists of memory.

The event was revived in 1972 by the Ferrari Owners Club (FOC) from Southern California.  It occurred as the result of a visit in December 1971 by Allen Bishop and Hans Tanner (he of great renown as chronicler of matters Ferrari-see Prancing Horse #165).  As they drove up 341(the truck route) to Virginia City, Allen lost it and spun out at the place we now know as turn 3.  No damage done, save to his pride, but an idea was planted in Hans’ mind-“Why not a hillclimb for the FOC?”  Many phone calls and lots of fancy footwork put the event together.  A scant nine months after the spin,  there was another hillclimb to Virginia City-only this time on 341, which was, and is, 5.2 miles from the start line to the finish at the bridge just short of what is now the Sheriff’s substation.  In that distance, the road climbs a bit more that 1,200 feet in a serpentine course encompassing some 20 major turns or turn complexes.  Among the Ferraris that graced the hill in 1972 were a 250 GTO, 330 P, 250 MM, 250 TR, 206 SP, the very famous Dean Batchelor’s 340 Mexico and a plethora of Daytonas and other later models.

Then and for the next several years, the hillclimb was a Sunday only event.  Saturday was devoted to practice, a concours, a parade through town and just having a raucous good time.  A tradition born in those early days was the Big Wheels award.  While the concours and parade have disappeared, the Big Wheels has persevered, and, while I wouldn’t say prospered, it’s grown.  It’s awarded each year at the Sunday evening dinner (that brings the weekend to a close) to the drive who had the biggest non-life threatening “screw up” on the Hill.  Tradition holds that the “winner” must in some manner improve or add to the kid’s trike which has become quite elaborate and unstable over the years.  Then the proud recipient must ride it or, at least, attempt to ride it, then take it home and, by obligation, return with it the following year.

From 1972 until about 1977, the SoCal Ferrari guys ran the event with an ever increasing number of members of the BARFOC (Bay Area Region, Ferrari Owners Club), which was really all of California north of the Tehachapi Mountains assisting.  After that brief six-year period, the SoCal guys, tired of the event, were prepared to drop it.  So the BARFOC enthusiasts took over and ran it until 1989 when their group seceded from the FOC and (shortly thereafter) affiliated with the FCA.  Since then, the hillclimb has been run as an FCA event.  (For several years, the FOC ran a parallel event in June but ceased operations early this century).

The FCA organizers have always been well aware they’re guests in Virginia City and that safety must be the first concern.  Though the event is owned by the FCA, it has, since 1990, been run as a partnership between the FCA-Pacific Region and the Northern California Shelby Club, which adds strength to the event.  The Shelby Club’s involvement dates back to when the Pacific Region was a part of the FOC.   Initially, the Shelby guys provided a fair number of 289 and 427 Cobras and GT 350 and GT 500 Shelbys.  We still see the 350’s but not so many Cobras.  I suspect that value escalation has much to do with it.

During the late 1970’s and through the mid-1980’s, the event chairman tended to be the Bay Area Region vice-president, who held the job for one year, having understudied the previous chairman the prior year.  During this time we started to accumulate an event handbook.  As we moved into the 1990’s, the position became a multi-year commitment, as most of the event’s other core positions had long been.  This has provided a strong continuity allowing us to weather some serious political storms in Nevada.  Team members developed first name basis relationships with politicians and residents whose support was needed.  The committee has become well known to sheriffs and firefighters of Lyon and Storey Counties as well as their respective Boards of Supervisors and the Nevada Department of Transportation.

Over the years we’ve had FCA members from other parts of the country participate in or just come to observe the event.  Unfortunately, though, they’ve been far too few.  Let this article serve as an invitation to enter this wonderful event.  We have, in the past maintained a low profile for fear of crowds causing so much disruption that we would become a political liability to the local governments.  Our reticence to promote the event has had the effect of depriving many FCA members of the pleasure of this unique weekend.

Until the mid-1990’s, we were allowed to run any car we wanted.  That meant a large number of non-street legal race cars, including at various times a 250 LM, a porsche 904, a Lotus 79 (one of Mario Andretti’s 1978 F1 championship cars) and many other equally iconic racers.  Then, as Nevada became more concerned about road races run in the state(especially the Silver State Challenge), new rules were promulgated mandating that all cars be street legal and that all entrants be disclosed to the State in advance.  That also meant DOT-approved street tires.  While this change certainly affected the grid makeup, it had little impact on the speeds achieved by participants.  The current record is held by FCA member Amir Rosenbaum in a Ferrari F40.  (We’ve yet to see an Enzo make the attempt, nor have we seen an F50).

The event is actually four days in length.  Friday, a group from the San Francisco Bay Area does a Ride ‘n Drive to Virginia City.  It’s an all-day event, covering about 250 miles, and it varies as we try different routes every year.  The past dozen or so years have involved a lunch stop at one or another of the many wineries which have sprung up in the California foothills.  Traversing the Sierras on a secondary road in a Ferrari is an experience not to be missed.  You’ll see and experience more beauty, more spectacular scenery and more breathtaking lengths of road packed into one day on this run to Virginia City that you would in a week of driving most anywhere else.

The hillclimb itself starts at 9 am on Saturday with the Sermon on the Mount, as it’s come to be known.  This is the welcoming driver’s meeting conducted by the Event Chair, the Chief Steward and one or two other luminaries.  The purpose here is to impart the reverence the old timers hold for this event, to impress upon the participants that we could lose this jewel in a heart beat, and to convey that we are guests and should act like respectful visitors.  The sermonizers also deal with standard driver’s meeting fare, safety, rules of the road, flagging, etc.  We do our best to impress on the entrants that it takes six or more years to really get to know the hill and a least a half day for experience hillclimbers to re-familiarize themselves and note changes from the prior year.  The weather is a serious aspect-over the years, we’ve been very lucky but on a few occasions we’ve had rain or snow.  We still run the hill but at safer, saner speeds.  The balance of the morning is devoted to familiarization runs and getting the corner workers and radio personnel in place.  Somewhere just before noon, the timed runs start and continue until approximately 5 pm.  That evening we host a dinner at one of the local saloons or other venues.

Bright and early Sunday morning, we re-staff the course, make safety checks and, at 9 am, send off the first car.  Again, we run until 5 pm, breaking only to allow buses to transit the hill or to attend to cars broken down on the course.  Drivers are divided into groups because they’re all required to work a stint as a corner worker (or some other assigned duty).  Primary corner workers are paid and have worked at race tracks in the area—they stay on the hill the entire day.  We break the day into two sessions on Saturday and three on Sunday—changing our “volunteer” corner workers at those breaks.

Sunday evening is our awards banquet and roast, which for the past several years, has been held at Piper’s Opera House (built in 1885).  Awards are made for the first three places in each of several classes, which are made up each year depending on the entries.  There are generally seven or eight classes.  The banquet is also an opportunity to poke fun at one another—that is, the Pacific Region FCA vs. the NorCal SAAC.  And, as mentioned earlier, the Big Wheels is awarded.  It’s generally a raucous, fun evening though by then we’re all pretty much wiped out.  A nice capper to a great event.

Monday morning we all head out.  Some head for Highway 80 and a quick trip home.  Others gather in small groups and do their own tours back, meandering through the Sierras and the Great Central Valley, as an all-day event.  It’s easy to be mellow on the way home after the prior three event filled days.