Forget the Sound of Music. On the first weekend of August, the hills near Flintstone, Maryland were alive with the sound of competition cars on a 1.2-mile, nine turn, rural road up Polish Mountain. Fred and Barney must love the deep-throated sound of the Yamaha-powered D Sports Racers, the Mustangs and Camaros, Mazdas and even Austin-Healeys, Triumphs, Spridgets, Loti and an exquisite Mk2 Jag sedan. They all challenge gravity and a 500-foot elevation change on Route-144.
This past season was the seventh running of the resurrected hill. The first hillclimb at Polish Mountain was held in the early 50s. In 1955, Carroll Shelby drove a front-engine, ex-Grand Prix Ferrari. Back in that day, the hill was called The Breakneck Hillclimb. This was the second year I had a chance to prep the ’62, Tri-Carb Healey 3000 that spoke to me four years ago at Import Carlisle. Beware of Colorado red Healeys that say crap like, “I ran when parked, plus there is absolutely no rust underneath me!” Beware, especially when the dude’s lips beside her move during your mystic crystal revelation. Anyway, we finished the car on a late Friday evening in back-yard racer fashion by numbering the doors in the dark hours before an early-morning tech inspection. The months before the event were spent finishing the custom roll bar, the safety kill switch, the harnesses and other things without destroying the streetable nature of the car. Also, the plan to run the Pittsburgh Grand Prix forced me to get the car ready, like now.
In racing, you are never in control of who chooses to come and compete in your class. Sterling Moss spoke the truth, though, “You can always drive any car faster.” Vintage competition cars must run on era-correct tires, and there is no feeling like the front end washing-out toward the guardrail and drop-off at Turn Two. Still, for a slow car, the Austin Healey went pretty fast up the hill. I won the Vintage II class and lowered the class record, but—perhaps my class competition was having less than a stellar day.
A sports car hillclimb is close to rallying but also akin to track-day driving and autocross. When Pat Moss, Sterling’s sister, was driving and winning international rallies for the Austin-Healey factory, hillclimbs were included as part of the trial sections. Pat won the Liege-Rome-Liege rally in 1962, but claimed she never fully mastered the brute from Abingdon. She was, however, superb on the hillclimb section.
All of the Pennsylvania Hillclimb Association runs are on paved roads. They carry the same danger as any rural mountain road: culverts, embankments, telephone poles, mailboxes and, of course, the drop-offs. The arc of the sun through the competition day causes shadows and the driver’s perception can change radically. When it rains, tree leaves drip long after the hill appears to be dry. At the Weatherly Hillclimb (run Spring and Fall), there is a jump where most quick cars easily grab air and you are told, er, warned on your novice trek up the hill, “Keep your front wheels straight on launch! If you don’t, you may nail the large bolder beside the bottom of the road.” Our instructor claimed they name the rock after you—but just for that day. And don’t bristle at the thought of being a rookie with three novice stripes on your rear fender. No need to have your significant other vouch for your skills. If Mario showed up to run a hill, he’d have the same first-timer stripes as you.
On the hill as on a road course, you must come within six inches of each bend apex to be competitive in class. That’s at speed. With autocross you are likely to get a cone scuff on the fender and a two-second penalty if you misjudge. Most road courses have at least some run-off room. Hillclimbs are a different animal. The most critical sections at Polish Mountain are the switchbacks starting at Turn 3 and Turn 7. These would be relatively simple on a track day road course with little elevation change and good camber. My notebook has six pages of notes and diagrams mostly on those two areas.
Admittedly, the writing ain’t Faulkner, but Racecar Engineering said, “If it’s not written down, it never happened.” Think of the notes as worth your first two or three runs. Your notebook and Google Earth help. YouTube can give an idea of how the hot-shoes become consistent, smooth and finally quick—the hallmark of good driving.
PHA hills are two-day events and provide at least 10 runs, so there is no hurry to counter-rotate the earth. Road racers have a saying: Slower in the cockpit means faster on the track. Calmness wins the day. When rain comes and there is no thunder and lightning, the hill stays open. It is a good time to practice patience, that soft touch, and stay away from trail-braking.
The temperature hit 95 degrees with comparable humidity at the hill. Overheating? Not the 3000, and Jade packed a cooler with bottles of water and ice for hydration. It helped to soak my hat (a poor man’s Cool Suit) before I got in line to run. Three cars from the starting line, I switch to the helmet and check the harnesses before the starter chocked the wheel and rechecked the belts.
Then it’s revs up. Green light. Hammer it.
The road rises gently for an 8th mile, then curves left and begins a steep incline. Pass the corner worker station which is like a crow’s nest on a pirate ship. Swerve right and the Armco is the only thing between me and a 40-foot drop. Hold it straight and ease to the left side of the road. Aim at the yellow sign 800 feet ahead (you drive where you look!) that’s the braking point as the road levels and bends left. Now turn abruptly left and bend right uphill transversing the slope. Drop the right wheels off the pavement cutting the corner of this right turn. Power through to the second yellow sign and brake. Watch your revs on this fast entry. Clicking out of over-drive third can lock-up the rear. Be below 4500 RPM; wheels on this unstable pavement will skid or worse. Turn left here again (where you almost put Mike Ancas, the rent-a-racer, into the culvert opposite the apex a couple seasons ago). Bend it right, keep tight to the inside. The slope is very steep so keep the revs up on exit and find the telephone pole that marks the finish line.
Whew! Remember to breathe.
Next year? Ditch the 3.54 rear gears in favor of the 4.10s. Throw some syncros in the trannymixer. Get Mikey Yurko to rebuild and magnaflux the front-end. And for intimidation, think how cool the Moss-bought SLR road lights would be if I actually mounted them. Yeah, and get the numbers on the door sometime before nightfall, then hit the sack at a decent hour to dream of those fire-breathing sounds.
Walt Peterson has been messin’ with cars almost since Fred and Barney’s time. He’s instructed autocross and SCCA and NASA Performance Driving Schools and worked with E. Paul Dickinson at Watkins Glen. Walt teaches a creative writing workshop with incarcerated men at SCI Pine Grove in Indiana County, Pennsylvania. Photos by the author and Jade Reinard.