By Todd Morris
A few years ago, our family completed our build of a 1964 Austin-Healey Sprite race car. We got it street legal, drove it everywhere around town, explored our local backroads, and ran some track days with it, too. But I wanted more of a challenge. I wanted to really race it! I had planned to get my SCCA license, but Covid got in the way.
My good friend, Mike Powell, had recently restored his first race car, one he had built himself and raced in NASCAR back in the ’70s when he was 15 years old. He crashed it but kept the wrecked car out back at his shop for decades. After he retired from the racing industry, he decided to restore it for fun with no real plans other than to haul it to car shows. It’s a beautifully restored 1963 Ford Fairlane race car. Mike and his dad, Tex, have been in racing in some form or another their entire lives, both are regarded as legendary car builders. When our Sprite race car found us, the two of them helped considerably along the way to get our car running again.
Like me, Mike found himself wanting more than car shows and track days. One evening we were hanging out at his shop and hill climbing entered the conversation. Neither Mike nor I had ever been in one, it was new territory for us. I guess the car gods overheard us. Out of the blue a few days later my friend Michael Satterfield calls. Michael is an automotive journalist, as well as a serious British car enthusiast, and he invited Mike and I to a new hill climb he would be hosting in Texas: The Groesbeck Grand Prix Hill Climb. Combine the lure of a cross-country road trip from North Carolina to Texas with our post-Covid stir craziness, and how could we say no? Shortly after making that quick decision to enter the race, I experienced a dose of uneasiness. I have driven other friends’ modern-day race-prepped cars, but now I just committed to racing a car that me and my kids had restored. Had we done an adequate job bringing each system back to life, or had I just been lucky driving it around town?
I called Rodney Trask (a past SCCA Regional Champion in a Sprite). Rodney had watched over my shoulder as I built my first motor at his place. I asked if I could bring the Sprite by for him to go through from a safety standpoint. He looked the car over, suggested a couple tweaks I needed to do, and gave me the green light. There’s nothing fun about second-guessing one’s own work, but I’m grateful to have good friends who are willing to share their skills and knowledge.
We had a few months before the Groesbeck event, so Mike and I decided to try and look for another hill climb to enter. We did not want to go all the way to Texas to embarrass ourselves. Scouring the internet, we found one coming up in our own backyard: the “Chasing the Dragon HillClimb” hosted by CCRSCCA. It takes place annually on a mountain adjacent to the famous “Tail of the Dragon” in western North Carolina. So we signed up.
And now I had two hill climb decisions to feel anxious about! I wasn’t helping my cause by watching videos of car crashes from past hill climb events. On top of that I had been talking with a SCCA road race friend about what we were planning. He said the last thing he would ever want to race is a hill climb, and that he would much rather be on a track with runoff areas rather than mountain drop-offs. This conversation wasn’t easing my nerves, but then he said, “I would want to own the hill climb record, but you are racing a Healey Sprite. I would be pushing big horsepower and hard braking, but you will be dealing with a momentum car with low horsepower. You’re going to have a great time, just run a pace that you’re comfortable with.” That advice helped a lot. I was not going to back out of these races. I did, you understand, just in case, sorta get my personal affairs in order.
Off to Chasing the Dragon! My first ever run was in an all-day summer downpour in the mountains. I did not work my butt off getting the car prepared to miss a day of driving because of a little rain. The car was ready, and so I suited up. Our family and friends that came with us helped to get me strapped in and they checked the tire pressure. Mike jumped in the car with an umbrella, and we drove to the staging lane on the side of the water-drenched mountain.
Mike hopped out and left me there on the starting line. I wasn’t the only car running in the rain. I was, however, the only open cockpit car. Spectators, and other drivers opting for a dry track run, clapped for me as I drove by them in the downpour. Was I nervous? Terrified is the word I’d use to describe that moment. I took a deep breath and told myself to just drive where I felt comfortable. I just wanted to make my run, not wreck the car, and hopefully not break down.
Crossing that finish line for the first time was a big deal on so many levels. The most important is that I fulfilled a promise to my kids that one day our Sprite would race again.
After that first run, I saw hill climbing much clearer. It’s been said that making a slow car go fast is more fun than driving a fast car slow. But as I found out quickly, making an AH Sprite car go fast and up a mountain is a daunting task. Did I make a clean run? Yes. Did I wreck? No. Did I break down? Nope. I made numerous runs over that weekend, and I watched my times drop as I learned to trust myself and trust the car we built. Surprisingly, I also did not finish last. Close, but I was not last. That, for me, was as good as a podium finish. This was one of the greatest car experiences I have ever had, and I got to share it with my friends and family, along with all the competitors, spectators, and organizers. The sense of accomplishment had me hooked on future hill climb events.
Off to Groesbeck, Texas! A 16-hour journey split over two days. Most of my family was not interested in the long drive, but my oldest son Christian was up for a road trip. A really good friend and longtime amateur racer, Howard Chapman, heard we were going and asked if I needed help. “Absolutely!” I said. We made a pitstop in Birmingham, Alabama, to pick up my newly acquired crew chief, and then hit the road the next morning along with Mike Powell and his crew. There aren’t a lot of big hills in Texas, but Michael Satterfield found an amazing location at the “Old Fort Parker” in Groesbeck to have it at.
The cars there were amazing. From British cars to Open Wheel racers and everything in between. The track was curvy and with some very fast straightaways. Both Mike’s car and ours did great. We met so many amazing people, both racers and spectators. Even today, I stay in touch with several of the people we met in Texas, including some amazing British car guys that came in to watch the event as well as compete in it. We left the Lone Star State with a Texas-sized smile.
With two climbs under our belts, we couldn’t help but seek out a third. So, Mike and I and a few other racer friends signed up for the Flag Rock Hill Climb in Norton, Virginia. It was only a few hours from where we live, right in the middle of the Blue Ridge mountains. I cannot say enough about the town of Norton. When we arrived on Friday everyone goes through tech to get checked in and approved to run. They block off a stretch of road downtown where we set up our paddocks. Many racers camp out, or bring RVs, some sleep in the trucks they towed with. This time my wife came, and we found a historic hotel to stay at nearby. Unlike me, my wife Cami is no camper.
After the tech check-in, the town cleared out Main Street just for the racecars and hosted a block party for us. We met the locals, race volunteers, other competitors, and many of the police and firemen helping with the event. We were treated like royalty in this quiet mountain town.
Flag Rock is a state park with a 1.7-mile mountain run that climbs 950 feet with 15 turns including double switchbacks. Getting my Sprite race car up the mountain was a momentum battle. But I did it multiple times over two days and dropped ten seconds by the end. Mine was the second oldest car there, just after Mike’s. In competitive measures, my times were a few seconds off the back of pack, and the overall winner was over a minute ahead of me, but I didn’t care. I ran as hard as my car would go. Mike Powell took third in his class, which was great. My smart-ass crew chief this time was our good friend Greg Abbot. After the event he sent me a text that said it was nice of me to give 4th gear the weekend off. Not sure why I have friends like Greg in my life, but he makes me laugh and he’s a helluva crew chief. I did not go to Flag Rock with expectations to win anything. I went to challenge myself and push the limits of my 60-year-old British sports car. And that’s what I did!
For 2024, we are already talking about going into the northeast for new hill climb adventures. There are so many to choose from! My hope, and part of the reason for writing this, is that I get to run with more vintage British cars so we can see who has the fastest slow car there.
For information on entry requirements and more, www.timetrials.scca.com is a good place to start.
Photos by Guess Work Photography