Mount Washington entices competitors from all over the world to race to its 6,288-foot summit, but none quite like the Auto Road’s “Climb to the Clouds” Hillclimb-—considered to be one of the oldest motorsports event in North America.
Mention Mount Washington in this part of the Northeast, and thoughts turn to phrases like “extreme weather,” “breathtaking,” or “highest peak in the Northeast.” Mention the Mt. Washington Auto Road, and words like “awesome drive” and “steep and narrow” are likely to be heard. So where do phrases such as “grueling 7.6-mile race” or “record time to the summit” fit in?
They could probably be used to describe the annual Northeast Delta Dental Mount Washington Road Race held each year in June. Also affectionately called “The Beast of the East,” it’s a grueling 7.6-mile running race, that begins at the base of the Auto Road in Pinkham Notch and climbs 4,650 feet to the 6,288-foot, wind-swept summit. Over 2,000 entries vie for the opportunity to be electronically selected by lottery. But only 1,300 “lucky” runners line up on race day each June for the challenge of their lives.
There’s also the Mt. Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hillclimb, which takes place each year in August. Often described as the toughest hillclimb in the world, cyclists pedal the same grueling average grade of 12% with extended sections of 18%, plus a leg-burning 22% pitch just before the summit. As if all the extended steeps, pitches, and turns weren’t enough, once above treeline at 4,200 feet, the Mount Washington weather factor kicks in. Home of the highest wind speed ever recorded by man, at 231 mph in 1934, sunny skies here can quickly turn into socked-in cloud cover, triple-digit wind speeds, freezing rain, sleet, and even snow, in just a matter of minutes.
While the most elite of runners and cyclists can conquer the Auto Road in just under 60 minutes during optimal weather conditions, there’s another timed race that is held on the Auto Road every few years or so. These racers face the same challenging steeps, pitches, and weather variables as do the runners and cyclists. These racers, however, will be looking at beating record times—from base to summit—not in 60 minutes, but just 6 minutes.
“There are only 2 things going 115 MPH up here … the wind, and these rally guys.”
In early July 2017, the legendary Mt. Washington Climb to the Clouds Automobile Hillclimb returns to Mount Washington and the Auto Road. Sponsored by Subaru and organized by the Sports Car Club of New Hampshire, over 80 competitors representing 17 states in the United States, as well as the countries of Canada, Wales, Australia, and Romania will gather for three days to compete for “King of the Hill” honors.
Considered to be one of the oldest motorsports events in the United States, Climb to the Clouds was first run in 1904, seven years before the first 500-mile race at the Brickyard in Indianapolis, and 12 years prior to the inaugural Pikes Peak Hillclimb in Colorado.
Climb to the Clouds ran sporadically from 1904-1961, then skipped ahead to the 1990s where races were held consecutively from 1990-2001. The race returned in 2011, and the last race was a held just a few years ago in 2014. Throughout the years, many famous drivers and automobile manufacturers have competed in the event, adding to its colorful history.
In 1904, the first year of the Mt. Washington Hillclimb, Freelan O. Stanley from Newton, Massachusetts, co-creator of the famous Stanley Steamer, drove his 6-horsepower, 800-pound, steam-powered car to the summit of Mt. Washington—only to be beaten by Harry Harkness from New York. Driving a 40-horsepower Mercedes that weighed 2,200 pounds, Harkness posted a winning time in 1904 of 24 minutes and 37 seconds.
Since that first year of competition, many well-known drivers have competed and won the Climb to the Clouds, such as “Cannonball” Baker in 1928 and 1932, and the legendary Carroll Shelby in 1956. Driving a Franklin in 1928, Baker raced to an amazing time of 14:49.6 seconds. Carroll Shelby, driving a specially prepared Ferrari roadster in 1956, posted a record-setting run of 10:21.8 seconds on his way to victory.
In 1961, Bill Rutan from Connecticut drove his Porsche-powered Volkswagen to another new record time of 9:13.0 seconds that would stand for 29 years—until the return of the race in 1990—when a rally driver named Tim O’Neil from Franconia, NH drove his 300+ horsepower, all-wheel-drive Volkswagen Rally Golf to the summit in an amazing time of just 7 minutes and 45 seconds.
The next decade would see several new records made and shared between eight-time Sports Car Club of America, National Rally Champion Paul Choiniere from Shelburne, Vermont and multi-time Canadian Rally Champion Frank Sprongl from Mississauga, Ontario. Sprongl’s 1998 record time of 6 minutes, 41.99 seconds driving his Audi Quattro S2 would remain unbeaten (officially) until 2011.
On September 8, 2010, the Sprongl record was bested by over 20 seconds in an officially-timed, yet private test session, by Subaru Rally Team USA driver, Travis Pastrana. The test session was conducted by Vermont SportsCar along with Mt. Washington Auto Road officials to evaluate road and safety needs in a race-like setting ahead of the 2011 Climb to the Clouds. The test included extensive filming, as well as in-car video of Travis Pastrana’s test runs. The Red Bull Speed Chasers project aired on World of Adventure Sports on NBC, as well as Transit Chapters on MSG Networks. Amazing video highlights are available online.
In 2011, Vermont SportsCar brought back the legendary race in grand style as part of the Auto Road’s 150th anniversary celebration. David Higgins, driving a Vermont SportsCar-prepped Subaru WRX STI, shattered the old record with a stunning run to the summit, taking just 6 minutes, 11.54 seconds—all the more impressive given that the last 1/2 mile of the track was obscured with varying degrees of fog.
In 2014, the most recent the race was held, David Higgins was again crowned “King of the Hill,” breaking his own course record by over 2 seconds. Higgins, again driving a Vermont SportsCar-prepared 2014 Subaru WRX STI Rally car, doubted his ability to break his own record due to the more restrictive rules of the Rally America Open Class. Nevertheless, he was able to set a new record time of 6 minutes and 9.09 seconds. Pastrana would take second place with a time of 6 minutes and 12.29 seconds.
This year’s Subaru Mt. Washington Hillclimb, held July 6-9, 2017, has 80 competitors representing 17 states in the United States, as well as the countries of Canada, Wales, Australia, and Romania.
This year’s impressive driver line-up not only includes a mix of road racers, rally drivers, hillclimb specialists, and time-attack drivers, but also includes a contingent of five vintage race cars representing many years of historic racing on the Mt. Washington Auto Road.
Included in the list of recently accepted drivers are five highly skilled racers very familiar with the Pikes Peak Hillclimb in Colorado Springs, Colorado, as well as other hillclimb events in western states. These drivers include Todd Cook from Tempe, Arizona; Rodney O’Maley from Colorado Springs, Colorado; Spencer Steele from Denver, Colorado; Dan Novembre from Colorado Springs; Colorado; and Rocco Bocchicchio from Glendale, Arizona. Both Cook and Steele will be driving similar versions of the famous Wells Coyote open-wheel race cars, which were built specifically for racing at Pikes Peak. Dan Novembre will be driving a twin turbo, Nissan-powered, open-wheel race car he calls the Novembre Special, while O’Maley will be piloting his open-wheeled O’Maley Special. Rocco Bocchicchio will be driving a highly modified BMW E30 sedan he raced to an SPO Class record at the 2016 SCCA Clifton Hillclimb in Clifton, Arizona. All five drivers will compete against each other in the Open Class.
Returning to this year’s Climb to the Clouds will also be current Mt. Washington record holder and eight-time Rally America Champion, David Higgins, who will be driving a Vermont SportsCar-prepared 2017 Subaru WRX STI’s for Subaru Rally Team USA in the Unlimited Class.
Set for July 7-9, 2017, the Subaru Mt. Washington Hillclimb will serve as a three-day motorsports festival filled with a variety of motorsports-oriented activities for all ages, including a vendor area, historic car displays, and autograph sessions topped off by the return of the Subaru Mt. Washington Hillclimb along the winding 7.6-mile Mt. Washington Auto Road on Sunday, July 9, 2017.