There’s a new North American rally-map up and there’s even a new event right here in Northern Michigan!
A little more than a month ago, during the 16th annual Goodwood Revival, we here in Northwestern Michigan decided to have our own revival.
The Empire Hill Climb - originally run from 1962 until 1982 – was the epitome of the old school “run-what-ya-brung” format, with even the local priest occasionally running up the hill in his big old Pontiac. The entry list had everything from Austin Healey’s, Porsche’s, Open Wheelers, MG’s, to an AMC Gremlin, awesomely enormous family sedans, a large contingent of Corvette clubs and even the odd Ferrari made its way into the mix. This was the 60's and 70's after all, and while F1 was just learning the importance of armco and helmets the hill climb was making good use of the tried and true hay bale to protect the drivers from the large and ever present tree.
Luckily, despite several serious wrecks, there were never any severe injuries. That said, in 1982 one particularly nasty wreck on the last turn, the proverbial “men from the boys” turn, finally got the organizers worried about pesky things like liability and ultimately safety.
And then the Hill Climb didn’t run for 30 some years…
The run itself is just shy of half a mile with 6 to 7 turns. The course has just a little bit of runoff, generally in the form of dirt and large trees; they do their best to make you feel like what you’re doing is a really smart decision.
Organizing the event was no small feat.
Anyone who’s ever been to a motorsport event, especially one that involves closing down public roads, knows there are a lot of hurdles to hurdle between the initial excitement and getting the cars up the hill.
Two friends and local rally/race fans, Mike Kelty and Ian Dawkins (whose father raced and won in a Gremlin) started talking about how cool it would be if the event got started up again. Luckily they began asking questions about how to get it going. In a twist of fate when they went to the Empire, MI - Chamber of Commerce, it turned out that the president was not only a Brit but also a former co-driver back in England who had since retired.
This former silly-seatiér named Paul was not only accustomed to yelling at drivers and telling them to do silly things at his own peril, but also knew exactly how to get an event going and who to talk to in order to get it done.
The support we received from the community was amazing. Many people emailed or called in to share their stories of sitting up in the woods, back in the day, probably drinking a beer, watching everyone race up the hill in their t-shirts with minimal safety equipment at best.
Several local businesses came out of the woodwork, and Mike and Paul did a great job finding other sponsors to pitch in and help get the revival going.
SPONSOR ALERT!!! A massive thanks to our primary sponsor Hagerty Insurance for their support, as well as many of our local motorsport shops like BRAID USA, TRF, or Thompson Racing Fabrication, LoveFab, MFD Classic Motors, Van’s Garage and the not so much motorsports but still generous community businesses who made this happen. (anyone need a shirt? it looks really cool... I have stickers too... They also look cool.)
(but really they’re awesome and it wouldn’t have happened without them).
Having the pits in downtown Empire was also a pretty unique experience.
There’s something special to getting out of your car, walking into a coffee/ice cream shop, sitting down for a coffee in full race gear then casually walking over and getting back in for another run up the hill!
Once NASA RallySport (thank you!) stepped in to sanction the race all we needed were racers. With only 30 days to register at least 20 racers it was a little down to the wire, but we got em and it was an eclectic field to boot. After all, how many people have seen a circle track car go up against a fully prepped Mazdaspeed rallycar on a wet, twisty, paved and washed out road?
A GT500 more accustomed to Pikes Peak, a certain green Scrambler, and a Merkur? Or a handful of rally-cars take on seasoned vintage racers. Maybe an awesome, so cool, super loud hornet’s nest of slow, red hot, dopest-with-the-mostest non turbo charged 323 GTX (yes, it is mine) run against an ‘85 GTI, a Datsun 510, a couple of bug-eye sprites, and a Formula Ford?
(Also a massive shout out to the guys J’s Repair and Performance who caged an MR2 JUST TO MAKE SURE WE HAD ENOUGH ENTRIES TO RUN.)
All and all the event went really well despite the weather. It was terrible in the morning, misted throughout the day to keep things interesting, and then dumped rain again at night.
There were no “serious” accidents, and everyone had a blast. A big congratulations to Mark Nienhouse for his win in the circle track car at the Empire Hill Climb Revival! (He not only had the fastest time, but due to some seriously tail happy shenanigans he also claimed the prestigious slowest time as well!)
We can thank Erik Olsen and Kate Stevens for some of the great shots.
The spectators were happy, the racers were happy, the town was happy, the sponsors were happy, and the bars were happy. Plans are in motion for the hill climb to happen next spring and fall, so those of you with a cage and a logbook sign up! Check us out on the Empire Hill Climb Facebook page for more videos and pics. If you have any questions don’t hesitate to ask. We do require a cage and safety gear but are open to a variety of vehicles.
Obviously, without community support this never would have happened. Everyone involved is so grateful for the fantastic people of Empire and the great volunteers and organizers that made this happen.
Grassroots events are the lifeblood of motorsport. So get out there and support your local rally, hillclimb, rallycross, autocross and races! If you don’t have one then organize one. It takes some time and it will take a lot of great people coming together to get it done, but in the end it is always a worthwhile adventure that’ll provide a great deal of beer’versation for many post race beers to come.
Lets go racing.
(thank you, Zero Car Tim)