EMPIRE — The Empire Hill Climb version 2.0 is revving up Michigan’s motorsport scene.
The Sept. 15 competition is an updated version of the original grassroots auto competition of the 1960s, '70s and '80s. Local auto buffs resurrected the event in 2014, challenging racers along the same twists and turns of Wilco Road. The new Empire Hill Climb has grown from 13 racers in the first revival to a full slate of 40 racers. Drivers come from across the state to take on the hill along the Lake Michigan shoreline.
The 2018 event scored major sponsorships from Autoweek, a Detroit-based car culture publication, and Traverse City-based Hagerty Insurance Agency, specialists in classic car insurance.
“It brings a wide breadth of cars,” said Autoweek spokesperson Jimmy Pelizzari. “There are some from Traverse City who always dreamed of racing and built a car in their garage who will race against Pete Cunningham.” Cunningham is the 2018 Pikes Peak International Hill Climb Open Class champion.
The five race classes offer competition to racers of vintage cars, sports cars, rally cars and drift cars.
“The drift cars put on a show making as much smoke as possible and being as flamboyant as possible,” Pelizzari said. “But they’re also very competitive.”
Suttons Bay’s Ranve Martinson, the only woman driver in the event, will race a vintage Volkswagen GTI. It’s the long-time car buff’s debut in the racing scene. She said she’s not intimidated by competing with the men and will “push it to the limit.”
“I’m just saying I’m Ginger Rogers — doing it backward in high heels,” she said. “I think it’s going to be about technique and having fun.”
The spectator-friendly event begins at 8 a.m. when race cars line Front Street for the Parc Expose. The display offers fans opportunity to rub elbows with racers and view the cars, including Cunningham’s exhibition car, an Acura TLX-GT.
It’s as much a social event as a race, said event chair and Empire Chamber of Commerce president Paul Skinner. “The competition side is always fun and exciting. But (the appeal) is the camaraderie of like-minded people talking about their latest upgrades to the car and its benefits,” he said.
Competition is in accordance with Sports Car Club of America rules beginning at 10 a.m. Drivers start from a standing stop. One by one they thunder up the 200-foot climb and navigate eight turns along the three-quarter-mile, tree-lined course.
“You need to be on it immediately from the moment you start to the end,” said Pelizzari who raced the course in previous years. “It’s a short but challenging course with a lot of variety — and racing through trees can be intimidating.”
As many as 1,500 race enthusiasts are expected to attend. Fans observe racers from a safe spectator zone offering a prime view of competitor action.
The event’s new high profile brings a few challenges of its own. Local racer Ian Dawkins, one of the individuals responsible for reviving the Empire Hill Climb, said he’s not surprised by the interest the race has ignited, but its statewide popularity limits participation.
“It makes it more difficult for local drivers to enter,” Dawkins said.
Skinner said that despite the race’s growing number of fans, the event retains hometown appeal.
“It’s very Empire-esque,” he said. “Very low-key.”
Event volunteer opportunities exist in grid/pit, tech, registration and radio support areas. Register at www.motorsportreg.com.