Clifton Hill Climb Race Report
If there is any time to use the cliche "Hard Fought Victory" it is very appropriate in describing the Clifton Hill Climb for the Novembre Racing team. When first hearing of the revival of this historic race in Clifton, Arizona, after a 20 year hiatus, we were immediately interested. Not only would we be looking to gain more experience on the asphalt with our rocket racer, we felt a good result could come if things went well. Plus, with the start line elevation of 3,500 feet, the car would have more power than it ever has without starving for oxygen as it is used to on the mountain roads of Colorado.
The 680 mile journey to Arizona went surprisingly fast and impressions of the land were inspiring. The dozens of 100 foot tall VLA radio antenna's near Socorro, New Mexico, and the winding and very lush landscape of the Gila National Forest were some of the highlights. The real treat was the final destination and discovery of the quaint, 3,500 population city of Clifton, AZ, based along the San Francisco River. The town has a unique feel to it as it is mostly supported by the massive Morenci copper mine, largest in North America. In the middle of town, near the river crossing, you are greeted by a massive flood gate door which indicated the struggles the town must go through during the flood seasons. The railroad also goes through the narrow valley which splits the town in two. I was quickly warned to be on the side you want to be by 6pm or you could be stuck camping. With the hotel on one side and event pit area on the other, I took the warning seriously.
Setting up my pit area, I was greeted by some familiar names of Jonathan and Corky Newcombe, a father-son duo also of Colorado Springs and Pikes Peak racers ready to take on this new challenge. Also was the seasoned Todd Cook, current Pikes Peak record holder in the Super Sprint division, and long time competitor in the CHCA race series. It was great to also meet a lot of Arizona racers from the SCCA family mostly based in Wilcox, Tucson, and Tempe.
The event venue added to the uniqueness by placing the pit area in the middle of town so that we would have to be escorted by police to the start line area for each morning and afternoon session. The daily parade ended up being an enjoyable part of the weekend as the residents would line the streets and wave and cheer us on. The whole weekend, the townsfolks were delightful. They were so surprised that we came all the way from Colorado to their town. You could feel the excitement in the air with the race coming back to life after all these years away.
That night, I met up with my one and only crew member for the weekend, Ben Kravitz from Phoenix, It was so nice to have some help and Ben keeps things real entertaining and positive. I put Ben to work during the weekend and I greatly appreciated how hard he worked despite the adversities.
Saturday's practice runs came quick and I was surprised how nervous I felt. This was a new road and new experience for me. And we came very far so I did not want to screw up on the first run! The morning session went very smoothly and I instantly fell in love with the race road. This road was under 2 miles, but very technical and challenging with many winding turns that were all different from each other. The timing system was not cooperating so we broke for lunch not knowing where we stood. It was actually pretty nice to not have the pressure of the stopwatch hovering over and I could just focus on being smooth and getting to know the road.
The afternoon session was a different story. My first run of the session, a wing mount broke. No biggie, some new rivets and duck tape will make as good as new right? Next run, the turbo intercooler mounts broke and the intake pipe popped off. I still finished the run but without any boost from the turbos forcing air into the motor. Not a problem, I will just borrow some ratchet straps and hold that sucker where it needs to be. Good to go. Third run, on the front straight getting up to 5th gear at over 100 mph and the gear lever starts flopping around. No more changing gears. I finished the rest of the run in 5th gear and at the top found that something internal to the gearbox was broken. Ugh, not good!
Despite all these issues, with the timing system in place for the afternoon session, we sat in third place just a couple of seconds out of the lead. Encouraging, however, with the thought of not being able to fix the car, we worried of a potential opportunity in improving that position for tomorrow was slipping away.
We spent the rest of the afternoon digging into the transmission to find that the shift rod broke and would need to be welded back together to fully repair it. This is where the town of Clifton came through. When word got out that a welder was needed on a Saturday night of Labor day weekend, phone calls were abound, however, we kept hitting dead ends. In the end, we talked with a County worker that was on the phone with the County supervisor, that was on the phone with a guy named "Jeff" in a town 30 minutes away who had been on the river with a few drinks in him and that he could help us. Sounds legit, lets go.
When we arrived, we were taken to a barn in the back of a house that had music blaring and we weren't exactly sure what to expect. Sure enough though, we found the man with a beer in hand yelling at his dog to go hide somewhere. The cool thing was, no matter how weathered and lit up he was, when he heard what we were trying to do and that he could help, his great big smile and twinkle in his eye made me see how genuine he was and we were all good from there. Despite his level of consciousness, he used his craft to beautifully weld together the broken part ten times stronger than it ever was. He then showed us around his jeep and mud bogging trucks telling us stories of his many adventures. He graciously turned down any offers to pay for his service as all he wanted was the satisfaction of helping out some fellow racers. What a cool guy. I wonder if he even remembers what happened!
So by the end of the evening, we had the car back together ready to take on the challenge of race day the next morning. We unfortunately missed the town parade and celebration that night, but slept well knowing that we would be able to race the next day.
Sunday started just like the first, we were on the starting line before we knew it. Hopefully the first run was nice and smooth right? wrong. The shift cable setting was not quite were it needed to be and I was having trouble up-shifting and down-shifting, but at least I could change gears!
I made an adjustment for the second run that helped a little, however the intake pipe blew off again. I could finish runs, but very little power. This is were the battle began. Every run, we would make an adjustment to the gear linkage and put the intake pipe back on and try to fit the pipe tighter and more secure. Despite our best efforts, the same thing would happen for our third and fourth runs. No power, poor shifting. I was learning how hard I could push the car into the turns keeping my momentum up and using every bit of the course as I could.
And then, more bad luck hit the field. Jonathan Newcombe, also struggling with mechanical issues had his hood fly up and break his windshield ending his day. Worse, Todd Cook, current fast time so far, had a big off that destroyed the right side of his car eliminating his chances to improve on his time of 101.578 seconds. Luckily he was ok from the shunt. I thought twice about how hard I should be pushing and if I should just throw in the towel.
But even with my issues, I was consistently running 105 second runs, still four seconds from the leader, but if I could just get one clean run, I had a chance at shaking things up. The end of the day was nearing and I was getting exhausted and frustrated from continued efforts not working out. By that time, Todd Cook had gotten back to the start line to watch the remaining runs. He lent a hand and turned into a Novembre Racing crew member working on better ways to secure the intercooler and intake piping.
And then it happened on my sixth run. Thanks to the determination of Ben and the additional support from Todd, we put together a run that had the intake pipe hold until the very last turn, and the shifting slowed me down a little, but not a lot. Getting back to the start line, Jim Malone, head event organizer, leaned over and yelled out "New Record! 99.062 seconds!" I couldn't believe it. Sheer will-power and never-give-up attitude paid off and we were able to accomplish what we set out to do: Overall winner!
What is amazing is all the other racers saw us struggling and offered help and cheered us on. Mostly, that Todd Cook, knowing that I could sneak in front of him, still offered to help me and was a key part of my ability to get the car running well enough to put down a solid time. Now that is camaraderie that I will never forget. Thanks Todd.
I will also never forget how enthusiastic the volunteers that ran the race, residence of Clifton, and everybody involved with this event was towards supporting this revival of an event that is held closely in many hearts. I expect that this event will grow in the coming years and am proud to be a part of it. And yes, I will be back next year to defend the King of the Hill honors!
Additional Thanks to my sponsors:
Borriello Brothers New York Style Pizza
Hoosier Racing Tires
Photo credits: Chris Page, Ben Kravitz, Julia Gordon, Todd Cook, and Malinda Hinton