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  • Dan Novembre

Mt. Washington Hill Climb Race Report


What an event the Mt. Washington Hill climb is! It has it all: Very challenging road, tough competition, beautiful scenery, gracious organizers and volunteers, and a heck of a wild ride and adventure! If you ever get to go, you will not regret it as this event should be on the bucket list of any driver or racing team out there. And how my weekend went, it was truly a dream come true.

I first heard of the race in 2011 when a fellow racer Todd Cook competed. At that time, the race was coming back after several years of not running due to lack of sponsor and community support. It was neat to see the revival of another Hill Climb with as long of history as Pikes Peak. The pictures that came from the event were spectacular. The road is very steep! It’s half the distance of Pikes Peak yet has the same amount of elevation gain.

This event is only run every few years and when they announced the 2017 race date, I knew I wanted to see if I could make it. Todd Cook reached out to the Colorado racers and worked out a transport semi-trailer for a group of cars. The only trick in the scheduling was that this event was only 2 weeks after the Pikes Peak race and the transport would leave less than 5 days after summiting Pikes Peak. Sounds pretty bad-ass to do the double, so it intrigued me to make it work. Kind of like doing the Indy 500 and the Nascar Coca Cola 600 all in the same day. Before I knew it, I had signed up for the event and had made a deposit for the transport truck. We were going to the east coast to race!!

Preparations

Preparing for a new event can be hectic. There is so much to learn and research on. The difficult part was trying to learn the race road. With the road being on the other side of the country, my first opportunity to see the road would be during the event itself. I took to YouTube to find in-car videos to help me learn as much as I could. My video of choice was David Higgen’s record run from 2014 in a Subaru Rally Car. He makes it look so easy and smooth. I must have watched that video 1000 times! The other difficult part was tire choice and chassis setup. The race road is mostly paved but has 1 mile of dirt. Even worse than Pikes Peak, the area is known to have bad weather come in and low visibility with clouds and wind being the norm. The asphalt/dirt and the weather make the tire choice one of the most critical items for success. Most of us were deciding about which type of wet or dirt tire with grooves to race with. It was a compromise of running a tire that is ok on the asphalt but also allow grip on the dirt or if the rain comes in with wet roads. I decided to reach out to my Hoosier Racing Tire contacts to get a recommendation. I was able to get in touch with Mr. Tim Gilvin who was familiar with the Mt. Washington race in 2014 and worked with the Subaru rally team. He said the dirt on Mt. Washington is compact and the Hoosier A7 slick tires will still grip on the surface. So, I went with the experts and decided to take a chance by making up enough time on the asphalt and limp my way through the dirt so overall I would be ahead of my competition. In theory anyway!!

The Colorado team all met in eastern Colorado Springs where the transport truck was waiting for us. One by one we loaded the 4 cars and packed all our gear and support equipment. Just a few days from taking the car off the summit of Pikes Peak, all I did was give the car a wash and a brief look over, and just like that was on the transport. It was like a huge game of Tetris to get everything to fit but in the end, we could close the back doors and look forward to the next time we see the cars in New Hampshire. And hopefully, we didn’t forget anything!

The cool part about transporting cars across the country was not having to drive three days to get to the east coast fully exhausted. The preparations were done a few days ahead and all I had to do was continue working on memorizing the road and packing my suitcase with enough clothes and Go Pro cameras.

Boston

To fly in to a race event feels like a pro driver, Hollywood style. Ha! I was really happy to have my family join us. In fact, the event turned into a mini-family reunion. I have family on the east coast and as it turns out, my Aunt, Uncle, and cousin and his family were able to meet us there. Add in my parents, my wife’s parents, my brother-in-law and girlfriend, and my wife and kids, all together we had 20 in our group!

We left on July 4th, a few days before any race activity to spend some time sightseeing and catching fireworks in the most patriotic city in the U.S., Boston! Fellow Colorado driver and very good friend Rodney O’Maley had joined us on what felt like a typical vacation. We had a great time touring the city and certainly could have spent much more time to catch all the great things Boston has to offer.

Setup and previewing the road

Rodney and I left the family in Boston to head up early to the base of Mt. Washington to setup our pit area and get our first scouting runs of the race road to the summit. We were a little late to the unloading party and were very thankful for the rest of the Colorado crew to help us with getting our stuff off the transport and our pit area setup.

Once the setup was complete, we wasted no time in taking our rental vehicle up the race road. From the base of the mountain, you get to see just a few hundred yards of the road as it disappears into the thick foliage of the White Mountain National Forest. And once you do, the steepness of the road comes alive. It feels like the start of a roller coaster as we go up and up and up. Then we quickly come to the realization that this road is very narrow, at some places only one lane wide in which the uphill traffic has to yield. Fortunately, on race day, we don’t have to deal with downhill traffic! Then there are the bumps on the road. Frost heaves even on the lower portion of the road are sporadically placed all over the place. It would be difficult to pick a line at speed to try to avoid them. It is impossible. The ditches are deep, hidden jagged rocks litter the sides of the road. All the turns look the same and there are many many little turns, not like Pikes Peak where it has wide sweeping turns. This was intimidation factor to the max. On a positive note, I was pleased with the dirt surface as I could see what the Hoosier experts were saying. Hard pack with exposed road base. Just as long as it doesn’t get torn up! And there is new smooth asphalt on the top section above the dirt. This is a plus, but the white lines have not been painted yet, so it is easy to get lost on where the road’s many zigs and zags go. I have to say, I was very uncertain after my first drive up, if I had the cajones to do this. I mean, I knew I would race, but was seriously doubting my ability to meet my expectations on race time and place goals. I was thinking I would finish in the middle of the pack. That night at the hotel, I went back to the video and watched it as much as I could on the top section with the mile dirt section as that would be our first practice session for the day.

Tech Inspection Day

Before that though, we had a day of getting registered, tech inspection, and rookie school. It was really nice meeting all the competitors and volunteers. It was quick to see that the racing community here has a special respect for this event. I had been making facebook friends from this area on the months leading up to the race and it was fun to pick out familiar faces and to finally meet them in person.

Tech inspection went pretty smoothly although I had to add some roll bar padding. It was nice to get that over with so that we could just focus on racing. And soon enough, it was already the end of the day and with that, I would go back to the video to keep the course fresh.

Practice Day 1

The morning started off a tradition at Mt. Washington: Dunkin Donuts! Every morning during the race event, Rodney and I would make sure to stop by to pick up some coffee and donuts to start the day out right. At one point, we even spotted Travis Pastrana in the drive through lane. Must be the secret to success!

My main goal of the day was to determine if I could keep the car under control in the dirt with slick tires. I wasn’t looking to light up the speed charts and still a little apprehensive of the condition of the road.

I was pleasantly surprised at the grip that I could get out of the Hoosier A7’s, but knew I was slower than the other cars with dirt tires. There was also a couple of places that had large jumps and each one was a surprise. It is not a good feeling to be mid-air and needing to turn! The first big jump, the nose lifted so much that by the time I met the road again, the rotation caused the front end to slam into the ground bottoming out the car! I learned that I would have to slow down at that section of road!

The other difficult part was sitting so low to the ground, it was difficult to see where the kinks in the road were for exposed ditches and rocks. I kept dropping a wheel off. I wouldn’t last long if I kept doing that. I had to learn each little kink. For my second run, I came upon a car stalled in the road in the dirt. Remember how narrow this road is? In Colorado, they would have shut the road down and we would have had long delays. Here, if there is room to pass, they will leave the car there until the end of the run. So, I figured there was room so I kept pressing forward. I drifted around the car and I hoped I didn’t spray too much rocks as I passed him and kept heading up the hill. Unfortunately, though, the timing system messed up so I didn’t get a time for the second run. It was difficult to know how much time I would need to make up on the asphalt. I was relieved though to have a successful day of practice. Upon coming back down to the pit area, my family started showing up from the east coast and from finishing the Boston sightseeing. I was so happy to spend some time with family in this beautiful place.

Practice Day 2

The second day was for the bottom section. I was looking forward to this day, but it was unknown how the weather would affect the course. The forecast had rain coming in but we got really lucky in that the sun lasted throughout the morning. By this time, I was getting to know the road well and was feeling more and more comfortable. I didn’t feel very fast, but knew that would come. I also felt that we really don’t get that much seat time prior to race day. For each practice day, we would get two runs each. This adds to the challenge of the event and it really helps the competitors that have raced here before. By the end of the day, my competitive juices were flowing well and I really was starting to feel comfortable. I was having a lot of fun! I was enjoying the atmosphere, the flowing road, and the competitive spirit shared with the whole group. Looking at the time sheets though, I hadn’t made up enough time to overcome my lack of speed on the dirt. I decided to stick with it and not totally change my tires and what I have practiced on for the last two days. My thoughts were that I may be able to get on the podium in my class, but where I currently stood I was outside looking in at 4th in class but 6th overall.

Race Day

Race day started with lots of energy and excitement. My family and extended family had all gathered and were really enjoying the atmosphere. I was really happy to have team shirts that Barry Trester made for the whole Colorado Group. With the family and crew of all four cars decked out in our shirts, we made quite the presence at the event and received lots of compliments on the design. Thank you Barry!

Again, we were on weather watch. This was always on the drivers minds. The initial report was heavy fog at the summit and steady winds. Great! I was thinking we got lucky during practice and now we would have to deal with rain on race day! But just before the event got underway, the fog cleared and we had a clear and dry road.

We had a bit of a wait for our turn to run. The kids spend the time in the creek that trickled next to the pit area. We gorged on food and sweets while other cars made their first runs. I had my tire warmers on and felt like everything with the car was ready. I was getting really excited for my turn. Before long, I was already in the car getting lined up.

With the green flag waving, I took off with crowds, grandstands, flags, banners, and a big screen Jumbo-tron all around me. What had started years before as a dream and bucket list item had turned into reality. I was competing in the 2017 Mt. Washington Hill Climb!

Quickly, the car vanished up the road into the thick forest. To my surprise, the car’s front wheels were leaving the ground at places that it hadn’t before during the practices. That was a good sign that I was going faster than I had ever been. Even though it was unsettling with the car’s front wheels leaving the ground, it was predictable and quite fun! The road at this speed had good rhythm and I felt smooth. By the time I finished, I felt that I had a solid run and I knew I could be faster. I was so happy to be at the top. Just to finish a run on race day felt like a success.

After getting out of the car, I greeted fellow Colorado driver Spencer Steele. It was awesome to share the excitement of the summit with him and all the other drivers waiting and watching the finish line. Eager to find out where we placed, Spencer and I found driver Kevin Wesley who had a radio to the pit area. He called out that Spencer and I were 1 and 2 overall, but didn’t know who. I was very surprised that I was in the top group and figured that Spencer had me beat. However, our first question back to Kevin was, well, who is first and who is second. Kevin called back down and through the static and chatter on the radio heard that I was sitting 1st overall! I had gotten by Spencer by just a few seconds.

All of a sudden there was commotion among the drivers. We all had a clear view of the road down on the dirt and many saw David Higgins, one of the Subaru drivers gunning for the overall record, leave the road and flip the car off the side. He turned out to be ok, but we were all reminded of how treacherous this event is. We all had no doubts that the Subaru team would get the car back down and repaired in time for the second run in the afternoon, but in the end, there was too much damage to continue. Todd Cook finished and I wasn’t able to see his time until we got down to the bottom. I later learned that I had snuck underneath his time as well!

Quickly all the drivers turned into spectators and super fans as it was Travis Pastrana’s turn to go for the overall record. We suspected there would be more pressure to not mess up after Higgins went off the road. Well, he kept it on the road and smashed the overall record. This bumped me down the standings, but how could you expect to do against the heavily funded and prepared Subaru Rally team and one of the best rally drivers in the country. After the first run, I was leading in my class and 2nd overall!!

On the drive back down, I was excited to share with the family in how the race was going so far. I was stunned I was competitive and figured my tire choice was the right one and that I had made up enough time on the asphalt to overcome any slowness in the dirt.

But we all have one run to go. All this could be wiped clean by everyone else picking it up. I knew I had to improve upon my time. The second run turned into a weather watch. Clouds had come in, but not enough to block the race road.

It was nice to have a solid time for the first run, so I knew I could push it a little more on the second run. The second run started like the first, it came quickly. I was 4 seconds faster in the bottom section than my first run and was looking to improve my best time. But the run didn’t end like the first. Halfway up, I was greeted by a red flag and had to come to an immediate stop. Spencer Steele ahead of me had a puncture and was stuck on the road. I turned around so I could line up for my restart. It seemed like forever to get the road cleared and restarted. It was a real mind game to restart a run like that. I didn’t have as clean of run this time and ended up slower than my first. But luckily, I held on to first in class and second overall! Wow, what a dream come true. I was so happy that I came here as a rookie and ended up where I did especially after that first day of being up on the mountain and being just totally overwhelmed. It was truly surreal.

Awards Ceremony

The awards ceremony was great with a large podium and jumbo-tron in the back. The spectators and media gathered around. It was awesome to hear my name called out and to be up top the podium for my class. Todd and Spencer finished 2nd and 3rd so we swept the podium. The best part was getting to spray champagne. Something that I had to learn on the fly with. Ha!

Then came the overall finisher awards. It was so cool to share the podium with Travis Pastrana. And getting to douse him with champagne was the cherry on top. Just unbelievable!

This was my biggest race result of my career and I am so proud with how hard our team worked to get there. Not only did I place very well, I learned that I now hold the 2WD record at Mt. Washington!

This event is a wonderful race to attend, compete, volunteer, you name it. It is very well run with great people and an incredible environment. It is no wonder it has been on the bucket list for so long. But I am not looking to stop now. I have my sights on 2020 to come back when they hold the event again. This race is just too much fun to miss!

I would like to thank my family for supporting me and coming out to New Hampshire to cheer me on. And to Rodney O’Maley for helping me so much throughout the year in getting my car ready for the event.

And additional thanks to my sponsors for trusting in me and allowing me to represent them in the best possible way:

Overdrive Raceway

MoFab LLC

Borriello Brothers New York Style Pizza

Hoosier Racing Tires

AEM Electronics

In-car video of my run:


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2020 Pikes Peak 9-minute Club Member

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