By Jacob Wheeler of the Glen Arbor Sun ~ photos courtesy of Empire Historical Museum
Empire Hill Climb Returns on Saturday, September 20, 2014
In the early days of the Empire Hill Climb, remembers local historian Dave Taghon, the family-run automobile garage and gas station would sell more air than beer. “The cars would keep going after they reached the top of Empire Bluff, hook a left on M-22 and come back into town,” says Taghon. “They’d stop and check the air pressure in their tires before racing up the hill again. We sold a lot of air!” Later on, the cars would wait at the top of the hill for their competitors, before returning to Empire in a parade of sleek racecars.
The Empire Hill Climb, which ran from 1964 until 1980 — once in the spring and once in the fall — returns to action on Sept. 20. Approximately 20 drivers have signed up, and they’ll take turns racing the curvy, half-mile route up Wilco Rd. (toward the Empire Bluffs trail parking lot) between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. A racecar expose from 9-9:45 a.m. on Front Street will precede the main event. Spectators are welcome to come check out the sleek automobiles and meet their drivers. (For drivers, registration starts at 7 a.m. and costs $175.)
The original running featured some of the sweetest rides of the era, including muscle cars, Corvettes, Jaguars, Austin-Healeys, Porsches, AMC Javelins and Ferraris. And it attracted colorful characters in the drivers seat, too. “One year a doctor from Chicago took a Jaguar into the bank and shortened the car by four inches (but walked away),” remembers Mike Taghon. “Another year our local priest ran a Pontiac up the hill. His time was slow, but it was entertaining to watch.”
Mike and his brother Pat raced in several Hill Climbs. Dave Taghon joked that he had to work for a living, but occasionally played hooky to watch the popular community event. One year a carnival-style cotton candy and hot dog stand sold goodies at Empire Bluff, “like a small country fair,” remembers Mike.
Contemporary Empire is less populated, and older, but the celebration of speed returns thanks to popular demand. This year’s race will feature hot rides like an Ur-Quattro, at least three cars that have competed in the Pike’s Peak International Hill Climb in Colorado, and drivers ranging in age from 22 to 63.
“My dad has told me stories about the race since I was wee,” says race organizer Mike Kelty (the elder Kelty was stationed at the Empire Air Force Station in the mid 1960s and participated in the Hill Climb). “At some point we asked each other why the race was no longer happening.” So Mike Kelty opened a Facebook page in June 2013 to hype the event. “My friends told me to stop talking about it and just do it,” laughs the self-proclaimed motor head. “I like to watch cars and give them a legal place to show their stuff.”
Back in the day, nearly anyone could participate, says Kelty. “If you had an address in town, you didn’t have to pay.” The Twin Bays Sports Car Club in Traverse City sponsored the race, and the Empire Lions Club provided tractors to ferry spectators up the hill. The challenging, curvy course up Wilco Rd. “was made to wreck cars,” Kelty was told. But the race never claimed a life.
This time only drivers outfitted for racing — with safety cages, helmets and flame retardant apparel — can join. The NASA Rally Sport will cover the insurance and security safety along the route. EMTs will be present, just in case. Spectators will be confined to a safe area above the road that nevertheless offers a broad view of the course. The Empire Chamber of Commerce, the Village, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and Leelanau County Sheriff are all on board to bring back this popular bygone event, says Chamber president Paul Skinner.
“We’re reviving something that was incredibly popular,” says Skinner, who predicts that the Empire Hill Climb could one day draw as many visitors as the village’s annual Asparagus Festival in mid-May. “This event kept Empire’s name out there and at the forefront of people’s minds. There’s nothing else like it in Northwest Michigan.”
While the 2014 Hill Climb Revival may attract a modest attendance, Skinner hopes that the event goes off without a hitch and becomes an annual, or biannual, event again. “The priority for me is that we run a safe event, and that everyone goes home safely at the end of the day.” He adds that, in future years, the Traverse City-based vintage car company Hagerty Insurance could perhaps be courted to bring classic automobiles, as well.
“I have this sort of event in my blood,” says Skinner, who together with wife Heidi owns the Misers’ Hoard art gallery and antiques shop in Empire. “From 1976 until ’97 back in the UK I held a competition license to race. It’s been 17 years since I competed, but I haven’t been able to shake the interest. When Mike Kelty approached me to revive this, he pressed the right buttons immediately.”
Why did Skinner stop racing? “When Heidi and I got married, I promised I’d give it up! My last race was the summer of ’97; I came (to Michigan) that fall, and got married on Christmas Day.” He has no plans to take part in this year’s Empire Hill Climb. “I’ll help other people race instead.”
Empire’s showcase of speed comes less than a month after a terrible car accident caused by teenagers driving with reckless abandon, which killed two and has consumed the emotions of Leelanau County. So, to some, the timing of this race may seem dubious.
“It’s healthy to have some apprehension,” admits Skinner. “But this is an opportunity for young people to come and see that you have to be safe and prepared, and that this sort of driving doesn’t translate to doing that on normal roads.”