Editor’s Note: The Empire Hill Climb is tomorrow. Wait, what? The Empire Hill Climb is back? Yes, in fact, it’s been back since 2014, and Autoweek is now a presenting sponsor. The race, which originally ran from 1964 to 1980, is a 3/4-mile, eight-turn course on Wilco Road just outside the village of Empire in northern Michigan. Some people might know it as the road that leads up to the Empire Bluffs Trailhead. The race begins at 10 a.m. and wraps at 5 p.m. tomorrow. You can also check out the cars beginning at 8 a.m. – click here for the schedule. Read on for Tim’s story of how he accidentally found himself in line for the race with his Triumph TR3 back in the 1970s. -jb
On a sunny day in the early seventies, I found myself at the end of a line of cars on Wilco Road in Empire, Michigan. They all had numbers taped on their doors – except for me. The question is, how did I end up at the end of a line of race cars, all registered and waiting their turn to run up the hill in the Empire Hill Climb? I had no number on my car, I wasn’t registered to run in the race, and yet there I was, revving my engine and ready to go.
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Let’s go back to the beginning, and I’ll explain how this situation arose.
Earlier that summer, I was driving south on Bluff Road headed to Traverse City when I noticed a black TR3 Triumph sports car sitting in a field across from my friend Bill McCaw’s house. I assumed it belonged to one of the Weed kids, a family who summered at the cabin next door to the McCaws.
I bought several of the Weeds’ used toys they brought up from downstate every summer. First, it was an eight-foot hydroplane, which I proceeded to flip, miraculously escaping the grim reaper. The next summer, it was a Valmobile – a minibike that folded into a metal suitcase and went 40 mph – totally suicidal.
I stopped at Bill’s house and asked if he knew what the story was on the Triumph across the road. He told me it was his, but it hadn’t run in a long time, and he wasn’t sure what he was going to do with it. I asked if he would sell it to me. Well, $300 later, it was mine.
I drove home, got a battery, some gas and jumper cables, went back to where the car sat, and started to work on my newfound treasure. I’d been an MG guy since my high school days in the late sixties, and found the Triumph to be similar to work on – a big pain in the you-know-what.
After much coaxing, it finally fired up. Ecstatic, I jumped in and proceeded to drive it home. As I pulled onto the road, I discovered it had no brakes. Undeterred, I headed for home. As I was driving down the road, a mouse ran across my foot, as another scampered across the dashboard, pausing in front of my face to display his disdain at having his house rolling down the road at 50 mph.
He proceeded over the side of the car, and as I observed him bouncing down the road, I contemplated how to slow down for my driveway. I accomplished it by sliding sideways into the yard and coming to a halt in front of my mother, standing with her hands on her hips giving me that special look she reserved just for me.
I spent the next few weeks fixing the brakes and tweaking this and that to the point where I deemed the TR3 roadworthy. The Empire Hill Climb was coming up in a few days, and I decided it would be a great destination for its trial run. I asked my friend Joe Curths if he wanted to ride along. A few days later, we were headed for Empire.
When we arrived in the village, it became obvious that finding a parking place was going to be a problem. It was almost starting time, and race fans had overrun the town. I turned and went up a street until I had to stop behind the cars lined up for the race. There was no way to turn around, and the only option was to back all the way down the street.
I turned to Joe and asked, “Well what do you think?” Joe looked at the line of cars, looked back at me and smiled. I shrugged my shoulders, backed up enough to not draw attention, stopped and waited to go up the hill. Each car took off when the previous car had reached the top. Finally the last car took off up the hill.
I waited the amount of time I figured it would take him to get to the top. The course was still clear as the fans waited in place for the times to be compiled and the winner announced. Away Joe and I went.
Having never been on that road before, I found it to be very steep and full of sharp curves as the throngs of people lining the banks of the road cheered us on. Unfortunately, even though I made good time, I was not faster than a walky-talky. When we reached the top, the man with the checkered flag had been replaced by a sheriff’s officer. He waved us over to the parking lot and commenced to admonish our behavior. He finished by saying a refrain I was familiar with: “Get back on the Peninsula where you belong and stay there!”
The Empire Hill Climb is being held tomorrow. If you attend, I hope you keep in mind the absurdity of my hill climb experience all those years ago. It was a stupid thing to do, but as I’ve stated before, it wasn’t the first nor the last stupid thing I’ve done. Stay tuned…