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One driver remarked, "It's not like a racetrack where you can take several laps to warm up. As soon as you put your foot down, you have to turn on until you get to the top. Bobble it more than once and you might as well park it before you hurt yourself."
"What does it feel like to be behind the wheel?" I asked.
"Imagine going for a mountain drive in the family car. The road is about two cars wide at most, both sides are lined with trees except where there is a drop-off. You're holding onto the wheel and the throttle gets stuck on the floor. Only thing you don't have to worry about is busting a trunk load of Mason jars. That's what it's like going up the hill."
Its trees are flaked with fiber glass and metal from a hundred unfortunate challengers, the 18-foot-wide strip of pavement fighting men, machines and the cold winters with the same ferocity. The course rises 2,000 feet in just shy of two miles; the weather conditions are fickle enough to provide sunshine at the bottom, rain and fog at the top.
The clouds keep moving after dark, blinking stars on and off; nobody wants to make a rain prediction. The mountain claims from 13 to 18 complex turns, the difference of five being the gradual turns that the oldtimers let pass as "straightaways." And at the finish line is the Chimney, solid granite over the toy town, waiting to see what all the men are after, the two-minute mark, the magic time a racer is yet to reach.
The race started at a time when the residents of Chimney Rock would set down what they were doing to point if one of those little bitty cars went by. But they'd known for a long time what driving at the limit was all about and the premium paid for a mistake. A group of cars roared into town one day, the occupants with a new sport in mind, hill climbing, organized with each man given the same set of conditions to contend with. They were looking for just the right road to clear of tourists, put in communications at the top and bottom, get a stopwatch and give it a try. So, together, the Central Carolinas Region of the Sports Car Club of America and Chimney Rock Park Manager Norman Greig started the event, the little Pikes Peak, rain or shine.
Though the cars have gone from the growl of backyard handiwork to the scream of pure racing machinery, the mountain has stayed the same, maybe a little weatherbeaten for its years but looking just like a mountain ought to look until hill-climb day arrives.
Some of the early racers remember two yellow lines across the pavement, long ago worn off. When a longer section of the road was used, the cars roared off, came to a screeching halt between the yellow lines and crept past the danger area before they were allowed to resume speed. This speed zone was effective without policing, since it passed beside a 1,000-foot drop-off, just boulders without a single tree poking up to halt the descent of a tumbling car. But later the original course was shortened so a driver could go flat out all the way.
Over the years the men have remained the same, although with different names. Some come and never return, some never miss an event but all are men who list their occupations as something other than race driver and all have hopes of being dubbed King of the Mountain. This year there are two bankers, a dentist, a disc jockey, a fireman, a truck driver; men who've spent many months of nights preparing a car to stake it all on two runs up the hill. Through the winter they choke down their suppers, and the neighbors see the lights still on in their workshops when they go to bed. Old crazy so-and-so down the street, starting an engine in his basement loud enough to wake the dead, then cackling with pleasure as he shuts it off. The wife will go out in the morning to collect all the glasses with greasy fingerprints and see he's used her whole roll of Saran Wrap to package up engine parts dust-tight. She gets back her pizza pan that he took to trace out white circles for the door numbers. His son tells the kids at school his daddy's a race driver and they laugh and say yeah, and mine's an astronaut.
The mountain has seen machinery that ranged from a Porsche factory car to the outback creations of the local boys. But as the late newspaperman J. P. Brady put it: "The Rock has equal respect for a $20,000 Ferrari and for a clapped-out Healey-zero." In the early days there was a conglomeration known as the "Davis Special." It was the kind of machine that would send classification experts up the wall: a '41 Ford chassis, a Mercury flathead power plant, front fenders off a '47 Plymouth (that were later replaced by two of the Harley-Davidson variety to cut down on weight). The nose was a '49 Chevy truck cab top, the air scoop a reversed '37 Ford hood, and the rear deck was an upside-down Coca-Cola sign with the spare tire fitted inside, known by the sporty set as a continental kit. Driver Phil Styles sat on a Coke crate and had a dashboard full of Stewart-Warner instruments that were a Christmas present. After leaving the European creations spinning their wheels for several years, the Special was beaten and retired. Now it probably sits rusting in a row with hundreds of other hulks in the backwoods of western North Carolina.