SI Vault
To be KING of the mountain
Sylvia Wilkinson
April 19, 1971
Year round he is a hard-eyed man running a load of white lightning; on one day, in the same craggy region of Carolina, he is the racer fustest up in the Chimney Rock Hillclimb
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April 19, 1971

To Be King Of The Mountain

Year round he is a hard-eyed man running a load of white lightning; on one day, in the same craggy region of Carolina, he is the racer fustest up in the Chimney Rock Hillclimb

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Unlike Baumgardner, Pete Feistmann, who inspected and built cars for the climb years before he was old enough to compete, sees the mountain with every bump and pavement patch drawn on his mind in a pattern. "There's a bump up there that you hit coming up on the rock wall. You've got three or four hundred feet to get ready for one turn, but if you hit that bump wrong you crash into the wall." On the difficulty of remembering the course Feistmann says, "Put Jackie Stewart in an identical car and the regulars would outrun him first time up." He says the secret is not the charging but the stopping.

And it was all over for Skip Barber on his second run after a first run that was good for a newcomer. The rain had slowed down but the road was spotted with puddles. Spectators on the corner recalled a vanishing act: first you saw the robin's-egg blue of the car, then you didn't, the airfoil wing dropping between two trees like a swing. Barber climbed up out of the hollow unhurt, but the car was done for the weekend, one wheel gone, its nose crumpled from a fallen tree.

"I went up and down on a motorcycle, trying to remember it all," Barber tells us. "What happened? You get in a fast car and the whole picture changes, it comes at you too fast. I got in the turn and thought it was a gradual one but I was already to the hairpin."

So Skip Barber is added to the Saturday night story-swapping; the mountain got itself another one—Morgan corner, wasn't it? That's the corner where that Morgan hit the same tree on the same turn three years in a row, and a cheer went up on the fourth year when he finally made it all the way to the top. But in Barber's case there's one thing the railbirds will have to admit; he reasons like a professional racing driver: "I knew the brakes weren't working properly yet, but no excuses. It wasn't brake failure—brain failure."

And the Chimney Rock bench racing goes on: Remember the Porsche factory car that went through practice and was quietly loaded to go home by Saturday evening, ruled too precious to be spent on mountain pines and granite? Then there was Charlie Kolb, a driver of some reputation who co-drove the same car with an old mountain boy, Buddy Horton from Hickory; Hoi ton went live seconds faster. Lotus, Porsche, Ferrari, the factory A.C. Bristol the weekend after Sebring that centered a tree on the first hairpin, the McLaren off the Can-Am circuit that never even made a run—got crunched in two-way traffic when the driver tried to learn the course. And there was J. Frank Harrison, the king before Scott, a wealthy glass manufacturer from Chattanooga who co-drove with Smokey Drolet, one of the best female drivers in the business. The tiny woman, always toting a lavender shoulder bag, was kidded about not beating the boss and the boss won for several years with Smokey a close second. Then the streak ran out. He crashed one car, then took over Smokey's car and crashed it. A thump and then dead silence. The mountain had dethroned another king.

Feistmann recalls Julian Putney from Arden who tore off his gearshift knob on the way to the top, cut his hand to shreds but wouldn't stop running—72 shifts he counted. Everybody remembers the guy who used to run off the mountain every year and sit down in the woods with a welding torch trying to piece his car back together in time. "He'd put a Ferrari engine in a boat and sink it. Never finished a run. Nice guy, lived in a fancy suburb in Charlotte and his yard looked like a car graveyard." And then there was J.P. Brady, whose widow Clariece gives a trophy in his name each year to the driver "who goes the fastest with what he's got." We remember J.P. sitting on the hood of his MGA one Saturday night telling it, "You are a Porsche. You are a Porsche," and J.P. leaping out of the MGA, after a run, with the seat of his pants on fire.

A good night's sleep for the serious drivers, then Sunday morning and rain. Fifty-three drivers pull the covers off their cars, rev up and roostertail off to the course to beat the crowd of spectators. There are new and old spectators, a steady stream for five hours. A new one asks, "What happens if it doesn't quit raining?" And an old one tells him that means the road becomes a "big old slick snake." There are no rain checks given at Chimney Rock.

The rain falls without a letup. The track is smeared with mud and leaves and rainbow oil slicks. Chimney Rock is lost in the mist. Racers fishtail off the line in the morning practice. Each pit crew watches the face of the starter; he'll frown if told over the earphones that their man if off course, over the side; nod when he's out of the car, he's O.K. Then, just before the final timed runs are to get under way—the two chances every man gets to better the mark—the ambulances are called away to two highway accidents. No runs until they return. The racers sit in a glistening row at the start line. Some crews hold umbrellas over the open-cockpit cars, some let them soak up water. Somebody makes a crack about the lucky guys who drive closed sedans with windshield wipers.

In the bushes a street Porsche sits up on jack stands; Ted Tidwell has borrowed its all-weather Michelins in hopes of gaining traction. Feistmann was still faster in the morning practice, so Tidwell strolls up-course and rubs his hands on the pavement.

"It's not like a racecourse in the rain. It's like a regular highway—water, mud, leaves, pulverized sticks—calls for a general-purpose lire."

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