Hillclimb Revival

New riders, new rules and new fans for our sport's oldest venue.

John Koester action shot

Ever since the days of what was then called “pedal assist,” motorcycles and hills have been linked in competition. That is, sometimes the motor does the job, sometimes the hill comes out on top.

In pioneer days, this wasn’t mere sport. When Indian’s founders wanted to show the world what they’d built, they summoned the press to the steepest hill in Springfield, Massachusetts. The prototype zoomed up, the press went wild and orders poured in. Mission accomplished.

It followed that climbing hills was no longer work, so it became a sport. Early riders used their daily mounts, marked off the steepest hill in the area and staged meets. Who could climb the hill quickest, if at all?

Then came hillclimbing’s Golden Age. In the late 1920s, racing had become so fast and dangerous that the pros on the dirt and board tracks were limited to 500cc Singles; fair and efficient but frankly not much of a show, not in what had become V-Twin country.

The limits didn't apply to hillclimbs, so first Excelsior, then Indian and Harley-Davidson, designed and built limited numbers of 750cc overhead-valve V-Twins. They burned alcohol and benzol as fuel, cranked out 50 horsepower, used special frames, fat rear tires wrapped in chains and for a few seasons were the biggest, baddest machines on two wheels. There were famous hillclimbs coast to coast, and the national champions ranked with the closed-track stars.

But then some savvy promoters introduced speedway, where the 500 Singles looked fast, racing was head-to-head, up close and fierce, and the seats and snack bars were close to the action.

On the other side of the coin, to keep the sport alive, the AMA introduced strictly stock flat-track and TT, so, once again, the owner of one motorcycle could win on Sunday and ride to work on Monday.

Hillclimbs were still in the rule­book, but their social status was like, oh, rugby or squash, with small clusters of fans and competitors. Results went no further than the club magazine or the agate type on the sports page. Perhaps worse, if you didn't have a wildly reworked Triumph or Harley, you didn't have much chance at a trophy.

Perhaps because the hillclimbers were a small group, they were dedicated, especially in the form of the Professional Hillclimbers Association; it’s fair to say here that the “professional” meant dedicated, as opposed to getting rich.

Earl Bowlby AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame Archives

Then and now: Earl Bowlby won 10 national titles during the 1970s and ’80s on BSA-powered machines.

Hillclimbing’s revival began when the Daytona Motorsports Group took over truly professional motorcycle racing from the AMA. This wasn’t a hostile takeover. In historical fact, the AMA was formed as a member club, riders and owners, and became the sport’s sanctioning body only because—again, back in the Great Depression—there was no one else willing to do it.

But DMG, meaning NASCAR and the France family, was created to run, promote and govern top-class motorsports. The PHCA and DMG execs met and each liked what the other group had to offer.

And what are they doing as partners?

Begin with the current classes:

The entry class, which bears a deliberate resemblance to current flat-track rules, allows just about any machine on two wheels, but the best and the quickest bikes began as motocrossers. The class, oddly named Pro Sport, again, like the dirt-track rules, is open to any rider who shows up. The limit is a 450cc Single, burning pump or race gas and fitted with an extended swingarm, 8 to 14 inches over stock, with a paddle rear tire.

All the riders are required to wear a neck brace along with the usual helmet, gloves, boots, and all the bikes must be fitted with a deadman’s switch, as in speedway, where if the rider’s hand comes off the grip, a lanyard yanks a switch and kills the engine.

The intent is clear: You can do a classic Malcolm Smith, as seen in "On Any Sunday," and just show up, or you can swap parts on your motocrosser and have a shot at a trophy and perhaps a new interest.

Next step up is Xtreme, spelled just like that. The rules here allow Fours up to 700cc and Twins to 750cc, as in Triumphs or even Harley XR-750s. This class allows custom frames, any fuel up to nitrous or nitro, and paddle tires with bolts or tires wrapped in chains.

These clearly are a challenge to ride, so entrants who aren’t known to the club—that is, they aren’t moving up from Pro Sport—are required to make some observed runs before being turned loose in competition. Because Xtreme is an intermediate class, the riders can opt to keep their amateur status, as in Pro Sport, or run for a share of the purse.

The top class, for pros only, is Unlimited, meaning just that, again custom frames, running Fours larger than 700cc or Twins larger that 750cc.

What this results in usually is a bumper crop of 900cc Fours, modern as in twin cams and full modification. AMA Pro Hillclimb spokeswoman Amanda Campbell pauses when asked and says the largest she can recall is a 1900cc Harley-Davidson. But while that adds to the show, it’s a bit more power than can be harnessed.

Jockamo Baldina action shot

Jockamo Baldina is part of a new breed of hillclimbers, piloting hot-rodded Japanese inline-Fours producing as much as 300 horsepower.

What these rules add up to is a wide span: The new riders and entry-level machines, running mostly stock, have a better power-to-weight ratio than the awesome factory-backed monsters of the previous golden age.

At the other end, no limits. All that needs to be said is that first, there’s no hill on the schedule, no matter how steep or rough, that hasn’t been climbed. Second, to make sure the results are based on skill and tech­nique and tuning, not mere grunt, all the hills have steps, doubles and triples as seen in motocross. One hill even has a turn partway up.

The AMA hillclimb series is listed as a national championship, which is sort of like calling the international roadraces of the past a world series even when the races were all in Europe.

The current series ranges from Ohio in the West to New Hampshire in the Northeast—not quite coast to coast. This is simply because, while the top riders are professional and win money, the actual purse comes from ticket sales. And while the crowds are larger than they used to be, the prices are kept at a family level, meaning that even with several thousand fans per meet, none of the pros can win enough to quit their day job, nor can they afford the time and money to travel very far.

Campbell says this is an investment in the future. “If we have ticket sales of several thousand, we know that maybe 500 kids were in the crowd and got in free. We think if you see a hillclimb, you’ll come back, and we want the younger crowd.”

Families are key, she adds. The AMA Pro ranks, PHCA and local clubs are all working to create a family atmosphere, in contrast to the former reputation for rowdies and outlaws. Back with tradition, the national groups are working with local motorcycle clubs, the way the Jackpine Gypsies do Sturgis events and the Peoria MC puts on the national TT.

In sum, hillclimb offers another set of reasons to go for a ride on your motorcycle.

FIELD OF DREAMS: Koester launches his nitro-injected Honda 600-powered hillclimber.

GarrettHamilton.com

Earl Bowlby won 10 national titles during the 1970s and ?80s on BSA-powered machines.

AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame Archives

Jockamo Baldina is part of a new breed of hillclimbers, piloting hot-rodded Japanese inline-Fours producing as much as 300 horsepower.

Jeff Whitehead

LOOKS LIKE A 450: Motocross-based Pro Sport class is hillclimb?s entry point. Josh Kobel has four podium finishes, including one win, thus far this season.

Jeff Whitehead