Racing with history

The annual Mount Equinox Hill Climb gives spectators a rare opportunity to see vintage race cars being pushed to the limit.

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Here's an idea for a car show: You stand by a switchback on a mountain road, waiting, until you hear the distant whine of an engine. Soon, a vintage race car appears in the distance, growing larger by the moment. The driver downshifts, and, applying just the right amount of steering and gas, gets the car around the sharp bend as quickly as possible. The car straightens, the exhaust blares, and the car disappears up the road.

It's all over within seconds, but somewhere far down the road, there's another car already on its way up, and another behind that one.

This is the spectator's view of the Mount Equinox Hill Climb, which will have its 71st running on Vermont's second-highest peak on Aug. 10 and 11. With its long stretches of tranquility broken regularly by the transitory sights and sounds of sports cars being pushed to the limit, it's a unique experience in the world of vintage cars.

The goal could not be more simple: Get from the base of the mountain to its 3,840-foot summit as quickly as possible. The course features 41 turns over its 5.2 miles, and climbs at a relatively steep average grade of 12 percent. The course record of 4 minutes, 8.8 seconds was set by John Mayer, driving a V8-powered Can Am race car, and it has stood for 50 years and counting. But for most drivers, the mark they're looking to beat is their own personal best time.

George Vapaa, who drives a single-seat Formula Saab race car, put it into perspective at the 2018 event: "If you can get down to 5 minutes and 15 seconds on this course, you're averaging 60 miles an hour, and climbing at 600 feet a minute, which isn't bad for a small airplane," he said. "So it's pretty impressive."

"It is uniquely challenging," said his son, Stefan, who also races a vintage Saab, his a yellow Sonett. "On a race track, so long as you're in front of whoever you're racing, that's all you have to do. Here, there is never a point at which you've gone fast enough. There is always that opportunity for just that little bit more. You've got this whole hill to figure out where you're making mistakes, and where you can do better."

The Vapaas, like all the competitors, are members of the Vintage Sports Car Club of America (VSCCA), which has sanctioned the hill climb since 1973. The VSCCA, founded in 1958 to encourage the preservation and continued use of vintage sports cars, and its calendar includes wheel-to-wheel racing and rallies, in addition to hill climbs. The rules favor simple enjoyment of the cars over win-at-all-costs competition. As the club explains on its website, "We choose to stay firmly rooted in those earlier days when driving sports cars was still a romantic adventure."

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Andy Greenberg was introduced to the Equinox Hill Climb by his stepfather. He now competes in his 1963 Aston Martin DB4 GT, a car he's owned for 10 years. "People come to have fun, and they're very good at it," he said. "I think at this event, you're competing mostly against your own personal best."

The VSCCA has a 1963 year-of-manufacture cutoff, which means you won't see 707-horsepower Dodge Hellcats and twin-turbo Porsche 911s clawing their way up Skyline Drive. What there is instead is a variety of machinery that includes sinuous Jaguar XKs, cycle-fendered postwar MGs, the occasional vintage Ferrari or Aston Martin, and a sprinkling of prewar two-seaters. There's a sedan class, too, for family cars like the Volvo 544 and classic Mini.

VSCCA members generally know their history, and are aware that they're taking the same route traveled by a number of great drivers over the years, among them Carroll Shelby, the man who developed the Cobra and Shelby Mustang performance cars for Ford; John Fitch, possibly the greatest road racer America has produced; Briggs Cunningham, the sportsman who raced Cadillacs at Le Mans before founding his own car company; and Rene Dreyfus, a French driver who won Grand Prix races across Europe. At 71 years this year, organizers say Equinox is the oldest continually-run hill climb in the U.S.

Spectating from a midpoint on the course is possible, with the permission of the event chairman, who will explain the safety rules that must be followed. Be forewarned that, once the road is clear and the racers begin their runs, everyone else has to remain in place until the last car has made it to the summit, and the cars travel in a pack back down to the base. With 30 or 40 cars competing, this could take two hours — longer, if there's a breakdown or other misfortune on the road.

A far more flexible viewing spot is the parking lot at the Toll House at the base of the mountain, on Route 7A in Sunderland. There, the cars can be examined up close, and conversations with the drivers and their crews are possible. Spectators can come and go from the parking lot as they please — though their only views of the cars in motion will be as they're green-flagged on their way from the gate, and quickly disappear up the road.

For many of the competitors, Equinox is as much a social event as it is an opportunity to let an old race car off its leash, and many a once-a-year reunion takes place in the Toll House parking lot. Stories are told, absent friends are remembered, and picnics are enjoyed. Though the drivers are quite serious when they take the wheel, this is a low-key, relaxed event organized in the VSCCA's decidedly non-commercial way, and spectators will find that genuine interest is all that's needed for admission. There are no other tickets.

David LaChance is news editor of the Bennington Banner.


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