Scooter MacMillan, Editor
About 50-70 people were standing around talking in the comfortably chill evening air at the top of Mount Philo on Friday, May 5, about the Hillclimber race that weekend. It was not much of a detour when the conversation turned to the modifications, the repairs and the amount of money the competitors had put into the cars they would be racing on Sunday.
One of the competitors either didn’t know how much he’d spent or wouldn’t say. He also wouldn’t say if his wife knew how much he’d spent, but he did say, “It’s not as much as she’s spent on dogs.”
Co-chair of the Hillclimber event at Mount Philo, Chris Rielly of Colchester doesn’t have to worry about his wife knowing how much he’s spent because she races, too.
One winter, Rielly saw cars racing on the ice in Malletts Bay. Curious and having always wanted to figure out how to get into racing, Rielly went over to investigate.
He discovered a community of sports car racing enthusiasts who were only too willing to introduce him to the sport and guide him down the rabbit hole of racing up mountains.
Rielly, who started in 2008, is in his 15th year of racing, except for two years he took off to save up money after he had a motor blow up. His wife had been coming to the races, volunteering to help with the myriad tasks required to put on these events. During his hillclimbing hiatus, she said she wanted to race.
“She raced for two years. She had a blast. Then after those two years, she decided OK, that was enough,” said Rielly.
His wife had already gone home by this time on this beautiful spring evening. She would be back the next day to cook for the event.
Mount Philo, like the rest of the state parks in Vermont, was still closed on this weekend. Nate McKeen, director of Vermont state parks, said the Hillclimber events are a way to bring money into the system’s coffers when the parks aren’t open and aren’t making money.
People recreate in state parks in a wide variety of ways from mountain biking to traditional activities like hiking, camping, fishing. McKeen said, “We try to offer as much as we can, within the scope of the entire state park system. There’s only a few with a mountain road that’s paved.”
So, there are a limited number of state parks where Hillclimber rides can happen, including Mount Ascutney and Okemo Mountain.
The oldest hillclimber race is up Mount Washington, said Rielly. Okemo probably has the biggest turnout. Since it’s in southern Vermont, it can draw participants from large population centers to the south.
The Mount Washington Hillclimb Auto Race is also known as the Climb to the Clouds. The first was run in 1904, so it is older than the Indianapolis 500 and the Pikes Peak Hill Climb.
Three sports car clubs are involved in the annual hillclimber race at Mount Philo — Sports Car Club of Vermont, Killington Sports Car Club and the Sports Car Club of New Hampshire.
They pay the state parks system $2,000 to rent the mountain for the weekend. Rielly estimated 30-50 racers would pony up the $200 fee to compete. In addition to that, the clubs have to pay for security and an ambulance on standby.
An organizer said he could count on one hand the number of times the event has broken even.
It’s about a mile up to the top of Mount Philo. Rielly said the fastest time ever is around 60.5 seconds.
“If I’m below 68 seconds, I’ll be happy with myself,” he said.