Midwestern Scene | August '07BY: MIKE ELLINGTON
Here in the Midwest you can find more than just sand drags at some of the events. Some tracks are equipped with hill climbs and obstacle courses that take you back to a time when sand drags were more referred to as “Jeep Races” in this part of the country. When I first started racing I was completely focused on the drags and had no interest in any of the other activities at these tracks. My cars were representative of that. I ran a 2WD altered for years. When I met my wife we built her an altered with the same focus in mind. I was in the process of building myself a rear engine dragster when my daughter was born. I knew then that I needed to rethink my racing plans so that we had time to take care of her at the track and still race two vehicles. It was then that I decided to buy a Jeep. It was something a little slower with hopefully a little less maintenance that would also keep my wife and me away from each other in competition, to allow one of us to watch Riley while the other raced. Also, with the Jeep being 4WD I could compete in the EC4WDA classes as well, where they have some of these hill climbs.
Within the past month I competed in a hill climb at the Tri-County Four Wheelers 42nd Annual 4x4 Rodeo. I’d seen the hill ran a few times in the past but was definitely a chicken to try it in an altered that runs 3.50s and rarely keeps the front end on the ground on the flat stuff, let alone a hill climb. So this was my big chance. The hill itself is somewhat intimidating when you first see it. It’s approximately 300 tree-lined feet cut in the side of a hill on the Tri-County grounds. The first 70 feet is nearly vertical with a stair-step in the middle, where it crosses an access road to the upper pits. After the step the incline decreases and racers can flat foot it to the finish. It’s this step, and the transition to the step, that is the tricky part for the faster vehicles. You have to know when to lift out of the throttle to avoid getting too much air and breaking your vehicle on the landing. The hill is also not perfectly straight, so you have to know where your vehicle is in relation to the boundary at all times.
I was fortunate enough to have some expert hill climbers give me advice before my ascent. My wife and brother-in-law have been up the hill several times and showed me where to line up for the start and how to handle the stair step. I was also fortunate enough that the club had taken some of the stair step out of the hill so there wasn’t as much to worry about. With all this knowledge I staged up for my first try at the hill. I was basically staring straight ahead into a dirt wall. The track official came over to check my belts and wish me luck. When the green light was turned on to let me know it was all clear on the hill, I tached up the engine and let go of the button. As I clawed my way up the first part, I thought to myself “This is a piece of cake” and it actually felt slow. As I approached the crest of the transition I backed out of the throttle to keep all four wheels on the ground. I didn’t want to go all-out on my first pass. Once over the transition I knew the stair step was nearly eliminated so I could mash the throttle and hang on until the top. As I mashed the throttle I guess I forgot I was still on a hill. The front end got light and the Jeep was on its way to dragging the bumper. Of course not wanting to flip backwards down the hill I instantly yanked my foot off the throttle. At that point the Jeep was nearly vertical and crashed down pretty hard. I was on the stair step at that point and decided to just limp my way to the top. I was unsure if there was any damage. There is quite a bit of shutdown so there were no worries of getting stopped. However, as I tried to make the turn off the hill it was then I noticed my steering was completely locked. The impact from letting out of the throttle had jammed the steering shaft slider so hard that it bent my steering box mount down and my steering universal joints were completely bound up.
Back in the pits we grabbed wrenches, hammers, and pry bars for an attempt to bang the steering back into place. Bending the bracket was easy, but the slider was a different story. It was bent as well. It took a lot of hammering but we got it back together, nearly good as new. Unfortunately it wasn’t in time to make my second pass. I finished with a 3rd place time out of 4 competitors in my class. I’d have to try the hill another day.
Fortunately “another day” was the next day. A little less brave about the situation I figured I’d better use a little more caution and learn the hill. I made my fist pass successfully although I was in and out of the throttle several times with any little wandering of the Jeep. Each time I put my foot back on the throttle I could feel the Jeep want to lift the front wheels. But I had made it to the top and it was pretty fun. It was a relatively slow 9 second pass. But I had my confidence back and felt I could go for it. On my second attempt I felt really good and was able to run a lot faster. I still lifted on the transition but used a lot better throttle control to get over the stair step and run it out to the top. I was even able to shift into high gear. I had an 8.5 second E.T., which was good enough for second in my class. I really felt good after that one and can’t wait to try it again.
Unfortunately we didn’t get video of the wheelie on my first pass but I’m including footage of my two runs from Sunday. There area also several pictures from the climb at www.tricounty4x4.com in the event pictures section. The picture of my Jeep is on its way back down from the giant wheel stand. So there is more to our sport than just 300 feet on the straight and narrow. You just better make sure your vehicle is built to handle some abuse as I quickly found out.
Video of Hill Climb (Courtesy Mike Ellington)