Homecoming: Our annual return to the Empire Hill Climb
Check out everything that made the 2019 Empire Hill Climb one to remember
You hear it long before you hit the outskirts of town, the bwaaat! of an engine bouncing off the trees lining the popular state highway, hesitating, then full-throated again, the screaming rpm coming in staccato bursts like an internal combustion telegraph sending a message in Morse code to the sleepy sand dunes lining Lake Michigan.
The unmistakable sounds of a race underway, of cars being driven joyfully, somewhere in the woods ahead. It’s impossible to resist.
Turning west off M-22 in the heart of Empire, Michigan, drops you into the middle of pit lane. Or the garages. Or the paddock. Front Street serves all roles, as well as the gathering spot for drivers and fans of the Empire Hill Climb to commingle throughout the day. The drivers meeting takes place on the steps of the modest, whitewashed Township Hall. A coffee-and-gift shop across the street serves spectators and drivers—more coffee than gifts, with the summer tourists long returned south. The remainder of the block comprises art galleries and antique shops scattered between clapboard two-stories. The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore sits both north and south of town.
The Sports Car Club of America sanctions more than 2,000 events each year, across 115 regions and displaying the talent—if not always talent, then definitely the heart—of its 67,500 members, whether they’re winding their way through lines of cones in empty parking lots or flying around the tight bends of a technical road course. The 75-year-old organization promotes events from across a wide variety of disciplines, hosts driving schools and track events, and has claimed some of the biggest names in racing as members.
Why, then, is this one little event, in town of 372, held on a tiny little hill, eight turns and three-quarter miles long, so special?
Because it belongs to us.
It belongs to the Shiloffs.
The Empire Hill Climb was revived in 2014 after lying fallow for almost 35 years, resurrected in large part by Paul Skinner, a former rally racing Yorkshireman who runs an antique shop on Front Street.
“It ran through the late ’60s into the early ’80s, then took a break until six years ago, when Mike Kelty from Northport approached me saying he’d like to revive it,” says Skinner. “It just so happened that I had 25 years of rallying experience back in the U.K., so he basically came to the right person, and we were able get to where we are today in six short years.”
A lot of the event’s success falls to the husband and wife team of Jerry and Mary Shiloff, the Hill Climb’s SCCA stewards. The Shiloffs not only have to make sure the event runs smoothly and safely, they also need to be sure the amazing variety of cars competing is up to snuff from a safety and tech standpoint.
The Shiloffs, from Algonac, Michigan, have been involved in the SCCA since the ’60s. They met when they were both corner workers at Waterford Hills in southeast Michigan. They spent 20 years running local road races. “It’s true, I did wreck Jerry’s Pinto,” says Mary. “That was in ’78.”
After they retired from driving, they stayed involved with the SCCA, helping to put on road races, rallies and various rally- crosses around the Midwest.
At Empire, Mary registers all the entrants and scores them as they finish their climbs. Jerry basically does everything, making sure the course is safe, the cars are safe and that they meet the SCCA’s hillclimb regs. Basically everything happening throughout the day runs through him. “My job is to make sure it all goes as smoothly as possible,” he says.
It all sounds complicated and official and stiff upper lip, but really, the Shiloffs fit right in with Empire’s laid-back grassrootsness: They’re car enthusiasts who just love being at a track—or, in this case, the woods—who care enough to give back, doing the hard work behind the scenes so racers can do what they do.
It belongs to the drivers.
The Empire Hill Climb limits entries to just 40 cars, and since last year, the organizers have had to turn prospective racers away.
A quick stroll down Front Street and the range of cars participating smacks you immediately: an electric green Caterham parked on the south curb, an MGB GT opposite on the north side, a spec Miata race car under a portable canopy near the barricades closing off the street to through traffic. There are Imprezas and Camaros, a 944 Turbo and a mid-’80s Trans Am, a little open-wheel Formula car.
“There’s everything, from open-wheel racers to actual race cars that go circuit racing. There’s rally cars, there’s one that used to go stock car racing—a myriad of cars,” says Skinner.
This year’s field was a mix of favorites from previous years and exciting newcomers.
For a few years now, Ian Dawkins’ V8-powered 1973 AMC Gremlin has been the rowdiest vintage ride on the hill. He didn’t disappoint this year, either, the raucous bellow of the unmuffled engine reaching the top of the hill long before spectators catch a glimpse of the hoodless black wedge rounding the first turns. He turned in a best run of 22.964 seconds.
Dawkins was just one of two entrants (the other being Kelty in a 1986 Porsche 944 Turbo) who helped get Empire Hill Climb restarted. His father competed in the race’s original iteration in the ’70s; Dawkins now runs his AMC Gremlin in his honor.
Darko Stojanovski brought his 1977 Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith II to the hill for the first time, a terrifying yet elegant Viper V10-powered creation you might have seen at the Rust Belt GP Lemons race earlier in the year. Having blown two V10s in Lemons competition, this third engine proved good enough for a solid 22.376-second run, taking the Vintage class crown.
Cody Loveland of Buckley, Mich., already finished second as a builder in the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb earlier in the year before towing his wild 1993 Honda Civic to his fourth Empire Hill Climb. He won his class at Empire in 2016 and was a runner-up in 2017. Loveland says the Empire Hill Climb’s “history and unique style that nobody else in the area can touch” make it so special, while “lapping through town between stints, getting thumbs-up from the locals.”
Frank Schwartz will have towed his Mini Cooper B-Spec racer to the SCCA Runoffs by the time you read this, “part of the largest B-Spec race (field) in history,” he says. But a month prior, he drove his Mini up the hill in Empire in 25.242 seconds.
“I was born and spent my younger years in Germany in the Black Forest near the famous Schauinsland Bergrennen (Hillclimb), so I come by my love for hillclimbs naturally,” says Schwartz. “I love the fact that hillclimbs bring the best elements of autocrossing with racing, plus the fact it is a spectator event makes it thoroughly enjoyable.”
And it belongs to you.
The crowd enjoyed one of the most beautiful days of the year, soaking up the late-summer sun and engine noise in equal measure. And that crowd has grown since the race’s revival; the parking lots overflowed and the spectating areas were three deep along the entire race route.
Tim Delong made the trek from nearby Beulah, Mich., and has come here for five years. “As a car nut, other than a couple car shows in the area and an 1/8th-mile drag strip, we don’t have anything,” says Delong. “There’s no other event like this.”
As for this year’s EHC, Delong was ecstatic. “I’m amazed. They were actually turning entrants away.” He thinks exposure from last year—when Autoweek invited RealTime Racing’s Peter Cunningham and his Pikes Peak class-winning Acura TLX GT to smash the Hill’s record—helped the event’s growth.
Tom Weersing, from the Holland, Mich., area, has made it every year since it returned. “It’s bigger than ever!” says Weersing.
Weersing loves the laid-back vibe of the event, too: “It’s a rare racing event where it’s kind of loose. People can come here and kind of play around a little bit. They aren’t necessarily told to the nth degree what they’re supposed to do, like an autocross track where they have a lot of detailed rules.”
If you’re planning on coming next year, get there early—the parking spots will likely go fast.