24 Sept 2019

The Virginia City Hill Climb: we came, we saw, we experienced:

  • Horses, dirtbikers, and people crossing the course
  • Cars dumping oil or coolant
  • A car spun and and sideswiped the rocky wall
  • Cars breaking down
  • A car trying to avoid a rabbit, hits it anyway, sideswiping a rock.
  • A resident shooting at squirrels
  • Combinations of the above causing delays
  • Running out of food at the banquet dinner

—And we still had a great time—but I’m getting ahead of myself.

On the drive up, we fulfilled a childhood dream of mine. One of my favorite movies is “The Great Race”, starring Natalie Wood and Tony Curtis, filmed in 1965. In one scene, their characters meet at a rock formation in the middle of the desert. I always wondered where that was, and tried on and off over the years to figure out where it had been filmed. Only recently did the Interweb provide the location, so on the way up. we made a detour several miles west of Lone Pine, and there it was. It was really cool to find, and the irony isn’t lost on me that in the scene, the main character’s car is being towed by his trusty steed, as was mine. In some ways, getting this shot was just as big a deal for me as the hill climb itself.

We arrived Wednesday before the weekend’s events. On Thursday, we drove our cars from Virginia City up to Lake Tahoe. Rain threatened, but was supposed to happen later in the day. Driving up was uneventful, though driving through South Lake Tahoe wasn’t much fun due to typical city traffic and construction delays. The thought of “I could experience this back home without towing the car 525 miles” crossed my mind. Once clear of the town, we continued clockwise around the lake. Along the west side of the lake is State Route 89, and there’s a section between Cascade Lake and Emerald Bay unlike any road we had experienced. Consider a narrow-topped mountain ridge that road engineers wanted to run a road along. Well, “along” doesn’t do it justice, because they ran it right along the top edge. Rather than describing further, paste the following lat/long coordinates into Google Earth: 38 56 56.06 N 120 05 30.97 W, then go to Street View. The drop-offs on both sides are pretty dramatic. I managed only one shot of Midlana at Tahoe with the lake in the distance.

Our intended path to the north became blocked by weather (which changes minute to minute in the mountains) as the scheduled rain showed up early, so we turned back. Since the weather prevails from West to East, as we drove back around through South Lake Tahoe, the rain was moving across the north shore toward our escape route out of the mountains. As we drove up toward the ridge, the temperature dropped into the single digits (deg C) but never to zero. That’s good because the roads didn’t become icy, though we did catch some of the rain. Midlana, with no fenders, kicked up huge rooster tails of spray, which was great entertainment for me, not so much for other cars, which fortunately were few and far between. Also fortunate was that I didn’t pass any cops (who may have noticed my lack of wipers and fenders). Then, hail! As it hit, it broke up, with little bits flying everywhere (I thought it was snow at first) but fortunately it was small diameter. [No pictures because the driving was a little dicey, never mind the risk of using a cellphone while moving.] As we dropped down the East side of the mountains, the rain cleared up and by the time we got back to Virginia City, it had completely evaporated.

That evening, we explored Virginia city, a place that at one time, had more than four times the population of Los Angeles (35,000 versus 8000). All the mines have since closed down and the city now survives on tourism, with events such as ostrich races, long distance horse competitions, outhouse races(!), and of course the hill climb. Other events go on as well, as attested by these characters seen on the sidewalk one evening in the first picture. The second picture is from a bar where bras seemingly become detached and misplaced. I can’t help but wonder how many women wake up the next morning wondering, “now where’d I leave that?”

Wild horses and deer wander freely wander around town, with droppings appearing overnight even on main street. This horse was wandering around our cars when we came out of the motel one morning. This didn’t help my concern about them wandering across the course around blind turns, or there being blind areas where corner workers might not see them.

Virginia City is at an altitude of 6200 feet. This cuts the horsepower of normally aspirated engines by about 15-20%, depending upon air temperature. Turbocharged cars compensate for the thinner air in two or three ways: because there is less air to slow down the compressor wheel, it spins faster, pulling in more air; the exhaust, with less air pressure outside the car resisting it, allows the turbine to spin faster. Both factors naturally compensate to some degree, and the third is that most ECUs use closed-loop boost control, meaning that it closes the wastegate until boost is at the programmed set point. All three factors combine to give turbos an advantage at altitude; whether that makes the car win is up to the driver…

Friday was tech inspection, with the inspector finding what I already knew: two slightly loose rod ends on the upper front A-arms. It wasn’t a big deal because there was only slight play, but it bugs me because they’re not the cheap units. Apparently these two have more force on them, so they’ll be upgraded with the best parts.

Saturday practice:

Saturday started with the “Sermon on the Mount”, where the organizers sternly reminded everyone that this isn’t a competition, or even the clock; it’s simply a way to drive fast up a windy road without having to worry about police or traffic. Additionally, no times are provided to entrants until the entire event is over, which keeps people from overreaching their own abilities. I was still fixated on finding a horse standing in the roadway around a blind turn, and wondered how everyone else seemed unconcerned.

Finally we lined up and got started. The first thing that became apparent is that the sportcams that everyone uses to make YouTube videos have wide angle lenses that makes everything look further away (as well as making it look like they’re going faster). In reality, the turns aren’t as far away as they appear. The second thing that became apparent is that once I was driving, concerns about horses or anything else faded away, and only The Next Turn mattered. At the end of the day I felt more comfortable with the course, and purposely didn’t run a stopwatch for the same reasons as above; I didn’t want to overreach based upon a time.

That’s enough for now; there is a lot more to talk about and many more pictures and video, so keep an eye on this blog over the next week or so. I will say that this year, the all-time record finally fell, to a car on street-legal tires no less (unlike the former record time that was accomplished on illegal race slicks).