Today’s hillclimbing machines are technological wonders. This giant, raced by the Peterson clan, sports a KTM frame, carbon fiber fairing, and a 2,500cc H-D engine which cranks out more than 200 hp for the rear wheel lodged out on the end of the four-foot swingarm.
The hillclimb has been a popular American motorcycle sport since 1904. Yeah, I thought the same thing…”they climbed hills with those rolling death traps?” But nevertheless, the hillclimb is one the oldest organized sports with motorcycles, and it’s a uniquely American form of competition to boot.
The winner is the rider who crests the hill in the shortest amount of time or, if no one succeeds, the one who gets the farthest. Sound easy? Yeah right, today’s 200+hp bikes roaring up negative angle ledges with swing arms as long as Shaq is nothing short of a boxer soiling experience.
You can even ask Jeremy McGrath who decided he would give it a go at the Great American Championship Hillclimb in Billings, Montana. “This event is gnarly, and it’s way harder than it looks. I have a lot of respect for those guys” McGrath said. He’s not too shabby himself, placing a remarkable second overall behind eight-time champion Travis Whitlock two years ago.
Despite its initial popularity, and the amount of time the sport has actually been around, hillclimbing has recently begun resurfacing as a popular and viable motor-sport. With the growth of motorcycle sports as a whole, people have really begun to explore the finer niches of competition on two wheels.
It’s quite apparent that what we are really looking for is new and exciting ways to employ the use of a dirt bike in the breaking of one’s bones and obviously to show off to the more refined sex.
The first brave souls looking to prove their machismo by conquering a hill evidently took place near Boston in 1904 and similar events soon sprang up elsewhere, culminating in the Pike’s Peak Hill Climb, for both motorcycles and autos, which was first held in 1916.
However old the sport may be, the bikes and technology present in the sport today are pure F1 spec, back-of-the-neck-hair-raising, bring an extra pair of underpants, goodness. In the North American Hill climb Association, considered one of the gnarliest circuits, there’s two classes, and there’s nothing “Lite” about either one.
It may not have the chest-thumping 2,500cc H-D engine powering it, but the Peterson clan’s 700cc class entry isn’t exactly a slouch with its LC4 660 and nitrous system getting it up the hill.
The first class is the 0-700cc class, and you can expect such bikes as the Peterson Brother’s KTM hybrid, with a 525 chassis and a LC4 660 motor running race fuel and a nifty little nitrous oxide system. The focus with these smaller bikes, and I use the term “smaller” lightly, is to try and shave as much weight as possible in order to man handle them up these monstrous hills and to make as much use of the available ponies.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing small or wimpy about these bikes at all, nitrous, 600-700ccs, and 3-4 foot long swing arms are enough to make the biggest guy in your riding group whimper like a little girl and cry uncle.
However, the real ground pounders and the main attraction are the Open Exhibition class bikes. Mammoth, colossal, Herculean…there really aren’t words in the English lexicon that do these Frankensteins justice.
You think your 450 is a modern marvel of motorcycling muscle? How about a 2,500cc, KTM framed, Harley Davidson with custom carbon fiber fairing, four-foot swingarm and over 200 horsepower? Arrrh arrrgh arrr is right, Tool-Time’s Tim Allen would definitely approve. Your gramps would approve. Your wife definitely would not. Which has been scientifically proven to be an indicator of fun: Wife hates it? Man loves it.
All kidding aside, it’s pretty damn impressive to see a 400-pound gorilla with 200-plus horsepower fly up the side of a mountain with a little monkey strapped on its back. I cornered a couple of those monkeys to see what the hell was wrong with them and why they harbored such an insane death-wish…er, to see what it’s like to board a land bound rocket ship and race up a mountainside, I mean.
The Peterson family has been racing hillclimb for quite a while with father Kerry a former competitor and sons Bret and Robie competing right now.
The Peterson family is chocked full of said monkeys. The entire family has been a staple of the hillclimb sector of motor sports for decades. Kerry Peterson, the patriarch of the Peterson clan has paved the way for many of the hillclimbers you can go and watch today. In fact two of those front runners are his sons, Bret and Robie, Bret finished sixth in points and Robie ninth in the 2005 season. Kerry is also a board member for the North American Hillclimb Association and is the sport’s winningest rider.
I recently sat down with the Peterson family and got the dig on Hillclimbing and it’s finer points:
MCUSA: You guys had a pretty successful season. Are you happy with how it went?
Robie Peterson: At the beginning of the season I had a realistic shot at a top three plate for the year. Switching from the Zabel to the KTM in the middle of the season, and mechanical problems with the Harley, made it tough for that to happen. I salvaged the number nine plate for the year in both classes and managed to get my first win on the 2500 HD. As a team I was happy with the results with both of us finishing in the top 10 for the year.
Bret Peterson: This was my first season on new bikes that I felt were constructed to my riding style. I was surprised how much difference it made in all of my races, I felt like I had a really consistent season, which is what you really need to do to get up in the top ten. This is also the first season that I have finished in the top ten spot so it really feeds my hunger for the fight for the number one plate next season.
Robbie Peterson: “I think the possibilities are endless with the whole explosion of the all the extreme sports is happening, and hillclimbing is one of the original motorcycle extreme sports.”
MCUSA: Kerry you’ve been in this sport for quite some time, what got you started in Hillclimbing?
KP: I spent many years recreational riding and whenever we went out we always were looking for hills to climb. I watched a hillclimb event on the Materhorn at Saddleback Park in the early 70’s and that was enough to convince me I should start competing. 35 years later I am proud to say my family is still very much involved in the sport that has brought us great joy and success in many ways.
MCUSA: So Robie and Bret were destined to be Hillclimbers I take it? How old were you guys when you first started riding? First competition?
RP: I got my first bike on Christmas at three years old, started hillclimbing when I was five and turned pro at 15.
BP: I was about three years old when I started riding a Suzuki 50 with training wheels on it. From there on I was hooked, I started going out practicing with my Dad, and brother regularly, and finally competed in my first hillclimb when I was about eight years old.
MCUSA: I’ve noticed some pretty good turn-outs at the NAHA events recently, has the competition gotten tougher in the recent years as well?
To climb straight up a mountain it helps to have a stretched out frame, that’s where the 3-4 foot long swingarm comes in handy.
RP: The competition is the toughest it has ever been, there is like seven guys that could easily win at any time. You have to be on your game and with the AMA riders from back East coming out to our western events it is making our series very competitive.
BP: I think this year was one of the most competitive seasons we have ever had. The competition has definitely stepped it up, this season was up for grabs, for anyone to take, and next years going to be even tougher. Most of the top riders have built new bikes, nitrous oxide has been introduced to the 700cc class, and everyone’s going to be doing a lot of practice over the off-season.
MCUSA: Run down some vital specs on your bikes for us.
RP: My Open Ex. bike is a 2500cc Harley on VP race fuel, 218 hp, Hilborn Fuel Injection, Marzocci suspension, Trac Dynamics swingarm, Skat Trak 14 paddle Dominator tire on rear, and a 21-inch Dunlop front tire.
My 0-700cc bike is a Factory 660 KTM, 105hp, Methanol fuel, Boondocker Nitrous system, WP Suspension, Skat Trak 14-paddle Dominator on rear, and a 21-inch Dunlop front tire.
BP: My Open Ex bike is a 1500cc nitro injected Harley Davidson. It has a custom built frame by Watson racing, Marzocchi front end, Trac dynamics swingarm, and has KTM plastic.
MCUSA: Kerry you’ve had a chance to watch the sport grow over the years, how much have the bikes advanced since you first started?
KP: The bikes have changed most dramatically in terms of suspension and frame geometry, with some bikes utilizing the same engines for many years. The biggest changes have occurred in the 700cc class with the advent of the modern day four-stroke engine, which has virtually replaced the legendary 500cc two-stroke as the weapon of choice. Methanol and nitrous oxide burning 700cc class four-strokes have created better brand recognition for our sport and in turn much better media and sponsor exposure.
MCUSA: For us measly below-700cc-bike riders, try and explain what it’s like riding 2,500ccs of manliness up a gnarly rutted mountain. What goes through your head at the starting line?
RP: Without being able to practice on the hill, I make sure that I have walked it and know where I am going with the bike. We draw out of a hat for rider position and that is a big deal for the setup on the bike and is a real key since each hill is different at each event. So I make sure that I am comfortable with the way the bike is and keep a clear head. I’m usually a little conservative on the first ride so I make sure I get a time because I don’t want the pressure of a do or die ride on the second run trying to beat the fast time of the day.
BP: Its definitely a rush, when you’re at the starting line looking up at the mountain you have to climb in front of you, trying to spot you’re line, while 300lbs of raw horsepower rumbles between your legs. Once you can get a feel of a bike with that much power though, you can harness that power and go up things you never thought possible.
MCUSA: Do either of you guys have any special routines or training?
RP: In between hillclimbs I practice at Beaumont with my 500AF Service Honda. During the off season I like racing some motocross Grand Prix like A Day In The Dirt on my 450, racing go-carts at Pole Position Raceway, and about the only routine that I do at a hillclimb, is I try to watch all the riders to look for new lines on the hill so I can go faster or find that line to be the first guy over.
Hard to believe, but sometimes hillclimbers don’t always stay on their bikes. That’s why safety tethers are a must.
BP: Training is definitely a key factor if you want to become a successful hillclimber. Before last season we would try to make it out to Beaumont at least twice a week to train, which seemed like it worked well for us. This next season though is going to be a different story, 60 plus foot jumps, five-foot tall berms, and lots of other obstacles have been introduced to hillclimbing. Because of that, this off-season I am going to race a couple grand prix and get my motocross skills up, while still doing my usual training.
MCUSA: Hillclimb has started to garner more attention in recent years. Where do you see the sport in five years?
RP: With the exposure that we have been getting over here, the World Championship events in Europe, crossover riders from other forms of motorcycle competing in our events and the show that our riders in the NAHA put on for the fans. I think the possibilities are endless with the whole explosion of the all the extreme sports is happening, and hillclimbing is one of the original motorcycle extreme sports.
BP: I would love in five years for our sport to reach the X Games. Hillclimbing needs to build a little more recognition though, and people need to realize we aren’t just a bunch of rednecks riding out of our garage, but in fact a organization of extreme athletes just waiting to be recognized for there athletic abilities. Once that happens who knows how big hillclimbing could get.
MCUSA: Kerry you are also on the board of the North American Hillclimb Association. Are you happy with where the sport is today? Have you seen a growth in sponsorship and attendance with the recent rise in motorcycling sports?
When McGrath took a shot at hillclimbing with the Petersons, he took second overall on one of the 2500cc machines like this one. Not bad for his first time.
KP: The current board members of the N.A.H.A. made a commitment at the beginning of the season that we were going to make every effort to move the sport to the next level. We instituted many changes, some quite controversial, however the results and feedback showed 05 as the most competitive season ever with many new opportunities being brought to the table in 06. Likewise, with my involvement in Europe, the sport has grown tremendously beginning with the Hillclimb des Nations in 2004 and continuing with The Hillclimbing World Trophy event in 2006. Corporate series sponsorship and greater media exposure is the focus for next year, and I am confident we will meet our goals.
MCUSA: Robie and Bret, you guys have the unique opportunity of competing professionally against each other. Is it ever hard competing against your brother or is it just a simple case of good ‘ol sibling rivalry?
RP: We have our moments like brothers do, but it is really cool racing and being teammates with my bro. He is eight years younger than me so he keeps me young and pushes me to ride harder because he is one of those top guys that can win at anytime. If I am going to be beat by someone, I would rather it be Bret than anyone else.
BP: It’s only hard when I see Robie do badly, or crash out. We both know that we both have the chance to do our best in the runs we make, and at the end of the day we always congratulate each other. We are not only brothers but we are a Team and we try to carry ourselves that way as much as possible at the races. There will always be fights between brothers especially when we race against each other, but when all is said and done we always have each others back.
MCUSA: You guys were blessed with “Showtime’s” presence a little while ago. Were you surprised at how well he fared?
RP: When Jeremy came to ride on our team I was really excited because I had never met him. I set him up with the same 500 that I ride, and when we went out in the hills to practice, I knew he was gonna be good on Sunday. The most impressive thing that I thought he did was when he rode my 2500. I said to him, you wanna ride it up a couple easy hills before Sunday and he said no. The guy does a burnout before his ride and almost comes off the back of the bike, rolls up to the starting line, goes right over the top of the hill, and then comes down the return road and tells me he was scared on the stating line and that he was still scared. To top it off he makes Shootout and finishes second overall. I wasn’t so much surprised as I was impressed with what Jeremy did that weekend.
BP: Yeah Jeremy definitely surprised me with how easily he adapted his skills into hillclimbing. It was an honor to have him on our team and it did a lot for our sport, to have someone of that stature want to try hillclimbing, and having the chance to supply him with a ride was definitely cool.
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