One thousand yards. 22.58 seconds. Relative to quarter mile runs, it doesn’t sound so impressive. But reframe that figure in the context of a thousand yard stretch of sinuous tarmac barely a car’s width that threads its way uphill, gaining 100 metres of vertical elevation in the process. A constant, claustrophobic climb up, along and through a valley cutting, turning this way and that until exploding into the open for a final blast to the line. Oh, and I’m also talking about a place that just happens to be the oldest motorsport venue in the world. This is Shelsley Walsh Speed Hill Climb, 109 years of unchanging, uphill challenge.
You’d be forgiven if you immediately thought of the big guns if asked the question about what or where the oldest permanent competition venue is – and they’d like be ovals. The crumbling might of Brooklands near London; the legendary Brickyard of Indianapolis; or the verdant parkland of Italy’s Autodromo Nazionale Monza. Indy aside, although their disintegrating concrete might still exist and you can walk their hallowed outlines, the tracks are now ghosts, their glory years consigned to history.
Shelsley Walsh is different. Instead, we’re tucked safely away in the lush green countryside of Worcestershire in the West Midlands area of the UK. Here you’re faced with a modest venue, home to a course that has stayed exactly the same since the first cars tackled it back in 1905.
The venue is not a million miles from the headquarters of Morgan, and about an hour south west from the metropolis of Birmingham – though not exactly near the centre of anything except fields. But being out of the spotlight does Shelsley no harm – the place oozes understated history from every pore, and the location has been its protection.
How has Shelsley Walsh survived so long unmolested? That relative remoteness helps, but more importantly it’s the dedication of the organisation that runs the course, the Midlands Automobile Club. The club is even older than the hill climb – it was inaugurated in 1901!
When road racing was banned in the UK in 1925, there were really only two venues for speed freaks to get their kicks: Brooklands and Shelley Walsh. Running on private land, Shelsley could skip the restrictions, leading to a constant stream of high profile competitors making the pilgrimage into the countryside. Not much has changed.
From then on it’s been a staple of the UK hill climb scene, with a couple of runs a year to start with turning into a steady stream of regular events each and every year. The only interruptions to its operations came, naturally, during the war years.
Best of all, there are constant public events, meaning that anyone can get to smoke their way up this most famous of hills. Compared to something like Pikes Peak, Shelsley Walsh might appear quite humble, but that’s like comparing Knockill to the Nürburgring. People are taking minutes out of the Pikes Peak record; at Shelley Walsh and its like, you’re battling over hundreds of a second.
New tarmac has been laid from time to time, with modern bitumen in places helping further increase grip and decrease times, but that’s it. The only significant change was in 1907, when the course length was increased by a massive eight yards to conform to a round 1,000 yards (914 metres).
With the MAC’s commitment to maintaining the course’s heritage but keeping up with the times (in every sense), that change was probably quite enough to last them the next century. Buildings and facilities always need a bit of spit and polish, but why alter the course – something that doesn’t need fixing?
Initial events at Shelsley Walsh weren’t always even timed, with some cars of that period not guaranteed to even make it up the steepest section at the Esses. Having owned a Beetle, I know what that’s like…
The only real straight is the final 150 yards or so uphill run to the line. Four corners are named on the course, but that’s a misleading statement.
You’re constantly changing direction or hanging onto arcs as the course jumps across the hill’s contours.
During my visit to Shelsley Walsh for this year’s Retro Rides Gathering, I made sure I spent a fine hour walking the track – occasionally clambering, such is the steepness.
It took rather longer than 22 seconds on foot, but experiencing the surface first hand made watching the following day’s action on the track that much more rewarding. Once you see and feel the course, it’s obvious just what a challenge the hill is.
Everything is magnified on one level and reduced on another with a hill climb. The importance of the start, impact of weather conditions and necessity for precision positioning on the former; margins of error for braking, the available run-off and number of runs you likely have for the latter.
Time attack in the wild, drifting through the trees – it’s you against the hill.Maximum Attack On The Hill
The first thing that strikes me about hill climbs is the fact there is no room for error. Zero. I don’t know of any other car-based sport except drag racing that has such a premium on perfection from the off. But then, hill climbing is effectively uphill drag racing with corners thrown in.
It starts with the lights. The hypnotic red that draws you in, consumes your focus and creates direct connections from your eyes to your hands and feet.
The cars I watched tackle the hill were definitely not going to bother the course record – not through lack of power, but purely through circumstance. Cold tyres and a thousand horsepower don’t go with slippery tarmac and a thousand yards. But it did make spectacular viewing, which I’d take in lieu of going back to Shelsley Walsh to witness thoroughbred hill climb specials. That’s in the diary for 2015.
After the initial punch off the line, the course appears more like a wide country road than the tiny aperture it quickly becomes. A small incline which arcs left over the crest is quickly dealt with, the flat verges giving a misleading idea of what’s next.
A short flatter section incorporates a right-left kink with a blind entry. Keep in mind, to put all this in context, by the time you’ve read and scrolled through the first five images of this chapter the fastest hill climb car has already hit the finish line another 900 yards away.
It’s a crazy thought. I can’t actually break the course down into sections where that time make sense. Momentum would be crucial all the way through this part, with every lift shaving valuable tenths off your time.
The verges build up from here on: touch one and it would throw the car off course at best – maybe even flip it at worst. There’s a single section of more forgiving barrier at the Crossing corner, with deformable Safeguard blocks.
In general, you don’t want off go off line.
Details leap out when you’re face to face with the course. Drivers often walk tracks before races, looking for kerbs to hook or avoid, obstacles and surface damage. The short, sharp shocks of hill climbs take that to a micro level. It doesn’t take a magnifying glass to spot the possible impact of something like this though: there is a regular series of drainage grates on the ascent. According to the regulars, some you can use to your advantage, some will throw you off. You’ve got to know which is which…
This is where the course start folding in on you, becoming more enclosed as you hit the treeline and go through the left of a shallow cutting, wooden beams threatening on the exit.
The next run is another case in point. To the right, the edge of the road goes leads straight into the grass bank, cut down by wheels at the exit point of the previous kink.
On the left, an unforgiving cheese-grater of old tyres embedded in the bank waiting to shred cars that have oversteered.
The following section is relatively straight and all about powering up the rise. The concern is that drop on the lefthand side of the course. All that stands between you and the gorge is a small bank of easily mountable earth and grass. Talking to the ever-friendly marshals provided several examples of cars that have gone that way rather than straight up.
It’s not recommended. The slope drops away steeply. God knows how they actually recover cars that have gone over; there might even be a cool scrapyard of historic hill climbers awaiting discovery down there…Ever Onwards, Ever Upwards
The left kink before the Esses seemed so innocuous at first glance, but in practice was a completely different beast. The cars that were pushing, though as I’ve already said not dedicated specials, gave visual feedback on what was going on.
There’s a very slight crest before the turn-in, making it even more difficult to spot the braking point precisely.
This is the most popular viewing point, with terracing on the high ground overlooking the entire section, giving great views over almost half the course.
The Esses are a complete contrast to the fast and flowing nature of the course that precedes them. They’re all about power and grip working in harmony – you’ve got to bang through the opening left at maximum attack to keep speed up, as the next section seemingly doubles in gradient.
On the day of my visit, this part was all about power slides – some deliberate, some not so much!
Tyre marks on the track showed the limits creeping closer to the edge – and another grate waiting to spit cars out. Again, marshals recounted a tale of a classic Aston going wide here recently, losing it and spearing off to track left – where again there’s only a small bank between it and the big drop. And where I’d been shooting off some shots. I stepped back a couple of paces from the edge…
As with any corner onto a straight, you’ve got to get the apex speed right to slingshot you out. At Shelsley Walsh, the last corner is uphill, off camber, has a massive bank on the apex, a blind crest on the exit and you go from the shadow of the trees into blinding light.
But like I said, it’s all a compound calculation. Everything you’ve done up to now counts for or against you.
It must be a blessed relief to get the rollercoaster last stretch, firing out of the forest dark and piling on the throttle for the run to the finish line.
22 seconds or a minute and 22 seconds, it would be a thrill all the same.
Shelsley Walsh quietly gets on with life as it marches into its second century of operation, ever dedicated to the demonstration of speed and showing you don’t have to shout to gain respect.
The fastest ascent is from 2008 and is yet to be beaten, after a glory period at the beginning of the last decade where tenths were knocked off year after year until the current mark was set. Maybe 2015? I’d like to be there to see it.