Speed Thrills Up An Old Hill:<br/> 109 Years In 22.58 Seconds
The One Thousand Yard Stare

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.

The 2014 edition of the Retro Rides Gathering, held at the famous Shelsley Walsh hill climb venue in Worcestershire

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.

The 2014 edition of the Retro Rides Gathering, held at the famous Shelsley Walsh hill climb venue in Worcestershire

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.

Shelsley_Walsh-004

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.

Shelsley_Walsh-005

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!

The 2014 edition of the Retro Rides Gathering, held at the famous Shelsley Walsh hill climb venue in Worcestershire

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.

The 2014 edition of the Retro Rides Gathering, held at the famous Shelsley Walsh hill climb venue in Worcestershire

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.

The 2014 edition of the Retro Rides Gathering, held at the famous Shelsley Walsh hill climb venue in Worcestershire

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.

The 2014 edition of the Retro Rides Gathering, held at the famous Shelsley Walsh hill climb venue in Worcestershire

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).

The 2014 edition of the Retro Rides Gathering, held at the famous Shelsley Walsh hill climb venue in Worcestershire

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?

The 2014 edition of the Retro Rides Gathering, held at the famous Shelsley Walsh hill climb venue in Worcestershire

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…

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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.

The 2014 edition of the Retro Rides Gathering, held at the famous Shelsley Walsh hill climb venue in Worcestershire

You’re constantly changing direction or hanging onto arcs as the course jumps across the hill’s contours.

The 2014 edition of the Retro Rides Gathering, held at the famous Shelsley Walsh hill climb venue in Worcestershire

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.

The 2014 edition of the Retro Rides Gathering, held at the famous Shelsley Walsh hill climb venue in Worcestershire

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.

The 2014 edition of the Retro Rides Gathering, held at the famous Shelsley Walsh hill climb venue in Worcestershire

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.

The 2014 edition of the Retro Rides Gathering, held at the famous Shelsley Walsh hill climb venue in Worcestershire

Time attack in the wild, drifting through the trees – it’s you against the hill.

Maximum Attack On The Hill
The 2014 edition of the Retro Rides Gathering, held at the famous Shelsley Walsh hill climb venue in Worcestershire

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.

The 2014 edition of the Retro Rides Gathering, held at the famous Shelsley Walsh hill climb venue in Worcestershire

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 2014 edition of the Retro Rides Gathering, held at the famous Shelsley Walsh hill climb venue in Worcestershire

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.

The 2014 edition of the Retro Rides Gathering, held at the famous Shelsley Walsh hill climb venue in Worcestershire

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.

The 2014 edition of the Retro Rides Gathering, held at the famous Shelsley Walsh hill climb venue in Worcestershire

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.

The 2014 edition of the Retro Rides Gathering, held at the famous Shelsley Walsh hill climb venue in Worcestershire

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 2014 edition of the Retro Rides Gathering, held at the famous Shelsley Walsh hill climb venue in Worcestershire

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.

The 2014 edition of the Retro Rides Gathering, held at the famous Shelsley Walsh hill climb venue in Worcestershire

In general, you don’t want off go off line.

The 2014 edition of the Retro Rides Gathering, held at the famous Shelsley Walsh hill climb venue in Worcestershire

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…

The 2014 edition of the Retro Rides Gathering, held at the famous Shelsley Walsh hill climb venue in Worcestershire

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 2014 edition of the Retro Rides Gathering, held at the famous Shelsley Walsh hill climb venue in Worcestershire

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.

The 2014 edition of the Retro Rides Gathering, held at the famous Shelsley Walsh hill climb venue in Worcestershire

On the left, an unforgiving cheese-grater of old tyres embedded in the bank waiting to shred cars that have oversteered.

The 2014 edition of the Retro Rides Gathering, held at the famous Shelsley Walsh hill climb venue in Worcestershire

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.

The 2014 edition of the Retro Rides Gathering, held at the famous Shelsley Walsh hill climb venue in Worcestershire

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 2014 edition of the Retro Rides Gathering, held at the famous Shelsley Walsh hill climb venue in Worcestershire

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.

The 2014 edition of the Retro Rides Gathering, held at the famous Shelsley Walsh hill climb venue in Worcestershire

There’s a very slight crest before the turn-in, making it even more difficult to spot the braking point precisely.

The 2014 edition of the Retro Rides Gathering, held at the famous Shelsley Walsh hill climb venue in Worcestershire

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 2014 edition of the Retro Rides Gathering, held at the famous Shelsley Walsh hill climb venue in Worcestershire

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.

The 2014 edition of the Retro Rides Gathering, held at the famous Shelsley Walsh hill climb venue in Worcestershire

On the day of my visit, this part was all about power slides – some deliberate, some not so much!

The 2014 edition of the Retro Rides Gathering, held at the famous Shelsley Walsh hill climb venue in Worcestershire

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…

The 2014 edition of the Retro Rides Gathering, held at the famous Shelsley Walsh hill climb venue in Worcestershire

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.

The 2014 edition of the Retro Rides Gathering, held at the famous Shelsley Walsh hill climb venue in Worcestershire

But like I said, it’s all a compound calculation. Everything you’ve done up to now counts for or against you.

The 2014 edition of the Retro Rides Gathering, held at the famous Shelsley Walsh hill climb venue in Worcestershire

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.

The 2014 edition of the Retro Rides Gathering, held at the famous Shelsley Walsh hill climb venue in Worcestershire

22 seconds or a minute and 22 seconds, it would be a thrill all the same.

The 2014 edition of the Retro Rides Gathering, held at the famous Shelsley Walsh hill climb venue in Worcestershire

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.

Jonathan Moore
Instagram: speedhunters_jonathan
jonathan@speedhunters.com

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24 comments

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1

Just remember no matter how fast that Formula car looks:

"There's nothing that accelerates like
this out of a corner.
Nothing.
There's no Evo, there's no Cobras, no GT40s, there's no
Hennessey Venom.
There's no bike that can pull out of a corner like this car."


-Frank Profera

2

God haven't scene this track since top gear a while ago. Plus good to see the lasupra again and great article

3

@Chapped Man to be honest, Frank is a rather "confident" man

a ~500 kg car with a F1 derived V8, hillclimb special slicks and gears, and a CoG lower than a pebble is worlds faster and accelerates faster than Franks Lotus (as does quiet a lot of racing machinery)

I'd like to see Frank enter his car in a hillclib or time attack, just to get a sense of performance compared to similar cars.

4

Great write up Jonathon. I thoroughly enjoyed it before work this morning. I wish we has one of these in California with the history to boot.

5

i want to see the Grimsel electric race car try this

6

I've always had a soft spot for hillclimb, and it's great to see a local(ish) UK track getting a feature on here! Fantastic write-up and imagery, really gets across just how challenging the track is, as well as the general history and atmosphere of the place. Prescott is 10 minutes from me and a fantastic venue also, hopefully see you there next...?! ;)

7

Love this place in the summer.

8

This was really neat.  I've always wished we had something like this around here.  That would be so cool.

9

Acc You're making all kinds of logical sense. There is no car in the history of cars to ever accelerate out of a corner faster than the King of the Canyons lotus. Don't you understand? Theres no Evo, no Cobras or GT40s or Hennessey Venoms. Theres no bikes that can pull out of the corner like this! 


You also have a picture of you in a kart which I don't like. According to our blessed canyon lord those are slow machines that are only driven by idiots who can't build a real car. One day you will understand that Frank is above proving his equipment because when you say something on the internet it makes it true. Now go sell that kart before you start making more sense.

10

The vehicle in the opening shot is rocking a Drag week sticker. I wonder how similar they kept their set up for this event. Also that one dedicated car person.

11

Top Gear Bring Me Here"

12

That old BMW looked awesome!

13

Jagdroach Yep, that's Wacky Wilkes for you... He took the Badford out there a couple of years back. You can read a little more about it here: http://www.speedhunters.com/2014/09/running-hill-getting-high-retro-rides/

14

greenroadster The 2002? Yep, it's a lovely build: not too clean, so it's got a great authentic look to it. I see it at a lot of retro events, and always take some time over it

15

pistol pete 12 I think there are a lot more hill climb and sprint events around than you might think. There's a huge grassroots scene in Europe and the UK, and the US as well I'm sure. It's worth hunting around...

16

PatchCollins Ah yes, this and Prescott a little way south are a perfect pair at that time of year.

17

ChrisBurnham Thanks! Yep, and both venues are deservedly well respected. And yes, I definitely want to get down for a proper round of the hill climb championship next year.

18

BenWebb Wow, that thing is insane! I'll have to look into it.

19

The One Otaku Cheers, glad you enjoyed it. Well, I'm sure there must be some great climbs in California – but anyway, hehe: you get the lovely weather, we get the old stuff! ;)

20

DjaranJones Thank you! Yep. TG can be useful for giving a bit of exposure to places, I'll give them that. It's a beautiful location: well worth a visit! I was just as pleased as anyone to see the LaSupra in the flesh: it really is an amazing thing.

21

Jonathan Moore It's surprising how addictive watching it can be, seeing each competitor try and find the final tenth, watching the clock for the final time then comparing it to others. It's basically time attack up a hill! I'm hoping to enter a few rounds next season and experience the tracks first hand.

22

Love the Hill Climb events, another great one in the UK (Hampshire) is Gurston Down. Some pics from 2012 here: http://richgee.co.uk/blog/2012/04/23/gurston-down-speed-hill-climb/

23

Jonathan, in your first lines I started to think you were Canadian... 1000 yards with 100 meter rise... length is in imperial but height is in metric? We do it the opposite way (weight in pounds, hight in feet / inches, but distance in Kilometers, meters). :)

Loved the post, and have missed the track coverage this year...

24

Kirk_B Hehe... equally confused! English with French family... I knew that might be picked up, but there was a better round number symmetry in different systems! :)

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