In the 1960s, one of the few places standing between Detroit and nuclear annihilation by the Soviets was a radar early warning station in this northern Michigan town. The short, steep hill used by U.S. Air Force personnel to reach the station soon became the venue for a hill climb, a form of grass-roots racing popular with auto enthusiasts.
By 1980 insurance and liability issues killed off the Empire Hill Climb, but last fall local enthusiasts, some of whom grew up watching their parents and friends race up the hill, brought it back to life.
The first of two meets scheduled for this year just took place and attracted a dozen entrants, plus a few hundred spectators. Compared to much larger, more formal racing events like the Detroit Grand Prix, the Empire Hill Climb is about as casual as it gets. The costs to enter a car are modest and spectators can enjoy the whole event for free, in a bucolic village close to the shore of Lake Michigan.
Royal Oak resident and Ford employee, Kash Singh, who entered his 2008 Ford Shelby GT500, said the appeal of the event is all about the people involved. “I come to this event for fun, not for glory and certainly not for money,” he said. “The other competitors, the spectators, are all so friendly. I even had a local kid wash the mud off my car after I slid off the course.”
On two occasions in recent years Singh has driven his GT500 out to compete in Colorado’s famous Pike’s Peak hill climb. “It’s an impressive event, but when you get big sponsors and big money involved it can take away from the fun of the event,” added Singh. “Most of the professional racers are not there to mingle with the fans.”
In contrast, the Empire event is all about enthusiasm for the cars and the drivers, who happily chat with spectators and show off their machines. On this occasion, the race cars included an eclectic gathering of rally-prepared late model Subarus and Mazdas, plus some classic cars, such a Mercedes-Benz 2.3-16, Ford Merkur XR8 and Volvo 122S.
Back in its heyday of the 1960s and ’70s, the Empire race attracted the hottest cars of the time: Corvettes, Porsches, Jaguars and even the occasional Ferrari. “It was an era when you could ‘run what you brung’ with little or no safety gear,” said Mike Kelty, one of the key figures behind the event’s revival. “In 1966 my dad was stationed here as a radar technician and I used to watch the races as a kid.”
Putting Empire back on the racing calendar took a lot of effort, working with local authorities, sanctioning bodies, finding sponsors and meeting legal and safety requirements. “Now the cars need to have roll cages and other safety gear,” added Kelty.
Another figure behind the revival is Ian Dawkins, who remembers his father working at the radar station and racing an AMC Gremlin in the hill climb. Now, Dawkins works at Van’s Garage, a restoration shop in nearby Leland, which maintains cars for celebrities such as Tim Allen. “We decided to take the ‘build it and they will come’ (from the movie, “Field of Dreams,”) approach to reviving the Empire event,” said Dawkins. “If we didn’t do it, nobody else would.”
Today, the radar station at Empire is much scaled back from its Cold War days. But the hill climb is making a comeback, and if you are interested in catching grass-roots racing in a beautiful setting, then Empire is definitely worth the trek.
John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer and can be reached at email@example.com.