Memories of Shelsley, the ultimate 'power hill'

| 24 Feb 2012

I recently picked up a copy of Simon Taylor’s The History Of Shelsley Walsh, written for the famous hillclimb’s centenary in 2005. I’d flicked through it before, noting that Taylor had included an appendix listing all the drivers who’d set Fastest Time Of The Day over the 1000-yard course. It was a source of great pride that the entry for July 6 1991 read 'John Page – Reynard VW90'.

Dad used to be a regular competitor at Shelsley and, as a result, I spent an awful lot of my childhood there. The section of Taylor’s book that covered the late 1980s and early '90s was therefore full of nostalgia. On one spread, there were just two pictures: Richard Brown bursting out of Top Ess in his Pilbeam on his way to a new hill record, and Tom Hammonds in his Pikes Peak replica Audi quattro.

Dad and I watched Brown set that 1992 record of 25.34 secs from the fearsome left-hander at Crossing. We'd packed up Dad's car and decided to stay and watch the Top 10 Run-Off. Brown’s commitment as he threaded the Pilbeam between the steep grass banks was absolute, and he rightly received a thunderous ovation when he stopped the clocks.

The late Tom Hammonds, meanwhile, was a personal favourite. I loved the drama of his be-winged Audi, and the wondrous noise it made – all five-cylinder thrum and turbo chatter. I also loved the fact that he towed the car with a roadgoing Sport quattro. Hammonds eventually set a best time of 28.58 secs, a closed-car record that stood for 13 years.

During the period that Dad was running in single-seaters there, and before the hill was resurfaced in 1992, anything under 30 seconds was seriously quick, and in time he did manage to break the barrier with the Reynard (above). On that run, he was clocked at more than 100mph through both speed traps – one positioned before Bottom Ess, the other at the finish line.

Our traditional preparation for a Shelsley meeting involved walking the hill and I would often team up with Gerry Bath – who used to help Dad throughout these weekends – to see what 'speed' we could record through the trap approaching Bottom Ess.

The trick was for me to stand at the first timing beam and Gerry to stand at the second. We'd then count to three and each swing a leg through our respective beams. If I recall correctly, we co-ordinated ourselves well enough to set a best of 833mph.

I've got loads of memories from that time: Roy Lane's Pilbeam with the memorable slogan 'Put The Boot In' placed across the rear wing; running up and down between the paddock and Bottom Ess numerous times a day (something I definitely couldn't manage now); the banter amongst the superb commentary team; Ray Rowan having a major accident just in front of me (above); and Nic Mann's insane Morris Minor with a twin-turbo Rover V8 under the bonnet.

At one meeting, we arrived early and unloaded next to R4D, the ERA at that time owned by Anthony Mayman. I took a photo of the scene, of the two cars in that almost-unchanged paddock, the hillside cloaked in low cloud beyond. Sadly, I've since managed to lose the print.

In those days, there were elements of the British hillclimb and sprint scene that took themselves very seriously. At one event, Dad – emphatically not a member of the 'motorhome brigade' – approached the wife of one of the frontrunners to ask if he could have a look at the list of times she had on a clipboard.

"Oh no," she said condescendingly, "these are just the Top 10 runners."

"Yes," said Dad, pointing to the sheet, "and there I am in fifth..."

For that and other reasons, he switched to competing in France, where the number-one priority was to have a good social get-together, and if some motor sport were to take place, they used much longer hillclimbs laid out on closed public roads.

After more than a decade away from the venue, we returned to Shelsley as spectators in 2005 and were blown away by the times being posted. The fastest single-seaters are simply unbelievable on this, the ultimate 'power hill'.

At no stage until you exit Top Ess for the charge to the finish does the course point in a straight line for any distance, and it's no wider than a single-track country lane, yet they were still approaching Bottom Ess at more than 130mph (below), and going over the finish at a scarcely believable 150mph.

The Run-Offs are now held for the top 12 runners, and I've long said that they'd make superb television. Derek Bell once described hillclimbing as being like "Formula One up a garden path", and the against-the-clock format provides more excitement than many Grands Prix deliver.

If you've never seen a round of the British Hillclimb Championship, put it in your diary for this year. And if at all possible, watch it at Shelsley Walsh. Not only is it a historic site dripping with atmosphere, the spectacle will take your breath away.