Every car that drives up and down the road to the top of Mount Washington gets a bumper sticker celebrating the car's achievement. I didn't really understand what that meant until I found myself smelling roasting brakes in a church van loaded with a couple hundred pounds of fuel onboard.
I was at the Mount Washington hillclimb a few weekends back, following a couple rally teams as they made runs on the mountain. The schedule of the weekend was that the cars went through tech, then the drivers got to review the hillclimb road in ordinary cars, and then in the coming days they made passes on the course in their race cars.
I got to ride up the mountain with Troy Miller and my buddy Steve Harrell for their reconnaissance (recce) runs in Troy's Grand Cherokee. Over only eight miles, the road rises from something around 1,400 feet to over 6,100.
I'd never been up the mountain before and honestly, it wasn't that shocking. The road was real narrow in some spots, but I'm used to narrow mountain roads. Troy and Steve reviewed each turn and marked dangerous spots and how fast each turn would be in their racing Ford Fiesta R2.
We made it down the mountain without any kind of problem. I watched the view while they talked. It was nice.
Back down in the pits, I saw that another team I knew was going up for some recce runs. It was the Broken Motorsports team, with Bill Petrow in his Nissan 240SX that would later set a rally record up the mountain, and two other vehicles following him. There was Petrow's family in their Subaru and there was Petrow's crew in a big, old church van. I sprinted over and hopped into the van just before they passed the gate leading onto the mountain road proper.
Going up was easy for us. The van ran great, we went sightseeing around the observatory. Going down was more of a challenge.
As we started our descent, we found a problem: the van wouldn't go into low gear. Holding the column shifter over into first did nothing, no matter how long or how hard we kept it there. The road is so steep (the average grade is 11.6%) that you most definitely want engine braking to make your way down safely. We did not have that luxury.
It was around this point that the team's crew chief pointed out that the van's brakes hadn't been serviced in over a year. And the van weighed several thousand pounds. And it had five hundred pounds of race gas stored in the back.
That's when it occurred to me why Bill's regular navigator, Jeremy, was not co-driving with him that weekend. The night before he'd gone to the hospital with stomach problems. The doctors had prescribed him percocets. Jeremy was driving the van. Jeremy was on percocets.
I should say that only three people have died on the Mount Washington road and only one died in a car. Some guy in '84 rode his brakes all the way down, and speared off the road. Without the engine braking of low gear, we would have to use our brakes and our brakes alone to slow us down before the unguarded, thousand-foot drops lining the road.
I swear we stopped at every single turn off on the road. Brakes reeking all the time. Like someone was burning peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
On the steepest sections, there would be sharp turns up ahead and you'd be staring at nothing but faraway mountains past them. There was barely room for us on the narrowest section, which I should mention was unpaved dirt.
At one point we squealed into a little turnoff next to a stream. There was a trough labelled for refilling your radiator. One crew guy slipped into the water and dried his socks off on the van's rear axle, the brakes cooking 'em dry.
Our van wasn't the only vehicle having trouble, as it turned out.
We made it down alright, and I finally understood what all those bumper stickers were about.
But we made it down. We had common sense, and we stuck to the guidelines of the mountain. We took it slow, we stopped as often as possible, and we enjoyed the views. Well, I did. Jeremy refused to take his eyes off of exactly what was in front of him.
I'm not going to say that driving the Mount Washington auto road is reckless, but I can see the danger, and how it's a bit of an achievement.
Now, the people who race up this thing? They're insane.
Photo Credits: Raphael Orlove