Saab 9-2X

Before the Teton Hillclimb, course marshal John Atchison warned us rookies, “Don’t be crazy in the morning. We hate to clean cars out of the trees. We hate to see things happen. This is real racing. We’d like to see everybody drive their cars home and no one go to the hospital.”

In early September, aspens yellowing and maple shrubs reddening by the hour, forty-two of us, ages eighteen to seventy, entering everything from a rodded-out Model T to a Ferrari 360, gathered in Wyoming on the Tetons’ thrusted western slope to attack the fastest, riskiest course the Northwest Hillclimb Association sanctions.

The approximately 2.0-mile paved blast leading to the Grand Targhee ski resort started at 7500 feet, featured eight turns, and gained 500 feet. Turn 1, a left-hander requiring gentle braking, fed into turn 2, a hairpin. (Here, a cow moose ambled in front of Sean Haling’s Porsche 944 as we sized up the course together.) There followed sweepers and kinks, and with the discipline I eventually acquired, it was possible to blow through them without lifting. The forest of Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir became a deep green emulsion, with the clustered pomes of the mountain ash supplying occasional scarlet streaks. Turn 6, a severe left with a mere G-string of a guardrail and a 600-foot plunge beyond, was approached at 100 mph or better. Making things worse, the corner worker reported a ripe smell emanating from the woods, suggesting the presence of a bear. Then came turn 7, another, meaner left, off camber with a decreasing radius. Turn 8 veered hard right, completing the ess before the finish.

I entered a Saab 9-2X in the Street Touring X class. The 9-2X is a WRX wagon that has received Saab‘s Queer Eye treatment, so the redecorated sand-and-black interior is rather nice, and insulation under the hood makes the engine less grungy-sounding. My car was fitted with optional seventeen-inch wheels and tires-a twitchy highway setup but superbly accurate on the hill. That the 9-2X could meet the task was proved by my fastest run of 1:43.919, or about 70 mph. This result, 0.371 second off the class record set by a WRX, beat half the F Stock Chevy Camaros and Pontiac Firebirds, the B Stock Porsche 944 Turbo, the in GT2, the BMW 635CSi in E Street Prepared, and even the Lola Formula Ford. My only competition in STX was the maniacally wheeled by Rich Berges, who lives at the bottom of the hill; he posted a record-shattering 1:39.767.

We prepared our cars by pumping as much as 44 pounds into the front tires to keep the sidewalls under the rims and by removing the spares to minimize weight. Because of the altitude, some people rejetted their carburetors to lean out the mixture. Meanwhile, to give us a clear shot, civilian traffic was held up at both ends of the course for each run group’s attempts. At the starting line, course workers chocked the left rear wheels, allowing a launch without rolling back. Before my first whack at it, I sat and studied the course map and repented of those furtive visits to certain Web sites. Sweat trickled between my toes. When the green flag waved, my zinc-plated concentration seemed to stop time. The engine made its ebullitions, I gave the gear lever a downward fillip, the engine made like Koko Taylor, and I groped past the straw bales by the cattle guard, past the hand-painted braking markers, past the orange cones revealing an approaching turn. Three or four times, the rear end lightened as if to come around. When I finished and pulled into my pit, trembling fingers impeded the removal of gloves and helmet. But when the trembling stopped, euphoria lingered.

“The adrenaline rush is like nothing else,” said twenty-year-old Crystal Fitts, the Boise State University freshman named Queen of the Hill for her brilliant 1:36.896 (74 mph) in a wicked Over Street Prepared, Over 2.5-Liter 1988 BMW 3-series. This was only her second hill-climb. “My mother hates the fact that I’m doing this,” she continued. “The corners left me shaking at the end. I kept telling myself I knew I could hold the gas in. It was the best feeling ever.”

King of the Hill Max Dufford, in a 1997 that he called “lightly modified” for Street Mod, lowered his own course record by 0.380 second, to 1:30.037 (80 mph). Dufford achieved all four attempts within 0.682 second. “Teton plays to my strengths-momentum, clean line, and only three and a half corners you can’t take flat out.” he said. “It all comes down to turn 6 into 7, where it’s seconds or shrinkage.”

Rain on Sunday afternoon chased us off the hill and also prevented Teton Valley farmers from finishing in their barley fields. We all went home thinking this is the greatest sport and cars are inestimably wonderful. We all went home with new friends, e-mail addresses, and invitations to visit in Salt Lake City and to fish the Snake River. We all drove our cars home; no one went to the hospital.