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2016 Virginia City Hillclimb: Exotics in the Old West

Burning gas and rubber over the Comstock Lode

Kirill Ougarovwriter, photographer

VIRGINIA CITY, Nevada—One of the unfortunate realities of owning a car like a Ferrari 458, McLaren 570, or Nissan GT-R is the limited opportunity to enjoy their full performance capabilities. Safety and prudence put a low, firm ceiling on just how spirited your run can get on a public road, while runways and dry lakebeds don't have turns. And only the bravest owners of such exotica are willing to risk having the shine taken off their new toy at a track day.

One option, at least for those on the western side of the Rockies, is the Virginia City Hill Climb. Organized by the Ferrari Club, Pacific Region, the VCHC takes place on a 5.2-mile stretch of Nevada State Route 341—a distance more than double the length of a lap at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca or Sonoma Raceway. More significant is the elevation change; the road climbs approximately 1,200 feet from its start at around 5,000 feet to its finish at the entrance to Virginia City. The town was founded in 1859 after the nearby discovery of the Comstock Lode, the first major silver deposit unearthed in the western U.S. Virginia City today serves mostly as a tourist destination for people looking for a taste of the Old West.

Highway 341 is ideal for this sort of event because its closure does not impact traffic significantly, thanks to the much straighter Highway 342 that runs parallel. The latter also serves as the return road for hill-climb entrants, allowing the closed loop event to run almost continuously, stopping only for corner-worker shift changes, rare on-course mishaps, or unsafe activity near the course by locals, spectators, or wild animals. Depending on luck, participants get as many as 10 runs a day.

All vehicle makes are welcome, the only requirement being that the cars are street legal, including the tires. Helmets are mandatory, but fire-retardant Nomex suits are not required. Experience levels among the entrants vary—many are returning Hillclimb participants, some are seasoned SCCA vets, and some are first-timers that only have a single track day under their belt—but safety is taken seriously and shenanigans will earn the boot. To further discourage 10/10ths driving, times aren't posted until Sunday night, well after the driving portion of the event has ended.

The snaky stretch of road makes for a technical and challenging course that is comprised of 21 diverse turns, and the best times of course won't come until the route has been committed to memory. Some are decreasing radius, most are blind, and there are off-camber spots that can instigate a shunt at serious speeds. According to Scott Strohmeyer, one of the event organizers, "You'll see 120 mph on the Storey County straight in a 500-horsepower car, with speeds in excess of 140 mph in really powerful cars."

Because of the elevation, forced-induction engines have a built-in advantage over normally aspirated ones on the power side. Summertime Nevada isn't known for its mild temperatures, so cooling systems also get a workout. Just like a weekend at the track, not everyone makes it through both days—this year, for example, a CTS-V wagon and an Audi RS7 were knocked out of commission early.

The 2016 running will enter the history books because the course record of 3 minutes, 14 seconds that stood for nearly 15 years—held by a Ferrari F40 owner that clearly liked to live dangerously—was finally broken. The new record holder is a Nissan GT-R, which clocked in at 3:11.

Though you get more road time at a track day, the VCHC's time-attack format practically eliminates the risk of car-on-car violence and inflicts less stress on the vehicle than continuous laps. If you want to push your sports car, but don't actually want to go racing—or just want a different experience—this is a worthwhile way to spend a weekend.

"The Hillclimb felt much more real than a being on a racetrack," said first-time attendee Kevin Flynn, who drove the blue Ford Focus RS. He continued, "Going around corners without guard rails to protect you from a long drop and having random packs of wild horses wandering out on the route made everything feel much more real and exciting. Beyond that, the road itself is amazing. It's smooth, and you can very clearly see which corners are coming up next. I don't think someone could have planned and built a better track."

Registration for the 2017 Virginia City Hill Climb opens in April. Spots fill up fast and the total number of spots isn't likely to grow much past this year's 65, so move quickly if you want to attend. https://www.virginiacityhillclimb.com/