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orange Datsun racing up a hill at the VARA Hillclimb in Willow Springs.

VARA Hillclimb @ Horse Thief Mile

2021 VARA Horse Thief Mile Hill Climb

multiple cars lined up, ready to go up the hill climb at Willow Springs in Southern California.

Hill Climbs Return To California

What is a hill climb? And what was the 2021 VARA Horse Thief Mile Hill Climb in Willow Springs like?

By Dave Wolin

Wed, Oct 6, 2021 12:48 PM PST

You’ve all heard about hill-climbs, the most famous one being "Pikes Peak" - 156 turns over 12 ½ miles ending up at 14,000 feet. For many years the European Hill Climb Championship fascinated us with photos of exotic cars climbing what looked like terrifying roads at unbelievable speeds.

Quick History Lesson On Hill Climbs

Well, until 50 or so years ago, hill climbs were a popular form of motorsport - 2 miles or so from a standing start up a closed stretch of deserted highway. The Georgetown Hillclimb, near Placerville, ran for 18 years, ending in the 70’s. The Cobb Mountain Hillclimb, held at the now defuct Hoberg’s Resort in Lake County, ran four or five times in the mid-50’s, sometimes combined with a golf tournament. The first Southern California Hillclimb, in Palos Verdes, ran for a few years beginning in 1947, Agoura ran in the mid-50’s, and Sandberg, on the old Ridge Route, was a popular event in the 1951-52. Furthermore, over 100 years ago, hillclimbs were held in Riverside and Corona; used as marketing tools by auto manufacturers of the day.

classic car racing - black and white image
Jack McAfee in John Edgar’s MG at the Sandberg Hillclimb
the poster for VARA 1907 Riverside Hill Climb
1907 Riverside Hillclimb 

Not all hillclimbs needed hills: one lap from a standing start around a race track was called a hillclimb at Willow Springs in the 50’s. These races were sometimes also called a driving skill test or a solo (before SCCA emasculated solos). 179 entries filled the Singer Owner’s Club event In 1954, with the overall win scored by Ernie McAfee in a Siata V8. One of the first vintage events was a horseless carriage hillclimb held in Yucaipa in 1957 as part of the Yucaipa Valley Fair.

a red pontiac racing up a hill during a hill climb in Idaho.
The author at an Idaho Hillclimb

While not nearby to SoCal, the Northwest Hillclimb Association runs a half-dozen events in Northern California (way north, as in Humboldt County), Oregon, Washington, and Idaho - mostly on forest service roads or private property. Liability laws, insurance issues, and public concerns long ago put a stop to events on public roads.

VARA At Willow Springs

VARA, the Vintage Auto Racing Association, has stepped up to put on what they call a hill climb on Willow Springs Horse Thief Mile: a one-mile, 11 turn track with a lot of elevation changes. The Willow Springs facility - best known for its 2 ½ mile road course - just east of Rosamond encompasses three road courses, an autocross and skid pad, an oval track, and a gokart track. If you’ve not been there, you may recognize it from the “Ford vs: Ferrari” movie.

Horse Thief Mile Hill Climb 2021

lots of cars lined up at Willow Springs, ready to race up the hill.
Lined up for the start
a car is ready at the start of the race, the desert in the background.
The starting line

Most events like this are not as strict on safety equipment - only requiring a helmet, long sleeve shirt, and gloves in street cars - and many of the competitors are auto-crossers, though more than a few race-cars turned out. The consensus was that this was fun and should be done more often. Over 60 cars competed in the one-day event, held in what for Willow Springs was unusual weather: "comfortable temperatures and the wind didn’t pickup until after lunch!!". The field was a mixed bag - about half street-cars and half VARA-looking vintage cars.

Competitors are looking forward to more events like this next year - keep abreast of VARA’s plans on their website.

About The Author

Dave Wolin's profile picture

Dave Wolin

Dave Wolin has years of experience in the automotive performance industry and professional racing. As a driver and a team owner, he’s won SCCA and IMSA races and championships in events as diverse as the Baja 1000 and Pikes Peak Hillclimb. While still racing, he’s also the Executive Director of the Racing History Project. An LA-area refugee, Dave lives in a cabin in the woods outside Yosemite National Park with his wife Jane, an uncountable number of standard and exotic pets, and a garage (that dwarfs his house) full of enough racing projects to last out the century.

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