History unfolds in a white-knuckle ride to the top

By Christopher Klein
Globe Correspondent / May 29, 2011

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MOUNT WASHINGTON, N.H. — Freelan Stanley drove into history when he became the first motorist to scale New England’s tallest peak by automobile in 1899. Unfortunately, there were no “This car climbed Mt. Washington’’ bumper stickers for sale at the summit to immortalize his achievement.

While Stanley’s trip up Mount Washington’s long and winding road took more than two hours, it will take competitors in the June 26 Climb to the Clouds auto race mere minutes. First run in 1904, the historic race returns after a 10-year hiatus as part of the Mount Washington Auto Road’s 150th birthday celebration. Seventy-five vehicles — including vintage racers, rally cars, and even a purpose-built Freightliner race truck driven by a Hollywood stunt driver — will compete to negotiate New England’s ultimate road course in the quickest time.

“Unlike a lot of competitions where drivers are racing against each other, this is a unique competition between the drivers and the mountain,’’ says Paul Giblin of Vermont SportsCar, the event director. “Mount Washington is a great challenge and one of the most technical hills in the world. It’s quick and narrow.’’

Watch the YouTube video of Travis Pastrana’s recent trip up the 7.6-mile asphalt and gravel road — as he navigated more than 70 corners without guardrails and averaged 72 miles per hour — and you’ll get white knuckles just sitting at your keyboard. While Pastrana is not expected to race, this year’s field includes Frank Sprongl, who is seeking to shave a minute off his Climb to the Clouds record (6:41.99). Giblin says it’s very possible given the changes since the last race in 2001. “The cars are lighter, more efficient, and handle better. The course also has more pavement than 10 years ago.’’

Five days of festivities, including concerts and fireworks, lead up to race day. On June 24 and 25, ticket holders will be able to watch practice runs, get an up-close look at the racecars, and meet the drivers. Spectators will be able to watch the races from a grandstand at the starting line or take a shuttle to a viewing area at the halfway point. A select number of spectators will be allowed to drive to the summit and watch at the finish line.

Among the classic cars racing up the mountain will be a 1933 Alfa Romeo that won the 1937 Climb to the Clouds and a Studebaker that won pole position in the 1931 Indianapolis 500. A 1904 Orient Buckboard that competed in the inaugural race will be on display, and the Auto Road’s museum will feature a Locomobile that could be the one Stanley drove to the mountaintop. There’s just no bumper sticker to prove it.

Christopher Klein can be reached at

If You Go

Climb to the Clouds
June 22-26, tickets $8-$35.