Giants Despair Hillclimb – Small Town, Big Race
Within the hills of eastern Pennsylvania and the small town of Laurel Run, racing history continues to be made at the Giants Despair Hillclimb. The PA Hillclimb Association has been hosting the Giants Dispair Hillclimb annually dating back to 1906! The event is laid back, unscripted, and has attracted many well known race legends without the mass attention.
The hillclimb attracts hundreds of spectators with a wide range of generations. The crowds are very manageable throughout the whole weekend making things less chaotic. While making your way around the pits and the course you realize just how much of a small town this event is. Everyone is friendly, informative and easy to talk to. Almost half have been coming to this race since they were very young.
There were retired firefighters sharing their stories of the coal mine fires. These fires burned down the strip of homes located right in front of the first incline of the race course. They could recall families sitting on their porches, handing out free drinks to spectators and enjoying the race. More memories were shared about Evel Knievel’s appearance where he wiped out around Devil’s elbow. Carroll Shelby was the first driver to brake the “magic minute” mark in 1956 and Roger Penske won this race in 1959.
While walking around the pits later in the day the local owner of Denko gas pipeline filled me in on more of the event’s history. Jack Denko Sr. has been involved with this race for 17 years and had taken over the responsibility of running the hillclimb sometime during that time span. Mr. Denko and his family are proud supporters of this well-organized race and run several retired Indy cars. Their Indy cars won consecutively from 2005 to 2009 and then again from 2011 to last year.
Why the name Giants Despair? Jack filled us in. It’s called Giant’s Despair simply because this hill was the most challenging in the area to test a car’s fullest potential. In 1906 and years after, vehicle manufacturers would bring their new models to test their abilities and potential on the “Giant” hill. Several cars could not make the top or through the sharp turns without being in despair hence the name “The Giants Despair Hillclimb.”
The smell of race gas pulls you right into the pit area offering a spike in adrenaline. There were 119 registered race vehicles and many of them were very unique ranging from electric cars that made no noise at all, steam cars, to Indy cars that turned every head in the crowd! In 1906 the original race was won in two minutes, eleven seconds. John Burke has been running his 1997 Indycar which has been the fastest qualifier since 2014 at 38.02 seconds. My how times have changed!
This event has old school written all over it. The starting line was manned by one person and a bumper pull to make sure each car was lined up at the exact same spot. There are no barriers or guardrails, just a simple orange plastic sill fence that lines the one mile race track through a gentle rising incline about a quarter mile in length. A fast sharp left hand curve, then back into a short curve called Devil’s elbow which is 110 degrees keeps drivers on their toes before navigating through several 90 degree turns and a straight away into the last incline which rises some 22 degrees to the finish line. Very demanding when the speeds increase!
Several racers lost control going around the turns, spinning out, flipping, and rolling. The more skilled drivers and higher performance vehicles were able to smoothly complete their run with no difficulties. The large crowd that gathers around the Devil’s elbow will let you know how well you are doing. They are bluntly honest in their comments and sarcasm while partying it up. Needless to say, don’t spin out in front of them if you’re faint of heart. If you do, plug your ears! After all, these Pennsylvanian’s once famously booed Santa Clause at a Philadelphia Eagles game!
Next time you are in northern Pennsylvania and want to attend this century-old hi-performance party, make sure and pack your tents, coolers, food, beverages, sleeping bags and essentials. Stay awhile, camp out and take in the old school atmosphere of this historic hillclimb! And don’t be shy when it comes to your driver critiques!