King of the Hill

Also from Issue 62

  • Two Race-themed Z06s
  • Mid America Motorworks Funfest
  • 1958 Fuelie
  • Buyer's Guide: C1/2
  • 1966 Big-block Coupe
  • 1991 Coupe
  • Tech: Emissions Testing
  • 1971 LS6 Coupe
  • Race Report: Road America and Mosport
  • How-to: Power Steering
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It didn’t look like Cooper would have the same problem this year, as East Coaster George Bowland brought his specialized hillclimb car, the BBR Landshark, which looked like an aluminum lawn chair shaded by a huge aluminum umbrella. While this tube-frame racer’s 240-horsepower three-cylinder Arctic Cat two-stroke engine doesn’t sound like much on paper, it has just 700 pounds to propel. The car may reach only 100 mph on the straightaways, but it goes about 100 mph in the corners, too. Cooper’s C5 didn’t stand a chance.

There’s plenty of romance surrounding hillclimbing, as it makes one think of those period photos of Hans Stuck, Sr. climbing European mountain passes in a 1930s Auto Union Grand Prix car fitted with dual rear tires for extra traction. But the reality is a little less epic. For example, there’s only slightly more track time in a hillclimb than in an autocross. At Bogus Basin there were only two runs per day, which left plenty of time to stand around swapping lies with the 82 other members of the Northwest Hillclimb Association. Since Cooper has long since learned that racing is mostly about standing around and telling lies, he doesn’t mind too much.

As far as he is concerned, it all adds up to a weekend of racing—an opportunity to drive a car as fast as it will go. Hillclimbing is largely the better for being unencumbered by checkered-flag pennants and blimps with television cameras (sure do miss the girls in go-go boots, though). “It’s racing,” he says. “You might be sitting in the big, squishy seat of a Corvette, but you cinch down the seatbelts as tight as you can and just hang on. That’s pretty much what you do in any kind of race car and the Corvette is no different.”

In the end, Cooper’s fastest time up the course was 1 minute 46.344 seconds. While this was good enough for a class win, it was not the best time of the day. As expected, that was posted by Bowland in his bantamweight hillclimb special: 1 minute 37.732 seconds.

Cooper spent much of his life as the chief instructor at the Bondurant school at both its former location at Sears Point (now Infineon Raceway) near San Francisco and Firebird near Phoenix, and he taught the first generation of NASCAR drivers to run right as well as left. So he speaks with some authority when he says that the Corvette’s great strength on a track is that no particular driving technique is called for.

“You can ask anybody about the differences between a Corvette and a Porsche 911 Turbo,” Cooper says, “and they’ll tell you that the Corvette is fast in a straight line and the Porsche is great in the corners. In fact, the opposite is true. With the Corvette, there are fewer compromises in the little things you need to do behind the wheel than in any other car you can name. You don’t have to think about technique; you just go out and drive it and do your best.”

Cooper says his longstanding involvement with the Corvette simply comes from a unique time in the American car industry, when it worked hard to make world-class cars. “The Corvette development team set out to make a better car through racing,” he says. “So ever since the introduction of the Corvette C4, the engineers have had a close relationship with racing teams and racing drivers. In my opinion, the regular Corvette is closer to being a race car than any of the street cars from Aston Martin, Ferrari, Lamborghini or Porsche. And when you look at your wallet, you can want a Porsche all you like, but you can actually buy a Corvette.”

This C5 has a little bit of understeer in it, Cooper notes, but he also says that’s what gives it the mid-corner stability that helps him feel comfortable. Cooper and Schaeffer would like to make the car a little bit more neutral, but they think it’s an aero push instead of a chassis imbalance. Rather than fool around with this Corvette’s adjustable front anti-roll bar, they’re going to try to vent the air that builds up under the hood and then add a front aero splitter for some additional downforce.

Cooper and Schaeffer have grown to like this hillclimb thing so much that they organized the Pioneer Mountain Hillclimb this year near Polaris, Montana. They appreciate the unpretentious spirit of the competition and the opportunity to see great roads in beautiful places, just as the Northwest Hillclimb association promises. While the C5 that they share is not quite the original King of the Hill, the Corvette development team’s name for the 1990 Corvette C4 ZR-1 with its Lotus-engineered DOHC V8, it’s the best Corvette going on any mountain right now.