King of the Hill

Best known for winning a Corvette Challenge championship, Bill Cooper has turned his attention to hillclimb racing, with a 600-horsepower C5 coupe being his weapon of choice.

Photo: King of the Hill 1
October 29, 2010

If you’d told me that after growing up with Porsches and open-wheel racing cars that I would have spent so much of my life driving Corvettes, I never would have believed you,” says Bill Cooper says. He’s standing in the parking lot of a ski resort in Bogus Basin, high up in the mountains above Boise, Idaho, on a chilly morning on Labor Day weekend.

This is a racing paddock, only there are no checkered-flag pennants, no balloons, no announcements blaring from a public-address system, no blimp circling overhead with a television camera and certainly no grid girls in white go-go boots. There’s pretty much nothing that would remind Cooper of Le Mans, where he drove the Billy Hagan Stratagraph Camaro with Cale Yarborough in 1981. There’s nothing that would remind him of the racing paddocks of the 1980s, when he drove Corvettes in the SCCA’s Escort street-stock series. And it’s not like the 1989 Corvette Challenge, where Cooper drove a Doug Rippie Motorsports-built C4 to become the series champion, or the SCCA World Challenge of the 1990s when he drove the Jim Van Dorn-owned Pirate Racing Corvette.

Bogus Basin is instead the grassiest of grassroots racing, and that’s just why Cooper loves it. And that’s why he’s here with a very special Corvette.

Photo: King of the Hill 2

Labor Day weekend is the annual date of the Bogus Basin Hillclimb, one of the rounds in the six-event series organized by the Northwest Hillclimb Association, which has the simple slogan, “Great Races in Beautiful Places.” People like Bogus Basin’s Wilkie Myers have been quietly putting on these events for decade—the first Freezeout Hill Climb at Bogus Basin dates to 1966—and they have the same charm that racing had back in the ’50s. If you have a Corvette, this is what you’d want to do with it, a combination of cross-country sightseeing tour and weekend driving test.

With a big wing standing free of the rear deck and semi-slick Hoosier DOT radials, Cooper’s 1998 Corvette coupe doesn’t seem much like a back-to-basics car. But he happily says otherwise: “It’s just a comfortable car that you can drive on the street, just like a Corvette is meant to be.”

Cooper first saw this car advertised in the back pages of Hemmings Motor News, and told his friend Matt Schaeffer, who is usually known to his friends as the Ice Cream King of Livingston, Montana. Schaeffer has owned a string of Corvettes and is known for his autocrossing skills; he beat Cooper the first time they met on the track. Together, Schaeffer and Cooper were looking for a car that they could race on the few weekends these busy men had to spare. Schaeffer is president of Wilcoxson’s Ice Cream, established in Montana in 1912 and served at Yellowstone National Park since the 1920s. Cooper conducts ride-and-drive events for car manufacturers, having left his position as the long-time chief instructor of the Bondurant School of High Performance Driving and moving to Montana about a decade ago.

Photo: King of the Hill 3

This C5 had originally been built for a high-speed open-road rally by Gino Burelli, a Chevrolet dealer in Michigan City, Indiana. It has a hood and rear wing made from carbon fiber. Installed by Mallett Cars, the suspension features Penske dampers, P1 anti-roll bars and heavy-duty Baer brakes. Burelli commissioned a Lingenfelter-built, nitrous-boosted 383-cid V8 for the car’s first event in 2002, but promptly blew it up.

Burelli then got serious. He had MTI build a 427-cid V8 using a C5-R block and LS6 heads. This was paired with a C6 Z06 transaxle. Shaeffer and Cooper have since added a twin-plate clutch, a plumbed-in fire-suppression system and rear brake ducts, and they also replaced the original Fikse wheels with Forged True alloys. The car currently has about 600 horsepower, which Schaeffer notes is about all you need, especially since it meets emissions standards so you can use it like a regular car.

There were a few street cars in the crowded paddock at Bogus Basin, but not many. Some had been race cars long ago, while others had been brought to life in the same way that Frankenstein’s monster had come to life, the product of resurrection from assorted automotive graveyards. All these cars were built by people who apparently had strong opinions about what it took to get up a short, winding section of pavement on a mountainside as quickly as possible—but who also apparently couldn’t quite agree on exactly what the formula should be.

Photo: King of the Hill 4

Then there were the rest of the cars, which were scattered about the paddock next to piles of assorted stuff that had formerly lived in the car’s trunk, under the seats or even in the glovebox. These cars were driven by adrenaline junkies who were on the mountain to cut loose in their commuter cars. If they bent their machinery, they would be walking back down the mountain with an armload of stuff and thinking about who might be able to give them a ride to work on Monday.

At the drivers’ meeting, a guy wore a T-shirt that read (paraphrased to protect the squeamish), “Hillclimbers don’t need no stinking cones!” This was a perhaps vain attempt to raise hillclimbers above the level of autocrossers. Basically, the rules place very little restriction on personal expression. If you have seatbelts and a helmet, you are good to go, though open cars do require a roll cage. The classic racing warranty applies. That is, if you break your toy, you will be allowed to keep all the pieces.

You might think that all this means a hillclimb is harmless, but you would be wrong. There are no runoff areas or gravel traps, and the guardrails wear rusty battle scars from encounters with snowplows. The basic driving philosophy is, if you get into the kind of trouble that will take you off the road, try to pick the side of the road without a view. If you discover that your windshield is filled with a panorama of scenic wonders, you’ve made the wrong choice. In this case, your car might live out the rest of its days as an ornament on top of a lonely Christmas tree.

Photo: King of the Hill 5

There are almost as many car classes in hillclimbing as participants, so almost everybody goes home with a trophy—kind of like little kids in a soccer league. In 2009, Cooper scored the overall victory, so he took home the most elaborate cup. However, he was required to bring it back this year, and while he was allowed to put his name on it, he had to pay for the privilege himself.

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.

Photo: King of the Hill 6

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.

Photo: King of the Hill 7

“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.

Photo: King of the Hill 8

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.

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