An Epic Race Returns
Let me tell you about Wilco Road: It’s a narrow, tree-lined road with high banks and a bevy of turns that connects the village of Empire to the Empire Bluffs trailhead at the top of the hill. It’s steep and short—I’ll say it’s a half a mile from start to finish. In the winter, the road is closed to traffic, and you can hike it, if you’d like to not feel your legs for three days.
One weekend of the year though, drivers and cars from all eras descend onto Empire for the Empire Hill Climb Revival. Revival because it originally was an annual event in Empire from 1964 until 1980 before it was no longer. Finally, thankfully, it was resurrected in 2014.
Empire is not a large town. I’ll provide you with sort-of-exaggerated-but-not-by-much numbers by saying there are what feels like 50,000 people (including beach-goers) there in the summer and fifty people there in the winter. You can count on half a hand how many restaurants there are, even including the gas station. What makes Empire unique though is that it is located on the shores of Lake Michigan. It’s a beautiful community with beautiful people. And, although there isn’t much in Empire, what it does it does well, really well.
Pulling into town on Hill Climb weekend, one is sure to see Porsches, Corvettes, stock cars, rally cars and crazy “cars” that only crazy, but brilliant, minds could think up.
Automobiles are lined along both sides of “downtown” Empire as drivers visit with each other and tweak their vehicles prior to the main event. The main event consists of drivers at the bottom of Wilco Rd. waiting for the green flag to drop before ripping up to the top of Wilco Rd. as fast as possible.
The race route on Wilco Rd. is situated so there’s property on the west of the road and property on the east. The property on the west of the road belongs to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, of United States national park glory. On the east of Wilco Rd. is property—still glorious but not quite as potentially legally troublesome—belonging to the village of Empire.
At the drivers meeting, it was announced that if a participant is to get into an accident, get into one on the east side of the road…there’s far less paperwork.
I was here on this event’s first return and it was incredible. At that time, it was new so there were hardly any people. Even now, the event isn’t packed with folks so access is pretty easy. So far. I’ve made a valiant effort to attend as many subsequent hill climbs as I possibly can.
While there, I was able to participate in some of my favorite street photography as I photographed drivers’ portraits and then made pictures of cars before racing began. It’s incredibly convenient and refreshing to be able to photograph without needing a press pass, pit pass, VIP ticket or paying a small-fortune bribe.
In 2019, Peter Cunningham, his Acura TLX and team were on site to not only wow all in attendance with prestige and accomplishment—Cunningham has won more than a couple of Pikes Peak International Hill Climb events—but, to also break the Empire Hill Climb record, which they did.
One of the many great aspects of the event though is that all types of drivers in all types of vehicles can participate.
There aren’t too many events these days that convene with some popularity while staying true to their roots. This event, at least for now, is for those that have a yearning for auto sport, while pushing their vehicles and themselves to the absolute limit.