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July 2, 2011

Climb to the Clouds 2011 Auto Race

Ham radio operators from all over New England gathered at the base of Mt. Washington on June 24-26, 2011 to assist in the epic Climb to the Clouds auto race, one of the oldest automobile races in North America. I happened to be one of them. My call sign being W3ATB.

This race was brought back after a ten-year hiatus to help celebrate the 150th anniversary of the opening of North America's oldest man-made attraction, the Mt. Washington Auto Road.


This event couldn't have been named better as Mother Nature provided abundant cloud cover and rainfall all three days. In fact, there were so many clouds on the two practice days, the race car drivers were only allowed to sprint up to the halfway point of the Mt. Washington Auto Road. Visibility and the sloppy conditions on the gravel surface past the 4-mile marker made it unsafe to traverse to the top of the mountain.

But on race day, Sunday June 26th, the conditions improved allowing ham radio operators, corner workers, crowd marshals, drivers and spectators to scatter themselves up and down the 7.6-mile serpentine road that leads from the base area to the summit of Mt. Washington.

I've never worked an event like this before, and was full of anxiety about what to do and when to do it. This was compounded by the fact that I hadn't keyed up a mic on a radio in over five years.

Fortunately there were great handouts distributed before the event and I attended an organizational meeting at the site the night before the first practice. These combined to settle me down, but on Friday morning at 6 am when all the hams gathered outside the communications shack, I was on pins and needles. I didn't want to make a mistake that would cause confusion amongst all the other hams and embarrassment for me.

The chief of communications, Robert Lyle, must have known this because he paired me off with a seasoned ham operator, Lee Hillsgrove, Sr. KB1GNI at Station One just above the start line of the race. Lee's calm demeanor and excellent tutoring put me at ease very quickly.

I was amazed at how the Net Control communications hub worked and it quickly started to make sense why each station had to report in about the status of certain cars. Each of us hams were the eyes and ears of the race organizers. That's obvious to any ham that's participated in an event like this, but I can tell you that I've never even given a second thought about being surrounded by invisible radio waves at any sizable gathering.


Sure, I've seen event staff at concerts and fairs use hand-held radios, but I never thought about the complexity of the communications and what was being said. What's more, I never gave a thought to the numerous frequencies being used. We hams were on four different frequencies and the event staff had their own no doubt.

I had an issue the first day of practice with my 5-watt Yaesu VX-7R. Unbeknownst to me it was emitting a 1750-Hz tone burst as I keyed up. Lee was aware of this, but graciously didn't want to ruffle my feathers. Net control, however, let me know that I had a problem.

Lee and I tried to solve the problem wiping rain from the display of my handheld, but the cryptic menu choices gave us no clue as to which item to choose and which way to toggle the choices. Later in the day I got a tip from another ham as to how to easily fix the problem.

The practice days were filled with many more emergencies and incidents than the actual race day. I was very impressed with the level of professionalism of all the operators and Net Control when emergencies and incidents were reported.

On race day I was at station 23 located at mile 5.03 of the Auto Road. It's above the tree line and the base area of the race was in clear view when the clouds would part. The temperature was cool, it was very cloudy and there were patches of drizzle from time to time. I had the right clothing, and was prepared for just about anything Mother Nature could serve up.

We did have a very close call at Station 23 when car number 53 with the Wimpey brothers came barreling around the first turn at our station. They missed going off the road by no less than six inches. Their over correction to get back on the driving line put them into the shallow ditch on the uphill side of the road.

The right wheels were in the ditch for about 50 feet and when they over corrected to get back on the gravel surface they slid sideways, but continued up the road. This mistake was costly, as moments later they had a right rear flat tire from an encounter with a rock in the ditch. They were officially a DNF.

There were too many thrills during the three days of the event, but I thoroughly enjoyed the last competitive run of the day when David Higgins in car 75 made his second record-breaking run of the race. Here's a video I taped as he bolted by my station Sunday afternoon.

I loved being part of the Climb to the Clouds 2011 race and you'll see me at many other places here in New England volunteering my soon-to-be-improving ham skills to help create a safe environment for participants and spectators.

Posted by Tim Carter at July 2, 2011 2:02 PM


Tim this was a great story and I enjoyed it very much. I used to be a race fan and had a base station for SSB radio. So all of this was of interest to me. I have a ham friend and I will send this to him. Thanks again, Roy

Posted by: Roy A. Moyers, Jr. at July 5, 2011 7:37 PM

Sure was funny to see you post that you were there that Sunday. Great Video clip !! My Daughter and I climbed up the ammonusic trail a little earlier and had lunch and wandered down to see the last 20 finishers. It was really foggy!! But when higgins came into the finish area my daughter thought he was going drive right of the end before spinning around. Sure was a great run!

Posted by: Michael Restuccia at July 5, 2011 7:41 PM

I am not familiar with this race but you did a good job describing it. Must have been an exciting day.

Posted by: Chuck Nagy at July 5, 2011 8:56 PM

Thoroughly enjoyed reading about the Climb to the Clouds. If I were located in you "neck of the wood" (mountains), I would have been there to observe all the excitement. Thanks!

Posted by: Stan at July 6, 2011 2:26 AM

realy great story.i like it and wish i could do it.

Posted by: fitiwi at July 6, 2011 11:07 AM

realy great story.i like it and wish i could do it.

Posted by: fitiwi at July 6, 2011 11:08 AM

Great article from one former Cincinnatian to another bet you never thought you would be doing something like that.

Posted by: George McCool at July 6, 2011 12:09 PM

I wish I can go with you next time! Lots scarey though!

Posted by: Ramsey Costandi at July 21, 2011 10:04 AM

I wish I can go with you next time! Lots scarey though!

Posted by: Ramsey Costandi at July 21, 2011 10:05 AM
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