Peter, tell us about your background in motorsport.
Well, I actually started hillclimbing back in around '81 - I bought a P76-powered open-wheeler. I ran that vehicle in '81 and '82, finishing second outright in the New South Wales championship in '82. I enjoyed that, but then my wife was having a baby, so I sold the car and went to do speedway for a couple of years. Then, in the end of '84, they closed the local speedway so I pulled out of motor racing for quite a while. I took it up again when I bought this car in 1994. (Check "Hillclimb Hero" for a rundown on Peter's hillclimb vehicle).
What successes have you had in this car?
We've won the Australian hillclimb championship five times in the last six years - the last 4 years straight. We've won five New South Wales championships, three Queensland championships, the Victorian championship and I think we've won the Collingrove South Australian title three times as well.
The guy that's given us the most competition in recent times is Eric Barnes from Tamworth - but his car is up for sale now. Apparently he's going to saloon car racing. The car he used was originally a Formula 2 chassis with a twin-cam supercharged Toyota engine in it. It's a similar size car to mine, with fairly similar weight and fairly similar horsepower - I don't think he's got the torque we've got though. I think that's been our advantage.
Where in Australia are hillclimbs held?
Pretty well everywhere. There's a couple over in Western Australia near Perth, Collingrove in South Australia, there's Mount Cotton in Queensland, there's quite a few tracks in Victoria - probably six or seven - and next year there's going to be eleven New South Wales rounds, all at different venues.
What does a typical hillclimb event consist of?
All tracks are different. Some tracks are fairly tight and slow with a few hairpins, and other tracks are quite fast.
Our local track here at Wollongong is 658m long and we hold the record at 19.42 seconds. You're pretty much flat-out from the starting line going up into the fork, and we get up to about 176 km/h on the front wheel sensors and about 189 on the rear. We back off for the fork, get on the power again and we head up to the esses - where we drop back to just over 100 km/h - and it's back on the power again to the finish line. We cross the line travelling at 165 km/h on the front wheel sensors. You do all that in 19.42 seconds; but this is a fairly short course and it's fairly fast. On the other hand, some tracks are well over 3 kilometres long. Some cars take up to around a minute to finish some of these.
Then you go to places like Ringwood - which is just on the other [northern] side of Newcastle - and there's one of my least favourite tracks. It's 500m long and you don't get out of first gear all the way - it's hairpin after hairpin after hairpin. Still, we hold the record there at 28 seconds dead.
Some climbs are run on public roads, some are run on private roads. Our track out here at Huntley is actually a public road that we get permission to close off to hold the event.
Are all hillclimb events uphill, as the name implies?
Well, although it's called hillclimb they're not always up a hill. Some events have no hills at all and the finish line is no higher than the start line. Then, some tracks can be very, very steep.
Basically, it's just a timed section of road where the vehicles are run one at a time. Normally once a car finishes its run, they'll check that the track is clear - which only takes a second or two - and the next car can leave the line. Often while one car's finishing it's run, the next one will be doing its burnout and staging for its run. You don't need to do a burnout, but it sometimes helps because tyre warmers are not allowed.
The width of the track varies a lot. You've got places like Bathurst that are probably 8-9 metres wide in a lot of areas. Then you've got, say, Collingrove where there's only a few inches either side of the car. It really does vary from track to track.
What classes are there?
There are a lot of classes. I believe there are too many classes in the current hillclimbs. They range from open-wheelers 0-750cc, 7500-1300cc, 1300cc-2000cc and then over 2000cc. Some venues also run a 2000-3000cc class as well.
Then you've got sports sedan, which run either 0-1300cc or 1600cc - I'm not sure exactly what the class is at the moment. Then they run up to 2000cc, 2000 to 3000cc and over 3000cc. Then there's all your sportscar classes.
Yeah, there's everything from road-registered cars to pretty well anything.
What safety precautions must be met before you're allowed to compete?
All cars are scrutineered before they're allowed on the track - obviously if your car's not safe, you won't end up on the track. All cars must run a fire extinguisher fixed to the vehicle, plus you need a helmet and non-flammable clothing from wrist to ankle.
You've mentioned some very high speeds on narrow roads - how likely is vehicle damage?
You always see accidents but that gets back to how people drive. We've been running this car for a lot of years and we've never replaced panels or damaged it - but it gets back to how an individual drives. One good thing about a hillclimb is you don't have to worry about somebody else punting you off. If you crash it means you've made a mistake.
How does a hillclimb vehicle vary from an open-wheel circuit vehicle?
Quite a bit actually. There are a lot of hillclimb cars that are heading towards the new technology of circuit racing cars and I believe that's the wrong way to go. Some of the older circuit cars suit hillclimbs a lot more, because you need more ground clearance and suspension travel than a lot of the newer cars tend to provide.
My car is a SCV-built in the '70s. It's powered by a displacement supercharged Kombi engine that's just over 2.3-litres. It makes good power from about 1000 rpm to 8000 rpm.
Volkswagen engines aren't that unusual in hillclimbing. Supercharged Kombi engines have probably won more Australian hillclimb titles than any other engine. Power is not a problem for them - mine makes in excess of 450hp.
And the car weighs 420kg.
We've never ever changed a set of discs - but we're not generating the heat in the brakes that a circuit car does. Most hillclimbs - if they have any - might have one or two hard brake applications and that's it. We run quite a soft pad, but bear in mind you start the event cold and most climbs typically run for less than 40 seconds.
We normally have a good set of race tyres and a set of practice tyres. The practice tyres are often the tyres we raced with in the previous event. We also have a set of wet weather tyres, which we groove by hand.
Look, generally you can run any car at a hillclimb - there are a lot of circuit cars that run at hillclimbs. There's been quite a few Formula Holdens and that sort of thing, and they've done quite well. But I think a proper hillclimb car - a car built to run hillclimbs - is built preferably from an early open-wheeler. They've got more potential to development - as I said, they've got more ground clearance and more suspension travel. But hillclimbs vary quite a bit - some tracks are like circuits where they're run on billiard table smooth surfaces. Take Skyline [corner] at Bathurst - it's a very smooth, flat part of the track. In other places, it can be quite bumpy and rough - that's where you tend to need more travel.
Is it best to set up a hillclimb vehicle to understeer or oversteer?
That all depends on the track itself. If you've got a very, very fast track such as Bathurst, Huntley or Eastern Creek, a slightly understeering car is probably the way to go. If you've got a really tight track like Grafton or Ringwood, you're better off with an oversteering car so you can drive the car on the throttle.
I'd look for something that's fairly neutral, powerful, light and manoeuvrable.
What are your track times compared to a modified street car?
Well, as I said, I hold the record at Huntley at 19.42 seconds - there's a Subaru WRX that has the chip, exhaust, Formula R tyres and all the gear and I think the best he's ever run is a low 25. Really, that's miles away. We've also run our Pantera up there on road tyres and run a 25.8 - but bear in mind it's got 600hp...
With such short track times, is traction off the line very important?
Yes, it can be. We often pick up half a second over some of our competitors just off the start line. Obviously, if you're that far ahead to start with, you've got a fair bit up your sleeve before you're back on an equal playing field.
You mentioned tyre warmers aren't allowed, what other regulations are there?
We run in the over-2000cc class and it's pretty much open slather. You can run a 20-litre engine if you wanted, with 10 turbochargers or superchargers hanging off it and that wouldn't be a problem. Obviously you'd go into a different class and the weight might be a bit of a problem...
In our class you need a fairly light car that can make good power at all revs. There's more power left in our car but at this stage it's a bit unusable - so there's no point in chasing it.
What sort of expenses are involved running a hillclimb vehicle such as yours?
Well, you can run hillclimbs in road cars and the cost can be very low. Obviously, with a car like we're running, you can still spend quite a bit of money running it. But I'd say on average we spend up to around $30,000 a year. That includes tyres, maintenance, entrance fees, fuel, getting there - that covers everything.
It's a form of motorsport that I can afford to run. Sure, I'd love to go out Supercar racing or running a Formula Holden, but obviously the cost is much greater and sponsors are hard to find - so you've gotta do what you can realistically afford. What sort of hillclimb vehicle would you buy if you were given an unlimited budget?
At this stage I don't know of any car better than what I've got. It's proven the one to beat over the last few years and there's been some people turn up with some pretty wild things - like a factory built ground-effects car running an ex-Formula 1 Repco 4.8-litre V8. We've beaten him the last few times.
Any last comments on hillclimbing in general?
It's a great form of motorsport to get into, and it's a very good place to start. A lot of guys out there in the big time - like Dick Johnson - have run hillclimbs. Jason Bright also used to run his Formula Ford around a track in Victoria.
I'd like to see a few more fast cars there at the moment. There's plenty out there, there's just a few owners don't want to run at the moment.
But, yeah, there's always room for more.