It's been almost two decades since the sport of professional hillclimbing held a national event in southern California at historic Saddleback Park or DeAnza Raceway, but that will change next weekend. Round 2 of the Racer X / Suzuki N.A.H.A. Pro Hillclimb Series will make its debut at Glen Helen Raceway in San Bernardino on May 5-6. The idea for this event actually began last year after an impressive half-time exhibition at the AMA National MX. The world's best hillclimbers will be in attendance at Glen Helen including national champ Harold Waddell, who will be defending his first title. We had a chance to catch up with him as he was preparing to compete in Ohio, getting a little more seat time preparing for the second round at Glen Helen.
Racer X: Harold, congratulations on your very first professional hillclimb championship. And after that amazing final event at Carnegie last year, with that wall basically stopping you dead in your tracks, what did it take to grab the championship away from some of those other big names in the sport like Travis Whitlock, Dusty Beer, and Jason Smith?
Harold Waddell: Trying to be consistent for the most part, but I mean, coming into that last race there, I was basically hoping to get up over that hill on the first run, and unfortunately that didn’t happen – so, you know, I basically had to win the event because of that. I knew Travis and Jason and those guys were two points behind me and that they would be on their game too, so I basically had to pull a rabbit out of the hat! I told my dad in the pits that it’s all or nothing at this point. I said we’re gonna go fast and win this thing or we’re gonna go home broke, because we’ve got nothing to lose. That’s kind of what it came down to, and as I sat there at the bottom of the hill I took a big breath. It all worked out in our favor.
I’m a four-time AMA Amateur National Champion, twelve-time Semi-Pro State Champion, and seven-time Minnesota State Champion. I would have to say as far as the amateur ranks go that the first one that I ever had in my life was the most memorable. We were in New York and Dave Watson was racing ahead of me in a different class. I was just a young buck and I pulled off my first AMA National Championship at 9 years old. That championship there has really stuck with me throughout the years, and it just shows how much I came along in the sport.
Also, winning the Hillclimb des Nations in France and being a member of Team USA. That was something to be a part of and I hope to be part of many more of those if everything works out. Going to that, me and my dad were definitely excited! We were going to be racing against these ten different countries, and never having been overseas in our life was something new and we had a great experience over there.
This sport is not really all that well understood. What’s the biggest misconception for people when you’re talking to them about the sport of professional hillclimbing?
A lot of these magazines at first were really starting to give us as a bad rap with people with mullets and drunks and people getting out of control at races, and it’s not anything like that at all. We are very professional riders with a professional look just like motocross riders. Every sport is going to have somebody that isn’t right up to the top of their game, but hopefully with us there to promote it like we are that they can follow in our footsteps. We have had a lot of help from Racer X Illustrated to help promote our sport, and I thank those guys 110 percent on what they are doing for us.
It’s funny, you can take the top ten moto guys and line up the top ten hillclimb guys and you would not be able to tell who races which sport. The only difference is the bikes. Tell us about your bike.
Well, I am going to be running Suzuki GSXR motors. My open X bike [open exhibition refers to 700cc and above – no limits on horsepower or fuel] is a GSXR 1340 running on 114 Philips Petroleum race fuel, with engine work done by Pete Lumis Performance and Machines. And my 700X [700cc and below] bike is a GSXR600 injected on nitro methane, also done by Lumis Performance and machines, running on 75 percent nitro.
Over the last few years it seems that this sport has grown quite a bit. Is that your perception as well?
No doubt. The level of our guys and our sport, we want to take it to the next level and we want to promote our sport in a professional manner and all the guys that are racing are doing a very good job of trying to do this. That is what I think has helped our sport come along so quickly the last few years. Everybody has stepped up their game, they are looking professional, they’ve got the right riding gear, and their bikes are excellent. We have something like twenty or thirty nitro bikes out there, and when you’re talking pro hillclimbing, that’s what we are talking about is nitro methane. We are talking about bikes with paddle tires, and putting 200-plus horses to the ground. Everybody has really stepped their game up and gotten better equipment. They are getting sponsors and getting everybody in the industry outside of hillclimbing involved in hillclimbing. So all that stuff together is really starting to show. I want to give it up to all the riders for helping that out.
Is there a difference in the West Coast events versus the East Coast?
Oh yeah, definitely. I am actually going to be going to an east coast race this coming weekend here in Haydenville, Ohio. I grew up racing East Coast climbs and they are a straight shot hill with jumps, sometimes really big jumps, and a lot of speed. They are fast and these bikes are all 100 percent nitro methane. Who knows what speeds we are clicking. It’s crazy speeds, sometimes your vision is blurred. So you are hanging it out. It takes some technique to jump and to be smooth and to get the power down to the ground on that east coast stuff and I mastered that early on in my racing career. Now with the west coast, it has the most gnarliest thing you can put in front of your face. There’s turns, ledges, jumps inside the hills, big step-up jumps right out of the bottom of the hills, gap jumps. It’s a lot more technical on the west coast and more horsepower and speed on the East Coast.
This new 450 Pro class seems to have a big buzz around it. We are seeing more and crossover pros taking up the sport. What are your thoughts?
I think it’s awesome that they are offering that class because it allows someone to get involved in our sport at a low budget and get their feet wet and if they really like it they can go that much further. At this point you are talking about putting $20,000 in a pro hillclimb bike where as you can buy one of these 450s and you don’t really have to do much to them at all. Just buy a $300 set of extensions and you are going to be competitive if you are a good rider. It’s a great deal because we’re see people like Pingree, McGrath and Caselli try our sport out. Having those guys in here that are big names outside of hillclimbing is going to help our sport that much better, so for the most part it’s a good deal for everyone.
And it’s right in the mecca of motocross! Everything is there and everyone rides at Glen Helen. If everything goes well this first year, it might be a little slow, but give it a couple years and this thing will be a top notch pro hillclimb event.
Thanks for your time, Harold. Anything else you want to say?
I would not be doing this if it weren’t for my sponsors. I want to thank Thor, EVS, Smith Optics, Red Bull, Works Connections, TMCO, Lumis Performance and Machines, my mom and dad, my grandpa, all these people that are backing me. I am sure I missed somebody, and if I did I am sorry. These guys make it possible for me to come to these events and compete at this level, and if it wasn’t for these guys we couldn’t do it. I thank these guys more than anything!
The Racer X/Suzuki N.A.H.A. Pro Hillclimb Series is sponsored by Monster Energy, Discount Tire Centers, Kicker Audio, Works Connection, Troy Lee Designs, and Pole Position Raceway. For more information check out www.glenhelenhc.com.