If you have never found yourself in Northern Nevada during the late spring, there is a distinct possibility that your perceptions are skewed.
Dawn ignites the crisp cool air of the high desert with the first rays of sunshine glinting off the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Blue birds frolic among the Piñon Pines of the Virginia Range while jackrabbits scurry hurriedly through the sagebrush.
As I sat, perched atop a dilapidated structure wedged into the side of an embankment, gazing southeast toward the Lahontan Valley, I heard it; a diabolical screech and menacing roar. What could it be, this otherworldly aural discord? And why am I sitting on a roof?
2011 marks the return of the Spectre 341 Challenge; a road race like none other. Nicknamed the “Nürburgring of Nevada,” State Route 341 is a death defying 5.2 mile, 22 turn switchback two lane bypass road that rises 1216 feet from Silver City to Virginia City, just outside the Truckee Meadows of metropolitan Reno.
Guard rails are sparse and peril lies just around that blind corner. And to the left of the straightaways. And just over that hill. And to your right! This is all at the 35 MPH posted speed limit with suggested 25MPH corners.
Unlike a track event, there are no run-off areas, no sand traps, and no tire barriers. The only thing that lies between you and oblivion is the time it’ll take for you and your vessel of speed to reach the bottom of the gully.
If you happen to have an off-road excursion, and are not attempting to emulate Evel Knievel and his Grand Canyon adventure, you’ll be lucky if you only mangle the machine you are piloting.
So, how ’bout a little history. We’re going to have to begin this journey back in the Old West. Yes, that time in U.S. history when outlaw gunmen roamed the range, walking into local saloons in search of libation to exalt what likely was a round of nefarious endeavors, often including armed robbery and murder.
A different kind of pandemonium spread across the West, though, during the late 1850′s when word of precious metals being found in great quantities sparked increased interest in the Utah Territory, part of which became the state of Nevada.
Virginia City was erected virtually overnight following the discovery of the Comstock Lode gold and silver strike, which increased the population to nearly 30,000 during the height of the mining boom. Over the next twenty years or so, nearly $400 million was taken out of the ground and, consequently, Virginia City came to be known as the “richest city in America.”
Samuel Clemens even came to the region as a reporter and, after being “mugged” by some of his friends as a practical joke, contrived his pseudonym Mark Twain. Today, Virginia City is home to about 1,000 full time residents and one of the gnarliest hill climb road races in the world.
The Virginia City Hill Climb, as it was christened in 1972, was the vision of Hans Tanner, then President of the Ferrari Owners Club (FOC) of Southern California.
At the time, he happened to be working for the local newspaper. Remembering, fondly, the hill climb events he had witnessed in Europe, and how much fun and challenging they were, he and the Ferrari Owners Club organized the inaugural Virginia City Hill Climb in June of that year to run up Nevada Highway 341′s 5.2 mile course.
The competitors that year raced, what are now, some undoubtedly priceless vintage Ferrari road and racing cars. By the late ’80s, the event’s popularity had grown significantly, and the Hill Climb had expanded its roster to include increasingly faster cars including a Ferrari 512BB/LM, a Le Mans category all-out race car, in 1985 and a big block Chevy-powered Lola T-70 in 1988.
Over the next couple of years, competitors began to bring open-wheeled race cars. This, however, did not go over too well with local law enforcement considering that the cars must descend Highway 341, an operational public highway, to get back to the finish line. From this point forward, all competitors’ cars must be road legal, registered, insured, and wear D.O.T. approved rubber.
The Virginia City Hill Climb would be run continuously through 2002, but due to dwindling attendance, would be put on hiatus for eight years. Enter Amir Rosenbaum.
In 1983, he began selling NylaBraid automotive hose coverings out of his parent’s garage so that he could earn some extra cash to restore his ’67 Camaro Convertible. One thing led to another and, nearly thirty years later, Rosenbaum’s company, Spectre Performance, is the chief sponsor of the newly resurrected Spectre 341 Challenge.
2010 marked a new era for one of the most notorious hill climbs in the United States with drivers from all over the country disregarding the malevolence of Route 341 for a shot at the record set by none other than Amir Rosenbaum himself.
His mildly tuned Ferrari F40 ran the hill in a record-shattering 3:10.53. Breaking the four-minute mark had been deemed a solid run for a street car, which is why anyone who accomplishes a 3:41 (clever, huh!) is inducted into the prestigious 3:41club.
“This is the best kept secret in street racing,” says Rosenbaum who set his fast time in 2002. He also calls the Spectre 341 Challenge “the great equalizer” due to the fact that the course is ever changing. The road is constantly being attended to, corner markers such as trees or sagebrush or rocks may or may not exist from year to year.
You don’t usually find a Wild Mustang standing on the local racetrack, either! Rosenbaum has issued a challenge to the world’s greatest race car drivers. He is interested to see who among them has the muster to tame such a calamitous serpent of tarmac; to throw caution to the wind and prove their mettle against some of the most courageous amateurs in the West.
Highway 341 can be a vindictive lady and she has claimed the souls of some very talented drivers. Thankfully, the 2011 Spectre 341 Challenge went pretty smoothly.
There were only a handful of minor mechanical failures and one off track excursion. Apparently Aaron Pfadt of Pfadt Race Engineering miscalculated and apex of a fast left-hander and, literally, drove his modified Camaro up the cliff to the outside of the corner.
Considering he was scraping the bottom of his Chevrolet along the rocky embankment nearly five feet above the road surface at an incredibly dramatic angle, it’s a wonder he was able to land it shiny side up. After breaking both front struts clean off and coming to rest sideways across the road, he wasn’t out of harm’s way yet.
Running up the course at a blistering pace, was Lou Gigliotti in his 900 HP ZR-1. Just in the nick of time, Lou saw his fellow Bowtie Brother straddling the center line and narrowly squeaked by between Aaron’s crippled Camaro and the embankment, averting what could have been truly horrific collision.
And now, the proverbial envelope, please…
This year’s Spectre 341 Challenge was represented by an amalgam of automotive unconventionality. We saw everything from Plymouths to Porsches, Cadillacs to Coopers, and just about everything in between.
There were nearly double the number of entrants over last year, which meant almost double the number of runs. As a whole, this year’s group of cars was significantly faster as well. The average time for the top five fastest was 2 seconds faster than 2010, with the top ten averaging 7 seconds quicker.
Top time was bettered by 5 seconds to a 3:14.449, which is less than 4 seconds off the all-time record. The most dramatic delta factor of the entire event was that the tenth place vehicle scored a run an astounding twenty seconds faster than the previous year.
According to Gigliotti, the eventual winner with the top time and speed (141 MPH), he would have run a 3:12 had Aaron Pfadt not had his incident. There’s always next year, Lou!
All in all, the 2011 Spectre 341 Challenge was a tremendous success for all involved. Speeds were up, times were down, and everyone walked away with their lives and a 69 cent ribbon. Continuing the upward swing of momentum gained from this years’ event, 2012 will, undoubtedly, be one for the record books.