LAUREL RUN — The sights, sounds and the smells brought back memories to Bill Malarkey as he watched racers speed by on their way up the Giants Despair Hillclimb.
Malarkey and his son, Bill Jr., staked their claim Saturday afternoon on a patch of grass to see who would record the fastest time and be crowned king or queen of the hill as man, woman and machine raced against time on the one-mile course winding its way up the hillside overlooking the Wyoming Valley.
An avowed race fan and former driver, Malarkey detected the scent of high octane racing fuel in the exhaust of the cars and a few trucks accelerating on the straightaway section of the course near the starting line.
“I raced up at Evergreen,” Malarkey said, referring to the asphalt track in St. John’s.
The Malarkeys, of Hanover Township, were among the hundreds of spectators lining the route as the sun beat down pushing the temperature into the upper 80s. Some found shade from the hot sun under canopies they brought. Others sought the natural cover of trees.
“It’s a good time, really,” Malarkey said.
The pair wouldn’t return for today’s runs as they begin a family summer vacation.
But Steve Cook, of Wilkes-Barre, and his family would.
“I’ve been coming up here since the 70s,” Cook, 51, said.
The event’s been around much longer, however. This weekend marked the 108th race, the longest running hillclimb in the United States and the major fundraiser for the Laurel Run fire department. A field of 90 racers in 20 different classes were expected to compete.
Cook said he noticed some new drivers this year and other changes, such as the paving of the lot serving as the pits for drivers.
Cook sat just inside the opening of a canopy tent pitched several feet from the orange plastic web fence strung along the roadside to keep spectators from crossing the course. He said he and his sons, Shawn and Cody, arrived at 9 a.m., around the time racers started their runs. His wife, Crystal, and other children showed up later.
The Cooks had cold cuts in a cooler, soda and snacks for the day. They weren’t alone. Here and there groups gathered to eat and drink — beer and soda. Their all-terrain vehicles came in handy to traverse the hills.
Barry Griffith, of Laurel Run, stopped his two-seater, side-by-side ATV to talk to a few friends. Griffith won the hillclimb title 11 years ago with a time of 44.743 seconds in his Indy-style Swift car. He was paralyzed from his belly button down when he was struck by a truck that rolled backward while he was assisting with setting up the course the morning after recording the fastest time on July 12, 2003.
He watched with interest as a green race car roared by. “He’s trying to beat my record,” Griffith said, adding “he’s not going to.”
The secret to his success, he confided with a smile, was “the right foot,” referring to the foot on the accelerator.
Perched on a rock overlooking the first turn of the course Mike Vanino positioned the tripod for his camera fitted with telephoto lens.
The 62-year-old photographer from Reading shoots motorsports and has been to Giants Despair a number of times. He took a liking to uphill competitions a long time ago after seeing the Duryea Hillclimb in Reading.
“When we were kids we used to ride our bicycles up the race course,” he said.
For a time Giants Despair didn’t draw the crowds and competitors, but that’s changed, he noted. “It seems like they’re coming back now,” he said.
The event continues today from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on the course on Northampton Street. There is no admission charge.