Local hill climb tradition revs up in PJV

Local hill climb tradition revs up in PJV

Beneath the morning sun and chilled by a light breeze of the early fall, a crowd of spectators gathered on East Broadway outside the Village Center for this year’s Port Jeff Hill Climb on Saturday, Sept. 24.

Among others, dozens of vintage automobiles, sports cars, racers, trucks and utility vehicles converged on Harborfront Park to join the spectacle. Mayor Margot Garant, the emcee, kept the crowd awake as she sent the cars jetting up the hill.

“For the last four hill climb events, I have been the announcer or the emcee,” she said. “I always appreciate a really nice looking car. … These are beautiful vehicles, and I can’t help but appreciate the time and care that has gone into them.”

Port Jefferson Harbor Education & Arts Conservancy, the nonprofit fundraising arm of the Village Center, sponsored the event. Bob Laravie, a conservancy board member, was involved in the planning. He said that to recruit so many novelty car owners to the village, he joined several Long Island car clubs, circulated promotional information online and even wrote to museums.

“People like the event because you get to do something with your car, other than just sitting in the vehicle or talking about it,” he said. “You get your little glory moment while going up the hill.”

Laravie got a glory moment of his own Saturday, ascending the hill in a tribute electric race car he constructed himself. Built in 2015, Laravie recreated the 1903 Baker Torpedo Kid with a modern twist. 

“It maintains all of the dimensions of the original car, but it’s all modern components inside,” he said. “So it’s internally modern, externally pretty close to the shape and form of the original car.”

The Port Jeff Hill Climb is a local tradition dating to the early 1900s. Now, auto racers and car enthusiasts get an opportunity to reimagine and reenact the village’s primordial races from a century ago.

Village historian Chris Ryon was among the many onlookers lining the street. He explained this event’s place within the local history. “In 1909, 1911 and 1924, they raced cars up this hill,” he said. “In fact, my grandfather raced cars up this hill.”

At the time, there was great automotive diversity, with cars varying widely between models. While hill climbing is among the earliest motorsport traditions, it also performed a valuable function for auto manufacturers. 

“Back then, there were a lot of different kinds of cars, different kinds of engines and different shops,” Ryon said, adding that hill climbs helped to demonstrate a particular car’s strength and endurance. “Manufacturers were trying to prove what their car was worth, and how well it could climb up a hill for instance.” The village historian expressed elation at seeing an activity his grandfather participated in being reproduced for a contemporary audience. 

Betty Ann Marangiello, a conservancy member since the program’s founding in 2005, described how this local tradition brings community members together while advancing the conservancy’s organizational ends.

“To me, it’s an exciting thing to watch these cars make it up and come down that hill,” she said. “It’s amazing what the community does for us and what we can do for the community.”

Making this event possible were the coordinated efforts of several code enforcement officers. Deputy Mayor Kathianne Snaden, who assisted Garant in officiating the event, discussed the complicated juggling act that the code department managed by blocking off streets and directing traffic throughout the morning.

“Whenever we need them for an event, we’ll have a meeting ahead of time to make sure the event organizer and code are on the same page,” she said. “This one was particularly difficult, but they handled it beautifully and seamlessly.”

Snaden also spoke about celebrating local history, arguing that these traditions connect community members to their past, keeping their heritage alive. “One of the great things about this village is our tradition,” the deputy mayor said. “It’s a great event. It’s fun for everybody. And it’s great to see these historic vehicles.”

— Photos by Raymond Janis