WHEN KENNY KIMBALL starts his job, it's all uphill. Frequently these day, in fact, he goes right to the top first thing.
What it means is that Kimball is the best motorcycle hill climber in the world. No. 1. No one is better at getting to the top than Kimball. He earned the honor because last year, under a new format, no one got there more often or with such speed as he did.So, when the best riders from around the country come to Utah on Sunday to test what has been called the most challenging hill in the world, Kimball will be the one wearing No. 1. It's likely, too, he'll be the one sliding, slipping, digging and clawing to the highest point on the famed Widowmaker Hill near Point of the Mountain. For now, anyway, he's "king of the hill."
The event, celebrating its 25th year, will open the gates at 6:30 a.m. Climbing will begin at 9 a.m.
According to race director Jack Carlton, this year's field will have close to 250 riders. It will also, said Carlton, have a new approach to the hill.
"Instead of going up a few hundred feet and running into obstacles, we'll have a straight run of about 700 feet, and then we'll hit 'em with ledges and bumps and dips and rocks and bushes for the next 800 feet, kind of like last year," he said.
Last year was, in fact, one of the first in several that the `Widow" won. No one climbed the hill. Kimball came the closest, and he was about 400 feet short.
This year they tried, said Kimball, a member of the planning committee, to make the course easier, and at the same time more difficult.
"They'll be able to get further up the hill, but will have a harder time getting over the top . . . And that's the way it should be. It should be a challenge.
"I remember when my dad (Mel Kimball Sr.) became the first to ever climb Widowmaker back in 1983. They interviewed him after and he had tears in his eyes. It was difficult and it meant something to him. He doesn't climb much anymore, but I'll tell you, he's still the best there is."
Which likely has something to do with the fact Utah now has three of the four top riders in the world.
The top rider, of course, is Kenny Kimball, followed by Kerry Peterson of Yorba Linda, Calif., for many years the untouchable king of hill climbing, then Mel Kimball Jr. (Kenny's brother), and Travis Whitlock of Provo. The senior Kimball personally trained two of the top four, and Whitlock got some tough competition there to help push him up.
Kenny said he and his brother left moto cross and desert racing for the hills at a young age, and learned all the rules and techniques from their dad. "It made it a lot easier," he recalled. "There's a technique to hill climbing. Some (riders) are more conservative, others harder on the throttle. They've got to know how to ride, though. They can't just hold (the throttle) open all the way. There are corners and bumps and ledges up there. But that's what hill climbing's all about."
And that includes going over things like a 10-foot high vertical ledge on a motorcycle half that tall. Kimball matter-of-factly said he climbs up one like it now for practice.
"It's nothing now," he explained almost routinely. "First time I tried I missed and had to have stitches in my chin. It haunted me for a year, but last year I tried it again and made it. Now it's easy. You hold it wide open until you get there, then hit the clutch and let the momentum carry you over. My dad showed me how."
What Kimball is most excited about, though, is the growth in the sport, and the prospected of a continued ride up, evident by the circuit put together last year that covered the U.S. and Canada. Kimball, in fact, won the overall Canadian titler. Also, encouraging to him is the increase in prize money. Now, he said, riders can do well in hill climbing. "One good pass at Widowmaker, for example, can earn you $2,000," he pointed out.
Accessing Widomaker, Kimball said it is a hill climber's dream. "Every other hill," he said, "can be topped. Winning comes down to who can climb the fastest. That's not the way Widowmaker is. It's the most radical hill there is. There are no guarantees. People travel from all over the country to conquer Widowmaker. Very few ever do."
About this year's climb, Kimball said it should be one of the best. The two separate tracks up the hill are good, the course exciting and the field, thanks in part to Utah's contributions, is one of the strongest.
"The hill could be topped this year," he added, "but it will take a good rider and a clean run to get there."