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Whatever happened to ... Utah’s Widowmaker?

First Published      Last Updated Aug 26 2016 12:07 pm

Thousands came from around the globe to a hillside in Draper for hill-climbing challenge.

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On the southern edge of Draper, two-story homes populate a wedge of land once occupied only by dirt and sagebrush. A scarred 1,000-foot hillside is the single remaining clue that the area hosted an internationally recognized spectacle for 25 years.

From 1963 to 1988, "The Widowmaker" attracted thousands of revved-up motorcyclists looking for the rides of their lives in the sport of hill climbing, speeding to the top of steep hills as fast as possible.

Hill climbers hailing from across the globe returned each year — along with visitors and national television coverage — to see if they could conquer one of the toughest tracks in the world. Only a handful of people claimed victory before The Widowmaker's end.

Fourteen years later, fans of the hill climb proved their devotion by opening their own version of The Widowmaker, in Croydon. But like its predecessor, the event eventually shuttered amid land disputes.

Veteran motorcyclists are still hoping that someday, somewhere, they will have a chance to ride it again.

Kings of the hill • Perhaps Mel Kimball Jr. was destined to rise to hill-climbing fame.

His father was one of the only people to conquer The Widowmaker in its early years, in the 1960s.

As a child living in Bountiful, Kimball Jr. watched his father compete in hill climbs around the country, and knew The Widowmaker as the hardest hill climb event of the year. He also knew that when he was old enough, he'd try conquering it himself.

"It's something you watch other riders attempt and you know that that's what you're after — to get over the top."

He amassed the techniques and equipment to start hill climbing at age 11, and seriously competing around the country as a young adult. In the 1970s, as hill climbing accumulated international recognition through the 1970s, so did Kimball Jr., who was featured in motorcycle magazines and television programs like the ABC Wide World of Sports.

The spotlight also fell on Draper's mountainside. The Widowmaker was the first major climb of every season. Its sheer incline and the tall sagebrush rubbing up against the riders made the hill one of the hardest in the world. There were national hill-climbing champions who never reached the summit.

But Kimball Jr. did, finally. In 1986, he accelerated and maneuvered his way up The Widowmaker just right, clearing the top as a crowd of 12,000 onlookers cheered.

"It was probably the most exciting moment of my life," Kimball Jr. said.

His younger brother would claim fame by riding to the top the following year, seizing the traveling trophy for himself.

When Kimball Jr. won it back in 1988, he didn't know he'd be keeping the trophy for good.

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