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Running a Subaru WRX STI up the world's oldest hill climb

In which I partake in a friendly bit of competition before a weekend at the 2019 Goodwood Revival.

The Shelsley Walsh course is narrow, and there's absolutely no runoff.

Michael Shaffer/Subaru

Nestled in charmingly lush English countryside, you'll find the world's oldest continuously running hill climb course. But I'm not talking about Goodwood and the infamous Festival of Speed. Instead, located some 150 miles northwest of the Duke of Richmond's driveway, there's a lesser-known place called Shelsley Walsh. And ahead of a weekend of revels at the 2019 Goodwood Revival, I went running up that hill for a bit of friendly competition, with a 2019 Subaru WRX STI as my steed.

Shelsley Walsh is operated by the Midland Automobile Club, originally founded Jan. 11, 1901. The first privately held hill climb event took place in 1905, when Ernest Instone set the original, 77.6-second record in a 35-horsepower Daimler. Back then, drivers used to race with a full set of passengers in tow, and up until the mid-1930s, the track's surface was made from rough, dirty rolled stone rather than tarmac.

Today, the 1,000-yard course's design is exactly the same was it was in 1905, and all sorts of production cars, motorcycles and race cars have climbed the Shelsley Walsh hill. The current outright record holder is Martin Groves, who set a 22.58-second time in 2008 while driving a 3.5-liter, single-seat race car.

Much like the Goodwood hill, Shelsley Walsh is actually someone's driveway -- though it's worth noting the man who lives at the top is an avid hill-climb racer himself. That means it's narrow from bottom to top, lined with hedges and stone walls, with a small guardrail protecting you from impending doom should things go belly-up.

Connecting Bottom S to Top S is an exercise in flat-out acceleration.

Michael Shaffer/Subaru

"Anytime you get it wrong, there will be nowhere to go," Mark Goodyear, one of the Shelsley Walsh instructors, tells me in a very serious tone. Medics loom at certain corners, ambulances prepared for disaster. The only bit of failsafe is a huge patch of gravel just beyond the finish line, should you pick up too much speed and not brake hard enough before coming 'round into the staging area.

Shelsley Walsh doesn't look all that intimidating -- at least, not during a reconnaissance hike up the 9% grade. But at speed, behind the wheel of a Subaru WRX STI, it's a whole 'nother story. Most of the turns have late apexes, and because of the steep climb, you don't actually use the brakes that much. Still, it's a bit unnerving to come out of a corner particularly hot and have only a skosh of room to slide out before you can hear the sound of twigs and leaves brushing against the passenger's side mirror.

Subaru brought two flavors of STI for me to race up the hill: the standard setup, and the limited-production Type RA. These cars fit me like a glove at this point; I've driven STIs everywhere from public roads to the Nurburgring, and even the Goodwood hill. Old as it might be, there's still so much to love about the current WRX STI -- the way the 2.5-liter flat-four pulls hard in second and third gears, the weighty steering, the notchy action of the six-speed stick.

The Type RA has a 5-hp advantage over the stock STI, but that's not the upgrade I care about today. Instead, it's the 245/35R19 Yokohama Advan summer tires that offer substantially more grip than the STI's standard rubbers. In the RA, I can carry more speed through each turn and get on the power sooner -- especially after a quick downshift to second before negotiating the supersteep Bottom S and Top S corners.

Admittedly, it's the initial launch that I keep screwing up. Position the car at the rightmost side of the start line, get a good burst of initial power and keep the wheels pointed straight, and you'll crest the first small hill without needing to turn, perfectly set up for the next bend. Hold second gear through the left-hander, and go flat out in third gear for the rest of the run. You could upshift to fourth on the straight leading up to Bottom S, but the STI doesn't mind if you smack the rev limiter once or twice. Then you're perfectly set up for a downshift to second, a hard shift into third again and then a final swap into fourth while you speed toward the finish.

After multiple runs in multiple STIs, my best time is right around 37 seconds -- a close second place, right behind the guy I kept razzing all day, natch. The Shelsley Walsh organizers say that anything under 40 seconds is considered especially quick for an unmodified, road-legal production car. And the Subaru STI makes it so, so easy to push harder and harder with confidence. With strong turbo power and all-wheel-drive grip, it's easy to see why the Subaru STI is a staple at hill-climb races all around the world.

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The First Annual Subaru WRX STI Automotive Media Hill Climb (not really, but I'm all in favor of repeating this experience) was a precursor to a weekend at the Goodwood Revival -- one of the best historic events held anywhere. Yes, the Revival is centered around automobilia and motorsports, but it's an all-encompassing treat for the senses. You don't have to like cars to have a good time here.

Period cars and period dress. Goodwood Revival is a treat for the senses.

Michael Shaffer/Subaru

I first attended the Goodwood Revival last year, and I'm happy to report it's just as good -- maybe better -- the second time around. You know where everything is. You know which days are better for watching races, which days are better for shopping and sightseeing. Last year I was so in awe of the whole event I missed out on a lot of the finer details: the shops, the carnival rides, the interactive displays. You guys, I rode the freaking carousel.

A highlight of this year's event was a motorsports tribute to Bentley, a company that's celebrating its centenary. Prewar Bentleys took to the track in an outstanding display of historic racing. This wasn't parade lap stuff -- this was honest-to-goodness, wheel-to-wheel combat.

What struck me most about the 2019 Revival was the greater shift toward the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s in the period-correct vibe. Sure, the majority of the event still rocks a prewar English throwback feel, but new displays like a tribute to campers of the '60s, with plenty of folks walking around dressed like Sgt. Pepper, brought the timestamp of this event slightly more toward the present. Don't get me wrong, the Revival is still an absolutely immersive bit of societal cosplay, and that's true regardless of the eras represented. Moreover, the attention to detail is so strong that patrons who don't put any effort into looking the part stick out like sore thumbs. Come on, dudes -- a newsboy hat costs, like, $20.

Subaru doesn't have any official presence at the Goodwood Revival, save the awesome Legacy GT wagon I saw while combing The Greatest Parking Lot in the World. Yet the run up Shelsley Walsh followed by a weekend at Revival beautifully flowed together. From the world's oldest hill climb to a top-notch homage to historic motorsports, car culture runs thick in England's history.

Editors' note: Travel costs related to this feature were covered by the manufacturer. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists. While Roadshow accepts multiday vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews, all scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms.

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