Hall of Fame News

Widowmaker, Then and Now

June 7, 2021

By Mitch Boehm

These days, when you go to Widowmaker, it’s hard to imagine the crazy scene portrayed so well in AMA Hall of Famer Bruce Brown’s On Any Sunday documentary.

In place of scrub, dirt, dust, haphazardly-parked cars and motorcycles of all kinds, there are nicely landscaped houses, a meandering lane — appropriately called “Steep Mountain Drive” — and, at its end, a small park where hang glider enthusiasts gather for the trek up the face of the legendary Widowmaker.

Watching those brave souls leap off the summit to hopefully catch a little bit of updraft for the usually quick flight back down toward the park is an exciting but tranquil exercise — and nothing like experiencing the crazy sights and cacophony of sound that enveloped the hillside back in the 1970s and early 1980s, when the Widowmaker Hillclimb was a thing, and in full swing.

I live nearby these days and drop by on occasion when I’m on the motorcycle, and standing there, at the bottom looking up as AMA Hall of Famer Malcolm Smith, Mike Gibbon and many others did back in 1970 for Bruce Brown’s cameras, is a strange kind of thrill.

You look around the base of the mountain and squint and think real hard…and you can darn near see the dusty scene in your head; the vans and cars parked nearby, the thousands of spectators, and the bikes launching off the flat — where you’re standing right now! — and ricocheting off the scrub brush and rocks as they negotiated the steep hillside face.

Widowmaker hillclimb

I attended a couple of Widowmaker Hillclimbs in the early 1980s during my college years in Salt Lake City. My friends and I would ride there on our GPz550s and GS1000s and CB750Fs, climb a third of the way up the hill for some prime views of the bikes careening up the hillside (and maybe help bulldog some errant and early crashers, of which there were many), drink a few beers along the way and enjoy the scene for a few hours before heading back home.

The scenes during those years probably lacked a bit of the laid-back patina of the 1970 event, and of course we had no clue that On Any Sunday would become totally iconic in the following four decades. But we had a ball, and those Widowmaker memories remain fresh to this day…especially when I visit there now, as I did a couple weeks ago with a buddy.

The event died an ugly death in the late 1980s, as the crowds got huge, the partying got out of control, landowners in the area began complaining, and those with an environmental bent started to wonder if the grooves being cut into the hillside would become erosion problems later on.

But for nearly three decades, Widowmaker was the coolest thing going in motorcycle hillclimbing. Which is why, for me, going there, squinting my eyes and remembering the sounds and sights is such a cool thing. And also why you’re gonna love our July issue, which features an On Any Sunday 50th Anniversary theme.