Way We Were: Park City once cashed in on Widowmaker bike race craze
Park City Museum researcher
In the early days of mining, drills powered by compressed air were ubiquitous. A regrettable byproduct was lethal dust which caused silicosis, or “miner’s consumption.” These drills became known as “Widowmakers” due to the many miners who perished from silicosis, leaving behind a young widow.
Today “Widowmaker” is a steep, generally mogul-infested black diamond run accessible from either Payday Express or the Town Lift at Park City Mountain Resort. Fortunately, there are no known instances of “widows” being created on this ski run!
In the early 1960s another Widowmaker made its Park City debut.
In April 1961 ABC introduced “The Wide World of Sports.” The show was originally intended as a one-season “filler” featuring fringe and/or extreme athletic endeavors. These included but were not limited to rattlesnake hunting, drag racing, demolition derbies, cliff diving and motorcycle hill climbs. Popularity far exceeded expectations and the program continued until 1998.
From the beginning it was obvious that viewers preferred dangerous potentially life threatening events — “the agony of defeat.” ABC responded in kind, promoting competitions that pushed the envelope of human — and in some cases machine — endurance. This exhilarating combination spawned the “Widowmaker” motorcycle hill climb races.
Like a bloodsport at the Roman Colosseum, widowmaker events quickly became a national phenomenon. These death-defying races were essentially an adult “King of the Hill,” winner-take-all endeavor. Riders would “amp up” their two-wheeled chariots, fortify themselves with high-octane fuel and take off like a bat out of hell.
Widowmaker mania arrived in the Salt Lake area in the summer of 1964. In Draper, Point of the Mountain established itself as a national event attracting thousands of spectators and hundreds of contestants. Videos and photos from these events convey an atmosphere of Mad Max on steroids. Communities in the area wanted to cash in on this carnival of carnage — Park City included.
The Bee’s Motorcycle Club of Salt Lake City was established in 1963. Some of its members contracted hill climb fever, both as riders and observers. The Club approached Park City with a proposal: sponsor a Widowmaker event. The lure of easy money proved irresistible and an agreement was finalized.
Endorsed by both the Bee’s Motorcycle Club and the Park City Jaycees, and heavily promoted by Sports Enterprises, Inc., the first annual Park City “Motorcycle Hill Climb” was scheduled the weekend of July 25-26, 1964, at Snowpark in lower Deer Valley. Amateurs and professionals competed for $450 in prize money.
Approximately 200 people — primarily motorcycle enthusiasts from Salt Lake — paid the $1 admission fee on Saturday with a similar turnout paying $1.50 for the finals on Sunday. They were not disappointed. The competition threatened life and limb, the sound proved deafening, and the resulting dust choked the air — mixed with the aroma of oil, fuel, sweat and burgers grilled at Otto Carpenter’s burger shack.
Though the Widowmaker races would remain a national attraction for over 25 years, it was not so in Park City. The last race was held in summer 1968.
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Landslides in Big Cottonwood Canyon on Sunday forced authorities to send drivers above the debris field over Guardsman Pass and into Park City as they navigated a route to the Wasatch Front. One of the landslides was considered to be major and cut off S.R. 190.