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Heights residents gear up for motorcycle hillclimb
BOB ZELLAR/Gazette Staff A motorcyclist challenges the hill during the 2002 Great American Championship Motorcycle Hillclimb.

Three Billings Heights residents are key figures in putting together the Miller Lite Great American Championship Motor-cycle Hillclimb year in and year out.

Darrell Devitt, Roger Oster-miller and Mark Polen all live in the Heights and are all Billings Motorcycle Club members.

All three are event organizers for the hillclimb, tabbed America's "richest, biggest and oldest." This year's hillclimb — the 85th — is July 26-27 at the BMC Club Grounds in the South Hills.

"Us guys being out in the Heights, we stop by each other's houses and talk," Devitt said. "That way you're not on the phone. You're face to face, and the meetings go better."

Ostermiller said the hillclimb is the major fund-raiser for the BMC every year. Organizers have estimated crowds of 20,000 for two days of dirt-bike action. The lively crowd helps the BMC in many ways, Ostermiller said.

Hillclimb profits "go to purchase new land and maintaining the land and improving the tracks," he said. "It's also to make sure our youngsters in the future have a place to ride."

When a father joins the BMC, his spouse and children all become members. Once children reach age 18, they must buy their own memberships if they want to use the facility.

The total membership for the BMC is roughly 300 families, Devitt said. Both he and Ostermiller estimated that 20 percent of the members are from the Heights.

"It's a family-type setup. We encourage families because it gives the kids a place to ride," Devitt said. "Dad takes the boys out. And you'd be amazed to see the daughters ride the small bikes, and that's good."

To prepare for the hillclimb, the three organizers must do a lot of work. And the work doesn't stop because, when one hillclimb is happening, the organizers are troubleshooting potential future problems.

"We started preparing for this year right at the tail end of last year's hillclimb," Ostermiller said. "We make notes of problems and things and try and make it go as smooth as we can."

A key ingredient for a successful hillclimb is the purse. After all, fans want to see top-notch riders.

"Right now we're soliciting sponsorships," Devitt said. "The corporate sponsorship money helps us keep the purse up there. It's $35,000 this year. Without the corporate sponsorship help, we couldn't offer that purse for the riders."

"The riders say, of course,

we pay the most money," Ostermiller noted. "And the riders like the way our hillclimb is run, and what we say is what they get. It's well-organized, and it's a tough hill."

Devitt, Ostermiller and Polen all have a long history with the BMC and with running the hillclimb.

"I've been a BMC member since 1967 when I got my driver's license," said Devitt, who has lived in the Heights since 1976. "My dad was a life member in the club. He joined in 1947, so I've been a member all my life. I grew up in it. I started really getting into the hillclimb in 1978.

"The last five years it's grown so much. That's when Roger Ostermiller came on board and helped with soliciting advertisers. You can't be a rider and organize things because it's a conflict of interest. So we waited until Mark retired to get him to help.

"It wasn't hard to talk Mark into it. He's got a young boy who will ride. He grew up in it, too. Mark's dad is a life member in the club."

Devitt said Polen rode in the hillclimb for 25 years before retiring from riding two years ago. Polen is instrumental in organizing the hill because of his riding experience. Ostermiller has been a member of the BMC since 1991.

Last year, the bentonite, shale and gumbo monster championship hill that riders try to conquer was 400 feet tall. Every year, people wonder how the hill will change.

"The hillclimb is always set the last weekend of July. Everybody knows it's the last weekend of July," Devitt said.

"What they always ask is how is the hill, are you adding to the hill. We've been building on that hill every year since 1985. We've been going taller and making it wider at the top.

"This year we've steepened the first 100 feet of the hill. Frank Donnes used his dozer, and, from the base of the hill to about 100 feet, he really steepened it. We want it to be a challenge to the riders, and it always is."

Besides the steady trio who organize the hillclimb, many others donate their time to make the weekend a success.

Catchers are needed, as are parking-lot attendants, ticket takers, pit people, scorekeepers and announcers. Devitt said about 90 people are needed to stage the hillclimb.

"To me, the thing that excites me is how big the hillclimb is," Ostermiller said. "And Billings, Montana, of all places is the host to a hillclimb like this."

John Letasky can be reached at johnletasky@billingsgazette.com.

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