By Jeff Stumb
Right after graduating college in the mid-1980s, I saw a television program on a new network called ESPN. They were starving for programming back then, and most late nights were filled with Australian Rules Football, motorcycles racing on ice and other TV show oddities.
This particular night— at 2 in the morning actually – I saw a program about an old car race across the country called the Great American Race. Little could I have known then how that show, and the race itself, would affect my life.
The show was all about these crazy men and women who drove their 1909 Buicks and 1913 Stutz Bearcats hundreds of miles each day while making their way from California to New York. It was hard enough just to make it to the finish line each day, but these folks were involved in a competition, too. It was the coolest thing I had ever seen.
Right then and there I told myself that I was going to do that one day.
I grew up a car guy, even if I didn’t know it at the time. My Dad and my uncle raced late ‘30s Fords back in the early ‘50s at tracks in Eastern Pennsylvania. And by the time I was 16 I started buying used cars for transportation: first a 1955 Chevy 210 Post; next a 1964 Impala; then a 1972 Chevelle convertible; followed by a 1969 Camaro SS 396 with a 4 speed.
They were just used cars at the time, and I used them for daily transportation. My Dad and I worked on that Camaro a lot trying to keep it as original as possible. We knew they were special, but cool cars took a back seat when college rolled around.
I struggled my way through college – both financially and academically – and ended up at my first job as a sports editor of a small daily newspaper. We worked each evening until midnight, and I would go home and eat and watch some TV just like everyone else did when they got off work. Only I was watching TV at 2 and 3 in the morning instead of 7 and 8 in the evening.
After working every day (and I mean every day) for about a year and a half, I was told by the powers that be at the newspaper that I had one week of vacation and that if I didn’t take it within the next few weeks I would lose it.
I didn’t have anywhere particular to go or anyone particular I wanted to see, but I remembered that the 1987 Great American Race was going to finish at Disney World in Orlando. And that was just 500 miles away, so I jumped in my Bronco and headed for Florida.
It’s hard to imagine today, but I got in the truck with $40 in my pocket and nothing else but a gas credit card (I didn’t even have a regular credit card). I slept and ate at college friends’ homes along the way and while in the Orlando area. I even slept in the truck one night.
This was back in the days before ATMs, cell phones and internet service, and all I had to go on was some information I had seen in Hemmings Motor News a few months earlier which had the schedule that listed where the stop would be each day. So I made sure I was at Disney World on the day the Great American Race was to finish there. Unfortunately, the finish was inside Disney World and I didn’t have enough money to enter, so I waited outside the gates and when the first cars came through I followed them back to their hotel. I got my own private showing as all of the participants rolled in during the next couple of hours.
I made another commitment to myself that I was going to do this one day. I was not yet 25.
I returned home and got busy with my career for the next couple of years, getting promoted twice along the way. In 1991 I was the publisher of the newspaper in Brewton, Alabama, (the youngest newspaper publisher in the state of Alabama!) and I read in Hemmings about the 1992 Great Race. It was the 10th year of the iconic event, and it was coming through Alabama on the way from Charleston, South Carolina, to Coasta Mesa, Califorina. There were announced overnight stops in Birmingham and Mobile, which meant it must be coming close by, but there was not any information on any other stops.
I remembered the Great American Race was based out of Dallas, so I picked up the phone and called information so I could talk to someone with the race about where I could see the race that day without having to drive several hours to Birmingham or Mobile because it was in the middle of the week.
I got the number and called and talked with Sister McRae, and she said “How about if we just come to your city!” The next thing I knew I was chairman of the entire event and had the local car club, the city, the chamber, the library, the schools, the radio station, the newspaper and everyone else involved.
Within six months, the race was rolling into town. We closed the streets in front of the courthouse and several thousand people showed up. It is still one of the most talked about events in that community. And to this day, Sister McRae will tell you it was one of her favorite stops (I think the blueberry ice cream did it).
A couple of weeks went by and I got a call from Sister telling me that the race participants had voted Brewton the best pit stop on the 1992 race, and a check was being sent for the local library. It was big news in our small town.
For a third time, I reconfirmed my commitment to myself that I was going to compete in the race one day. But I was a long way from a pre-World War II car that could compete in the Great American Race. All I had was a couple of 1964 Impala SS convertibles.
By the end of 1992 I was promoted again, this time to publisher of a daily paper in Texas, just outside of Dallas. I didn’t know a soul in Dallas except the folks from the Great Race headquarters that I had dealt with while hosting the stop on the race back in June. So, as soon as I got settled, I gave them a call and told them I was in the area. I visited and had lunch a few times, but as the 1994 race approached I got a call: “How would you like to drive one of the cars in the Great American Race?”
I thought they were joking. But, one of the participants, Ken Downing from San Marcos, needed a driver. Ken had participated in at least 10 Great American Races in his 1936 Ford Cabriolet, and I jumped at the chance. That year’s race started in Huntington Beach, California, and finished in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, I flew into California for the first time ever – on the day O.J. Simpson went on his famous slow speed chase with police. The entire town was shut down.
We had a great time on the 1994 race, traveling to memorable stops in Ogden, Utah, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Scottsbluff, Nebraska, Auburn, Indiana, Corning, New York and the finish in Wilkes-Barre. The day into Ogden, Ken and I posted the lowest score of the entire race – 4 seconds, which was amazing back before the Timewise speedometer, stop watches and radial tires. The next day, we drew No. 1 and started five minutes too early by mistake. Ken and his lovely wife, Robbie, were fixtures on the race for a long time. Even after retiring from racing they worked the souvenir booth for many years into the mid-2000s.
I had an opportunity to do the 1995 race in a car sponsored by Buick, but family obligations kept me away. But we did host a pit stop in the Texas city where I lived, which kept me involved.
But there is nothing like competing, and when my Dad retired I told him we have to do the Great Race. We borrowed a 1928 Model A since we didn’t have a vehicle that was ready and since we were just doing it this one time together.
Well, we had so much fun we decided we needed our own car. So I bought a 1929 Model A Speedster, which had competed in the ’92 and ’93 races. I raced that car twice, including one year with my wife. In her first time navigating we finished third in the Sportsman Division.
Overall, I have been fortunate enough to have competed in the race with my wife, my Dad and three different friends. I even took two of my sons with me on the 2005 Trophy Run as my navigators. I have participated in a friend’s car, a borrowed car, two cars I bought specifically for the race and a car we built just for the race. We had our share of success along the way: my wife and I were third in the Sportsman Division the first year she competed with me in 2004; she and I won several days outright, including the day my Grandmother died in 2005; and we were second overall in the 2008 Hemmings Challenge in Rogers, Arkansas.
My friend Robert Dinges and I won several days in 2006 and 2007, including the memorable day ’06 into Tonopah, Nevada, the site of a stop by the Thomas Flyer on the original 1908 Around the World Race. On the last Hemmings Challenge in Bowling Green, Kentucky, Howard Sharp and I won the prize for most Aces on my first attempt at navigating. And just this year, Guy McDorr and I had the best score on Day 3 from Salem, Virginia, to Cumberland, Maryland.
We have made a lot of friends and met a lot of nice people along the way. I will never forget the night my parents and my wife and I spent an hour or so at the bar with Tony Curtis and his wife, Jill. Tony was the guest speaker at the Great Race banquet at the finish in Monterey, and he arrived early and was waiting in the bar. We arrived too early for the social hour before the banquet and decided to drop in the bar for a quick drink. It was just the six of us, and Tony Curtis was as charming as he could be. I think it really made my mother’s day to spend time with one of her all-time favorite movie stars.
Legend has it that it was Tony Curtis’ 1965 movie The Great Race that inspired the event we all know and love 30 years ago. What will the next 30 years of the Great Race bring? I can’t wait to find out.