By Neal Patton
Another Great Race is in the books… 108 antique and vintage cars… 2,100 plus miles (if you do not count getting lost or temporarily disoriented like Cheryl and I did)… 20 cities and 13 states… nine days… Maine to Florida.
The event was started in the early ‘80s by Tom McRae as a way to feed their old car habit and have a little fun. With their drive, dedication and countless volunteers the now annual event has grown into the premier antique and vintage car endurance rally in the world.
The race is now under the superb leadership of Corky Coker and his staff at Coker Tire in Chattanooga. The format is a rally – not a speed event – on public back roads.
The route changes every year. It is a test of driver and navigator crew coordination, timing and ability to interpret course instructions. Each day is divided into four or more rally periods with random check points to record racer times.
The goal is to match as closely as possible the time for each leg as computed by the Rally Master and his control team. GPS, maps and computers are not allowed. It is navigator, driver and machine versus the computed time and route.
Needless to say, this format can lead to interesting discussions especially with husband and wife teams. Cheryl drove and I navigated. I soon learned all errors were the responsibility of the navigator… alone.
As a “Rookie Team” Cheryl and I established the goals of finishing the race… remaining on speaking terms…. no blood on the floor mats. As I write this article we met goals one and three and we are working on number two.
Another Rookie lesson learned is that some of these racers are very, very good. This year’s Grand Champion Team from Texas, Barry and Irene Jason, completed the nine day event only slightly over one minute off the master time. Most impressive .
The cars originally had to be all pre-World War II. Over the years this requirement has evolved into cars at least 40 years old. This year the oldest car was a 1915 Hudson 6-40 open cockpit racer. Cheryl and I campaigned a 1954 Bentley R Type. Almost all the cars were manual steering, manual transmission and no air conditioning. This is an endurance test.
The outstanding feature of the Great Race experience is the people you meet. All have a common love of old cars and a burning desire to use them… not just admire them in a garage. This year’s racers included teams and participants from Japan, Germany and the UK. The Japanese team included a documentary film team and they promised at least five Japanese teams in next year’s race
All of the 108 cars in this year’s race were truly magnificent. They ranged from fully restored examples to lovingly maintained original cars. Most were American made with a smattering of European models. The team from Japan even shipped over and raced a 1970 Nissan “Laurel” right hand drive car sporting Tokyo license plates.
As you can imagine a demanding daily 200 to 300 mile course of stops and starts over back roads can extract a toll on old cars. Race organizers provide for a “sweeper” truck to get any break downs to the next overnight stop.
Each racer is responsible for his/her maintenance. As a Rookie, I launched off with hand tools and lots of fluids. Serious teams had full support crews with expert mechanics, tools, spares and almost complete garage service.
As the “sweeper’ deposited the daily load of causalities, I witnessed the real fellowship of the Great Race. Support elements would descend on each broken car and volunteer time, expertise, tools, and parts to get each car running for the next day, even if it took all night. No questions asked, no payment expected or required… just the Great Race “family” putting a member back on the road.
The 60-year old Bentley made the entire trip due to massive pre-race TLC lavished on the old girl by Conner McCary of European Automotive in Madison, Miss., and Ed Macke a mechanical wizard who can fix anything I can break…. no small accomplishment. While we were in no danger of winning any prizes – due entirely to navigational errors I was told – we had a wonderful time.
The Great Race is a challenge, an adventure and an opportunity to meet and become friends with some fabulous like minded “car people.” Each year the route is a different one. Last year the route was Minneapolis to Mobile. Cheryl and I caught the Great Race bug at the overnight stop in Vicksburg. Next year the race course is along US Route 66.
Jackson has a large and growing vintage/classic car following. Mike Marsh organizes a great European car gathering each fall at the Renaissance. Also in the fall, The Scare Crow gathering in Madison is a superb showing of American cars. So come on gear heads, get an old car and let’s go Great Racing next summer.