Jerry Schmidt Documents his 2013 Great Race Experience

April 1, 2014


Editor’s Note: Jerry Schmidt participated in the 2013 Great Race in his 1968 Toronado with sons Joe and Sam, and Jerry wrote about their experience in the Toronado Owners Association magazine “Front Wheel Driver.” Below is the article.

I have been a lover of Oldsmobiles my entire driving life. At the age of 16, my second car, and first one that actually ran, was a then 23 year old emerald green 1953 Oldsmobile Ninety Eight 4 door Sedan. We found it 30 miles from our home in Northern Michigan, and we purchased it for $300.00. I repaired it, painted it, and drove it all through high school. And yes, that included Northern Michigan winters, with a foot of snow stuck to it’s roof. A plug-in engine coolant pre-heater was the ticket on below zero mornings, and the car had great working heat. It sagged so much in the rear that the rear view mirror was almost useless, and the left rear door would not open. We called it “The Oldsmobubble”.

My father’s first Toronado was a white with a green interior 1973 model that he special ordered new, along with a ‘73 Custom Cruiser Wagon for my mom. These were two of a very few brand new cars my father ever purchased. He ran the wheels off that Toronado, as well as the fenders & doors, as the ‘73 rusted away very quickly. However, it never let him down. He marveled at the Toronado’s snow traction abilities in the Northern Michigan winters. This was the first of a total of nine Toronados that would pass through our family from a ‘66 “winter beater” (in 1979), to two 3rd Generation Toros that I drove all through the 1990’s and beyond.

In 1976, we found and purchased a ‘69 Toronado W-34 in West Palm Beach, Florida. Between myself, my brother and my dad, we had it in the family for over 20 years, and put over 300,000 miles on it. We drove it year-round, since it was such a capable snow vehicle. We used it to haul snowmobiles, and trailer loads of firewood on a regular basis. At the time in the 1970’s and 1980’s, we had no idea what a W-34 was. We just knew it blistered the front tires if you twitched your right foot. And that we could never find gas good enough for that engine. We had to shut the engine off with the car in gear to get it to stop dieseling (detonation), due to the high compression heads.

In 1979, a ‘71 Toronado saved the lives of two of my sisters in an early December Northern Michigan snowstorm. My younger sisters were slowing to make a left turn when they were rear-ended hard by an AMC Hornet that did not see them slowing due to white-out snow conditions. He hit them so hard that it pushed the rear bumper all the way up to the rear window. Luckily, everyone walked away from the wreck, and we were so thankful they were not in a small car. We had only owned the brown ’71 Toronado for one week. It was beautiful, and it was totaled. We bought it back from the insurance company, and it still ran and drove after we cut the rear sheet metal away from contact with the rear tires.

This leads me to our latest Toronado adventure. After getting married, and having two sons, a career move to England for my wife’s job caused me to sell off my small collection of old cars, including a ‘68 GTO convertible, which my wife loved to drive. In 2007, we returned from England. We are now living in Wisconsin, and I am without an old car. In 2010, I was about to turn 50, and I decided it was again time to get back into old cars. My first choice was a 1st Generation Toronado. My impatience caused me to jump too quickly on a nice looking white 1968 Olds Toronado listed on eBay and out in San Diego, California.

When it arrived in Wisconsin after shipping with 4 flat tires, and a dead battery, I knew I was in for a challenge. The only thing on the car that seemed to work was an aftermarket car alarm. Great! After a jump start, it ran very well, and I knew that the interior had been newly redone in white vinyl. Things were looking up, but it still needed just about everything else.

So, in the next 3 years, but mostly in the first summer, I replaced nearly every important component on the car. I would come into the house at night telling my wife that “That car hates me! I think it wants to go back to the California beach.“ It brought back memories of every repair and maintenance job that we had done years before on the ‘69 Toronado that we had owned for 20 years. But, this was all in a highly condensed time period. I won’t list every repair here, but essentially we did everything except the engine, transmission, radiator and the water pump. More on the last two components later.

In the winter of 2013, I was reading about The Great Race in Hemming’s Motor News, and thinking about our essentially “rebuilt & race prepped” ‘68 Toronado, and how much fun it would be to take it on a real road trip again, like we had done so many times putting 300,000 miles on the family ‘69 Toronado. I got the “OK” from my loving wife to enter the race, “as long as she could go to spa in Arizona“. Deal.

The Great Race is a timed accuracy and endurance rally race for vintage cars from model years 1969 & older. (In 2014, it’s 1972 and older) Older cars are given an “age factor” that makes them competitive with the newer models. The older the car, the higher the factor. There is no speeding involved. It’s all about going from a starting point to an unknown “checkpoint” by following directions, and going at accurate, assigned speeds, and not getting lost along the way. They say “Stay on course, and stay on time”. It takes a 2 person team, and my 13 year old son Joe was excited to be our navigator. He definitely had the tougher job. There is lots of math involved, all on the fly. We also had the benefit of our younger son Sam, who helped with sign spotting, and took photos.

Most experienced race teams run with support crews with trucks, trailers, tools, welders, spare parts, and even spare engines following them throughout the race. This race is not a leisurely vintage tour. We planned to run the 2,100 miles (It’s not run straight down the freeway.) from St. Paul, Minnesota to Mobile, Alabama without a support crew, and carrying everything we thought we would need in the trunk and the back seat of the Toronado. So, when the weather started to warm up in February 2013, I got the Toronado out of storage early and got to work.

The car needed to be fitted with a highly accurate rally speedometer that is adjustable, and operates with wheel mounted magnets and a transducer, similar to what is used on speed boats. Once all of our prep work was completed, including recoring the radiator, adding a coolant surge tank, rebuilding the Rochester carburetor, and converting the distributor to electronic ignition, we were able to start road testing, calibrating, and developing our performance charts that are needed during the race. Essentially, I was driving the car as much and as hard as I could, to see what, if anything would break.

Spring went by quickly. Soon, we were loading down the trunk with tools, spare parts, jacks, all of the required gear, and everything else I could think of, including a spare water pump. In later June, with the car loaded, and back seat filled with luggage, and Sam to be our official photographer, the three of us headed for St. Paul, Minnesota for the start of The Great Race. We arrived 6 hours later without any drama.

After the Thursday registration, tech inspection, and sticker application, we were ready for the practice race on Friday. The veteran Great Racers were very helpful with the Rookies, and you get the feeling that the people who have been doing this for many years are like a big, extended family. The Friday practice race went well,. Then Friday night, we endured what would be a pattern of heavy rains nearly every night of the race. Flooding in the Midwest caused more than a few course changes throughout the week. One morning I thought I had developed a fuel leak when I saw a puddle under the car on the left side. It turn out to be water slowly dripping out of the left quarter panel from all of the heavy rain.

On Saturday, we would begin 2013 running of The Great Race, Rally down the Mississippi River. The start of the Great Race was a feature event of the 2013 Back to the 50’s Car Show held at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds the last week of June. Ninety nine vintage rally cars were registered to start The Great Race. They ranged from several 1916 Hudsons, and a 1916 Studebaker, to a ‘69 Camaro, and a ‘69 GTO. Everything in between included an early Saab, Fiat Multipla, Rolls Royce Sportsman’s Shooting Special (a Rolls Royce Woody Wagon), Morris Minor Traveler (Wagon), lots of V-8 Fords from the 1930’s, Model A Fords, T-Birds, lot’s of custom built Speedsters, a Jaguar XKE, many Packards, a VW Beetle, and even a 1956 Ford Fire Truck. Oldsmobile was represented by an all original one family owned ‘67 Vista Cruiser wagon, and our ‘68 Toronado. The race officials said they think it was the first ever American front wheel drive car to compete in The Great Race.

It would take a book to detail every days running. I’ll just start by saying, it was a whirlwind nine days. There is not much downtime or time for sightseeing. Each morning, exactly 30 minutes before our starting time, we were given the day’s course instructions. The instructions are turn by turn directions. There are notes about signs, assigned speeds, turns, and speed changes, all of which must be performed accurately (perfectly) with adjustments for your own car’s capabilities, and making up time where needed. No GPS, maps, cell phones or apps allowed. No one knows the route, except the race officials, until 30 minutes before the starting time. The cars leave at one minute intervals. There is generally a morning rally stage, a lunch break, and then an afternoon rally stage. At each overnight city, there is a “Park Fume‘”, where there is dinner, and the cars are on display until approximately 8:30pm. Most towns also coordinated their own local car show to greet the racers. Then we would all go to the hotels, and make any needed repairs. We would then get up and do it all again the next day. “Race, repair, repeat.”

The racers are divided into five categories: Rookie (first time ralliers, with no previous rally experience); Sportsman (non-winners with previous rally experience); X-Cup (young teams mostly with college sponsorship); Expert (those with previous rally wins); and Grand Championship (those with previous Great Race victories). There were 31 rookie teams in the 2013 Great Race, which was our class, and our competition.

The Toronado was working flawlessly. Even our air conditioning was working well through the first few days as we drove through Wisconsin and Iowa farmland. When we reached Hannibal, Missouri on Day 3, we were in 53rd place overall, and 6th in the Rookie Division. Hannibal, Missouri gave us a warm welcome despite having endured tornado damage earlier in the year. Team Toronado was learning and improving a little bit each day, and actually had a one second time leg on the last leg of the 3rd day. A perfect score is a time of zero seconds. There were already about 15 cars that had dropped out of the race, including the 1916 Studebaker, which did not finish the first day after a complete & “catastrophic” engine failure. As we drove south towards Dixie, there would be many more heat related failures. Every time we stopped, I raised the hood of the Toronado to let out some of the latent heat from the big 455. This also gave people a chance to look over the Toro’s front drive system.

Great Race owner and promoter Corky Coker loved the fact that we were making the trip as a family, and without a support crew, which he mentioned to the gathered crowd as we passed through the finish gate each day. He also loved the Toronado’s hidden headlights, and would say “Jerry, make it wink for me”, at each day’s finish gate where he was there to greet each car and team.

Each day, each team is given a list of the day’s starting order. This is important information, especially if you get lost, breakdown, delayed or otherwise off course. You know by the list, which car is supposed to be the car one minute in front of you, and which car is one minute behind you. This is important to the following story.

On the 3rd Day, we were given some hand written notes for some necessary route changes due to a storm flooded road. We were cruising along on a divided highway, going out of a small rural town after a fuel and bathroom break to a designated, but changed rally timed starting point. The cars line up at this point, and await their assigned start time. We were already cutting it close for our start time, and then we missed a sign for a left turn. We probably went 7 miles or so too far before we realized we must have made a mistake. Worse yet, another team in a ‘65 Thunderbird had followed us. Sorry fellows. We turned around, and headed back to try to figure out where we went wrong. When we reached the turn, we could tell by the racers making the correct left turn, and our starting grid list, that we were about 19 minutes (19 cars) late for our starting time. We drove by the assigned starting point without stopping, passing a few cars, and began trying to “get back on our minute.” (Our proper place in the race field for the day.) Luckily for us, the race leg at that point was a slow, complex series of stops, turns, and slow running for many miles. All of this we ignored, except for the stop signs, because we were so “late”. We were blasting down two lane blacktop country roads, passing competitors, and farm equipment. All the while my sons are telling me to “go faster Dad!” As we went along, we counted off the competitors that were ahead of us, that were supposed to be behind us.

This continued on, counting off racers one by one for probably 10 miles. When we got to where we were only 4 cars back, we realized that maybe we could salvage the morning rally stage. Finally, we caught and passed the last car that should have been behind us, and then tried to get to where we were one minute ahead of them. This is called “hacking”. Finally, in the distance, we saw the white ‘53 Packard that we were supposed to be one minute behind. We slowed up, and settled back into following the signs, and course speed directions. At the absolute very next hard right turn, seconds away, and at a speed of 15 mph was a check point! After all of that, we scored a time of 19 seconds for the leg, and we were 19 seconds early! Outstanding!! Later that night, we found out what we had done was probably completely not necessary. We could have settled in 19 minutes and 30 seconds late, and submitted a form stating why we were late. The race officials may, or may not have thought we had a legitimate reason for being late, but the flooded road would have been a good reason. But what fun it was trying to get “back on our minute”!!

My sons and I continued to improve our rallying, and were rewarded with a Stage Win for First Place in the Rookie Class and a nice plaque for the Day 5 run from Cape Girardeau, Missouri to Germantown, Tennessee. We were a total of 11 seconds from a perfect score of zero for the entire 5th Stage day. We also scored our first “Ace”! A perfect arrival time at the checkpoint, down to the perfect, correct second! My 13 year old son did a tremendous job as navigator, feeding me turn directions, and counting down speed changes, and stops with a stopwatch, while I watched the speedometer, trying to hold the correct speeds.

The Toro had begun squealing the belt when the A/C was turned on, so we used it as little as possible. Other than adding a quart of oil to the engine in Vicksburg, Mississippi, the Toronado continued to eagerly eat up the miles, like Toronados do so well. And, amazingly, we were getting 18 miles to the gallon, heavily loaded down, and with the A/C on. The Toronado had from the very start in Minnesota, developed a clicking noise in the right front wheel hub that I assumed was the axle assembly. I knew from past experience that these cars will run for thousands of miles with a worn, clicking front axle joint. So, even though I had a spare right side axle assembly and a new wheel bearing in the trunk, we pressed on to the south, doing our best to stay on course, and on time. I did not really want to change an axle assembly in a hotel parking lot with a flashlight, and hand tools. By the end of Day 6, there had been 22 cars that had dropped out of the competition. Team Toronado was 50th overall, and in 4th place in the Rookie division.

On Day 7, somewhere in Louisiana, our rebuilt A/C compressor blew the seal and then the bearing, or the bearing & then the seal. Either way, we opened all the windows & pressed on. Later that night, I removed the A/C belt to lighten the load on the engine for the rest of the trip. We were now sweating in the deep south summer just like nearly everyone else in the race. Despite our small issues, we were starting feel like we could not only finish, but do well, at least among the Rookie Division. At the end of Stage 7, we were in 2nd place in the Rookie Class, and just seconds behind the Rookie Class leaders in a ‘65 Impala, whom we had been chasing and gaining upon all week long.

Saturday, Day 8 was tougher, by design. It was the beginning of the 2 Day Championship Run for the overall leaders, so the course set-up was tougher. They sent everyone weaving back and forth through the streets of a rural subdivision. This can quickly get confusing, because now you are crossing paths with racers who are both ahead of you, and behind you, when you are used to not seeing any competitors at all. Also, up until this point, we had been able to throw out our 5 worst times. But all scores count on the last 2 days during the Championship run. Well, that got us. We made one wrong turn, then had to turn around our 18 foot long car in a tight spot. We got back on course, but we were 2 minutes late to a check point. At the end of Stage 8, we had slipped back to 4th place among the Rookies. That was just about the end of our chance for a first place finish as Rookies.

The highlight of our day after getting off-course, was meeting up with a fellow in Covington, Louisiana who was told that there was a ‘68 Toronado in The Great Race. He could not believe it! He owned a ‘68, and had lovingly restored it over many years. He said he had never seen another one on the road in Louisiana! He brought his beautiful smoke pewter ’68 Toronado to our hotel that night for a long chat, and some side-by-side photos.

Day 9, the final day of the competition, was a more relaxed day, with only a light rally stage in the morning. I get the feeling that they don’t want anyone to break down on the last day, so close to the finish, and after so many hard miles. After the morning rally stage, we got to do a lap on the Mobile International Speedway at our lunch stop. On the race track lap, I picked up what sounded like a nail clicking in the left rear tire. While still at the Mobile Raceway, we staged for the Grand Finale in downtown Mobile, Alabama, a few miles away. We were staged, and left at one minute intervals. At the end of Stage 9, and the end of the 2013 Great Race, after 2,100 miles, we crossed the finish line in 43rd place overall, and 4th place in the Rookie Division. It was good for some cash, and another nice plaque. We finished less than 2 minutes behind the Rookie first place finishers. Racing of any kind is always filled with lots of woulda, shoulda, couldas, but that one wrong turn on Day 8 was the difference between a first & a fourth place for Team Toronado. Congratulations to Team Jason in their 1935 Ford Coupe, winning Grand Champion Division of the 2013 Great Race. The Jasons, are a man and wife team that are now the current and back to back Grand Champions, having also won the 2012 race.

The next morning, with the race over, we had a tire flat in parking garage. The clicking from the left rear tire was a very large pop rivet we had picked up on the Mobile race track, and it took it all night to go flat. The worst part was, I now had to completely empty the trunk to get to the spare wheel and tire. I promised the boys we would look for a beach or a water park, before heading north. Mobile Bay has neither, so instead we decided to tour the battleship USS Alabama. The race is now over, and we are as far away from home as we are going to get on the entire trip. I opened the hood on the Toronado to find the water pump slowly dripping coolant. It was a very slow leak, so we decided to keep an eye on it, and point for home, 1,300 miles to the north. The wheel & axle noise had continued to get worse, and it got to the point that the right front wheel wandered a bit, but we kept the pedal down.

After visiting the USS Alabama, and thinking about my lifetime of experiences with Toronados, I came to a realization. The Toronado is the automotive equivalent of the WWII B-17 Flying Fortress bomber. The B-17 was known for it’s ability to take damage and continue to fly, complete the mission, and bring the crew home safely. Our ’68 Toronado continued to guide us home with 2 major repairs needed.

The wobbly wheel turned out to be a badly worn wheel hub, which was allowing the bearing to torque, twist and grind and click a bit. And the water pump we brought with us? It turned out to be the wrong one, sourced from a well known auto parts supplier, who’s books are incorrect. It’s a good thing we did not try to change it!! After 2 weeks, and over 4,100 miles, we pulled quietly into our home driveway in Southeast Wisconsin.

By the end of the race, I figured the boys would never want to do that again, but I could not have been more wrong. Before we even got home they were already excited about the 2014 Great Race. Due to the “age factor” given to older vehicles, no car newer than 1941 has ever won The Great Race. So this year, the Toronado will be parked in favor of our 1937 Oldsmobile L-37 Touring Sedan. It won’t be as plush of a ride as the Toronado, but we are going to have to go for the “age factor”. We also discovered it’s tough to hold a steady 30 or 35 miles per hour in any automatic transmission equipped car. Luckily, the Toronado’s 4 wheel drum brakes held up to some long stretches trying to hold a constant 30 mph, while riding both the brakes and throttle. This is one of the main reasons the pros in vintage rallying use manual gearbox equipped cars. So, look for Team Schmitt driving a Runnymede Green ‘37 Oldsmobile 8 in the 2014 running of The Great Race from Maine to Florida in late June.

If they ever hold a winter edition of the Great Race, we will be back in the Toronado, along with most of the field I would guess.

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