1941 Packard crosses the finish line in Gallup,
N.M., an overnight stop on the Great Race.
you ever plan to motor west,
my way, take the highway that’s the best,
your kicks on Route 66.
rocketing down a two-lane country road outside Amarillo,
Texas, in the sidecar of a Russian army motorcycle. It’s
nearly midnight, and we’re blasting through the hot, dry
Panhandle darkness in search of a man named Bill who might
have a tappet for a Buick straight-eight engine.
behind us, flashlights and lanterns in a Holiday Inn
parking lot illuminate scattered clusters of guys drinking
beer and swearing as they wrestle with the innards of cars
that could have been bought new by their
is still hours away, and the early morning will see us off
on another leg of a 2,300-mile journey down the Mother
Road from St. Louis to Los Angeles.
another day — and night — on the Great Race.
1983, dozens of vintage cars and trucks have set out each
year on this epic cross-country road rally, held annually
in a different part of the country. This year, more than
115 vehicles paid the $5,000 entry fee to join the trip
down fabled Route 66 during the last week of June.
a rolling museum of America’s auto heritage. Each
morning, the caravan heads west through weather that grows
hotter by the day, reaching a high of 118 degrees in the
Arizona desert. Each evening around dinnertime, it pulls
into a town along the historic highway for an overnight
cars roll through that day’s finish as townspeople —
sometimes hundreds, sometimes thousands — gawk and snap
photos. We park on Main Street or in the town square for a
few hours to let the people look at and touch machines
that once were as common on the roads as Hondas and
Subarus are today.
from 1972 and earlier are eligible for the race; this
year, the oldest entry is a 1911 Hudson. There’s a
healthy contingent of newer cars from the ’60s —
mostly Mustangs and muscle cars. But many of the cars in
the race were made by companies that have been dead for
decades, such as Studebaker, Packard and Edsel.
car, too, is from a defunct manufacturer. It’s a 1932
Auburn owned by my younger brother, Jerome. It was
custom-built to race in the Indianapolis 500, but crashed
in practice and never made the race. A man from upstate
New York plucked it off a junk heap, repaired it, put a
Buick engine in it, and raced it on small-town dirt tracks
in the 1950s and ’60s.
its wire wheels, Art Deco body and eight snorting exhaust
pipes bursting from under the hood, the car is a fan
favorite in every city we pull into.
cars and their drivers travel up to 300 miles a day and
earn points not for raw speed, but for following a precise
course in a set amount of time. The closer your time is to
the target each day, the better your score. The teams must
find their way by following cryptic instructions, like,
"Drive for 12 minutes at 45 mph and turn right at the
are two in the race car: a driver and a navigator. The
rest of us — five in all, including my older brother,
Tom — are the support crew. We trail behind in a 40-foot
bus, pulling a giant trailer loaded with tools, auto
supplies, our Russian motorcycle and a spare 1970 Toyota
we’re hauling for a Japanese team. Our rig, with
trailer, is as long as a semi and we’ve all had to learn
on the fly how to maneuver it without killing anybody,
a job that I imagine is something like being a roadie on a
rock tour. We schlep gear; fix things that break (and old
cars are always breaking); keep the coolers full of water,
Gatorade and beer. We make motorcycle runs for oil, spark
plugs and midnight tappets. There’s no time for
sightseeing. Each day, we arrive early to set up, then
stay late to tear down. We occasionally drink to excess.
The next day, we do it all over again.
instead of Mick and Keith, our stars are a bunch of mostly
white, mostly middle-aged men with big bellies and an
inexhaustible storehouse of automotive knowledge.
are guys who’ll drop and replace a transmission as
nonchalantly as you or I would repot a plant. They can
listen to a car and instantly diagnose any problem, be it
a cylinder, a solenoid or a spindle gear. Their powers of
jury-rigging are awe-inspiring; they can almost always
cobble together a quick fix that allows a busted car to
limp to the next stop.
I’m really good at holding flashlights, fetching
wrenches and handing beers to the guys under the hood.
I do vaguely resemble a real mechanic in the powder-blue
jumpsuit our team wears, the one with the embroidered logo
reading "WTF: Wandering Troubadours of Finland."
(Our mom was a Finn.) We, too, are fan favorites, meeting
our car at the finish line every day and jogging the last
hundred yards with it, waving Finnish battle flags as the
crowd goes wild.
Great Race motto is: "To finish is to win." Our
motto is: "To be Finnish is to win."
don’t win, of course. For the top teams in the race,
road rallies are a serious hobby. The driver-navigator
teams practice together year-round. They can drive for 10
or 12 hours, follow the Byzantine directions and arrive at
the day’s destination within five seconds of the
allotted time. There’s fierce competition among about a
dozen teams for the $50,000 first prize.
driving team — Jerome and my cousin Chris — encounters
an ever-changing parade of glitches. A wheel breaks one
day. On another, the speedometer dies, a vital tool in a
race where you calculate your speed and mileage
constantly. Yet another day, they face a 170-mile trip
through Death Valley — in a car that gets about 8 miles
per gallon and has a normal range of 140 miles per tank.
it carefully and using every fuel-saving trick in the
book, they make it through the desert with barely a
coating of gas left in the tank. The temperature in the
cockpit that day: 163 degrees.
with smoke pouring from a burned-out clutch, we cross the
finish line on the famous Santa Monica Pier outside Los
Angeles. It’s a feat not achieved by about 25 teams that
dropped out during the nine-day trip from St. Louis. And
at the awards banquet that night, we get a real surprise.
eight Japanese teams, including several drivers who are
their nation’s equivalents of Richard Petty or Dale
Earnhardt Jr., are giving a special friendship award to
the American team that showed them the most encouragement
and camaraderie. One of their team managers makes the
presentation, speaking in Japanese.
he gets to the end of his speech, there’s no doubt of
the winners. In English, he shouts: "Team
wearing our jumpsuits — by now emanating a potent aroma
of sweat, oil and beer — we troop to the stage to accept
trip home is an anticlimax. Our bus breaks down in the
Rockies at 2 o’clock in the morning and we have to get
it towed 120 miles to the nearest town with a diesel
mechanic. It’s no problem; my brother, its owner, lives
in Denver and he can come pick it up in a couple of weeks.
We fly home and get back to real life.
and several of the others already have signed up for next
year. I’m dropping out for a while; my child is close to
college age and I want to spend more time at home the next
couple of summers.
if you ever see what looks like a middle-aged mechanic
strolling around Minneapolis in a weird jumpsuit, say
hello. He can’t fix your car, but he’s got some good
stories to tell.