July 1, 2014
Pictured above is the crew of the 1932 Auburn Special in the 2014 Great Race. At the wheel is my brother Jerome; next to him is my cousin Chris, the navigator. I’m directly behind the driver, accompanied by various other brothers, cousins, and family friends.
The Great Race has been run each year for more than 30 years, alternating among various regions of the country. It attracts more than 100 vintage cars ranging from Model As to Camaros. Cars as young as 1972 are eligible, although this year’s oldest entry was a 1915 Hudson.
This year’s race covered more than 2,000 miles from Maine to Florida. In reality, though, it’s not a race as we typically think of it, but a rally. The teams aren’t judged on who gets from Point A to Point B fastest. Instead, their goal is to hit various checkpoints along the way as precisely as they can. The closer you are to the allotted time, the better your score. And it’s not as simple as just heading down the road for X number of miles. The teams have to follow cryptic directions: for example, “Proceed for 12 minutes at 45 mph and turn right at the white church.” That’s why each team has a navigator on board.
Our car, however, has a real racing heritage. It qualified for the Indianapolis 500, but wrecked in practice and never ran in the race. Some years later, it was resurrected from the junkyard, restored and raced on dirt tracks in upstate New York in the 1940s and ’50s. It has a straight-eight engine with four two-barrel carbs and makes 300 hp at 7,500 rpm — in its day, a real screamer.
I was along as a member of the pit crew. Unlike the crews you see in NASCAR races, our duties mostly consisted of standing around in the parking lot at the end of the day, drinking beer and shooting the breeze with other teams.
Our daily stops were typically in small cities like Lowell, Mass., and New Bern, N.C. The finish line would be set up on the main street downtown, and all the cars would parade through as cheering crowds lined the sidewalks. Our team was usually a crowd favorite, because we always marched alongside our car as it crossed the finish line, wearing our jumpsuits emblazoned with the team name: “WTF: Wandering Troubadours of Finland.”
The Great Race 2015 will travel on Route 66. If you happen to be on the Mother Road next year around this time and you see a bunch of guys in jumpsuits, don’t worry — they’re not escapees from the state prison. Although that might be their next stop.