Old Cars Conquering Mountains In Great Race

Just a little over halfway through the 2016 Hemmings Motor News Great Race, presented by Hagerty, event boss Corky Coker offered a quick and to-the-point analysis.

“It’s absolutely phenomenal,” he says as the cars rolled into Rapid City, South Dakota, following a trek through the picturesque Black Hills that included a drive-by of Mount Rushmore. Throngs of local residents greeted the cars as they cruised through downtown during the city’s weekly Summer Nights and Main Street Square concerts.

Corky Coker, owner of Coker Tire and the Great Race, was on hand at the day's finish line in Rapid City. Whether conducting a TV interview as the '60 Ford Fairlane of Tom and Suzanne Jones finishes its run or welcoming the team of Jerome Reinan and Chris Brungardt, Coker was always colorful and animated.

It’s the adventure of a lifetime every year!–Corky Coker, The Great Race

“There’s got to be 10,000 people here,” said race director Jeff Staumb.

The annual cross-country rally got underway June 18 in San Rafael, California, with 120 cars taking the green flag. By the time they resume competition and drive toward the finish line in Moline, Illinois, the competitor list will be under 100.

“We started today (Thursday, June 23 in Cheyenne, Wyoming) with 104 cars,” said Staumb. “Every day it does drop. We have at least a half dozen cars still out there being brought in by sweep trucks. I know two broke down on the Needles Highway. They had to tow them out with ropes because we couldn’t get a tow truck up there with the narrow roads. We’ll probably start with 95 or 96 tomorrow.”

One of the day’s highlights was driving by Mount Rushmore. Here’s the 1916 Hudson Indy Racer campaigned by GR Pike and Bobby Hadskey.

The stayover in South Dakota was also a homecoming of sorts for well-known TV personality Jessi Combs, who is serving as the race’s honorary Grand Marshall. She grew up in Rapid City and is competing along with Patrick McIntyre in a ’27 Bugatti T35b. The two are documenting their race for an episode on the Autoblog show “1,001 Car Things to do Before You Die.”

Honorary grand marshall Jessi Combs and Patrick McIntyre are competing in John Bothwell’s ’27 T35b Bugatti.

It was a homecoming of sorts for Jessi, who is a native of Rapid City, and there were plenty of fans, friends and family to greet here. Center photo: under the hood of the Bugatti.

GPS, radios, phones and maps are not allowed in the Great Race. Competitors follow the course using detailed notes provided each morning and use stopwatches or analog clocks to chart their progress. For open-top vehicles, driver-navigator intercom can be useful, as demonstrated by Trevor Stahl and Josh Hull in their '32 Ford Speedster.

Clockwise from top left, '32 Ford Roadster of Curtis Graf and Wayne Bell; '30 Ford Roadster of Richard Fredette and Bill Loubiere; ''30 Ford Speedster of Roger Kramer and Vince Simon; 41 Ford pickup of Eric Frankenberger and Aaron Read.

First staged in 1983, the Great Race is often run as a West-to-East rally with some going the opposite direction and others taking a North-South route. This year will be remembered as one of the most challenging due to severe elevation changes.

The Route

The 2016 Great Race began June 18 in San Rafael, California, and will finish June 26 in Moline, Illinois, on the banks of the Mississippi River. Total distance is about 2,400 miles with sections of the route in six states–including California, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Iowa and Illinois–covering the Lincoln Highway. Basically, the Black Hills excursion was a side trip to enjoy Mount Rushmore and the nearby Badlands National Park. Here are the following overnight stops on the trip:

  • San Rafael, CA
  • Old Sacramento, CA
  • Reno, NV
  • Elko, NV
  • Evanston, WY
  • Cheyenne, WY
  • Rapid City, SD
  • Sioux Falls, SD
  • Cedar Rapids, IA
  • Moline, IL
“We literally started at sea level outside of Marin County in California,” explains Staumb. “Then we went to 9,000 feet crossing the Sierra Nevada and down to 4,000 or 5,000 feet in Nevada. In Wyoming we went from 5,000 feet up to 10,000 feet.”

“Heck, we had guys throwing snowballs at each other in the Wyoming mountains,” says Coker.

“It’s a challenge,” continues Staumb. “If you’re going to get $50,000 for winning, then you have to be the best at this. It not only means the driver and navigator being the most accurate, but you have to keep the car together.”

A little larceny doesn’t hurt when it comes to the latter. One competitor driving a Model A blew the pinion out the rear end in the Wyoming mountains. About that time another Ford Speedster team tossed a rod through the block.

“So the Model A took the rear end off the Speedster for their car,” says Staumb, noting that the earlier car had mechanical brakes, so the Model A had only hydraulic front brakes working.

“Heck, these guys are hot rodders,” praises Coker. “The VW guys ripped off their deck lids. The Ford are taking off their hoods. They know how to solve problems.”

Yes, it's chain driven. This 1918 American LaFrance Speedster is handled by Jerome Reinan and Chris Brungardt.

More cool cars; clockwise from top left: 1916 Hudson Indy Racer of GR Pike and Bobby Hadskey; '30 Model A 5-window of Paul Clarkson and Jim Kyle; '36 Packard 120B of Bill and Carolyn Croker; '29 Ford Model A of the Galax, VA, Team X-cup.

Teams traversed narrow, twisty roads in the Black Hills and also drove through numerous tunnels. Here’s the ’46 Ford pickup of Brad Philips and Jen Murray.

There are plenty of majestic sights in the Black Hills. From left are the '32 Ford Speedster of Jim Menneto and Mari Parizo; the '58 Chevy Apache Fleetside of Deb and Joe Koenig; '35 Ford coupe of Wayne and Clayton Vick.

Driving through the Needles Highway are Robert and Alex Dinges in a ’28 Ford Model A, followed by Jody Knowles and Beth Gentry in a ’32 Ford Cabriolet.

The field is limited to 120 because the cars are released every minute each morning, and a 2-hour window is the maximum that the daily schedule can support. The Great Race is not a speed event but rather a time/speed/distance rally. Each vehicle has a driver and navigator but are not allowed any GPS or unauthorized maps. Each team is given precise instructions each morning that detail the route down to the second. Teams are scored at secret checkpoints along the way and penalized a second for each second that they are either early or late. The age of the car is also factored into the score with the oldest cars being penalized the least. At the end of the trip the team with the lowest score wins.

More cars from the Needles Highway; clockwise from top left: a '55 Chevy with Larry Tribble and Rock Rookey; a '31 Model A with Mike Weaver and Charles Metcalf; closeup of Knowles and Gentry in their '32 Ford; '41 Packard of Dan and Brett Stahl.

The field is broken up into five divisions: Grand Champion, Expert, Sportsman, Rookie and X-Cup. Grand Champion is limited to past race winners while Expert comprises teams with experience and previous high finishes. Sportsman is more for the fun crowd and Rookie is for first-timers. The X-Cup is for youth teams, generally cars built in high school or trade school auto shops.

The cars must be 1972 or older. Entry fees range from $1,500 to $7,000. The total purse is $150,000 with $50,000 going to the overall winner. A wide variety of automobile marques and styles entered, stretching from a pair of 1916 Hudsons up to a 1972 Kenworth big-rig. One of the more interesting entries to catch our eye was a ’38 Ford coupe that looked like a pre-WWII dirt-track racer.

That's one big oil burner in the chopped '72 Kenworth W-900 campaigned by Todd Turner and Jeff Cote.

Handling the 1916 Hudson 4-passenger Speedster are David Reeder and Sawyer Stone.

More cool cars; clockwise from top left: Howard and Doug Sharp in a 1916 Hudson Pikes Peak hillclimber and Brian and Ian Deering in a '35 Ford 5-window.

“I literally pulled this car out of a barn in Minnesota about a year and a half ago,” says owner-navigator Bill Greene of Gainsville, Georgia. “It was a street car with rusted out floors, no motor or transmission. I took it back home and made it into this rally car.”

The body, minus the fenders, was channeled over a dimensionally accurate but boxed and crossed reproduction frame, then treated to a custom coil-over suspension up front and 4-link with a Ford 9-inch in the rear. A mild, rebuilt Jasper 289 provides the power. Greene also added Camaro 4-wheel disc brakes and beefed up the cooling with an AutoRad radiator.

“It was purpose built for this race,” adds Greene, adding that the car tips the scales at about 2,600 pounds. “I saw the rules and said I can work with that. This is our first year. We’ve had a couple of really good days and a couple of really bad days. We’re learning the ropes and getting better all the time.”

One of the more interesting entrants was the '38 Ford 5-window of Shaun Lowry and Bill Greene. Most of the body is original with a custom suspension on a reproduction frame.

Last year’s winner, a 1916 Hudson Hillclimber campaigned by Howard and Doug Sharp, has returned to defend their title. Some other notable cars inclue a 1917 Peerless racer, a chain-driven 1918 American LaFrance Speedster and a 1916 Hudson Indy Racer. The event was started in 1983 and takes its name from the 1965 movie, “The Great Race.” That flick starred Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Natalie Wood and Peter Falk and is based on the real-life 1908 auto race from New York to Paris. A few years ago Coker purchased the name rights and assets to the race, and with the help of Hemmings, Hagerty and other sponsors continues to showcase classic vehicles on a cross-country race.

Or as he likes to say: “It’s the adventure of a lifetime every year!”

From left, rounding out our coverage are Robert and Alex Dinges in a '28 Ford Model A; Dick Russ and Mike Cook in a '70 E-type Jaguar; and Charlie Brittingham and Rich McKone in a '36 Ford Tudor

About the author

Mike Magda

Mike Magda is a veteran automotive writer with credits in publications such as Racecar Engineering, Hot Rod, Engine Technology International, Motor Trend, Automobile, Automotive Testing Technology and Professional Motorsport World.
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