From a black 1916 Hudson Indy Racer with gold spoke wheels to a red 1967 Pontiac GTO, more than 100 vintage automobiles rolled into Old Sacramento on Saturday evening for the 33rd annual Great Race.
Hundreds of fans oohed and aahed along Front Street as the colorful cavalcade of classic cars crossed the finish line – one car per minute – to complete the first day of the nine-day rally from San Rafael to the banks of the Mississippi River in Moline, Ill.
Teams from Japan, Mexico, Canada and the United Kingdom competed for $158,000 in prize money against American squads, many of them from California, where the country’s love affair with cars accelerated.
The rally isn’t based on pure speed; it’s a time/speed/distance rally in which each car is given a certain amount of time to get to its destination by the race organizers. If the team finishes a few seconds early or late, it’s penalized. A perfect score is called an “ace,” and some of the cars in Old Sacramento on Sunday were festooned with more than a dozen “aces” stickers.
No GPS, cellphones, maps or electronics are allowed. Each team is given a stopwatch operated by the navigator and a special speedometer monitored by the driver. Each team relies on a unique set of written instructions supplied by the organizers built around street signs, left and right turns and other landmarks, along with set speeds and times based on their specific car.
“The instructions can be 12 to 20 pages long, and you to have to navigate through stop signs, trains and farm implements,” said race director Jeff Stumb. “You may be ordered to slow to 25 miles per hour around a turn, and there were five surprise checkpoints the first day.” At each checkpoint, the drivers are told their score and whether they have to slow down or make up a few seconds.
“It’s easy to get lost and make a wrong turn,” said Bill Croker, a retired Chevron project manager from Penn Valley in Nevada County. He and his wife, Carolyn Croker – the navigator – represented Northern California in their 1936 Packard 120B, Molly Maroon.
The gorgeous Molly featured perhaps the snazziest hood ornament, a silver-winged goddess of speed. “We’re trying to raise $3,000 for Nevada County’s Habitat for Humanity, and the whole race is raising $40,000 for autism,” said Croker, 73. The couple have competed in the Great Race five times.
They, along with the other contestants, paid a $5,500 entry fee. The cost of entering can easily reach $10,000, said announcer Brian “Motor Mouth” Goudge, who has been calling the race for 21 years. Along with the cost of hotels and meals, some teams pay to bring mechanics and half-ton trucks and trailers to pull them home. Occasionally, one of the old cars breaks down – a 1936 Ford Fordor Deluxe police car had engine trouble Saturday.
“If it’s wet, we race; if it’s snowy, we race; if it’s hot and dry, we compete,” Goudge said. The cars have been piloted by women and men, grandparents and teenagers. “We’ve got people from every walk of life – lawyers, doctors, dentists, professional car collectors,” he said. “Last year’s grand champions, Howard Sharp and his son Doug – who won $50,000 driving a 1916 Hudson – own a bicycle shop.”
The Crokers, too, finished in the money last year in their 1960 green Rambler American, which took 15th out of 120 cars and fifth in their division. On Saturday, they finished 22 seconds off their set pace, but still have eight days to close the gap.
The race, now in its 33rd year, will cover 2,400 miles over parts of the famous Lincoln Highway, much of it along Highway 50. Saturday’s route took the Crokers up to the Sutter Buttes and down along the Sacramento River. After stops in six states and at Mount Rushmore, the cars will cross the finish line in Moline on Sunday.
Before this year’s race, the contestants enjoyed a showing of the 1965 Hollywood slapstick comedy “The Great Race” about a Paris-to-New-York car race in 1908. The winner, George Schuster, drove a 1907 Thomas Flyer Model 35.
Most of the cars in this year’s event were built before World War II, including a 1916 Hudson Speedster, a 1916 Chevrolet Phaeton, a 1917 Peerless Racer and a chain-driven 1918 American LaFrance Speedster. The only Italian car was a 1927 T35b Bugatti. A 1969 Mercedes 280SL, a 1972 BMW Bavaria and a couple of Volkswagen bugs joined the race, which is limited to cars made before 1973. The Japanese cars included one of the first-ever Toyota Corollas, several Datsun 240Zs and an orange 1969 Isuzu 1600 GT piloted by a team from Nagano, Japan.
But the American legends might have stolen the show. They included a 1929 Ford Bonneville Salt Flats Racer, a 1948 Lincoln Continental convertible, a 1955 Studebaker President, a 1963 Corvette, a 1966 Dodge Coronet and a 1966 Shelby GT 350 “that has a hard time slowing down,” Goudge noted.
Two spectators from Fairfield, Melody Lopez and her daughter Gabriella, strolled through the cars parked outside the California State Railroad Museum, stopping to admire a 1934 Ford produce truck. “My daddy and mommy had one like this,” Lopez said. “My dad loved cars more than anything.” Then they paused at Molly Maroon. “Cars make you excited,” Lopez said. “I got my first kiss in a golden yellow Camaro.”