If you ever plan to motor west,
Travel my way, take the highway that’s the best,
Get your kicks on Route 66.
— Bobby Troup
* * *
I’m 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.
Miles 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 great-grandfathers.
Sleep 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.
Just another day — and night — on the Great Race.
Since 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.
It’s 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 stop.
Many of the cars were made by manufacturers who no longer exist, such as Studebaker, Packard and Edsel.
The 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.
Cars 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.
Our 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.
With 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.
The 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 white church.”
There 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, including ourselves.
It’s 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.
But 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.
300 Miles driven on an average day during the Great Race
These 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.
Me? I’m really good at holding flashlights, fetching wrenches and handing beers to the guys under the hood.
But 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.
The Great Race motto is: “To finish is to win.” Our motto is: “To be Finnish is to win.”
We 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.
Our 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.
Nursing 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.
Finally, 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.
The 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.
When he gets to the end of his speech, there’s no doubt of the winners. In English, he shouts: “Team Ghostbusters!”
Still wearing our jumpsuits — by now emanating a potent aroma of sweat, oil and beer — we troop to the stage to accept the award.
The 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.
Jerome 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.
But 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.