by Tabetha Hammer
Ride. Repair. Repeat.
That’s the motto of the Hemming’s Motor News Great Race Presented by Hagerty – a nine day, 2,100+ mile time-speed-distance rally put on annually at the end of June by the Coker Group. More than 100 vintage vehicles, ranging from a 1915 Hudson Indy racer to a 1972 Corvette, started the race that began in Ogunquit, Maine. By the end, 97 were still running – many only after having several ‘repairs’ – to cross the finish line in The Village, Florida.
The Great Race is the most bizarre, challenging yet exciting and addicting ‘Car Gal/Guy’ game you can play. For nine days, teams rally through the beautiful back roads of the great American countryside, living by the exact directions and speeds as set and given by the event Rally Master, in a true time-speed-distance rally form.
The objective is not to be the fastest and first one to cross the finish line – but to be the one who navigates the course the most precisely according to the course instructions. To accomplish such a thing requires consistent and precise driving, attention to detail, quick math capabilities, a good driver/navigator relationship – and for the race car to be in adequate running condition to endure long distance driving, hot temperatures, rainy days and sometimes hard acceleration or braking to make up for lost time, when necessary.
The Team – Driver, Navigator and Car
This year, the Hagerty all-female team (one of only two all-female teams entered) was comprised of my teammate, Samantha Bonter, as the navigator and me as the driver. We piloted a Wimbledon White 1964 ½ Ford Mustang coupe, which was recently restored by over 100 employees at Hagerty – the world’s largest provider of classic vehicle insurance and the presenting sponsor of The Great Race.
The car was purchased by Hagerty in October, 2013 near San Francisco, CA and was driven back to Hagerty headquarters in Traverse City, MI. There were several minor complications that came along with a car that was drivable but needed restoration. The team who drove it from California made it to Michigan completely under their own power and the restoration started shortly thereafter.
Hagerty’s employee restoration program is designed for any of the 500+ employees to get their hands dirty while learning restoration processes. Not only is it just simply cool to get to wrench on old cars and call it ‘work,’ but it also gives employees first-hand knowledge of the immense amount of work that goes into taking care of old cars and why it might take so long or be more expensive to repair a classic car in an insurance claim scenario versus a modern driver. The Ford Mustang is the third vehicle that Hagerty employees have restored, joining a 1969 Chevrolet Camaro and a 1930 Ford Model A roadster.
The Mustang restoration was completed in early April, just in time for the 50th anniversary of the car on April 17th. To celebrate, we had the car in New York at the grounds of the World’s Fair where the Mustang was originally debuted in 1964. This car in particular is an early example, with a May 1 production date, and has a short ownership list, including only two others prior to Hagerty.
Powered by a 260 cubic inch power plant producing 164 horsepower, the Mustang had plenty of necessary ‘go’ while still offering an enjoyable and comfortable driving experience. The three-speed manual transmission also made it easier than an automatic to maintain steady speed and consistent acceleration/deceleration – critical tactics in a time-speed-distance rally.
The Great Race was the first long-distance ‘shake down’ for the Mustang after completing the restoration – and I am proud to say that of the ‘Ride. Repair. Repeat’ motto, we only had to do the middle part of ‘repairing’ a couple times. However, one of those times resulted in us dropping from our 16th overall place leading into the two last days of the race to 96th place. Another motto of The Great Race is ‘To Finish is to win,’ which is an important one for us in this case. The mechanical fuel pump gave out on the Mustang in the second to last day of the race, which resulted in Samantha and me converting and installing an electric pump while on the side of the rode (we didn’t have a spare mechanical pump) and, even though we dropped to the very end of the placing, we drove in to the finish line that day under our own power and was able to finish the race. If there is any accomplishment to be proud of, it is having the ability to fix our own car and not have to be hauled in on the ‘sweeper’ truck after a break down.
In addition to the Team Mustang, Hagerty also had a second team – the ‘Guys,’ Jonathan Klinger (driver) and Davin Reckow (navigator) in a 1917 Peerless ‘Green Dragon.’ The ‘Green Dragon’ is the longest consecutively entered vehicle in The Great Race with 19 entries. While it definitely turns heads with its speedy appearance and loud exhaust, the ‘Green Dragon’ does not have as many ‘comforts’ as the Mustang. With a heavy suspension the car is a workout to pilot down the road and an open cockpit means extra ‘showers’ for the guys when the skies decide to open up and pour out rain in the middle of the day.
The ‘Green Dragon’ team fared very well in the event, placing 12th overall and 2nd in the Sportsman Division. Over the course of the nine days and more than 2,100 miles, the guys had a total score of 1 minute and 48seconds off the perfect time. Only 48 seconds separated them and the Grand Champion team (Irene and Barry Jason driving a 1966 Ford Mustang). Forty-eight seconds may not seem like anything – but in the context of a time-speed-distance rally, 48 seconds might as well be 48 laps.
What is a Time-Speed-Distance Rally?
It’s important to understand what a time-speed-distance rally is to fully appreciate the fun, yet challenging, experience of The Great Race. If you are not a timely person, you will not fare well in a time-speed-distance (TSD) event. Every part of your day during the event is structured to being on time – and being ‘on time’ means down to the exact second.
A TSD rally is set up on the premises that it takes a specific amount of time to travel a distance from Point A to Point B going a certain speed, which is given in course instructions as set by the Rally Master and control team. What is not taken in account is the amount of time lost on acceleration and deceleration to and from the speeds that are given or for things like stop signs and lights, traffic barriers or anything else that might keep you from holding a steady speed – such as the farm implement taking up the entire roadway and moving at a speed of 10mph when you are supposed to be doing 30mph.
Maps, GPS, computers or any other electronic device (with the exception of one digital stop watch, one analog kitchen clock and one analog wrist watch) are absolutely not allowed. It is truly driver, navigator and machine versus the computed time and driving route.
Each day teams start out with a new starting position number, which dictates what time they should leave the start line. Teams are expected to depart the start in one-minute increments of each other. So, if the official starting time is 7am and your team’s starting number is 15, your actual start time is exactly 7:15:00am (hour, minute, second). But, here’s the catch. Seeing the course instructions do not take into account time loss for acceleration and deceleration, teams have to make their own adjustments for however long it takes them to get their vehicle to the specified speed so that they are certain their vehicle is maintaining that speed at exactly 7:15am.
For example, if the official start time is 7am, your starting number is 15 and the speed you should be going is 30mph and you know that it takes you three seconds to accelerate from 0mph to 30mph your new start time is 7:15:47 (start time of 7:15 minus three seconds acceleration time).
How does each team know exactly how much time it takes them to accelerate to and from each speed?
Performance time charts are the answer and are an absolute must in order to be competitive. Without a chart, which is built by each team prior to the event and based on each person’s driving habits, it’s like ‘shooting in the dark’ for knowing if you are accurately on time or not. Similarly, if the driver is not consistent in acceleration and deceleration, the time chart is pointless.
To calculate if each team is on time, random checkpoints are set up throughout the driving course. Teams do not know where checkpoints will appear, what time they are supposed to arrive or how many there will be each day.
A checkpoint merely consists of a control team set up on the side of the road with a marker and as each car passes by that marker, a time is recorded and submitted to the Rally Master. That time is compared to the actual amount of time it should have taken the vehicle to travel from Point A to that checkpoint. This is how scores are calculated – based on how many seconds a vehicle arrives early or late to a checkpoint.
If a team crosses the checkpoint at the exact right second (meaning they have done all maneuvers exactly perfectly and no time is lost) an ‘Ace’ is awarded. The Hagerty Mustang team earned two Aces over the nine days. The ‘Green Dragon’ team earned three Aces – and to put that into perspective, the Grand Champion team earned 15.
Several veteran ‘Great Racers’ have a saying that a perfect score/ace is ‘just luck’, but a score of 1-second early/late is skill – because there is room for slight differences in perception on when the control team ‘clocks’ each team as they pass by. Going by this theory, our Hagerty Mustang team was ‘skilled’ enough to receive eight 1-second scores… not too shabby!
Course Instructions – The Maneuvers
Each morning a set of course instructions is given to teams 30-minutes prior to their start time. The instructions are set up to include only the very basics, but everything you need. Contrary to some rallies, The Great Race instructions are not designed to try to ‘trick’ teams. They do not include things like ‘look for the white house with the garden gnome that is holding a pink flower.’ Instead, the instructions include a simplistic visual of what street sign, road or other landmark we are looking for, the speed to be maintaining at that location, occasionally an additional element that is referred to as a ‘maneuver,’ such as holding a speed for a specified amount of time and then changing to another speed, and sometimes brief notes identifying a ‘comes quick’ or ‘look sharp’ for signs that might be difficult to see.
The performance time charts are crucial when it comes to doing each maneuver properly, taking into account time loss for changing speeds. The easiest example to give is in the case of a stop sign. Each stop sign maneuver is calculated for a 15-second hold in the course instructions. Also based on the instructions, teams know at what speed they are coming into the stop sign at and at what speed they should be doing leaving the stop. Using the time charts, they calculate how much time it takes to decelerate from the speed into the stop down to 0 mph and then from 0 mph back up to the stated speed, and adjust the number of seconds (from 15) that they sit at the stop sign to accommodate.
If, in the case of oncoming traffic, the driver cannot leave the stop sign on the appropriate second, it becomes the navigator’s job to time how many additional seconds are lost until they start moving so the time can be made up. It’s things like the oncoming traffic and other ‘distractions’ that make the part of keeping exact speed and time so challenging and frustrating – but also fun to try to quickly calculate ‘on the fly’ exactly how to make up the time.
Sight Seeing? What Sight Seeing?
When thinking of a 2,000+ mile classic car driving event, most people automatically think of a driving tour that the driver and passengers kick back, enjoy the wind in their face, take in all of the sights around them while cruising down the open road at a comfortable speed and being able to stop at a moment’s notice for bathroom breaks, sight-seeing and stretch breaks. Not the case with The Great Race.
The moment the driver or navigator breaks their attention to the speed, course instructions or the clock and stopwatch is the moment a maneuver, turn or sign is missed. Then it becomes a case of trying to make up time or trying to figure out how to get back on course if a turn is missed – and yes, this is usually where the swear words start to fly and the drive gets a bit more exciting if having to pass other race cars to get back to the position where you are supposed to be.
Fuel stops and bathroom breaks are also built in to the timing of the day. If you absolutely must make a stop for whatever reason, flat tire, bathroom, or otherwise, during a section of the day that is not noted as being ‘off the clock,’ teams have to try to make up the exact amount of time lost.
With so much required focus and attention to detail, the days can be grueling and mentally exhausting. Not to mention, a challenge for the ‘chemistry’ between driver and navigator.
Driver vs. Navigator
It is often asked if it is easier to be the driver or navigator – And the answer often depends on which person is asked. After all, the grass is always greener on the other side!
As a driver, the primary responsibility is to maintain perfect speed and consistent driving habits from day one to day nine. It is very easy to get caught up in the excitement of ‘racing’ and start accelerating or braking faster or take corners harder, but if not maintaining consistency to what the time chart was built from, time calculations will be completely off and your day will end with frustrations when your scores result in 20, 30 and 40 seconds – or worse yet, over 1-minute – from perfect.
When it comes to holding a specific speed, if the driver allows for the speedometer needle to be even one width of either side of the mph mark they are supposed to be on, the time starts adding up and results can end up being several seconds off. A ‘rally speedometer’ is most often used, which breaks speed marks down by 1mph increments and is highly calibrated for accuracy. Driving consistently can become especially difficult when maintaining one speed for long stints of time, such as holding 45mph for over an hour when your foot and/or leg starts cramping from holding one position for so long. Yet, the driver refuses to screw up a good run to readjust after being exactly on the mark for so long, so she just grits her teeth and pushes through until relief is finally in sight with the approaching stop sign (and yes, I just might be speaking from direct experience on that!)
It also starts to get very difficult in the afternoon, especially after a fulfilling lunch of barbequed pork sandwich, blueberry bread and macaroni and cheese (thank you Millsboro, DE for a delicious hosted meal!), not to continuously yawn and want to take an afternoon siesta. Thank goodness for a well-stocked ‘goodie box’ of Red Bull and 5-hour Energy drinks!
The navigator’s job is crucial to the success of a team. They are responsible for telling the driver what to do and exactly when to do it (which is why husband/wife teams can go one of two ways…either really good or really bad!). They also take care of any timing maneuvers (like holding one speed for 1 minute and 25 seconds before accelerating to the next speed) and keeping track of any time lost for things like oncoming traffic preventing the driver from making a turn or the unanticipated construction zone worker with the dreaded ‘stop’ sign.
The fortunate side of the navigator position is they can reposition themselves in the seat as frequently as needed and move their legs whenever they want to keep them from cramping. But, they also have the daunting task of not letting directions get mixed up, being sure they are saying the correct direction to turn (and that the driver listens to them) and that they don’t ‘zone out’ and forget to pay attention which is always difficult after a few long days.
There are many jokes between drivers and navigators, such as the navigator’s t-shirts that say ‘blame the driver’ and driver’s version stating ‘blame the navigator’. But at the end of the day, it is both people and their chemistry and ability to work together, trust in each other and the ability to keep each other focused that makes a winning team – and even if not winning, then at least makes the ride worthwhile.
This year was Samantha’s first time navigating (it was my third year driving) – and for not having a single clue what she was truly getting herself into when I asked her to be my teammate, she certainly did well! It says a lot for a team who literally spends all day in a car together, then shares a hotel room, and does it all again, day after day, for nine days straight, to come out still being friends – and even more so, closer friends than when we started.
Each year, the route of The Great Race changes location. This year’s journey took us through 19 cities along the East coast, beginning in Ogunquit, Maine and ending at The Villages, Florida.
Each town that the Great Race rolls through hosts all of the race teams and supports crews for lunch and dinner – about 300 people! The daily rallying is the ‘work’ of the event but there is something truly special and unique to roll in to a new city twice a day and be welcomed by townspeople with great applause, cheering and excitement.
While racers do not get to see a whole lot of the countryside while rallying, we do get to occasionally take it in and I have to say that this year’s route took us through some of the most beautiful areas I’ve seen yet – the hills of Vermont, the historical grounds of Valley Forge, PA, the bridge and tunnels of Chesapeake Bay, the list goes on and on.
There’s no better way to see the beauty of our great country than from behind the wheel of a great classic car (and an American built one, at that, I might add!) and to be experiencing it with several hundred other enthusiasts who are all doing it for the same reason, the enjoyment of classic cars.
Beyond the experience of piloting great classic cars through some of the most beautiful areas of the country and having the challenge of figuring out a TSD rally, the most wonderful part of The Great Race is ‘The Family.’
Spending more than a week with 100 other teams, support crews, Great Race officials and the numerous volunteers, friendships are built, memories are made and relationships kindled. The true camaraderie of teams is shown in an event like this. When all of the racers arrive to the overnight stop and teams are trying to make whatever repairs to their vehicles that are necessary before the next day to be able to keep running – that’s when it never ceases to amaze me at how many helping hands and extra parts show up. Whether the repairs are something simple like a water pump replacement or much more complex like completely pulling, rebuilding and reinstalling a transmission, it’s the ‘Family’ that stays up with you all night to get the work done and shows up bright and early the next morning with a cup of coffee for you to send you off from the start line.
At the end of the journey, even though there are definitely things of going home to look forward to, it is a bittersweet departure. But, those who are lucky enough to come back and take part in the Great Race year after year will agree that every time is just like a family reunion (or maybe even better!) with all of the teams and people – and that’s what makes the entire trip worthwhile and the most fun you can have in a classic car, no matter how frustrating some days can be when trying to figure out calculations and maneuvers.
We ride together. We repair our cars together. And we all go back out and repeat it all again together.