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The Great Race

Occasionally great opportunities just land in your lap.  You do not plan for them and in some cases, do not even know they exist.  Such was the case this past Sunday afternoon, when “The Great Race” found its way passing through Auburn.

For those not familiar with this event, which I must confess I was not either, the Great Race is a nine-day endurance race, or perhaps more of a rally, of old cars, vintage and collectables, which travel this year from St. Augustine, Florida to Colorado Springs, Colorado.  When I say old, I am talking from 1911, the year after my grandfather was born, until 1975, which was the start of my Senior year in college.  To put it in perspective, the newest car in the race is over 50 years old.

That is quite an event in and by itself, but it is made even more challenging by the rules by which they must travel.  No GPS.  When was the last time you traveled without the map on your phone?  In this race, the drivers and navigators calculate the distance travelled by using their speedometer and their timepiece.  They are given seven check-in points each day, and a set of directions.  The route avoids interstate highways and major four lanes to the extent they can.  Most of the 2,300-mile route is along the backroads of America that used to be so familiar to the traveling public.

The vehicles have their odometers taped over, assuming they have one, so that they must actively look for the directional signs.  Turning left in seven miles by the big oak tree becomes more difficult when you cannot measure how far seven miles is except by calculating distance using your speed and time, without any computing device.  No cell phones are allowed, except for emergencies.  It is not a race, as in the first one to get to the finish line.  Rather, you are expected to arrive at each check-in location during the day within a specific amount of time.  If you are early, you are penalized.  If you are late, you are also penalized.  If it sounds stressful, it is.  

Thanks to our friends, Kelley and Sherri Griswold, we had a front row seat as the cars, 120 of them in total, passed down North College Street, after a noon stop for lunch at Toomer’s Corner.  For some two hours the cars passed by, some more amazing than others, but each a gem in their own right.

I happened to be seated between two new friends, Lee and Walt, who individually knew more about cars than almost anyone I had ever met.  Between the two of them, I felt like I was in the commentor’s booth at a major race event.  It was amazing to hear them spout off the year, make and model of each car, along with minute details of what innovations each model had brought to the automotive industry.

Keep in mind that Sunday was the hottest day of the year so far in Auburn.  Some drivers were wearing jumpsuits to protect them from the flammable risks.  Some wore goggles and masks.  Some were in convertibles and others were in vehicles with suspensions that made the ride look painful as they passed by.  Others honked their horns as they passed us, giving us a history lesson in the various sounds of automotive horns in the past century.

In some ways, it felt like sitting on the front porch in a small, rural town on a Sunday afternoon during my childhood and watching the random traffic pass by.  In this case, the vehicles were works of art, lovingly maintained and driven by artists.  Some might call them mechanics but, in this case, I would definitely call them artists.

Each year the race takes a different route. There is a waiting list of people wanting to enter their own vehicle in the race and endure the challenges. Three vehicles dropped out after the first day, with more certain to follow with each succeeding day.  Not surprising when most of the cars are older than the people lining the streets to watch them pass by.

A week ago, I had never heard of the Great Race. Today, I feel blessed to have spent a warm Sunday afternoon, under a tent, with a cooler and friends, enjoying automotive history pass by.  It was a Great Race in more ways than one.

Dan Ponder can be reached at

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