Old-timers burn up the road. Classic cars in coast-to-coast test of timing, endurance, precision

OO-GA! OO-ga! Fasten your seatbelts, Americanaphiles. From rumble-seat roadsters to Stanley Steamers, the Great American Race is under way from California to Boston. It's the way old car lovers get serious about summer fun, and the rest of us recall the days when motorists wore goggles, striped knickers, and multicolored jumpsuits.

You can stand along the 4,500-mile race route - through 42 cities from Winnemuca to Elko, Loveland to Boonville - and witness the show. Just listen for horns and watch for flailing scarves. It all ends in Boston on July 3.

``America loves its past,'' says Robert Fuson from Warsaw, Ind., who has entered a 1912 American La France Fire Engine, the first gasoline fire truck to replace horses. Not a parade, but rather a controlled speed test with some of the sport's biggest purses and top drivers, the Great American Race has become the richest and most famous precision rally in America. ``The oldsters cry when they see us, and the young drop their mouths and say, `I didn't know these old cars ever existed,''' says Dr. Fuson.

For about 12 hours, 400 miles a day for 10 days, 120 cars with driver and navigator each will follow elaborate directions, trying to arrive at precise times at destinations that are predetermined, but unknown to the drivers. Purses are $5,000, $2,000, and $1,500 for each day, and $50,000 to the winner of the final day. This year's cars, all with original or restored parts, range in value from $12,000 to $15,000 for a Ford to $2.5 million for a legendary Thomas Flyer.

``We've had alot of people call us entertainment or soft sports,'' says Tom McRae, executive director of Great Race Ltd., of Dallas, which began the race five years ago as a moneymaking enterprise. ``But you get these guys in these old cars so long every day, no air-conditioning, no cruise control, no power steering, and I challenge the name callers to try the same thing.''

More on the complex rules later. But because entrants are not allowed to use odometers, or any kind of measuring devices besides speedometer, stopwatch, and clock, the race is unique. ``There is also the instinct of preservation and heritage that makes it famous,'' says Dick Vandenfeen, spokesman for the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA), which sanctions the event. ``It's a real test of skills, endurance, and concentration, but people tend to play up the hokum, like Tony Curtis in [the movie] `The Great Race.'''

Playing up the hokum is an expensive proposition. Curtis Graf from Irving, Texas, is one of only five drivers in this year's contingent who has run this race five straight years. Not including the price of his 1916 Packard Runabout, Mr. Graf is $20,000 out of pocket for entry fee ($5,000), transportation, lodging, and mechanical help over the span of the race. The average is about $18,000. Zerex anti-freeze is sponsoring one car to the tune of $7,500. ``I just want to have a heck of a good time and see if we can get the car across the country,'' says Graf.

``We've still got our eye very definitely on the money too, though,'' says his partner and navigator, John Classen, from Burbank, Calif. Mr. Classen has is a nine-time national champion of the Sports Car Club of America's yearly rally tour.

Ginni Withers has that look of seriousness in her eye, meaning that winning is everything. This is her fourth race. ``In life we're given opportunities to do alot of different things, and this is definitely one of putting yourself up against it all,'' she says. One year she drove a 1912 Oldsmobile race car with no windshield or top, fighting rain, traffic exhaust, and sun the entire way. ``This is like Indy [Indianapolis 500] - a lot of tears and emotion go on behind closed doors.''

For the not-so-serious, there are also consolation trophies: oldest car to finish, $25,000; the ``Ugliest Driver/Cutest Navigator''; cleanest car/driver; and the ``Where Am I Going?'' award. ``You could paint a red stripe down the middle of the road and some of these people couldn't follow it,'' says Alan Mandell from DeSoto, Texas, who has rallied semi-professionally for 14 years.

To help defray costs, most if not all cars are heavily sponsored by both national and local companies. The fabulously restored icons from motoring's early days - pre-1936 Bugattis and phaetons, runabouts, speedsters - are a rolling museum of the early attempts to conquer distance with grace and style, highly adorned and impeccably preserved. But the cars are plastered with plastic decals of sponsoring companies.

Robert Sarver won't say what he paid for his 1930 La Salle Dual-Cowl Phaeton, but he has $100,000 in restoration. To him, ``seeing America, meeting the people, and enjoying the spirit of the race'' is what it's all about.

There will be much hoopla besides the announcements of each day's winner. Seven cities have scheduled centennial or bicentennial days around the race. Wilkes-Barre, Pa., has moved its Fourth of July symphony and fireworks to the second. Salinas, Kan., has decorated its Main Street like the Yellow Brick Road, under the theme, ``Wizard of Ahs.'' Mayors and chambers of commerce have major dinners to show off the local cuisine.

``Part of the biggest fun is going in and out of the small towns and being ogled by all the townsfolk,'' says John Holden of Dallas, starting his fifth race in a 1929 Ford. ``You're a celebrity for 10 days.''

But participants say celebrity is only half the reward. The other half is getting down to the nuts and bolts of the competition. The word heard in practically every conversation here at starting time was ``precision.''

Route organizers design an explicit route that's computer-measured to 1/100th of a mile, and designate a series of exact speeds to be maintained. After getting a list of each days directions, cars leave the daily start at one-minute intervals to be scored at secret video checkpoints along the route. A penalty point is assessed for each second they pass the locations early or late. As in golf, low score wins.

The day's instructions might read something like this:

``(1.) CAS [commence average speed] 25 for 36 seconds. (2.) Ball Rd. 1/2 mile. (3.) Lincoln Ave. 1 1/4 mile (sign overhead) (4.) Straight at stop. Pause 15 seconds. (5.) Left at stop. CWS [curve warning sign].''

After more than 3,000 miles in the 1984 competition, the winner finished within 4 minutes, 38 seconds of perfect time. Some winners have come within five seconds of ``perfect time'' in a given 12-hour drive - a margin of error of less the 15/1,000ths of a second per mile.

Chances for error are great. The route is mostly on two-lane, rural roads, but traffic can be a problem. ``Somebody will pull out and hold you up for five minutes,'' says Mandell, ``then you're busy figuring out how fast to go to make up for it. By the end of the day, you've definitely got a brain fade.''

Perhaps the final irony of the Great American Race is the diversity of contestants that toss their hat in the ring. ``Some of these people are millionaires who own 40 antique cars,'' says Tom Kelsey, a photographer paid to chronicle previous races. ``Other people have put their life savings into one car.''

Leaving the opening ceremony in the back of Sarver and Creel's 1930 La Salle Phaeton, it doesn't take long to get a feel for the race. Sarver is checking off each completed direction, stopwatch in hand, pencil and paper ready for calculations. The car's built-in odometer is taped over and sealed with the race logo. Anytime in the next 4,500 miles, the car may be stopped for examination, looking for broken seals, or hidden calculators.

``Best car I've seen all day,'' says a lady on the street corner. ``Thank you, darlin','' says Sarver with a wink beneath his red corduroy golf hat. The motor whirrs and the car shakes.

``Let's hear the horn!'' says a man at a stop sign.

OO-ga! OO-ga!

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