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Chris Gilbert


A Great ‘Great Race’

In 1965, there was a movie starring Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, and Natalie Wood. It was about a 1908 road rally from New York to Paris. In 1983, a group of vintage car lovers took that idea and turned it into what has become an annual event. The movie, and the annual event that followed, is called The Great Race.

You won’t see this on ESPN, and it’s actually not really a race. If you perhaps thinking about a different movie, this is nothing like Cannonball Run. There’s no one like Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr. dressed as priests, and Shirley MacLaine and Marilu Henner dressed as nuns. No Burt Reynolds or Dom DeLouise either.

The Crokers’ ’36 Packard rolls up Main Street to the lunch stop.

Speed is not the issue here. Drivers, about 120 of them, get their instructions each morning, and have to follow them to the letter, including how fast to go, when to slow down, and of course, where to turn or stop. There are several checkpoints along the way.

This year’s route (and it’s different each year) runs from Riverside to Tacoma, Washington. Lunch stops and overnight stops are pre-determined, but the drivers don’t know exactly how they are going to get there until they get their clues. It began on Saturday with a lunch stop in Victorville and an overnight in Lancaster (which meant either going through or at least slightly around Palmdale). Day Two was longer, stopping in Bishop with an overnight in Gardnerville, Nevada. Day Three, for some of us, was the highlight.

The lunch stop was in Grass Valley. One of the racers has been involved for ten years, and managed to convince organizers to bring it through. Bill Croker and his wife Carolyn also got rewarded by being the first car into town, driving their 1936 Packard 120B Coupe up East Main Street. They were ushered to the left onto Mill Street, where, like a parade, they were welcomed over a PA system. Unlike a parade, the two got out of the car, got several hugs from friends and even strangers (which was encouraged), talked to the local media (yes I was one of them), spent about an half an hour eating lunch, and then back in the car again.

‘Great Race’ cars a kind of difficult to miss.

This went on for close to three hours with cars ranging from 1909 to 1972. The rules state that a car has to be older than 1974, and your score is adjusted based on the age of the car—the older the better. A local car club even had several vintage cars of their own on display. Top prize is 50-thousand dollars, and there are several other prizes and classes. Croker said he was in 13th place overall out of the 120 when he was the first to arrive in Grass Valley Monday.

Every good story has its sidebars as well. Many of the drivers, despite owning the cars, having to spend money to drive and maintain them, as well as pay an entry fee for the race, were also doing charity work. The three Grass Valley area drivers were getting sponsors, and raising money for Habitat for Humanity. Robert Brocke, owner of a 1972 Datsun 1200B sedan, has two teenagers as his navigators. One is doing this as his senior project—a requirement for graduation.

The crew of the ’72 Datsun.

Organizers say it’s a once in a lifetime occurrence for the race to run through Grass Valley. That’s probably true because there’s a different route every year. Last year’s race was from Buffalo, New York to Halifax, Nova Scotia. The race has been on the west coast before, but not until this year has the entire route stayed out here. The City of Grass Valley took advantage, having a nice arrival ceremony, with the local car show, and other vendors. It brought tourists to town, with little to no expense for the Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Association.

As I was driving home to Marysville, it occurred to me that the Great Race drivers might be taking the same route as they headed to Chico. Sure enough, I passed about four of them. They also got stuck in some road contraction delays that us locals have been battling for weeks now. It probably affected their times, and their scores, but likely not their attitudes. I’ll be in the same delays tomorrow. They will be headed from Chico to Eureka with a lunch stop in Ukiah. They say life is more about the journey than the destination. This is a ride even spectators can enjoy.


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