Blenheim-based Team Off to The Great Race
By Thomas Slager/ CandidBadger.com
The Great Race is not your average automobile race. Held once a year, the event takes place over nine days and more than 2000 miles. Because it takes place on rural roads in a number of US states, outright speed is not helpful. Instead, an ability to navigate and precisely drive the car is what counts. This year a team from Blenheim is returning for their third time, back on the road again after a two-year forced hiatus due to pandemic restrictions.
The team is comprised of Driver Wes Thompson from Blenheim, navigator Scott Vidler who hails from Erieau and a support team filled by Stan and Jane Uher, and Dave Carruthers, all of whom reside in the Blenheim area. The support team is important as mechanical issues are part and parcel of endurance events, and having a group of people to help fix things is essential.
The Great Race takes place over nine days and this year extends from Warick, RI to Fargo, ND. The competition is limited to cars built in 1974 and older, which provides an opportunity to see many unique, vintage automobiles. Each morning the teams are given a packet with a written route to drive that contains precise directions and timing. The goal is to arrive at each checkpoint precisely on time. Too early or too late and the team incurs penalties. Penalties are modified based on the age of the car, with older models getting the biggest benefit.
It’s an event that mixes competition with challenges and a love of old cars. Wes Thompson said, “Some teams approach it as an aggressive ‘tour.’” Others are all business and extremely competitive. We fall about halfway along that spectrum. One of the challenges is simply getting to the finish line. Half of the teams don’t. We drive the cars hard and they take a beating.”
The choice of car can be important, explains Thompson. “On our first attempt, we used a 1947 Buick Roadmaster. It had the driving characteristics of a potato, and parts were difficult to find along the route. Now we use a 1939 Ford Coupe that’s been upgraded in every fashion the rule book allows, for durability and easy repairs.” He also noted that some of the cars date as far back as 1911.
It’s not just the mechanical aspect that makes this a difficult event to complete, Thompson says. “The other challenge is the physical and psychological endurance of two people working intensely together for 2200 miles. Each day gets intentionally tougher, while the team gets worn down. It’s a fun type of work, but we try not to lose sight of the fun factor.”
Each year, the course is different and winds its way through beautiful countryside, not that the participants get much of a chance to look. Scott Vidler, the navigator, provides insight by saying, “We get our instructions 30 minutes before our start time each morning. Then I go through the instructions and highlight important actions and make calculations that I can perform before we start.
“The instructions are not a map but a sequence of actions that must be performed exactly correctly. So I have to calculate how much time it takes to stop from the speed we are travelling and how long it takes to accelerate to the required speed.
“Another action is a speed change [where] at a designated sign we will be required to change our speed. For example, 30 MPH for 36 seconds. I routinely repeat the speed that Wes is supposed to be maintaining and the sign we are looking for. When we see it I tell Wes the speed change that he has to make at the sign. When we cross he makes the change and I start my stopwatch. I count down and tell him when to change speeds again.
“The only tools that we have are a highly accurate speedometer, a clock, and a stopwatch. We are timed by the surprise timing stations that are set up along the route creating the ‘legs.’ The winners last year were 41 seconds out after 9 days. You can easily lose 15 minutes if you miss a turn.”
Thompson adds, “It takes us about seven or eight hours and 500 km to complete the day’s journey. Throughout the day our goal is to pass that check at exactly the correct second. The concept is to keep us from actually ‘racing’ on the roads.”
The event is something Vidler enjoys participating in. “I think that there are two aspects to the Great Race: cars and people. Put these together in a friendly competition and for ‘gear heads’ it doesn’t get much better. In the evening we gather in the hotel lounge and talk about our day and our cars. In the parking lot, people are working on their cars and getting ready for the next stage, and everyone will lend a hand if it is needed. It’s a very unique experience.”
The race kicked off on Saturday and the miles have started to add up. This year Thompson says that the “number one goal is to get to the finish line! In delusional moments, we imagine how proud we’d be to break the Top 10. I’d like the team to have a great experience, regardless of our performance, meet a lot of nice people with similar interests, and have some fun stories to tell.”