In the world of vintage cars, car owners rarely push the limits of their restorations. They might take the car on a joyride on a nice summer day and drive it (or even tow it) to a classic car show, but typically these cars go back into the garage where they are safe. If you want to throw that all out the window and truly enjoy your classic car, while pushing it to its performance limits, then there’s a race for that: The Great Race.
Started 36 years ago, The Great Race was created to bring vintage automobiles out of museums and private collections and get them on the roads. This year participants drove their automobiles, which have to be model year 1972 or older, on a nine-day trek from Buffalo, N.Y., to Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.
When a local businessman approached Rodney Parris, automotive technology instructor at Georgia Northwestern Technical College (GNTC), to have his students participate in The Great Race’s X-Cup college and high school division, it was an opportunity Parris couldn’t pass up.
Building Team DeSoto
GNTC’s Great Race sponsor helped them purchase a 1955 DeSoto Fireflite and the school quickly got to work completely restoring the car.
“We had a lot of fun with the car and took it in as a project and tried to do most of the work after school hours,” says Parris. “A group of students absolutely loved it.”
Originally thinking the car was in pretty decent shape, a laundry list of repairs popped up when they got a better look: engine, transmission, differentials, brakes, steering and suspension, and a 6-volt to 12-volt conversion.
“When this was just getting started, this got a lot of student attention,” says Nick Barber, GNTC student and driver. “Even though we were working on a ’55 DeSoto, we learned the same kind of skills getting cars ready in real life.”
Almost the entire GNTC Automotive Technology class got involved in the car in some way, but for the actual race, four students were chosen to be in the car on race day. According to The Great Race X-Cup rules, two navigators must be chosen who are under the age of 22, and the two drivers must be 21 or older.
Parris set up a contest for his students to choose the drivers and navigators. Adam Grogan and Nick Barber were chosen to alternate as drivers and Zayne Waits and John Valle alternated as navigators.
“Mostly all of us have a lifelong love of antique vehicles. This race was all about getting young people back into these cars and getting them out on the road,” said Adam Grogan, GNTC student and driver.
Consistency and Strategy
Unlike your typical race, The Great Race is a rally-style race. Each day the teams were given a time to start and a designated time to arrive at a checkpoint.
Getting to the checkpoint on time took a lot of math, route planning and consistent driving from the team. (They did, however, take a five-point penalty on their time each day for having all four students in the car, except on the final day.)
To get to their destination, the team had to take scenic back roads without the help of GPS, cellphones or computers. They were only allowed a calibrated speedometer and a calibrated clock to assist them.
“The goal is not to be the fastest,” says Barber. “The goal is to be consistent and control the car and reach the checkpoint at the right time and maintain the car at a certain miles per hour.”
“My strategy was mostly arithmetic based hours and hours of studying to make speed as accurate as possible,” added Grogan.
The four students and Parris flew from Atlanta to Buffalo and had the car transported there for the race. On June 23, they started in Buffalo and ended in Halifax on July 1. The team made pit stops in Lockport, NY; Batavia, NY; Norwich, NY; Bennington, Vermont; Mount Washington, New Hampshire; Owls Head, Maine; Seal Cove, Maine; Rothesay, NB, Canada; and Truro, Nova Scotia, Canada.
“One of the greatest things about the race was climbing Mt. Washington in this old car,” says Grogan. “It is a very, very steep, tall mountain and we went up without and problems in that old car. On the way down those old drum brakes were tested,” says Grogan.
As Grogan would brake the brakes would heat up, so much so that the brakes would become too hot to grip and stop the car. To avoid losing braking power, the team would stop and let the car cool down about every 200 yards. Making it up and down the mountain was a huge feat for the team.
A Buick was not as lucky and started sliding down the hill in a scary moment of the race, but thankfully another driver was quick to use his Mustang to slow down the car before it could go off the side of the mountain.
Testing Their Skills
On the final day of the race, the team’s automotive know-how was put to the ultimate test.
“The last day we were going for the win,” says Barber. “Zayne and I were running right for first place and the car was performing fantastic. We pull up to the start line down to the second, hit the gas and boom. It just cut out,” says Barber.
The pair pulled the car off the side of the road and immediately started troubleshooting to determine the cause of the malfunction. Their vehicle that had been running smoothly just the day before.
The culprit proved to be a broken rotor button. The rotor button sits on the distributor cap like a key, and with it broken it wasn’t able to grab. Unfortunately, the team didn’t have a spare rotor button in the car and had to “MacGyver” a solution fast.
“An hour had gone by and we accepted we wouldn’t win. So, we took cardboard and taped it to the rotor button in the right shape to sit down and connect the rotor button the distributor cap,” explains Barber. “We got it to start and limped back to the finish line. We were running on about four cylinders and just had enough to get us back.”
Without the win, the race still proved to be an unforgettable experience for the students and Parris.
“It was just a fantastic experience and I would do anything to do it again,” says Grogan.
“The race was a really good deal all around as far as my students go,” added Parris. “It was even more important that they learned something.
“My proudest moment was that they could do this roadside repair.”