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Great Race Recap

By: Tom Olsen

Back in our February 2019 issue we introduced you to The Great Race and two Sioux Falls car guys, Mike Skiles and Steve Larson, who entered for 2019.

For those of you that didn’t see the previous article, here’s a short review of what The Great Race is all about. The Great Race has been conducted annually since 1983. It is open to cars 1974 and older. One hundred twenty-eight teams were entered this year. Cars entered included a 1909 Buick, as well as over 50 pre-WWII vehicles. Mike and Steve entered Steve’s 1969 Buick Riviera. This is a time/speed/distance rally, as opposed to an all-out speed race. Each day, teams are given very precise instructions (VERY precise) detailing the route down to exact miles per hour and seconds of time. Segments of the race are timed each day, and teams gain or lose points based on their time above or below the specified time for a segment. Most teams are from the US, but there were nine international entries this year, including teams from Japan, England, Australia, and Germany. Race teams are broken down into five different classes based on previous wins and experience. This was the first time racing for Mike and Steve so they were in the “Rookie” class. This year’s race was held from June 22-30, beginning in Riverside, CA, and ending in Tacoma, WA, a route covering 2,300 miles. (For much more specific information on the race, I recommend a visit to www.greatrace.com.)

Of course, to compete in The Great Race, you must get there first. Even though the Riviera was meticulously prepared prior to the event, the drive to California was not without some challenges. On the way, they lost air conditioning, not a game changer by itself. Next, the electric fuel pump (in the gas tank) died. That was a six-hour repair in a shop. (Four hours searching for an OEM part and two hours to install.) Later, a serious vibration began. The vibration turned out to be C/V joints on the driveshaft, necessitating a repair stop in Utah. By this time, the guys were beginning to run out of their “cushion” for arriving on time. Because everyone in the two shops was extremely helpful and interested in the race, they made it.

Once the race began, it was filled with challenges, learning experiences, highlights, low points, a lot of great people and cool cars.

Challenges included:                                                                         

  • They were one of two cars without a $1,600 calibrated speedometer. All daily instructions were based on odd speeds, so Mike and Steve were “calculating/guessing all the time.”
  • Up to 30 pages of very detailed instructions were distributed daily. Teams picked up instructions in one-minute intervals; 20 minutes later was your start time. Dealing with all this was “challenging, but fun!”
  • “Most fun” of the challenges presented was “resolving the car repairs along the way.”

Learning experiences:

  • Buy the expensive calibrated speedometer!
  • The race is “very intense!” The timing/directions/navigation is stressful; some teams struggled with this a bit. Mike and Steve still came back as friends, though!
  • These are long days – in line at 7AM daily, calibrate the watch, get instructions, rally all day, attend a car show each night until 9PM! Repeat the next day.
  • Car guys are great guys!

Highlights included:

  • “Nature’s beauty along the way” for Mike. “The cars along the way and the daily car shows” for Steve.
  • Museums at certain daily stops on the route. The Western Antique Aeroplane and Auto Museum in Hood River, OR, and the LeMay Museum in Spanaway, WA, were particular highlights.
  • Meeting several great people during the event, including several of the teams. A brother/sister team from Australia was particularly enjoyable.

Low points:

  • Mike admits to really struggling with the directions each day. (He was the navigator.) “Each day was like a test – all day, every day!” The daily directions were so complicated that Mike couldn’t fully enjoy much of the route; all his attention was required for directions and timing.
  • Around the middle of the race it was beginning to feel “really long,” but then the pace picked up.

Other random observations:

Mike and Steve related that about 90% of the teams were serious about the competition. The remainder were there for the overall experience, like they were. The Buick was a big attraction at the daily car shows because most people can relate to the Riviera more than the older vintage cars.

Both are pleased to say that they came home “still great friends!” They travelled just under 6,000 miles in 16 days, many of which were very intense. They took four days going out, and two days returning home. Both guys express their appreciation for Kevin Bowman of Bowman Real Hot Rods in Brandon, SD. Kevin was very helpful with prep for the car prior to the trip and was also a great resource with the few problems they had along the way.

The big question is: how’d they do? The guys placed 18th of 45 rookie teams entered! Not bad at all, I’d say! They won two “Aces” (perfect scores) on the practice day. I asked them if they’d do it again and received a resounding “No”, which surprised me. “We are not unhappy we did it, it was a great experience, but it’s tough!” We’ll see. Maybe after all that stress settles down, they’ll give it another shot…someday.


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