WARWICK – Drivers in a legendary endurance driving competition made their way to the Midwest late Saturday morning, cheered on by a large crowd.
They rolled their 130 vintage cars out of Rocky Point State Park on a mostly secret 2,300-mile course that stretches from the shores of Narragansett Bay to Fargo, North Dakota.
Not actually a race, the Great Race is a 39-year-old rally event that challenges drivers to complete an epic course with precise timing and navigation.
The event drew thousands of spectators to Rocky Point and lookouts along the ceremonial opening course on local roads.
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What is at stake for the winner of the Great Race?
The rally is named after the 1965 film starring Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Natalie Wood and Peter Falk. Competitors vie for prizes including a $50,000 first place prize.
Before starting on Saturday, The Great Race had never visited Rhode Island. North Dakota is now the only state in the continental US not frequented by auto enthusiasts.
With a northerly breeze keeping temperatures comfortable, a long line of vintage cars waited for the start of the ride on Saturday morning.
The cars and their drivers rested on the paved path that traces the rocky edges of the park by the bay.
Curtis Graf, who has competed in every Great Race rally since 1983, parked in front.
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Not far behind Graf was Tom Laferriere, a rookie newcomer driving a 1939 Packard Model 120.
Its navigator, 57-year-old AJ SanClemente of Northborough, Massachusetts, was already in the passenger seat, ready to taxi.
“I don’t care where I end up, I just want to make it,” says the 55-year-old, who earns his living by buying, selling, trading and maintaining vintage cars.
Laferriere’s father bought the Packard in 1970, which Laferriere restored in 1988. He said he had wanted to compete in this race for 40 years.
When he heard the race was about to start in Rhode Island, he couldn’t wait any longer.
“I said, ‘I have to do this race,'” said the Smithfield resident.
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The race has historically started in both Connecticut and Massachusetts and finished in Massachusetts, according to Graf.
“But we never got to Rhode Island,” said Graf, 77, of Irving, Texas.
He was standing next to a 1932 Ford Roadster.
Graf said he enjoys the camaraderie and the opportunity to help other participants complete the course.
Ed Chapman, 67, of Auburn, Maine, drives a 1948 Ford sedan.
To keep up, he said, he had to upgrade the radiator and take care of various other components.
Prepare for the unexpected on the long hike
All of this is part of the drama for a vintage car competition.
Getting classic cars to travel long distances reliably isn’t “always easy,” Chapman said. “The tolerances and things like that are a bit different on an old car.”
The oldest cars in Saturday’s lineup at Rocky Point were a pair of 1916 Hudsons, according to the race director.
More than 50 vehicles built before World War II entered the competition, and all other cars were built before 1975, the guide says.
While the drivers and navigators are not racing, it can happen when old vehicles are subjected to endurance tests.
In 2018, for example, the race reached the summit of Mount Washington during the New Hampshire leg of its trek from Buffalo, New York, to Halifax, Nova Scotia, said race director Jeff Stumb.
Driving down Mount Washington Auto Road, some elderly men lost the brakes on their 1955 Buick station wagon, Stumb said.
“I mean, they’re going down,” Stumb said.
A racer saw what was happening, parked his car in front of the Buick, and stopped them from “running over a cliff,” Stumb said.
Brad Epple, 67, of Jefferson City, Missouri, who owns a banking software company, has been competing in the Great Race for 10 years.
Epple belongs to the expert class of the race. His team operates a 1964 Falcon Sprint Cabriolet with a V-8 engine.
A careful strategy for time management
He is a meticulous tactician, able to teach a seminar on strategies to complete the course within the time constraints.
He said he and his son drive the Falcon 5 mph under the speed limit to create a buffer for error should their navigation calculations take them too fast.
Rhode Island Gov. Dan McKee expects the racers to meet many people over the next nine days as they traverse the country.
He asked them to tell everyone they meet where their adventure began.
Stumb said he expects a large crowd in Fargo at the finish.
Then, one by one, they rolled out of Rocky Point.