The Daytona 500. The Indianapolis 500. 24 Hours of Le Mans. Great races all, but none are the Great Race.
The Great Race is an event that spans multiple states over the course of nine days. It features cars built in 1909 competing against 1965 Mustangs that move from city to city with the goal of arriving at a precise time in each location. It’s truly a one-of-a-kind event.
“This is the most unique event in all of motorsports,” said Jeff Stumb, Great Race director. “It gives hundreds of people from all over the world a chance to see a lot of different places and things along the way, and it includes 18 cities and towns.”
Unlike the previously mentioned iconic races, the Great Race does not take place at a track. This year’s event begins June 18 in Warwick, Rhode Island, and conclude in Fargo, North Dakota, on June 26. The roads that link those two cities – which couldn’t be more different – are what makes this race so special.
The 2,300-mile adventure will travel to cities in Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota.
“These cars are hitting the road, and you don’t have to leave your hometown to be able to see them if you’re on our path,” Stumb said. “We bring the race to you — 130 antique/classic cars — to your main street.”
First Time in Rhode Island
The Great Race has never come through the state of Rhode Island, until this year. John Gibbons, the executive director of the Rhode Island Sports Commission, has been trying to get the event to his state for years. Now, not only will Rhode Island host a part of the race, it will provide the kickoff party.
“It’s a privilege to be able to work on this event, and it’s an event that has been very well received here in our state,” Gibbons said. “We have the governor lined up to get them started on race day at a beautiful park by the sea. Hopefully we’ll have a real big crowd – and the economic impact has also been great for us, as it’s a great time to bring people to Rhode Island.”
Stumb and Gibbons have planned multiple events leading to the start of the race, including a tour of a private car collection in Providence as well as “Newport Day” on Thursday, June 16. Competitors will be able to enjoy Rhode Island’s car culture, including the Audrain Automobile Museum and the Newport Car Museum.
When the first cars take off from Rocky Point State Park at 10:30 a.m. on June 18, car enthusiasts from all over the United States and countries including Japan, England, Australia, Canada and more will begin the trek toward glory.
Reaching the Checkpoint
Cars start — and hopefully finish — one minute apart if all goes according to plan. The biggest part of the challenge, other than staying on time and following the instructions, is getting a historic car to the finish line each day.
“I have 70-year-old volunteers sitting in a lawn chair in the middle of the countryside marking the cars’ positions as they go by as secret checkpoints,” Stumb said of the dedication of his volunteers. “It takes 50 volunteers who take two weeks’ vacation every year to come help me put this race on. We pay their expenses, but it’s not a paying gig. Checkpoint crews, setup and scoring crews; if somebody’s car breaks down, we pick them up and never leave anybody behind. It takes a lot of volunteers who come from all over the country — literally from coast to coast, and most of the checkpoint workers have been doing this for 20 years.”
The vehicles, each with a driver and navigator, are given precise instructions each day that detail every move down to the second. They are scored at secret check points along the way and are penalized one second for each second that they arrive either too early or too late. The older the car, the bigger the handicap afforded to it, and as in golf, the lowest score wins.
When the race started 40 years ago in 1983, it was only for cars from 1936 and older. But as time went on and those cars from the ’60s and ’70s became older, the deadline became cars built before 1974. Organizers had to level the playing field by coming up with a formula.
“We don’t want the race to be all 1965 Mustangs — we want a variety,” Stumb said. “By offering this handicap for every year older your car is, you get a percentage off of your score. So, this creates the incentive to bring a 1916 Hudson or 1918 American LaFrance. Only one time in the history of the race has a post-war car won.”
The 2022 version will be the biggest ever, with more than 130 teams vying in five different divisions for a purse of $150,000 in prize money.
While there are cash prizes and competitive aspects to the race, at the end of the day it’s about having a good time.
“When the Great Race pulls into a city it becomes an instant festival,” Stumb said. “Last year we had several overnight stops with more than 10,000 spectators on our way to having 250,000 people see the Great Race during the event.”
Over the years, the Great Race has reached 46 of the 48 contiguous United States. Rhode Island and North Dakota will be the final ones checked off the list.
“We have no plans to do anything in Alaska or Hawaii — so this will be the last time we’re in a new state,” Stumb said.