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A Race Where the Cars Just Chug Along

June 18, 1988|PATRICK MOTT | Patrick Mott is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

The cops in 15 states might as well put away their radar guns from June 22 to July 3.

Because unless someone sneaks a Formula One car in there, this year's Interstate Batteries Great American Race is going to scorch up about as many highways as a premature frost.

Fortunately, in this race, that is not the point. In the Great American Race, solid mechanics, an eye on the clock and good looks are the elements that carry the day. The idea is to survive the ride, and survive on time. And it does not hurt to look pretty while you are doing it.

That is the fun part for the spectators along the 4,000-mile route from Disneyland to Boston, for the race is a gigantic rolling showcase for some of the finest--and best maintained and restored--cars America ever produced. Wednesday, beginning on Disneyland's Main Street, 120 cars, all vintage 1936 or older, will begin the journey to City Hall Plaza a continent away in Beantown, with 40 stops along the way.

Speed is irrelevant in this race, however. The trip is actually a rally in which the cars are required to precisely maintain prearranged speeds over specifically designated routes. The competitors are allowed the use of pencil, paper, stopwatch and one time-of-day watch to make their calculations. Odometers in the cars are either removed or covered.

The cars are started at one-minute intervals and pass secret checkpoints along the course, where officials determine the accuracy of their navigation and assess one penalty point per second for early or late arrival at the checkpoint.

The margin for error, according to race officials, can be as low as 1/10th of 1% for every 400 miles.

"Physically, it's really hard," said Ginni Withers, who will be racing in a 1912 Oldsmobile Speedster race car. "The concentration level has to be so high. It's like going home and getting into your (modern) car and going out on the freeway and trying to keep the needle exactly on 50. And then going exactly down to 45. And doing that for 400 miles."

Withers' husband, Newt, will be racing in a black 1934 Packard roadster that he calls Brutus, a car in which he took third place in last year's race.

"We have a sickness," she said, "and it's called old cars. We have a great big garage that holds about 14 of them."

In the Great American Race, Withers and her husband will be surrounded by dozens of others with the same illness, driving cars that include a 1909 Stanley Steamer, a 1912 fire engine, a 1931 Rolls-Royce woodie, and a 1905 French De Dietrich that was buried during World War II to hide it from the Nazis.

The race isn't for the threadbare of pocketbook. Each private entrant must pony up a $5,000 entry fee ($7,500 for corporate entries). However, the purse is equally impressive: $250,000.

Withers said that she and her husband are hoping to generate money for the Ronald McDonald House under construction next to Childrens Hospital of Orange County. The facility will offer accommodations for parents to stay near their critically ill children while the children are receiving treatment in the hospital. Withers said the Garden Grove Rotary Club has launched a drive to raise per-mile pledges and added that she and her husband have raised money from businesses and personal friends in the same way.

She said she thinks the donors will end up paying for every mile.

"The cars are very well-prepared for this race," she said. "If they're going to finish, they have to be. But they're durable, and you don't have to baby them."

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