SAN DIEGO — A passer-by gazed admiringly at the 1931 Nash. For several minutes, he inspected the old car from front to back and inside out, then asked its owner, George Herreros, if he would start it up. Herreros was only too happy. The engine turned over once, twice and then caught. After a couple of seconds, it settled into a peaceful purr.
Under the mid-morning sun, it was hard to tell which sparkled brightest: the chrome on Herreros' Nash, his silver hair or his smiling eyes.
"It's my baby," he said like a kid with a new toy, except that this is an old toy that only looks new.
Herreros took the car to the open road Wednesday in the sixth Interstate Batteries Great American Race. He and partner Bill Bulley are in a 120-car field that started from Disneyland's Main Street and--they hope--will finish 4,200 miles later on July 3 in Boston.
Herreros, Bulley and the '31 Nash are rookies in the road rally for cars built in 1936 or before. Two other local entries--Ken and Walter Anderson in a '34 Ford and Bob Wrighton and Bob Mills in a '34 Buick--also are competing for the first time. Jim Chaffee and John Keckhut in a '31 Cadillac convertible are in their fifth race.
The teams headed north from Anaheim to San Luis Obispo. They will continue across the country through Sacramento, Reno, Salt Lake City, Denver, Kansas City, St. Louis and Cincinnati and on to Boston. The average day will consist of 8-10 hours and 380 miles of driving.
"I think it's going to be a heck of a fun time, day in and day out," Herreros said.
The fun begins each morning at sunrise, when race officials give the drivers and navigators a set of instructions for the next stop along the 4,200-mile course. Included are the time it should take to reach various points in the route, the speed to maintain and, of course, directions.
"It's a rally race," Herreros explained. "Speed isn't a factor. The fastest you're allowed to go is 55 m.p.h. The object is to go from Point A to Point B in the prescribed time."
Cars are required to precisely maintain prearranged speeds over designated routes. The competitors are allowed to use pencil, paper, stopwatch and one time-of-day watch for their calculations. Odometers in the cars are either removed or covered.
The driver attempts to maintain steady speed and consistency in the time it takes to start and stop. The navigator tries to determine how much the team needs to increase or decrease speed to adjust for traffic lights or slow-moving vehicles.
"The navigator has to be younger than the driver because he has to be quicker," said Bulley, the navigator, with a laugh.
The cars are started at one-minute intervals. At several secret checkpoints along the course, race officials keep tabs on whether the entrants are on time. If they aren't, penalty points are added.
"It's expected the winners of each race will be within seconds of the assigned time," Bulley said.
Each day is a race in itself, with $5,000 going to the winners. On the final dash to Boston, the winning team receives $50,000.
Chaffee and Keckhut have improved in each of the past four years, and they finished ninth in 1987.
"I'm shooting for No. 1 this year," Chaffee said. "I've got a good shot at it."
For the rookies, however, there are no delusions of grandeur.
"Getting an old car like this to travel 4,000 miles in 11 days is a challenge," Herreros said. "Just getting there is a victory in itself."
Bulley added: "If we were to prioritize our goals, it would be to make it all the way, to have fun and then to try to win something."
At about this time a year ago, Herreros came up with the idea of getting into the race.
"Last year, the first stop was in San Diego," Herreros said. "I've always been a car buff, and so I went down to Seaport Village to see the old cars. I said, 'That's for me.' It took me about six months to find the right car."
When he found the 1931 Nash, he knew it would be perfect.
"If I'm going to race cars at my age, I want a car my age," said Herreros, 57, who was born in 1931, also.
The car is olive green with yellow wire wheels, plenty of chrome, an eight-cylinder engine with twin ignition and hardly a scratch, dent or bit of rust.
Herreros said the Nash was shipped to Hawaii in the early 1930s and was purchased by a collector who put it in a museum for 30 years. A man in La Costa bought it 12 years ago, then sold it to Herreros in November.
"I bought it for $8,000, and I've put $5,000 in it," Herreros said. "I'd venture to say the actual value of the car is $15,000 to $20,000. It's a unique car. It has only 56,000 miles on it, and it has the original paint job and upholstery."
Although Herreros has handled most of the mechanical work on the vehicle, he isn't sure the car will hold up.
"The car is prepared to be competitive," he said. "It has all the state-of-the-art equipment that's allowable. But there is anxiety in the mechanical part of it. I listen to every sound in the car. I'd really like to have 5,000 miles on it to have it completely broken in."