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The Great Race : The goal: 4,129 miles across 17 states in six days. Eating and sleeping on the move. Endless fatigue. Is it worth it? Oh, yes.


DETROIT — Living, went the message stitched inside the hat, is the only thing worth dying for.

I almost bought this No Fear baseball cap with its brown suede bill and Oscar Wilde homily. It seemed to bode well. It certainly spoke to the motoring marathon ahead and the exhilaration of personal risk and bodily damage attached to a mind-breaking ordeal: One Lap of America.

This year's extreme game for those high of spirit, heavy of foot and rich with radar detectors was 4,129 miles across 17 states in six days and insomniac nights. From Dearborn, Mich., where Fords begin, west to Wisconsin and bear left to Tulsa, Okla. Hang another left to Atlanta, then north through Virginia and New York before a final dash across northern Ohio to suburban Detroit.

And along the way, every opportunity to damn the gendarmes, full speed ahead on 11 racing circuits from Atlanta Motor Speedway's oval to the Formula One wriggles of Watkins Glen, N.Y.

In the spirit and slogan of the event, you run what you brung. As long as it was street legal.

In previous years that has meant stretch limousines and an ambulance containing attendants and a patient pregnant with pillows. Just in case state troopers dared to doubt the red lights, siren and apparent emergency purpose.

This month, the 85-vehicle assortment broke down to race cars and two faux police cars, sedans and a 1938 panel truck, vintage automobiles from both sides of the Atlantic, and muscle and sports cars from both rims of the Pacific.

Plus a fat, spongy Cadillac Eldorado brung by three guys from Oregon.

"This is certainly a motor-sports event for real cars and real drivers on real roads and race tracks," says Brock Yates, curmudgeonly founding father of the event and editor-at-large of Car and Driver magazine, umbrella sponsor of One Lap. "But we also have this eclectic flavor of guys putting together teams around their old Corvette or a Dodge Dart.

"For these people, this is an opportunity to rub elbows with the greats of a pastime they are involved in. And to run with them on fabled racetracks."

One Lap also is a clean parallel of big-city marathons where professional runners draw the sponsors and ESPN--but overall support and the fun of it all are provided by amateur puffers, wheelchair jocks, and jogging waiters balancing Dom Perignon.

So there were indeed big, growly dogs at the 1995 One Lap. Such as Daytona winner David Murry in a factory-sponsored Porsche 911 Turbo. And John Buffum, winner of a dozen rally championships, piloting a factory BMW M3 Lightweight.

Yet behind them, a diverse population of dentists, printing salesmen, hardware chain owners, opticians, fine arts students, chocolate manufacturers from Switzerland and an electronics whiz from Tokyo.

All were driving fools who cherish cars as vehicles of personal pleasure; who relish driving and would rather motor 1,000 miles a day than watch the World Series from behind home plate.

Consider those chocolatiers, the Swiss trio of Robert Dubler, Christian Schober and Mario Franco. Each year they call Detroit long distance and buy a car. This year it was an onyx Chevrolet Impala SS they would drive in One Lap before shipping it back to Geneva.

Mike Garrett of Poolesville, Md., entered a new Mustang and Linda Cheatham of Fairfax, Va., was at the wheel of a Ford Taurus SHO. Both have received kidney transplants. And both drove with their donors, using One Lap to promote organ transplants.

Politically and legally, however, One Lap wasn't always this correct.

It was conceived in 1971 by a younger, rowdier Yates who decreed that a Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining Sea Memorial Dash was a perfect touch of rebellion for the times. Life was looser then. Fifty-five only meant middle age.

The ambulance was a legend of those early events. So was the 24-foot limo with an espresso machine, freezer, built-in bed and, yes, even the kitchen sink. Then there was the Porsche driver who collected nine speeding tickets in one state, didn't finish the event and was never heard from again. He is believed still attached to a pickax and a chain gang.

Burt Reynolds made a movie of the madness and "Cannonball Run" became a cult classic. Among certain cults.

Cannonball was an illegal, tightly secretive, 3,000-mile road race from New York to California. The record was 32 hours earned in 1971 by race driver Dan Gurney. He ran a Ferrari across Arizona at 170 m.p.h.

"172 m.p.h.," corrects Yates, co-driver at the time. But such pace, he quickly adds, was speeding the end of the event. "There was a hard edge developing and I knew if we kept on, we were going to hurt someone."

The Cannonball died in 1978. It was resurrected three years later as One Lap of America, a socially responsible rally of 10,000 miles around the national perimeter. But this version attracted professional teams with their split-second mind-sets, small fortunes spent on calculators and computers, and zero tolerance for amateurs.

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