SAPULPA — Dozens of spectators weathered an overcast and rainy Monday morning to welcome competitors of the 2021 Hemmings Motor News Great Race, an annual antique car rally of more than 120 vehicles.
The drivers were scheduled to arrive at the Heart of Route 66 Auto Museum at noon for a lunch stop on the third day of the race, according to a news release from the museum.
The race began in San Antonio, and drivers traveled roughly 150 miles Monday morning, arriving at the museum from Nocona, Texas, via Ardmore.
Although the racers were delayed roughly an hour, the crowds remained eager and excitedly greeted the first cars around 12:45 p.m. The racers’ arrival coincided with the rain’s passage, and the energy at the museum quickly ramped up as vehicles from as early as 1918 entered the parking lot.
Among the vehicles drawing the largest pool of spectators was the vibrant yellow and oil-stained 1918 American LaFrance driven by Jay Reinan of Otter Tail County, Minnesota. The vehicle was designed as a fire-response vehicle, Reinan said, but it was converted to a racer by a previous owner around the 1950s.
Due to the nature of the vehicle — one of the last dual chain drive automobiles ever produced, Reinan said — and the Great Race’s scoring system, it’s unlikely that the car will win the event, but participating in the rallies and enjoying the atmosphere is Reinan’s primary focus, he said.
“It’s a precision driving competition. So they give you a route to follow, instructions to follow and speeds to go on,” Reinan said. “Whoever follows the directions best that day gets the best score. So you start out at zero. For every second that you’re off at the checkpoint, you get a second penalty. The closest to zero is the winner each day, and then the closest to zero at the end of the competition is the (overall) winner.”
The LaFrance’s wooden wheels and lack of front brakes make the precision aspect of the competition much more difficult compared to newer vehicles, Reinan said.
“This thing is very imprecise, which is why we’ll never win. We have no chance because we don’t have the braking or the acceleration or the steering that other people have,” Reinan said. “We’re just having fun with it.”
While the cars do get stops along the route to allow for spectators to view the vehicles as they make their way to the race’s final destination in Greenville, South Carolina, one competitor said the challenge greater than precision driving is getting the antique machines across the finish line.
Kyle Smith, the driver of a 1917 Peerless Green Dragon, said the age of many of the vehicles means one issue on the road could end the race altogether for that car.
“When we were running the race (in 2018), we broke a rear axle, and there’s not a whole lot of 1917 Peerless rear axles hanging around,” Smith said. “There’s a lot of things we can fix and kind of patch something together, but more often than not what’s going to fail on this car is the big, old parts that take time to replace.”
Smith said he and his navigator work together for several weeks beforehand each year to ensure that each knows how the other performs during the race. Although the speeds are relatively low, Smith said, following the race directions meticulously is key.
After leaving Sapulpa, the racers will travel 947 more miles before the top finishers earn their share of the $150,000 purse. The race is expected to end on June 28, according to the release.