Monday, June 24, 2013

The Great Race of 1908...to Alaska?

by Nancy DeWitt
© Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum

A most extraordinary around-the-world race took place just over 105 years ago. On February 12, 1908, six automobiles and their crews gathered at New York's Times Square for the start of the Great Race from New York to Paris. The American team's car was a big Thomas Flyer, adorned with  ropes, shovels, spare tires and extra parts, plus a pair of 14-foot planks for crossing ditches and mud. There was no road system connecting North America's east and west coasts, so it was no surprise that the teams faced many challenges and breakdowns during their journey across the United States. The drive across Asia would be no less formidable.

Remarkably, the race called for teams to ship their automobiles to Valdez and drive across Alaska to Nome during the month of March. That can't even be done today, winter or summer! Yet, numerous Alaska miners and freighters had apparently claimed that the trail out of Valdez would be solid enough for automobile travel, even though no motorized vehicle had ever driven over it. From Nome, the racers were to find a way across the Bering Strait and resume land travel across Siberia.

The American team was the first to reach San Francisco and head north by ship. The entire population of Valdez, including the local brass band, turned out to greet their arrival. It was the first automobile ever seen in Valdez, but unfortunately it never left the dock after being unloaded. The snow was much too deep and the trail too narrow and soft for an automobile. Race officials nixed the Alaska route, and the Thomas Flyer was loaded onto the next ship for Seattle. The new route took racers to Japan, and then on to Siberia. Despite their side trip to Valdez, the American team would go on to win the race. Several books have been written about the Great Race of 1908, with Hard Driving by Fairbanks journalist Dermot Cole featuring the best write-up by far about the Alaska segment.

In early August, the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum will host a special presentation by Jeff Mahl about the Great Race. Jeff is the great grandson of George Schuster, driver and chief mechanic of the Thomas Flyer during the race. Jeff tells the story of the race in character as his "Great Gramp," regaling audiences with a first person perspective of the stirring events and human trials of the event. His performance features stories never before published about the race, showing the human side of the race and building true appreciation for the marvelous machines that propelled the daring crews around the world.

The presentation will take place on August 6 at 7 PM, and is free with museum admission or a season pass. Jeff's program includes original photographs from the race projected onto a screen behind him as he tells the story from the seat of an antique car. As an added bonus, Jeff will also show what the 2011 World Race looked like from "over the hood" 105 years later. I saw Jeff's presentation at Greenfield Village a few years ago, and can honestly say that you will NOT want to miss it!

"Absolutely brilliant storyteller...kept the audience enthralled and thrilled. A terrific performance that attained a very high level of inspiration and genuine emotional impact." Marty W. Merkley, Chautauqau Insititution, New York

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