How an Addict Started the Great American Race

In towns and cities across North America, communities turn out to cheer this annual event.

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- Posted on Apr 23, 2019

A close up on a car race track as brilliant sunlight pours through.

I believe in dreams, the kind that God plants in our hearts as seeds. Sometimes they’re big dreams that change the course of our lives. Or sometimes they involve a specific project you believe in, that you hope people will enjoy and have fun with.

A dream like that started for me in 1982, when I was president of Interstate Batteries and seeking more public recognition for our company.

One night a longtime friend, Tom McRae, excitedly talked about something called the Great American Race. “It would be classic cars, built before World War II,” he said, “racing from Los Angeles to Indianapolis and arriving in time for the Indy 500 at the end of May. It would be the first time ever for an event of this kind.” He looked at me intently.

“What about your company sponsoring a race like that? Think of the publicity value!”

I gulped. Although we had been close friends for years, Tom and I had never had any business dealings together. But when he looked at me and said, “If God wants this to happen, it will work out,” that cranked me up! For it was only through the grace of God I sat there that day.

Once a hopeless alcoholic, I had felt I was on a treadmill from which there was no escape. One night, after the police had pulled me over on the highway, I knew my life was out of control and found myself screaming out to God, “I can’t handle this by myself!” God helped me take control of my addiction, and when I put Christ in charge of my life, my old fears, hang-ups and compulsions were replaced by a sense of joy and peace.

Tom McRae had gone through a similar experience, so when he proposed we put our plan before God, I was more than glad to kneel down with him. “We want to honor you, Lord, in all things,” we prayed. “If this venture is your will, help us to make it happen.”

That’s how Tom and I became race promoters. Our plan was to open the event to classic-car owners who would pay a fee to enter, and offer prize money to the winners. As the cars chugged from town to town, we hoped people would turn out to see a lot of interesting old cars and participate in a pleasant community event. And on the way we hoped to generate a lot of goodwill, community spirit—and publicity for my company.

But at the end of January 1983, our Great American Race was scheduled to begin in four months, but we had no entries.

For a while I was feeling like my grandson Zach did when one day he got cut on the foot by a toy car. When he looked down and saw the blood, he started to wail, “Grandma, Grandma, put your finger on it. All my air is gonna go out!” Well, I was feeling like all my air was going out too. But I thought of our prayer again, and how much the event meant to me, and determined to hang in there.

Sure enough, one of our press releases hit pay dirt when Old Cars Weekly ran a front-page story on the race, and entries began rolling in.

On the morning of May 24, 1983, 69 antique cars lined up at Knott’s Berry Farm, south of Los Angeles, ready to commence their 2000-mile race.

One beautiful 1909 Mercedes, a four-door convertible in lustrous enamel, had bronze exhaust pipes snaking from the hood. Another was a 1930 Cord Cabriolet in gleaming burgundy. Near it purred a sleek 1929 Duesenberg. Down the line was a 1930 Packard Boattail Speedster in brilliant vermilion accented by a chrome radiator. And I couldn’t help smiling at the picturesque 1931 Ford Model A wooden-sided delivery truck.

The Great American Race featured competitive “orienteering” runs in which each team (driver and navigator) would be given accurate route and time instructions. For guidance, participants were only allowed a clock, stopwatch, their speedometer, pencil and paper.

Our organizers prayed at the beginning of each race, in the morning, at lunch and on overnight stops, asking God for the safety of the racers and a blessing on the communities we passed through. Even though skill and determination on the part of the drivers were clearly involved, I also saw the race as what I called a jaunty journey of joy. One that would bring drivers and observers alike together in a satisfying and fun experience.

On Saturday morning, May 18, Tony Curtis—who had starred in the film The Great Race—waved the starting flag. The racers roared off. It was an amazing sight to behold, antique machines traversing back roads and interstates, covering 170 to 480 miles a day, through all kinds of terrain and weather.

To me, it was a display of true Americana as jubilant crowds applauded us in every town and city. In each city where we stopped, we were feted with old-fashioned picnics, homemade ice cream, cookies and

gallons of cold lemonade. Flags fluttered from lampposts, high school bands played on courthouse lawns and banners greeted us with “Welcome, Racers!”

Naturally, there were breakdowns. Six cars blew their engines in the mountains. Ancient gears gave out and bearings crumbled as cars gave up the ghost along the way. But their owners all took it in good spirits.

Out of 69 cars that started the Great American Race, 62 finished a week later in Indianapolis. On the Friday before the Indy 500, the city’s 32-police-officer world champion motorcycle drill team shut down traffic and escorted our racers to the Indy 500 track for a victory lap.

In the years since, the race has continued to be a big hit, and old cars have driven through towns all over the U.S. and Canada. Sure, any dream can encounter obstacles. But if you’re determined to do it, with God’s help you can keep chugging along and follow your dream all the way. As the motto of the Great American Race goes: to finish is to win.

This story first appeared in the May 1998 issue of Guideposts magazine.

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