What makes The Great Race so great? The challenge

kyle and brett practicing for the great race

Driving a vintage car 2300 miles is no small feat, so why would anyone want to add the difficulty by turning the trip into a rally that’s based on navigation and driving accuracy? It’s all about the challenge. Here is a behind-the-scenes look at what makes The Great Race so great.

The Great Race has been putting teams of two—a driver and navigator—to the test since 1983, traversing the U.S. in all directions and even crossing the border. The 2018 route snakes the 100 pre-1972 vehicles from Buffalo, New York, to Halifax, Nova Scotia, on backroads and scenic byways. The Great Race website has all the lunch and dinner stops listed; if you are in the area, we encourage you to get a first-person view of all the great cars.

At its core, the race is not the experience you might be imagining. The structure is a time-speed-distance rally, where precision driving and navigation are most important, not speed. Rarely will Great Race competitors reach speeds more than 50 mph. The goal is to follow the directions provided by the Rally Master as flawlessly as possible, holding speed accurately and accelerating consistently.

Hang around a group of Great Race entrants very long and you will invariably hear “to finish is to win” a few times, especially in the later days of rallying. The long days in the car and the accuracy demanded of both driver and navigator wear down even the hardened veterans. For those competing at high levels, there is benefit to driving older vehicles. The scoring system places a handicap on the newer cars, which gives slightly more leeway for mistakes in the older vehicles.

With that, now is a good a time as any to introduce the Hagerty rookies and the car they’ll be be driving.

Navigator: Brett Lirones

portrait of brett
Sabrina Hyde

A lifelong boat enthusiast, Brett claims his strength is making horsepower and loud noises. Owner of a late-model Pontiac GTO and a classic flathead Ford truck, he has an appreciation for all things mechanical. Brett has plenty of experience with all that happens underneath a car (he was a member of the Hagerty Swap to Street build), but is fresh to navigating and Great Race.

Driver: Kyle Smith

portrait of kyle
Sabrina Hyde

That’s me. I’ve been playing with cars for years, and I’m a Corvair enthusiast outside of work hours—and sometimes at work too. I’m a total rookie when it comes to the demands of Great Race, but I’m looking forward to the challenge. I have a mechanical mind that takes pleasure in getting shifts just perfect, which is a skill that will be soon be put to the test.

The Car: 1917 Peerless “Green Dragon”

green dragon auto
Gabe Augustine

We certainly jumped right into the deep end of Great Race by picking up the keys to this car. The Green Dragon is the veteran on the team, having competed in each Great Race since 1997 with only two previous drivers, John Hollansworth and our own Jonathan Klinger. The car’s age creates a demanding environment for driver and navigator. Powered by a 330-cubic-inch V-8 mated to an unsynchronized three-speed manual transmission, shifting takes a precise touch and demands consistency. The lack of roof or side curtains/windows presents some unique challenges as well, including—but not limited to—rain, wind noise, and lack of space.

The Great Race begins June 23 in Buffalo and finishes July 1 in Halifax. We’ll be posting updates to the Hagerty Classic Cars Facebook page throughout our journey. I sure hope we don’t need our rain suits.

DAY 0: Trophy Run

After attending “rally school,” which was primarily for rookies (like us) or those unfamiliar with the Great Race navigation and timing methods (like us), navigator Brett Lirones and I slid into the 1917 Peerless Green Dragon and tested our skills on an actual rally course for the first time in the Trophy Run.

We immediately received a crash course in problem solving after I bumped our highly calibrated speedometer so that it now read six miles-per-hour when we were at a standstill. And then the second hand and minute hand on our time-of-day clock stuck together, and that clock is pretty important if you want to arrive at the starting line on time. Thankfully, we eventually fixed both.

In the end, we scored a total of 42 seconds off the ideal time. For scale, the best rookie team scored 13 seconds, with the Grand Champion Division (made up of those who have won previously) scored just under 2 seconds. We made some errors along the way but we were able to identify them and hopefully will not make them again in the coming days.

DAY 1: Buffalo to Fairport, New York

When I accepted the position as driver for this year’s Great Race team, I promised that I wouldn’t break the car, but we finished our first night with the car on a lift. But I’ll get to that.

Upon leaving the start line, the weather changed fast. Dark clouds moved in and Brett and I prepared for the worst. Fortunately, the rain stayed light and intermittent, which allowed us to drive the car with minimal changes to driving style.

We corrected some of our previous mistakes, but the directions tripped us up, and we made a handful of inconsistent speed changes. In the process of making up some lost time, we left an uphill stop with slightly more vigor than usual, resulting first in a loud shearing-metal noise and then the sound of small metal rattling, as if in a tin can. The car continued to drive well, so we made a quick judgement call to press on and keep our ears tuned to any other noises.

After arriving at our destination, we found that our aggressive start had broken a weld on the third link of the three-link suspension that controlled the pinion angle on the rear axle. While not necessary to drive, it ensures the axle does not rotate the leaf springs and cause the pinion bearing or u-joint to fail. So we had to fix it.

Our arrival at Fairport proved how it’s good to know people who can help. Howard and Doug Sharp were kind enough to ask their mechanic to open his garage so we could put the Peerless on a lift. This allowed us to not only correct the broken third link, but also to inspect and ensure our travels with the broken link did not cause any other damage. A welder quickly burned in the third link and we had it reinstalled faster than the others in the garage even got a cold drink open.

DAY 2: Fairport to Troy, New York

kyle and brett in green dragon
Sabrina Hyde

Another day, another test. At least we knew the Dragon’s rear suspension was fixed and it was ready to go. That was a great thing, as the route ahead fully tested its capability.

Dark clouds hung low and threatening much of the morning, leading Brett and I to put on our rain gear while hoping we didn’t need it. We knew we had to cover a lot of mileage in the afternoon, and the rain gear was warm. We decided to risk driving without it. That was a mistake. An hour into the afternoon timed segments, the clouds showed no mercy and dumped buckets on us during a slow speed section. With the Dragon’s open cockpit, our legs stay dry but at speed the rain hits us about chest high. Moving too slow to sweep the rain behind us, the wet saturated the interior of the car quickly.

This rain also made the narrow-tire Peerless a handful to operate. A relatively light car (roughly 3300 pounds including driver and navigator) shod with tires lacking any channels to handle water on the road, there were at least two occasions where a downhill stop turned into a slide. Even attempting to be gentler and give extra space on the stops still produced a car that wanted to follow the crown of the road more than in dry conditions. Pre-war race cars in inclement weather is not for the faint of heart.

Topography of the route also played a large factor in testing our rookie skills. While the Peerless V-8 provides a lot of power, it still struggles on very steep inclines, especially if the driver makes an incorrect gear selection. One would assume with only three gears it would be difficult to choose the wrong one, but it happens. The 330-cubic-inch V-8 has a relatively low rev ceiling and does not respond well to being spun at high RPM. So shifts need to be executed at just the right time to keep the engine in its power band without overrunning or lugging.

Even with all the learning we had to do while en route, Brett and I fared well. An overall score of 34 seconds out us 31st overall and second in the rookie division.

DAY 3: Troy, New York, to Burlington, Vermont

The most fun we had in the Great Race actually took place after we’d made an error of some sort and have to make up time. That happened today, and it was an absolute riot.

The morning was, as usual, chaotic. I took care of making sure the car was ready while Brett waited at the table for our instruction packet. I topped off the oil, and it seems the Green Dragon was a bit thirsty as we worked it on the hills yesterday.

Brett’s task is to ensure we have all direction pages, calculate all time-loss numbers for each maneuver, and highlight any concerns he has so there are no surprises later. The first miles each day are pretty much a tire-warmup and speedometer-calibration run. During this time we hold the speed at exactly 50 mph for an extended stretch of highway. The route book gives us exact times we should arrive at given landmarks or signs. Based on actual arrival times, versus the ideal, we can correct the speedometer to ensure our maneuvers for the day are correct. Then we go “on the clock.”

We got tripped up early, but it wasn’t a disaster the direction was to hold speed at 35 mph and turn at a street named Cross. It specifically stated NOT to turn on Church Street. After holding speed for what seemed like forever, we became worried we missed Cross Street and were off course. We agreed to turn around and see if we could find it. Returning from our turnaround, no fewer than six cars at one minute intervals passed us going the way were just going. We decided our assumption was wrong, and we had serious time to make up.

The road was winding and narrow, but we had to get back to our minute at least. That meant pushing a bit and passing each of those six cars, finding the car that was supposed to be one minute ahead of us, then stopping for one minute and continuing the course (this is called hacking). So we rallied down the mountainside. Let me tell you, if you ever have the chance to speed a pre-war race car down a curvy road, do it.

We successfully pulled off the hack and crossed the next checkpoint with a final score of 46 seconds (the “hacked” segment was 15 seconds). Still not bad for rookies, and we feel like we are still getting a few kinks worked out. We’re now 49th overall and ninth in the rookie division. Only five days to go…

DAY 4: Burlington, Vermont, to Gardiner, Maine

Green dragon on top of Mount Washington
Green Dragon time results for day 4
Great Race in the mountains
courtesy of The Great Race

After starting Day 4 with a few short segments, Brett and I felt confident that a couple of good scores would soon be coming our way. Lunch at the famous Mount Washington Auto Road was followed by a nine-mile narrow-winding stretch of asphalt and gravel that wanders up to over 6200 feet of elevation. It was a steep challenge (literally)—there were no flat stretches to give the Peerless a break.

Gravity can be cruel to old cars, and our rising temperature gauge confirmed that. We settled into the Green Dragon’s happy place, which was just nine miles per hour when climbing, but it did not overheat or even hiccup. And the view from the top was worth the slow climb and provided a fantastic backdrop for photos. The adventure down was a careful one, as nine miles of grade conspire to burn up brakes. Fortunately, the Green Dragon’s V-8 is healthy enough that most of the trip down required only engine braking and not much of the brake pedal.

On our afternoon restart we had our time setup perfectly, only to have a rough start because the car’s engine lost power on acceleration. If you have the patience and knowledge to make corrections, fixing problems like this can ultimately be rewarding. Fortunately, Brett was on top of his navigator duties and we strung together far better times than we expected.

Overall we scored 20 seconds for the day, leaving us 42nd overall at the halfway point of the race.

DAY 5: Gardiner to Bangor, Maine

Great Race Ace
Kyle Smith

We left Gardiner, Maine, under sunny skies with lots of hope for a good day of rallying. The distance from our breakfast to dinner stop was short as the crow flies, so that meant we were going to be cutting lots of corners and running slow speed backroads all day.

The best part about our experience thus far has been the fact we are driving the Green Dragon. The history of the car precedes us. So many people have stories of how they “met” this car over the years.

The route today was very rough and made us wish we wouldn’t have fixed the rear suspension. We climbed out of the car at lunch feeling like we had ridden a jackhammer for three hours. The afternoon wasn’t much better, as we found ourselves chasing our tails on many of the same roads.

We managed to have a great day, even though the route was heavy with checkpoints. Normally there are six to seven checkpoints over a day, but today the rally master put out 12. Not knowing where or when the checkpoints will appear means Brett is constantly trying to make sure we are on time as we round each corner so we don’t get caught unprepared. We made it through the day clean, with no missed turns or large mistakes. We felt confident while waiting to receive our score for the day, and that confidence was rewarded with our first Ace—a perfect score. It sure felt good to put another sticker on the ol’ Green Dragon, the first one that we’ve earned ourselves.

We finished the day 34th, which moved us up to 41st overall and fourth in rookie division.