There’s a reason they call it The Great Race

Vintage car rallies – described by the Vintage Car Rally Association as “a controlled speed/timed/distance rally competition that tests the skills and endurance of both man and machine” – are growing in number and popularity. The Great Race, one of the sport’s premier events, begins June 23 near Hagerty’s headquarters in Traverse City, Mich. A field of 100 cars will drive 2,000 miles into Canada and four states, circling three of the Great Lakes – Huron, Ontario and Erie – before finishing July 1 in Dearborn, Mich.

Hagerty Regional Sales Manager Brad Phillips has been participating in vintage car rallies since 2008 and scored a class victory in 2010 with co-driver Abe Barnett. He took part in last year’s Great Race from Chattanooga, Tenn., to Bennington, Vt., and offers some insight into the excitement surrounding this popular automotive event.
You’ve been competing in rallies for several years.

What drew you to the sport?

BP: It’s a blast. I love classic cars, and the best part about owning a classic car is driving it. That’s what this is all about.

Do you drive the same car in every rally?

BP: Some people do; some even rebuild a car specifically for road rallies. But I’ve used different cars … my own 1968 Porsche 911, a ’38 BMW 328 Roadster, an ’85 Renault Alpine. Al Bunetta and I started last year’s race in an Amphicar, but we only got as far as Ashville, N.C. We were having a lot of fun in it – doing demos for people, enjoying ourselves… then the syncro ring fell off and jammed the transmission in second gear. It made the journey an epic one.

What did you do to repair the car?

BP: Unfortunately, we couldn’t fix it. We dismantled it under a street light in the parking lot of an IHOP (International House of Pancakes restaurant) before we realized it was unfixable. So we put the car on a trailer and drove all night to my house in Nashville, picked up the 911 and drove it back until we got to the next lunch stop in Galax, Va. Cris Vandenberg and Mike Collins teamed up with me after that. We were disqualified because we had to switch cars, but in the spirit of the race we wanted to finish.

Other than the Amphicar breaking down, what is your most memorable rally mishap?

BP: Breakdowns, weather-related things … all kinds of stuff happens on the road. I’ve driven in some absolute monsoons in Tennessee and Georgia. One year it was raining so hard that the 911 – pre-restoration – filled with three inches of water. Every time I hit the brakes a tidal wave of water would come to the front. We were soaked. Every night at the hotel we’d remove the entire interior of the car and put everything in the bath tub to drain. Then we’d reinstall it all before the race started again.

How much does experience help in an event like the Great Race?

BP: It helps a lot. You definitely get more comfortable with the way the instructions work. You learn to anticipate changes while turning pages (in the instruction manual) and looking for road signs. After a while you get to know your car pretty well, and so you can go with your gut more. And when the driver and navigator have been doing this for awhile and know each other pretty well, you kind of get into a rhythm. It’s so much more comfortable. You call out stuff naturally. You’re always talking to each other and saying things that would seem very strange if you weren’t in a road rally.

The fun seems to go beyond the cars and the driving.

BP: For sure. The people are great. You make lifelong friends in this group, no doubt. It’s a very unique automotive experience. These rallies are about becoming one with the machine and like-minded people. You can see why they were so popular in the 1940s and 50s, when people joined sports car clubs and did these rallies all the time. Car shows have static displays; road rallies are rolling history. You drive and use the cars just as they were designed to be used.

What advice would you give spectators along the Great Race route?

BP: Don’t miss it. Take advantage of the opportunity. It’s really exciting – better than any car show you’ve seen. It’s more than a parade of cars, it’s an event. There’s a spirit there that’s multi-generational. It’s really cool. I think they’ll love it.


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