Great Race 2021: The Green Dragon rides again
I try my darnedest to pick out the blue 1932 Ford on the horizon. Both my navigator Brett and I know the coupe is just about to crest the hill, and this is likely the last chance for us and the 1917 Peerless to close the distance between us and the expert driver and navigator in the Ford. Under the rules of this 1000-mile, time-speed-endurance rally, we are supposed to be exactly one minute behind them, but thanks to a combination of bum luck and a small mistake, we suspect we’re well off that mark.
The 2021 Great Race is off to an iffy start for Team Green Dragon.
For the passersby during the few days leading up to the race’s grand start this year in San Antonio, Texas, the 109 pre-1974 cars packed into a single parking garage resemble an impromptu car show. Some of the vehicles look ready to roll onto a concours lawn; others are grimy and road-worn, with tens of thousands of rally miles under their tires. Regardless of how beautiful this cadre of cars is at the starting line of the Great Race, each vehicle will have a little more wear on it by the time it hits the finish line in Greenville, South Carolina, after nine days of road rallying.
The race is not about flat-out speed. Often, it’s quite the opposite. Much like motorcycle trials events, the Great Race is a carefully scored event that focuses on precision driving and navigating. Navigators are not given the day’s directions until 30 minutes before their cars are due to leave, and those pages of turn-by-turn instructions can be best described as cryptic. Road names are rare, stopwatches required, and speed changes abundant. The goal is to perfectly execute the directions and arrive at the surprise checkpoints exactly when the rally master has estimated you will. A perfectly timed checkpoint earns a team an Ace. Each second early or late equates to one point, and the lowest score wins.
The 1917 Peerless I am wheeling is a Great Race veteran. It’s run every Great Race since 1997 and only three drivers have taken the wheel for this event in all those 24 years. John Hollingsworth first built the car and drove it in the big coast-to-coast runs of the late ’90s and early 2000s. Hagerty purchased the car in 2013 and Jonathan Klinger took over driving duties for four years. Then I was asked if I wanted to give it a try. Who doesn’t want to try and survive nine days of driving a roofless prewar car across America? I couldn’t say yes fast enough.
The Green Dragon has consistently proved itself a competitive car, and it’s even placed in the top 10. If Brett and I fall short this year, we have nothing to blame but ourselves. The pressure is on.
Teams are comprised of a driver and navigator for each car. The third, and arguably the most important, team member is the Timewise 825 electronic speedometer that all competitors utilize. Three magnets are placed on a wheel (or, rarely, the driveshaft) that serve as pickups to relay road speed to a precision motor in the speedometer. While many OEM speedometers vary by 1 to 2 percent at most speeds, the Timewise is accurate to a fraction of a percent and is user-adjustable for factors like elevation or tire pressure and wear. It sounds a bit absurd at first, but if you want to earn the $50,000 check that organizer Jeff Stumb hands to the winners, you need all the precision you can get.
You will also need a reliable and consistent car. Raw horsepower is fun, but brakes are even more important in this game. The ability to consistently slow the car—to decelerate at the same rate each time you put your foot on the brake pedal—is absolutely key. Uphill or downhill, the directions are written assuming that you can control your car the same way each time: Accelerate to 35 mph. Brake to 15 before turning right and accelerating to 45.
Just keeping on course is a respectable goal; executing all the moves perfectly requires a level of skill that often takes years to achieve. Luckily, teams are scored within separate tiers based on their experience.
The first two days of rallying carry us and the Green Dragon from San Antonio, Texas, to Joplin, Missouri. Brett and I struggle to settle into a groove after a year off, thanks to the cancelation of the 2020 event due to the pandemic. The CoolShirt pump fails after to two vanes break off the impeller, so I slap-dash repair it in the hotel parking lot each night. The rewards of my labor? The system will only run intermittently—if it runs at all. The heat takes its toll on us cold-blooded Northerners, and our trials have only just begun.
The clouds hang like a drop ceiling, seemingly low enough that we could reach out and touch them. When they finally break open, a cold rain soaks into us. The 104-year-old V-8 loves the cool rain, but the weather severely complicates our jobs. Braking from any speed on a wet road is a careful affair with 33×5-inch tires, and that is assuming you have perfect visibility—which we don’t.
Between the heat, the rain, and the generally rusty nature of our rallying brains, we aren’t on the run either of us wanted. The bright side is that we don’t feel bad for taking a second (literally) to look around and enjoy the scenery. Or stay up a little later than we should sharing a cold beverage with fellow competitors repairing their cars in the hotel parking lot.
We are returning to the essential spirit of the Great Race without even realizing it. It’s easy to get obsess over time tables and acceleration charts and forget that we are here to enjoy an epic road trip with 108 cars full of new and old friends. Rallying in the Green Dragon has never truly been about winning for winning’s sake but about getting out and doing the rally successfully—and having a great time along the way. We didn’t lose the plot this time so much as return to what we should have been doing all along.
We are three days into this year’s rally and, thanks to a serendipitous re-set, we are primed to have our best time yet. That’s what driving is about, isn’t it?