FARGO, ND – This is a nine-day, 10-state, 2,400-mile classic car parade with vintage vehicles, some over a century old, passing through a much of the United States. More than a hundred teams took part in the event in June, known as the Great Race, charting a course from Rhode Island to North Dakota.
Time-Speed-Distance Rally, or TSD, the Great Race began in 1983 and follows a new course each year. Competitors must drive each segment of the precision-based event within a specified time, at a specified average speed. This year’s iteration started in Warwick, RI, and ended in Fargo, ND The hills and congested roads of the East Coast gave way to the lush plains and cornfields of the Midwest. The newest car to tackle the race was a 1974 Plymouth, while three 1916 models – two Hudsons and a Chevrolet – shared the mantle of the oldest.
The goal of the Great Race, said Jeff Stumb, event director and automotive enthusiast, is to “get old cars out of garages and museums and put them on the road.”
The event is loosely based on the 1965 comedy “The Great Race,” starring Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, which was inspired by a 1908 race from New York to Paris, a harrowing event in which six teams international races took 169 days to run 22,000 miles.
This year, the RPM Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides grants and other resources to young people interested in vehicle restoration and preservation, as well as mentorship opportunities, formed a team of five women – two female navigation students and three adult pilot-mentors (including this journalist).
Nick Ellis, executive director of the foundation, assembled the team. According to Mr. Ellis, women make up less than 10% of the automotive workforce.
“In conversations I’ve had with auto shop instructors across the country,” Mr. Ellis said, “I hear time and time again that the relatively few young women in their classes are just as able , if not more so, than their male counterparts”.
There must be “examples of challenges to that perception,” Ellis continued. Young women must “imagine themselves behind the wheel of a race car, sanding a fender, holding a wrench, etc., if we are to succeed in revitalizing this industry.”
So in June, our newly assembled team of students took off from Rhode Island, joined by a cherry-red 1966 Ford Mustang, which was on loan from the LeMay Automotive Museum in Tacoma, Washington.
Our drivers included Sabre Cook, a 28-year-old professional racing driver and mechanical engineer, and Mallory Henderson, a seasoned Great Race sailor getting behind the wheel for the first time.
Ms. Henderson, 24, and her father, Scott Henderson, were the final hometown representatives of the 2013 Great Race, which ended in Mobile, Ala. They have since become a mainstay at the event. In 2018, when competitors’ brakes on a 1955 Buick failed on Mount Washington, New Hampshire, Mr Henderson rescued the team using his own car to stop the runaway vehicle.
Mr. Henderson, who died that fall, is remembered for his courageous act. The student category of the Great Race, known as the X-Cup, was renamed the Scott Henderson X-Cup Division. Its coordinating scholarship and donation program is now the Scott Henderson X-Cup Scholarship.
Our student navigators were Olivia Gadjo, 20, a recent graduate of Alfred State College in New York with a degree in motorsports technology, and Kinzie Wilson, also 20, a student at Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina who is expected to graduate graduating in December with a major in motorsport management and a minor in digital sports media.
Mrs. Gadjo, who plans to take other motorcycle and welding courses, is restoring a 1988 Ford Bronco II that her uncle gave her. Since Ms. Gadjo’s communications teacher, Mike Ronan, told his class about the Great Race, she had hoped to participate. “I was thrilled and saw this as the opportunity of a lifetime,” she said.
Ms. Wilson got her first job in 2020 with NASCAR and Mario Andretti Racing Experience while finishing high school and starting college. She has held almost every position on the track.
“I bought my first car, a 1996 Corvette, when I was 13 and immediately took it to the drag strip,” Ms. Wilson, from Mansfield, Texas, said with a smile. “I explored the world of racing trying almost every type of race possible.”
“After I graduate, I hope to find a job in Europe,” Ms Wilson added. “My grandmother was born and raised in Italy before coming to America. It would be very cool to work in Italy. I want to work either for Formula 1 or for a car manufacturer.
After introductions, but without any of the in-person training that a typical Great Race team often enjoys, we were off. Success came early, with an ‘ace’ – a perfect score – in day one’s practice, achieved by finishing the segment at exactly the right time. But so are the mechanical issues with the 56-year-old car.
“Almost every day of the race our team had a plan,” Ms. Wilson said, “and the car had a completely different one.” Gracie, a nickname we gave the ’66 Mustang, had a “love-hate relationship with the team,” she added.
“Gracie broke down, stalled several times and wobbled when she wasn’t happy,” Ms Wilson continued. “Each time we did what we had to, to keep her running and crossing the finish line the next day.”
Doing what we had to do was a lot of work, she added: “We were in the engine bay for hours rebuilding the carburetor, installing an electric fuel pump, replacing the spark plugs and more. Again.”
Ms. Gadjo enjoyed working in a team. “Everyone has a strength that benefits the team,” she said. “It’s about the team as a whole, not individual moving parts.” From her teammates, she learned to be confident in her abilities and not to let anyone make her doubt herself.
“We also had to deal with a lot of teams, and even fans, bashing us for being an all-female team,” Ms Wilson said, adding that people would ask: “Did you guys really drive? ” But, she said, “it only made us work even harder to get to the finish line.”
Despite these digs, the broader response has been overwhelmingly positive. YouTube star Dylan McCool and Rowland George, senior advertising manager at Hemmings Motor News, a monthly magazine focused on classic cars, along with Bryan Vanzandt, one of the outlet’s social media influencers, have battled overheating and vapor lock issues on their 1969 Chevrolet Chevelle SS, but helped us diagnose our accelerator pump leak and otherwise cheered us on.
However, the bulk of the work was done by us, the women of the RPM Foundation. Two moments stood out for Mr. Ellis. First: the team’s willingness to “tackle one of the most complex mechanical procedures – rebuilding a carburetor – in a parking lot in the middle of the night with only hand lamps to illuminate their work” .
Second: The following night, the team’s newly installed mechanical fuel pump failed and the Mustang had to be towed. “The team was tired and sleep deprived after the long day and night rebuilding the night before,” he said. “So I suggested they all go to sleep while I installed an electric gas pump. Each of them stayed to help with the repairs.
Two teams from Auburn, Ind., sponsored by the National Auto & Truck Museum and the Early Ford V-8 Foundation Museum, helped another ailing team swap its transmission during a three-day late-night parking operation after one of their cars lost his.
With so many classic cars covering so much ground, mechanical problems and parts issues were commonplace.
However, the volunteers helped the Grande Course run smoothly for the 550 people who took part. “We started with a record number of teams: 130,” Mr Stumb said, and “111 completed the event nine days and 2,400 miles later.” We were one of those teams, taking 90th place.
The motto of The Great Race is: “To finish is to win!” It’s a testament to teamwork, collaboration, and old-school craftsmanship.
“To stay with their car when they have been given the opportunity to rest instead shows tremendous courage and dedication,” Mr Ellis said. “I couldn’t be more proud of our team.”
The RPM Foundation will become a permanent part of the Great Race X-Cup segment, Mr. Ellis said. He plans to recruit new teams to compete.
“Women should consider the automotive industry as a career because there are a lot of opportunities,” Ms Gadjo added. “The industry recognizes that women have a lot to contribute and seeks them out for positions. There is a great demand for professionals in this career.