A 2,400-mile, 9-day, 12-state journey of nearly 100 antique cars known as “The Great Race” ended in The Villages on Sunday.
In a vintage car show meets rally race spectacle, this year’s Great Race followed a route of back roads from Maine to Florida, and thousands of spectators showed out to see the competitors from around the country cross the finish line at Lake Sumter Landing.
“I knew it was a car-crazy place, but I never dreamed it was going to be as fabulous as it was today,” race director Jeff Stumb said. “They’ve got all the cool golf carts, and we have all the cool cars, and they had the bands and the singers. It’s just been fabulous. I don’t know how many tens of thousands of people were here.”
The Great Race is a 31-year-old tradition that follows a different route across America every year. This year’s competitors ranged from a 1915 Hudson to a 1972 Corvette (the upper age limit for cars) and included cars decked out like Doc Hudson from the movie “Cars” and the General Lee. Due to the antique nature of the vehicles, the race can be summed up by its all-too-true slogans: “If you finish, you win” and “Ride. Repair. Repeat.”
“It’s a race of accuracy, endurance, and $150,000 of prize money. But it’s not a speed race,” Stumb said. “It’s a rally and we mark out a course of scenic beautiful back roads of America, and the whole idea is to follow it as close to exactly as possible.”
Cars must strategize their navigation and speeds to reach secret checkpoints in a designated amount of time. Every second early or later than the allotted time is a point penalty, and the lowest score wins. Time is also added to the score for cars with newer modifications to level the vast playing field. 98 cars started out in Ogunquit, Maine, and only 82 completed the race.
Outside of the race’s competitive nature though, is a picturesque journey through some of the mainstays of rural America. Each day, the parking lot for lunch checkpoints turned into car shows for locals in places like Valley Forge, Myrtle Beach, and Savannah.
On Sunday, the final lunch stop came in Ocala where local spectators not only took in the show outside, but also enjoyed the vast private collection of the lunch hosts, National Parts Depot. The 200-plus car collection at the NPD headquarters belongs to the father-son duo that runs the company and was opened to the public for Sunday’s Great Race event. The son half of that pair and COO of the company, Rick Schmidt, said they jumped at the chance to open their showroom for the event.
“It’s a source of pride,” he said. “It’s nice that they thought of us and thought enough of our collection and the facility that they’d want to stop the racers here to catch their breath, so we were more than happy to do it.”
What he didn’t quite expect though, was how well the event would go over.
“We had no idea there’d be so many spectators coming out locally,” Schmidt said.
From Ocala, the competitors took off in intervals for the final leg of racing. At the end of the day, it was a red 1966 Mustang navigated and driven by a husband and wife team that claimed the $50,000 first place prize. The run was the third Great Race victory for driver Irene Jasons and her navigator, husband Barry, but the first-ever win for a post-WWII car.
“That was pretty special, so we were real pleased,” navigator Barry Jasons said of their third win in a row. “It was a real tight competition this year, so it was fun.”
To say the competition was tight is an understatement. Leaving Jacksonville for the final leg of the race Sunday morning, the Jasons were only half of a second ahead of the second place car. At the end of the day, only seven seconds separated them from the runners-up. But like many of the competitors, they talked more of the journey than the finish.
“We enjoyed the backgrounds, saw a turkey, a deer ran across the road – and the people are wonderful,” Irene said.
For others though, the best part was simply finishing. Frank Buananno and his navigator endured nine days of both rain and sweltering heat in an open cockpit on three-and-a-half inch tires in the event’s oldest car, a 1915 Hudson 6-40.
“It was grueling. But it was fun, and I’m glad we finished because that was the main goal – just to be able to have the car to do it,” Buananno said. “With a hundred year old car, you just don’t know. You can’t buy parts or anything so any little thing can knock you out of the race.”
Buananno said he didn’t care to know where they finished. The fact that they made it to The Villages was satisfying enough for him.
After all, “If you finish, you win.”
This story originally appeared on Tori’s blog on the Florida Sports Talk website.