The Great Race roars through Baton Rouge

Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD  -- Howard Sharp drives a car with his son Douglas past a crowd of spectators during the Baton Rouge stop in The Great Race by the Belle of Baton Rouge Hotel on Friday, June 28.
Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD -- Howard Sharp drives a car with his son Douglas past a crowd of spectators during the Baton Rouge stop in The Great Race by the Belle of Baton Rouge Hotel on Friday, June 28.

More than 80 antique cars, some nearly 100 years old, stopped in downtown Baton Rouge on Friday evening after winding down the seventh of nine driving days in The Great Race, a brutal, 2,200-mile-long time and endurance race that challenges nearly every aspect of early to mid-20th century engineering.

Just finishing the race is considered a success.

“The attrition rate has been the highest we can remember,” race director Jeff Stumb said.

Of the 99 teams that set off June 22 from St. Paul, Minn., at least 15 have already withdrawn. From heavy rains and flooding in the North — a major problem for 50-year-old convertibles — to scorching heat in the South, racing teams have been dropping like flies, Stumb said.

Before the race cars began crossing the finish line on St. Philip Street behind the Belle of Baton Rouge Casino & Hotel, East Baton Rouge Mayor-President Kip Holden rolled up sitting inside the Great Leslie Special, a white car with tall, red-painted rims and thin tires, made famous in the 1965 movie “The Great Race,” starring Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Natalie Wood.

The race’s president, Corky Coker, along with Brian Goudge, the race’s announcer or “Motormouth,” welcomed Holden with open arms. After a few ceremonial pictures, race cars began to pour in, one after another for more than an hour.

Each morning of the race, cars take off one-at-a-time with a fresh set of instructions, down to every turn, and must cross checkpoints at scheduled intervals.

The further a car falls behind schedule, the higher its total time rises, which is bad news in a race where a score of zero means perfection.

Drivers, each accompanied by at least one navigator, don’t receive racing instructions until right before they depart — meaning they wake up every morning of the race with almost no idea of where they’re headed.

“I think we’ve crossed the Mississippi River about 13 times or so,” said Greg Cunningham, the navigator of a 1932 Ford Roadster pickup who has competed in the race almost every year since he was in high school.

The 81-year-old roadster was one of the first cars across the finish line, and while Greg navigated, his father, Vernon, drove.

Greg Cunningham said routes usually follow two-lane back roads, where drivers may not exceed 50 mph at any point during the race.

“The goal is to stay perfectly on time,” he said, adding that he and his father are currently in third place.

While they’ve avoided major parts failures, Cunningham said maintenance, such as when he had to replace a water pump the other day, is an everyday aspect of the race.

Other issues facing drivers include small gas tanks and — by today’s standards — critically low fuel-efficiency.

Still, drivers have ample opportunities to re-fuel during the race, said Vernon, adding that it’s their own fault if they run out of fuel.

Vernon, who’s only competing in his third Great Race, said although he’s competitive — and a cash prize would certainly help cover the gas costs — he mostly enjoys the race because of the priceless time he spends with his son.

The total purse is $150,000, with a top cash prize of $50,000.

The race changes courses every year, and has recently featured themes, such as the Great Lakes race last year and the Mississippi River race this year, which ends Sunday evening in Mobile.