Crowley duo plot ‘Great Race’ trails

Ed Habetz and Tom Regan grew up together in the small town of Crowley in the heart of Louisiana’s Cajun Country.

They were high school friends and college roommates at LSU. And when summertime came around in the late 1960s, they found themselves behind the wheel of a Pontiac GTO, in which they would take the then-long ride to Panama City Beach, Fla. to enjoy the things co-eds continue to do.

Now, both 63 years old, they are on the road again — albeit in significantly different style.

Habetz and Regan on Saturday were in the process of driving a 1928 Ford Model A Boat Tail Speedster from St. Paul, Minn., to Mobile, Ala. As always, they remain part of a generation that has had the “Great American Love Affair” with automobiles, but this trip actually has a prize — and bragging rights — at its end.

The two Crowley residents are participants in the 2013 Hemmings Motor News Great Race, which attracted 98 like-minded teams to participate in what amounts to a nostalgic road challenge that tests participants’ mental agility, as well as their physical stamina. The race began on June 22 in St. Paul and stopped in Covington on Saturday as the 2,200-mile race along America’s back roads neared its finish. They’ll all wind up in Mobile on Sunday — that is, if they can find their way through a series of detailed instructions on how fast they can go and exactly which roads they need to cover.

Before Saturday’s stage began, only 81 cars remained.

The Great Race is not as much a “race,” however, as it a test of a driver and navigator’s skills to understand the vast backstretch of roads that criss-cross the United States. There are no prizes for those that finish the race in the fastest time, so even if a car can top out at 100 mph or so, speed has little to do with this race.

It’s about precision, and Habetz and Regan are very good at what they do.

“Rallymasters” who organize the Great Race plotted a course this year that roughly followed the Mississippi River from its source to its end. And then, they will take a hard jog east to Mobile, where the rally entries will disband Sunday.

A grand prize of $50,000 goes to the winning team in the Expert Division, which is composed only of competitors who have won previous Great Races — events that date back to 1983.

Habetz, the driver of the Model A, and Regan, his navigator, are part of the Sportsman Class, which means they have performed very well in the past, but have yet to capture a title. After four years of trying, they are racing for bragging rights, and a chance to eventually earn the big money prize.

They entered Covington on Saturday via a network of back roads that led them to the downtown Covington Trailhead, which sits in the shadow of the St. Tammany Parish Courthouse. A crowd of approximately 2,000 people turned out to greet them and others as they dismounted just beyond the checkpoint in front of the Covington Brewhouse.

All cars in each Great Race must have been built earlier than 1969, and there was a wide variety of vehicles of all makes and models to be seen.

Habetz and Regan were honored with the opportunity to cross the finish line first on Saturday, as they helped host a luncheon earlier in the day in their home town of Crowley. The race actually backtracked from Baton Rouge, where it ended on Friday, to Crowley, so competitors could sample some of the delicious Cajun cuisine for which south Louisiana is renowned.

The tip of the cap to the Crowley team was nice, both men said, but both were a bit upset with their performance on Saturday. They were 40 seconds off schedule — which in the world of the Great Race, is a good chunk of time. They hope to hold on to their second-place standing in the Sportsman Class, or improve, during the final trek to Mobile.

“We do this for the challenge,” said Habetz, who is a contractor. “It’s really about the ability to compete against people who love cars like we do and to have fun.”

Regan concurred.

“It’s intense,” said Regan, who practices law in Crowley. “You want to see what you can get out of the car, for sure, but really, what you can get out of yourself.”

The Crowley team is alone in the Model A, but when it arrives at each pit stop, the members are joined by David and Jerri Olivier, of Port Barre, who tend to the vehicle maintenance that is necessary after rolling a 90-year old car through 100-degree heat. The Oliviers are as much a part of the team as Habetz and Regan, both men said.

The responsibility of compiling the trail of navigable back roads, state highways and such, falls upon John Classen who, as director of competition, travels the course three times before he lets any race begin. He’s been designing the courses since 1990 and he does so without the aid of GPS or any other computer — just like each competitor in the Great Race must also do.

So, when there’s a signal on each car’s instructions to turn left at the first paved road, or right at the first speed limit sign, it means something. The instructions purposely are meant to be vague, yet precise, given the right mind. It’s a path that Classen has traveled before.

“I run the course in August and then in March and then again three weeks before the race, just to make sure everything is the same for the driver and navigator,” Classen said. “And then, 24 hours before the race, we have a car that does the course again just to make sure (all is right.)”

Classen said the use of maps and “old school” directional tools along a driving route often are forgotten in today’s world. Cartography, or even common sense, can be lost. Those are skills that have not given way to the competitors in the Great Race, however.

“It’s easy to throw the kids in the back seat with an iPad,” Classen said. “You’ve got to look out the window.”