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The Great Race: Classic cars will roll out of St. Augustine on Saturday

Published on June 21, 2023 at 4:41 pm

Neither rain nor snow will stay these classic cars from the completion of their eight-day run in the 2023 Great Race. But don’t forget the threat of old car breakdowns and summertime heat.

More than 120 classic cars and trucks will start launching at 11 a.m. Saturday from Francis Field in St. Augustine, headed to Colorado in what has been called North America’s largest vintage car rally.

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Armed with only a daily route book and a big analog clock, cars as old as a 1913 Chevrolet and 1918 American LaFrance Speedster will drive a circuitous, back roads route over the next week. That will include folks like Jacksonville’s Shawn Lednick and his father, joined by his sisters in another mid-1960s Mercury Convertible.

It’s lots of fun, and tough at the same time, Lednick said.

“We are trying to look at our binder and figure out where to turn, and there’s a note that says, ‘Look left, it’s the Woodstock stage area’ as you are trying to not run through a stop sign,'” said Lednick, a five-time Great Race competitor. “There’s things like that, then just going through the countryside, showing up at the final stops and seeing an entire town show up with all their hot rods and old cars. It is indescribable unless you have been there.”

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Meanwhile, first-timer John Wells still had a windshield and other bits to add to his just-restored 1965 Ford F350 Dually on Sunday, after adding a wooden bed and mudflaps. Saying he “has no visions of winning the race,” just finishing it, Wells said he decided to run his first Great Race the next time it came close to home, and this one’s it. Joining him in the summertime cross-country run is navigator and childhood friend Charlie Sharon.

“It is just a car thing,” Wells said. “I’m a builder, so we work in the heat and the rain and everything else anyway. And of course, every job has some snafu that you have to fix, so we are used to all of it. It’s not a big deal. I know it’s going to be hot, but the truck’s got those vent windows that’s just as good as an air conditioner.”

 Driver and navigator run along Interstate 95 in Downtown Jacksonville in the Hagerty-owned 1917 Peerless Speedster minutes after the start of the 2017 Great Race on Main Street in Springfield. Their only navigation aids for the 2,300-mile journey: a classic clock and route notes on the car's dashboard.

Driver and navigator run along Interstate 95 in Downtown Jacksonville in the Hagerty-owned 1917 Peerless Speedster minutes after the start of the 2017 Great Race on Main Street in Springfield. Their only navigation aids for the 2,300-mile journey: a classic clock and route notes on the car’s dashboard. | The Great Race

You don’t have to be crazy to drive cross-country in the heat of summer in a car older than most folks while navigating by dead reckoning — but it helps, Great Race director Jeff Stumb said.

“America’s oldest city and all these old cars — that’s a great tie-in,” Stumb said. “You’ve got to be able to spend your hard-earned money, take a vacation time and go out and do this. You have to like old cars. You have to like a little bit of competition, and you have to like traveling back roads of America and seeing places that you haven’t been to before. But who wouldn’t want to do that?”

Tom McRae and Norman Miller founded the Great Race in 1983 as a time/speed/distance rally for classic cars. A calibrated speedometer and clock are the only navigation tools allowed along with a daily route booklet that eschews interstates for back roads as it overnights in classic towns like Auburn, Georgia, Eureka Springs, Arkansas, and Emporia, Kansas.

The event is not a race, but a controlled-speed endurance rally for vehicles built before 1975. Driver and navigator get a route book with basic route instructions and speeds they must maintain in multiple stages. No GPS, smartphones or maps are allowed, and the only timing mechanism is the large analog clock secured to the car’s dashboard. Checkpoints along each route note the time each team passes, with points deducted for being too early or too late.

 The only timing device allowed for Great Race participants is an accurate analog clock,at right, as seen in this Ford Model A's cockpit.

The only timing device allowed for Great Race participants is an accurate analog clock, at right, as seen in this Ford Model A’s cockpit. | Dan Scanlan, Jacksonville Today

The Great Race selects different parts of the country to start and finish in, but Jacksonville has been featured many times in recent years — as a beginning, middle or end.

Hundreds of people went to the Jacksonville Landing when the Great Race ended there in 1997, and large crowds gathered there again when it launched its 2004 cross-country rally. Then in 2014, the Great Race competitors drove through the Main Street Cruise as thousands lined Main Street en route to the Landing again.

Wells said the crowd and classic cars in 2014 gave Great Race organizers the idea to launch the race from the Springfield cruise in 2017.

“They called me in 2014 and asked if they could bring the race down Main Street during the cruise, and we all had a great time. The place was packed from one end of the historic district to another,” Wells recalled. “We turned out such a big crowd that Jeff told me that they would be back.”

The 2017 race, its 34th iteration, saw 122 classic cars launch from Jacksonville’s Historic Springfield Main Street Cruise, according to the Florida Times-Union. That rally ran 1,200 miles of back roads through Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio to finish July 2 in Traverse City, Michigan.

Six years later, Stumb said it was time to bring the Great Race back to where they had “such a great time.”

“We were looking at the map and where our gaps were, and our gap was very clearly South Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Kansas and Colorado,” Stumb said. “So I said, let’s go back to Florida for a start because Florida has been very good to us and we have a lot of racers in Florida. And we started to look for a great place and started talking to the folks in St. Augustine, and one thing led to another.”

Folks should look for the Great Racers to head up U.S. 1 for a bit on Saturday afternoon, cruising back roads up past World Golf Village at the start. Stumb can’t give specifics, but the racers will be near Macclenny as they head to Georgia, ending Day One in Tifton, some 200 miles away. The July 2 finish line will be in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where thousands of dollars in winnings are on the line for the top finishers, Stumb said.

“This is real humidity, and that’s part of the challenge,” he said. “We may even get snowfall when we get to Colorado. You never know. In 2019 in late June, we ran Crater Lake in Oregon, and it was 31 degrees and snowing. … If you are going to win $50,000 out of the total $160,000 purse, you have got to be able to take an old car, build it to handle the heat, handle the cool and the wind, rain and sun and everything else.”

The race has 126 registered competitors, five of them from the Jacksonville area.

 Great Race competitor Shawn Lednick of Jacksonville has entered two cars: a 1965 Mercury Comet Caliente, left, and a 1966 Mercury Cyclone.

Great Race competitor Shawn Lednick of Jacksonville has entered two cars: a 1965 Mercury Comet Caliente, left, and a 1966 Mercury Cyclone. | Dan Scanlan, Jacksonville Today

Lednick has a collection of classic cars, after competing in his first Great Race in 2018 in a 1939 Lincoln Zephyr convertible. This time, he’s driving with navigator Harvey Lednick in the red Cyclone, which has bucket seats, while sisters Kathy Harper and Bridget Tice handle the blue Comet Caliente and its bench seat.

“I race because my father goes with me. The five races I have done, I have learned more about my father, his life and his family, where he’s been and what he’s done than through my 50 years of being alive,” Shawn Lednick said. “It’s a family affair now. The Great Race is a family as well, and we get to travel to small town America. We have no idea where we are going — and we see some of the most incredible sites across America, which is what I love to do.”

David Doyle of Green Cove Springs joins his wife and navigator, Barbara, in a 2,000-pound, 46-horsepower 1974 Volkswagen Thing. And St. Augustine’s Steve Pusey joins navigator and wife Diana in a 1968 Ford Mustang.

Wells and navigator Charlie Sharon have one of the largest vehicles in the Great Race, a bright red two-door 1965 Ford F350 Dually, recovered from a Pennsylvania farm. Wells has had to do a lot of work to make the tired old green truck a shiny competitor, including attempts to convert it from 6- to 8-cylinder power, and four different rear axles before it got the gearing it will run with.

“It is not the most convenient thing to get parts for and all that,” Wells said. “We ended up rebuilding the original 6-cylinder and putting it back in, and it’s a great motor. We had trouble with the rear end. It’s got farm gears in it and would only run 40 mph at the top end.”

Chuck Jones helped build the shiny red truck, with friend Virgil Adkins carrying supplies and tools in a chase vehicle.

 Jacksonville's John Wells joins navigator Charlie Sharon in their just-restored 1965 Ford F350 Dually, a former farm truck.

Jacksonville’s John Wells joins navigator Charlie Sharon in their just-restored 1965 Ford F350 Dually, a former farm truck. | Dan Scanlan, Jacksonville Today

As for starting this longtime classic car event in America’s oldest city, Lednick said it is like coming home since he is from St. Augustine and his parents live just miles from the starting line.

“It’s just exciting to start in downtown St. Augustine,” he said, adding that both Mercuries will do just fine without air conditioning — simpler is better after five times competing and observing some of the competition.

“I’ve learned watching cars that were falling out, overheating, and they had power steering and A/C,” he said. “That’s why the Comets showed up. They are strictly fan cars with no A/C, no power steering, and we can handle the heat and the torture they put us through when we are racing.”

And after installing the wood bed and mud flaps on Sunday, with the windshield set to go, Wells said he was ready for Saturday.

“We are going to give it hell,” he said with a laugh.

Daily Great Race updates can be seen at their Facebook page.

 The 40th annual Great Race route.

The 40th annual Great Race route. | The Great Race

Great Race events this week

  • Thursday — Tech Inspection Day of all cars, held at World Golf Village.
  • Friday, noon to 3 p.m. — Practice rally followed by lunch at the Classic Car Museum of St. Augustine, 4730 U.S. 1 S. The first car is expected to arrive at just before noon.
  • Saturday, 8 to 11 a.m. — Hagerty’s Cars & Caffeine as the Great Race prepares to launch at Francis Field at 25 W. Castillo Drive before the cars begin launching at 11 a.m.

author image Reporter, WJCT News 89.9 Dan Scanlan is a veteran journalist with almost 40 years of experience in radio, television, and print reporting. He has worked at various stations in the Northeast and Jacksonville. Prior to joining the WJCT News team, Dan spent 34 years at The Florida Times-Union as a police and current affairs reporter.
author image Reporter, WJCT News 89.9 Dan Scanlan is a veteran journalist with almost 40 years of experience in radio, television, and print reporting. He has worked at various stations in the Northeast and Jacksonville. Prior to joining the WJCT News team, Dan spent 34 years at The Florida Times-Union as a police and current affairs reporter.

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