Around the World with Richard McKone

by Jonathan Wright

To long-suffering Cubs fans, one need not explain the significance of the year 1908. The year the Cubs last won the World Series also marked the birth of General Motors and the introduction of the first Model T automobile, which rolled off Henry Ford’s assembly line that October with a price tag of $850.

1908 was indeed a watershed year for the “horseless carriage.” Perhaps most exciting was “The Greatest Auto Race,” a legendary 22,000-mile cross-continental race from New York to Paris, which captured the imagination of the world and proved this new invention to be a practical, durable machine that could meet the transportation demands of a society in motion.

In 1982, two auto enthusiasts from Texas founded the Great Race, an annual cross-country race for classic cars, which has visited more than 900 cities and reached more than 200 million people since its inception. Peoria’s own Richard McKone, a long-time veteran of the race, will participate in his 18th Great Race this summer.

The Great Race of 2008 comes with a twist. To mark the centennial of the original New York-to-Paris run, the Great Race will continue on beyond the shores of North America to China and across Russia, Kazakhstan and Europe. It will last for 65 days and pass through 12 countries, covering the original distance of 22,000 miles and marking just the second time this route has been travelled.

McKone’s 1967 Aston-Martin DB6 will depart New York City on May 30th, finishing in Paris on August 2nd.

How did you first become involved with the Great Race?

My wife Cynthia and I did a Sportscar Club of America road rally a few years back, and I was watching ESPN and saw something about an old car cross-country rally. So I decided to research it, made the contacts and then found a partner. Cynthia wasn’t interested in going cross-country for two weeks in a ’36 Ford, so I found another partner and that’s how I got in it!

Explain the difference between the two races this year.

One is cross-country for two weeks—that’s what’s been going on for 25 years. We start in New York and finish the regular two-week Great Race in Vancouver, and then 25 of us will continue on from Shanghai to Paris in the 2008 World Great Race.

This will be only the second time [the New York-to-Paris route] has ever been done—the first time was 100 years ago. That was sponsored by The New York Times and was held to prove the reliability of the automobile…and to sell newspapers! Some things never change, huh?

How many racers take part in the Great Race?

In the normal cross-country race, anywhere from 70 to 90 cars. On the New York-to-Paris race, which this year is combined with the regular two-week race, there will be approximately 25 to 28 cars.

Is the cross-country route the same each year?

No, it’s different every year. Sometimes we go east to west, sometimes west to east. We’ve gone from Jacksonville, Fla., to Los Angeles, and from Tacoma to near Boston. We’ve gone through Peoria three times.
Each evening, we finish in a community that’s big enough to have hotels. There’s usually about 400 people affiliated with the race—all the contestants and their crews and the Great Race staff. They have a finish line where they give the score for that day, and Great Race fans come out and make it a family day, and each city promotes it as a finish. We’ve had as few as 5,000 show up, and at one venue in Iowa, we once had 50,000 show up. That was unusual—it’s usually from 10,000 to 20,000 people.

Last year, you set a record for the lowest one-day score in the Race’s 25-year history. How is that score determined?

There are checkpoints—they measure the course to a thousandth of a mile and give us route instructions that we have to follow. They tell us when to turn and what speed to maintain; we pause 15 seconds at every stop sign. Each maneuver has to be precisely done, and we’re timed to the tenth of a second.

When we go through the checkpoints to see how we’re doing, if we happen to be five seconds early, we get a score of 5; if we’re five seconds late, we get a score of 5. A perfect score is 0; in other words, you’ve done everything exactly the way they told you and you go through a checkpoint within six feet of where you should be after an hour. If you’re five seconds early, you can’t improve your score by being five seconds late to the next one. Each leg is scored individually, and the lowest score wins.

So that day last year, we happened to have three perfect scores, and then the last leg I was 0.99 seconds off. Almost a perfect day!

What special activities will be part of the 100th anniversary celebration of the original Great Race?

We start in Times Square on May 30th at 11am, and then we go through Albany, which was the first stop in the original race. Then we go through Canada and finish in Vancouver. That is the finish of the regular two-week Great Race.

Then, 25 to 30 of us will put our cars on a 747 and we’ll fly to Shanghai—then it takes three days to get the cars out of customs. We have two days to prepare, and then we leave for Paris. Three weeks in China, and two weeks through Kazakhstan and to Moscow. One night we have to camp out in Kazakhstan because there are no hotels nearby—they will have a tent city for us.

Next we go to Berlin, down to Zurich, Vienna…and then we finish in Paris on August 2nd at the Eiffel Tower. At the finish, there will be a black-tie formal party at the Paris Hilton in the evening.

How did you choose to race the 1967 Aston-Martin DB6?

I started out with a ’36 Ford—I just have those two cars. I’ve always liked cars, but I never really collected them. You have to have an old car to do the original Great Race, and you still do, but now they go up to 1969, I believe.

Almost two years ago, when they announced the Great Race around the world—I had been waiting for it and heard rumors—and the minute they did that, I called and said I wanted to be in it. They said, well, you have first dibs, because you’re one of the longest standing members, but the ’36 Ford?—we’re not interested. Do you have another car? They were thinking of publicity and so forth, to help promote the race…

So I called a friend of mine in Philadelphia, and we started bidding with Great Race officials on cars and mentioned some Jags and some older American standards and so forth. And they said, we’re still not quite where we’d like to be…so I called my friend back and said, I’m dying here, I gotta have something! And he said, well, how about a ’67 Aston-Martin DB6? I said, yeah right, where am I gonna find it? And he said, I have my hand on it right now, and the guy will sell it to you if you want to go on the around-the-world race. So I said I’d buy it, and I called back and was accepted.

Our car is the one featured on the Great Race website (www.greatrace.com), and it was probably the most popular car last year on the race, because of the James Bond theme and so forth. And the neat thing about this is that this is the 100th birthday of Ian Fleming. We were invited to the Ian Fleming Foundation birthday party in London, because of the car and what we’re doing, but it’s in the middle of the race. So they hope to figure out a live feed into the party on that day.

So, do you like your drinks shaken or stirred?

Shaken (laughs).

You converted the car to run on an E85 ethanol/gasoline blend. Explain the process involved with that.

Bradley University is doing the conversion for us—they made it a senior project for mechanical engineering students. We added a little twist, too—it’s going to be able to burn three fuels: propane, E85 and gasoline. We wanted to make a statement that any car can be converted to burn alternative fuels and both propane and E85 are much more environmentally friendly [than gasoline].

The other neat thing is that they did the race 100 years ago to prove the reliability of the automobile, andwhat we want to do is prove that alternative fuels can be put into any car, with some work, and make a statement for the environment.

As the car’s navigator, what are your duties?

I make sure that we stay on the course the rallymaster laid out, and don’t get lost, and I do the calculations to keep us on time. For example, say we’re going 50 miles per hour and the route instructions tell us to turn right on Smith. Obviously, we have to slow down somewhat to make the turn, so after we’ve turned, we’re five seconds late. After the turn is executed, I then make a calculation and tell my driver to go 55 miles per hour until we’ve made up the five seconds we lost. Also, we have to pause exactly 15 seconds at each stop sign, for safety…so I have to do more calculations to adjust for those pauses.

Do you have a calculator with you, then?

This is the first year they’ve allowed calculators. Before, I’d do it the old-fashioned way, I’d just do it in my head. And we don’t have an odometer, so that takes one of the factors out of the equation, so the driver has to be very precise on how he drives. It’s basically a stopwatch, a clock, pencil and paper.

Most people think of a race as getting somewhere as fast as you can before the other contestants. This is a little bit different.

Yes, this is controlled driving and accuracy. The speeds are always set at least five miles below the speed limit so if we do a turn and we’re late, we can go five miles an hour faster to make up the time and not break the speed limit. This is precision accuracy driving.

How many hours a day are you actually driving?

Anywhere from 10 to 12. We’re under the clock competing for maybe six to seven of those hours. So I don’t have to calculate every minute for 12 hours, it’s just six or seven hours when we have to worry about our timing.

Are you looking forward to racing through any particular country?

Well, China, Kazakhstan and Russia. We’re gonna be driving three weeks in China. I always wanted to go, but I didn’t think it would be this way! a&s

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