Written by John Starkey
By Alice Canham
If you want to win the ‘Great Race,’ an annual rally event for vintage automobiles, don’t count on speed, according to Irving resident Curtis Graf.
He has been part of the scene since the inception of the first Great Race in 1983.
“I am the only entrant that’s been in every Great Race they’ve ever had,” Graf said. “It was started by friends of mine, Tom McRae and Norm Miller at Interstate Batteries.
“I see it as an avenue to use these old cars. Rather than fix them up and then hide them in the garage, it’s a chance to run them cross-country and see if they’ll go. Some of them go, and some of them don’t.
“Last year we started a one-week version instead of a two-week version. We used to run 250 – 300 miles each day in those old cars, and that’s a strain.
“I think this year we lost about seven cars, maybe, out of 87 entrants.”
So if it’s not about speed, what makes a vintage car racer successful? Turns out, it’s a navigator who has mad calculator skills.
“This is a precision deal,” Graf said. “Everything’s on a time-distance-speed calculation.
“You’re given a starting point each day, for example, a monument. Each car leaves at a designated time and a designated speed, a minute apart. You follow pages and pages of instruction, and along the way you stop at checkpoints. There’s an exact, precise time you’re supposed to get there. If you’re early or late, it works against you. Whoever is closest to perfect time is the winner that day.
“Say you get stopped by a train. Well, the navigator starts a stopwatch and calculates how long you got stopped. Now you have to make that time up. How fast do you go, for how far, to get back to your perfect time? Oh, and we always stay five to ten mph under the posted speed limit.”
That stopwatch is the only nod to technology that’s allowed. No GPS or cruise control, and analog speedometers are used in each vehicle.
It is not for everyone, but it is for Graf, who got into vintage cars as a youth because his father wouldn’t spring for new wheels.
“My dad said I could have as many cars as I could afford,” he said. “And the only cars I could afford didn’t run. So I had to fix them.”
Now he owns eight vintage cars. Conveniently, he has a machine shop and time to tinker when he’s not running his fuel business, Trinity Marketing and Distributing.
“The cars are worth more than most houses,” he admitted.
His latest passion, the one he took to this year’s Race, is his 1916 Packard, a two-seater with a V-12, “that would have been equivalent to a Corvette back in the day,” according to Graf. “It’s a Fleetwood body-car. Only five were ever made. I’ve put about 180,000 miles on it since I got it in 1986.
“It’s not a show car. It’s meant to be driven.”