NevadaGram #86 – The Great Race Revisited


Luke Rizzuto was one of the people who thrilled when a centennial re-creation of the Great New York to Paris automobile race was announced.

Photo courtesy The Great Race
Times Square, New York City on February 12, 1908 as the Great Race was about to begin; the crowd was estimated at 250,000 people.

He has a rare 1918 Chevrolet touring car with an overhead valve V8 engine, that’s right, Chevrolet made this engine from 1917 to 1919 and then abandoned it until 1955 — and he wanted to drive it across country following the route of the winning Thomas Flyer in 1908. So he set about seeking sponsors to defray the substantial cost to participate.

This video was made when Luke was trying at attract sponsors. When the race organizers went bankrupt, he decided to make the run anyhow.

But the organizers of the event became disorganized, and eventually they cancelled their event. But Luke still wanted to do it. He didn’t want to do it alone — how can you recreate a great race with just one car? — so he passed the word around. With the help of his wife he set up a website, inviting like-minded car lovers to join him. No fees to pay, no organization to maintain, just get yourself and your car to a hotel in New Jersey on October 17 and be ready to pay your own expenses.

Photo by Max Winthrop
The 1950 Peterbilt hot rod in Goldfield.

Counting Luke, his wife, chase car drivers, navigators and extra mechanics, 16 people showed up, and six cars. Some of them, like Luke’s old Chevy, Ron Fowler’s 1930 Chevrolet Speedster and John Quam’s beautiful 1930 Chrysler roadster, were antique and classic beauties. Others were not so easy to classify. Ed and Janet Howle drove their 1967 VW beetle. Chris Bamford and Jerry de Jong drove a 1947 Dodge Special Deluxe sedan down from Edmonton Canada and joined the procession in Laramie Wyoming. Klaus and Maja von Deylen flew in from Germany and drove a rented Buick, and Alan Nagle came from Dublin to reunite with his old friend Harry Sperber and honor the promise they’d made to each other years before.

And there was Rodney Rucker, of Winslow Arizona, who drove a bright yellow two-seater chop-top hot rod made from a 1950 Peterbilt (powered by a 400 Cummins diesel) and called “The Petester”. Rod had completed rebuilding the engine, upholstering the seats and painting the body just in time to load it aboard a trailer and highball to New York where he arrived just in time for the start of the Race. The drive from the hotel parking lot in New Jersey to Times Square was the shakedown cruise for the huge machine, and fortunately everything worked perfectly.

Photo by Max Winthrop
Chris and Jerry made it from Edmonton to San Francisco in this 6-cylinder Canadian Dodge.

The same can’t be said for Brian and Melinda Perry and the 1940 Cadillac sedan they’d bought sight unseen: rusted brakes forced a stop for repairs. The caravan departed Times Square without them, enroute to Springville, a few miles south of Buffalo in upstate New York.

This was the hometown of George Schuster, the intrepid mechanic who kept the Thomas Flyer in good repair until it reached Ogden Utah. There he was handed the keys and promoted to driver for the rest of the journey. It was also one of the few places along the way where the modern drivers were greeted with more enthusiasm than curiosity, as some 700 school children waved American flags when the old cars drove in for a visit.

Photo by Max Winthrop
Ray Fowler and Pat McKenna in the Chevrolet Speedster, with Joe Fallini and Jeff Mahl aboard at Twin Springs Ranch, where George Schuster broke down in the Thomas Flyer in 1908.

That was October 20, and over the following days, other enthusiasts joined the procession for various periods of time, driving a variety of fabulous cars as the caravan rumbled westward through Ohio, Indiana, Iowa and Illinois, then Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah and Nevada, still closely following the route of the original race.

Mechanical difficulties plagued several of the cars, but the most dramatic calamity befell Ray and Pat when the 1930 Chevrolet Speedster lost its throw-out bearing in Montello, in far northeastern Nevada. Efforts to repair it were futile, and replacement parts were unavailable (although someone suggested that Walt, at the Birch Brothers Garage in Ely, might be able to help), so they did what you have to do in that situation: they jammed it into gear and drove on.

A new documentary about The Great Race is being produced in Canada.

Unable to shift gears, they finessed the traffic lights in Wendover, and weathered the rain that crashed down as they pressed on to Ely.

The rain had stopped when they pulled into the parking lot behind the Hotel Nevada, but Walt couldn’t be found so they went to Sportsworld to buy a hockey puck in hopes of fabricating a new bearing. To their astonishment, this big sporting goods store doesn’t stock hockey pucks. “In Canada every store has hockey pucks,” they told me.

Photo by Max Winthrop
This Flyer replica was made from a vintage fire engine; a cracked head kept it trailered across Nevada.

A second call to Walt was successful, and they explained they needed a throw out bearing for a 1930 Chevrolet Speedster. Silence, and then Walt said, “I think I have something that will work.” They hurried down

Aultman Street to the garage, but Walt wasn’t there. Spirits sinking, they waited . . . and waited . . . until Walt appeared holding the throwout bearing for a 1930 Chevrolet Speedster. “Is this what you’re looking for?” he asked.

Another hour on the wet asphalt under the car and the speedster was as good as new.

Photo by Max Winthrop
Even John Quom’s beautiful 1930 Chrysler was afflicted with mechanical difficulties.

The next morning I joined the Tonopah-bound procession representing the 21st century in a new Prius and wondering what I was doing with this band of crackpots. As it turned out, I was having a blast. These people had found a new way to enjoy and appreciate driving across Nevada, and it was great fun.

I learned a lot about the 1908 race of course — George Schuster’s great-grandson Jeff Mahl was a part of the group — and I learned some more about getting off the pavement in remote areas of Nevada too. US 6 is the direct route between Ely and Tonopah these days, but it didn’t exist when the Thomas Flyer came careening across the landscape here. Schuster and his companions had gone west from Ely to Hamilton, and then south following rutted wagon roads from ranch to ranch.

Photo by Max Winthrop
Luke Rizzuto in his 1918 Chevrolet breathing the same dust George Schuster had kicked up a hundred years earlier.

When we came to a faint track angling away from the highway toward the distant mountains we stopped and marveled: here were the original ruts that the Flyer followed! Luke Rizzuto drove his car off the trailer and out into the sagebrush on the old remnant of road. Bliss!

Photo by Max Winthrop
Ed and Janice Howle started their journey in North Carolina. Here they are in Goldfield.

But then the car goes back up on the trailer again as we resume our progress across Railroad Valley. Before long we turn east onto a gravel road and proceed through Nevada’s only oil field to the east side of the valley and then turn south to the Blue Eagle Ranch. The old cars are grinding merrily along, the wind loud in the drivers’ ears over the racket of the engines. In the Prius I am listening to NPR.

The Flyer came this way too. This ranch house, moved first from Belmont to the long-vanished mining town of Liberty, and then here in 1904, greeted Schuster back then, but he didn’t linger long and neither did we.

Photo by Max Winthrop
The Thomas Flyer broke down crossing the stream at the Twin Springs Ranch.

Another 45 miles south brings us to pavement again, the Extra Terrestrial Highway (Nevada 376). We turn west, toward Warm Springs, and pull in at the Twin Springs Ranch for another touchstone of history. Schuster had crossed the little stream here, hefting boulders into the soft-bottomed streambed to make it fordable, but while struggling up the far bank he broke some teeth off the pinion gear and cracked the transmission case. The Flyer was grounded.

Good grief. Now what? He bought an old gray horse for $20 and set out at dusk for Tonopah where he knew there was at least one other Flyer he could rob parts from. But he got lost in the darkness and happened across Stone Cabin. His knock brought a woman with a shotgun to the door. She was alone — the other folks from the ranch had gone to Tonopah to await the arrival of the racers. She wouldn’t let him into the cabin, but directed him to a corral for his horse and a rough leanto for himself.

Photo by Max Winthrop
Early 20th century meets early 21st.

Schuster nested up for the night, but was awakened by the arrival of a car carrying a search party from Tonopah. They drove him into town where he persuaded a local dentist to part with his drive train, which he then drove back out to Twin Springs and installed on the Flyer.

One of the highlights of the visit was locating the exact point at which the Flyer had foundered in the creek that winds through the ranch. Rancher Joe Fallini not only greeted us hospitably, pointing out the structures that had been here in 1908, he also pried open the doors to an old shed to reveal the Model T his father had given him many years before. For an audience of car lovers it was like unveiling the Mona Lisa.

Photo by Max Winthrop
On to Paris?

We were in Tonopah for dinner, up early for a photo shoot at the same spot where the Centennial celebration took place in March, and then on to Goldfield for a magnificent breakfast at the Northern Saloon and Cafe. From there the cars chugged off toward Beatty, Rhyolite, Death Valley, Ridgecrest, Fresno, San Jose and the Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street in San Francisco. That’s where this exercise in four-dimensional nostalgia came to an end . . . or maybe not. At the final Drivers’ Meeting in Nevada, at Tonopah Station, it was suggested that next year they tackle the second leg of the race by shipping their cars to Vladivostok and driving across Siberia to Moscow and then on to Paris. Rod Rucker suggested a mighty pie-fight, like the one that ended the Tony Curtis movie, but it was clear that Siberia was a more seductive option. You can find many more details of the adventure here.

Photo by Max Winthrop
The Smothers Brothers: 50 years of sibling rivalry

The anniversary of another historical event was celebrated last month at Lake Tahoe: it has been — almost — 50 years since Bill Harrah (who acquired and restored the Great Race-winning Thomas Flyer for his renowned collection) opened the South Shore Room. He had bought the Gateway Club in 1955, the Stateline Country Club across the highway in 1956 and the Nevada Club in 1957. In ’59 he built the new Harrah’s Lake Tahoe with its 850-seat South Shore Room, and hired Red Skelton to be its first headline act.

Photo by Max Winthrop
Dickie Smothers

It’s also been 50 years since Tom and Dick Smothers began their celebrated show business career at the Purple Onion in San Francisco. And since the Smothers Brothers were appearing at the South Shore Room on October 31/November 1 (and booked again for next June), they were called upon to address the historic significance of it all.

Photo by Max Winthrop
Tom Smothers, in a state of Yo.

“Our first booking as headliners in the SouthShore Room was in 1968,” Tom remembered. “We’d been working the lounge here, and at Harvey’s across the street, doing five one-hour shows a day — with no scripted material — along with acts like the Newton Brothers. We’d start at 7 a.m., and

because we were the relief act — there was lounge entertainment 24/7 in those days — we worked seven days a week.”

“As headliners we got the star treatment Harrah’s was known for,” Dick said: “dinner with Bill, a Rolls Royce to drive, a glamorous suite. He let me drive any car I wanted in his collection. Bill always gave performers the very best because he wanted them to give their very best every night. And when we were fired by CBS, Harrah’s was the only casino that would hire us here in Nevada.”
“We had brought a flatbottomed boat so we could go waterskiing,” Tom said, “and we put it in the lake on the afternoon of our first performance. But as we were coming back to shore the propeller hit an underwater snag and we lost power. We floated around for a long time without being able to attract anyone’s attention until I dipped a towel in gasoline, lit it on fire and began waving it around over my head.”

Neil Sedaka was the opening act that night, and by the time the brothers were ready to go on he’d sung all his songs twice.

There was no Neil Sedaka this time, and no waterskiing. To celebrate this historic occasion, the Smothers Brothers filled the South Shore Room with laughter, a perfect tribute to the room and to themselves.

Quick notes from beyond the mountains: Stayed at the Historic Hotel Nevada & Gambling Hall in Ely, got room #417, the Vickie Carr room (many of the deluxe rooms are named for the famous guests who have stayed at the hotel in years past), and consulted the Guest Book for my bedtime reading.

Photo by Max Winthrop
The Orange Ape in the Vickie Carr Room

Some excerpts: 2/14/02 “Cozy! Nice job on the Vickie Carr memorabilia, I felt like she would waltz in and sing a tune any minute”, 6/22/02 “Last night of Route 50 trip to Tahoe. Best place we stayed all week. Room and people are great.” 7/6/02 Wonderful room, great staff (except for Gary the 21 dealer)” 12/25/02 “We have lived in Ely for 7 yrs, always wanted to see the inside rooms. Just lovely!”, 8/28/03 “We’ve been coming here for about 20 years picking pine nuts and garnets.” 11/27/03 “Awesome — He asked me to marry him! Great night!” 5/16/04 “Great room and we won a few $$” 4/15/05 “Checked out Lehman Caves and mountain biked around Cave Lake. Ely must be defined as fun outside in the daytime but at night thank God we have that bed.” 12/10/06 “Great place, great room – fun things. Mirror is placed very well too – why didn’t anyone tell us our butts were that big?” 12/13/06 “Love the large orange ape” 3/3/07 “Had a great time, loved the big orange monkey)” 3/9/07 “Our favorite stop on the way to the races. Good food. Great bartender (Bad monkey!)” 12/01/07 “A year later and I’m still in love with that large orange ape.” 4/11/08 “We had to evict the monkey out of bed — wasn’t room for us all”

Photo by Max WinthropIt rained on our parade in Carson City on Nevada Day, but we managed to have a good time anyhow. The rain was soft and intermittent, and there were many opportunities for hot food and cold beer up and down Carson Street and its tributaries.
Photo by Darryl RubarthSpectators darted in and out of the businesses along the parade route, and the parade itself was the usual spectacular presentation. The annual beard contest on the capitol steps was a shaggy success, with Virginia City barely edging out Carson City in total prizes, 7-6. Other winners came from California (6), India (2) and Washington (1). The single-jack drilling contests — that’s Jamie Eason of Tonopah at right — attracted the attention of our state’s second-greatest industry as contestants from around the west tested their skill at drilling holes in granite by hand. Photo by Darryl RubarthKnowledgable and flavorful commentary was provided by announcer Johnny Gunn. The Nevada Day celebration in Carson City is definitely one of the great annual events in the American west. True Nevadans must see it at least once before they die.

5/20/08 “Next time we have to cover the big orange ape’s eyes — he likes to watch while we tested the bed” 5/30/08 “The room was great. Food was great. Always have a lot of fun here. Only bad thing was my husband was violated by the monkey.” 9/25/08 “Just Married 2 weeks ago. 3 years and Eric still loves that big orange ape” 10/21/08 “Another fun time in this great old hotel. We always stay at Hotel Nevada — our favorite hotel anywhere in the state. Love this room — even the giant chimpanzee” . . . Just in case you thought all the ghost towns are in Nevada, or even the American West, here’s a website that will set you straight . . . Washoe Lake State Park, just east of US 395 between Carson City and Reno, is beautiful this time of year. The water level is down, most of the campers are gone, but the views remain stunning. Here’s a slide-show of autumn at the lake,well worth an afternoon’s exploration . . .Nevada MagazineThe website Roadside America dot com provides information about the bizarre and goofy things to see along the highways of this great country — the replica of TV’s Simpsons House, for example, a 2,200 square ft. 4-bedroom home that was built in Henderson in 1997 as a promotion by Pepsi and builders Kaufman and Broad. It was won by a 63-year old grandmother, a fan of the show, and has since been repainted to blend in with the neighborhood (called Springfield) that has grown around it. There are maybe a hundred such curiosities in Nevada, and you’ll find a list of them here . . .


Nevada MagazineThe 2009 Nevada Historical Calendar is available for purchase. The large format calendar full of black-and-white photographs from years gone by. This year’s cover image features Frank Sinatra and other members of the Rat Pack backstage in Las Vegas. Buy one for $11.99 plus $3.99 shipping here. The 2008–2009 season for the Amargosa Opera House is underway and continues through May 9, 2009 with performances by Marta Becket every Saturday night at 8:15 p.m. Located at Death Valley Junction, a few miles west of the California-Nevada border, the Opera House is decorated with murals painted by Becket herself. Advance reservations are required: 760-852-4441 . . .

The 8th annual Pahrump Competition Pow Wow and Rodeo will be held Nov. 21 – 23 at Petrack Park, at the corner of Highway 160 and Basin Road and will include rodeo events for the first time. Contact the Pahrump Chamber of Commerce at 775-727-5800 for details . . . On Saturday November 22, McAvoy Layne will once again bring Mark Twain back to life, this time in Hawthorne on the stage of the Courage Theater in the old US Building (now the Convention Center) on Main Street. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for seniors, the military and children, available at the door. The doors open at 6:30 and “the trouble begins at 7,” I’ll be there and I hope you will too.

Overheard at the Cafe del Rio in Virginia City: “Things are bad, very bad. But I’d rather see the government owning the banks than the banks owning the government.”

Happy Highways,

David W. Toll



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