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The Great Race...How It Works


I have been preparing the antique vehicles entered in what is now the Hemmings Great Race since 1989. What I have learned in all of those years can be applied to all types of antique vehicles to make them more reliable and fun to drive. Nobody appreciates a reliable antique vehicle more than a Great Race team. To understand why that matters here is a little insight into how the Great Race works and what the driver and navigator have to do during a typical day. Sit back and prepare to be enlightened.

Most Great Race teams will disassemble their cars starting about the first of August and check / rebuild everything. Engine compression, brakes, steering, electrical, cooling, fuel, clutches, starters transmissions, seals, gaskets, you get the idea. Most will have their engine back in the car no later than mid February, so they can begin to put on the practice miles. Just pulling the engine checking it out, replacing gaskets and minor things can change the character of the car. Most will put on a minimum of 500 practice miles learning consistent stopping, starting, and turning, and learning to work together as a team. And... their will be a few things you will need to add to your car before you can enter the race...such as...


An accurate speedometer that can be calibrated is essential for obtaining good scores. The official speedometer of the Great Race is the Time wise 825 electronic speedometer. Use of any other type of speedometer (other than the car’s stock speedometer) requires the specific approval of Great Race. The Time wise speedometer was specifically developed for Great Race type rallies. This speedometer costs about $1,000. 

The installation of the speedometer basically involves gluing two small magnets to one wheel, fabricating a bracket to hold the electronic pickup, mounting the speedometer for viewing by the driver, and connecting to a power source. There is a market for used speedometers and they can often be sold for a few hundred below the purchase price if you do not plan to do further rallies.

   This is an example of the speedo you will need to use when you enter a vintage car rally.

Calibrate Your Speedo and Clocks Daily
After installation of the speedometer, calibrate the speedometer in accordance with the speedometer instructions. During the race you will also have an opportunity daily to calibrate your speedometer on a specific course to make sure your speedometer agrees with the instruments used to construct the Course Instructions. The picture shows a Time wise speedometer installed in a 1936 Packard.

Analog Clock

You should have an analog clock mounted on the dash or on the lapboard. This can be an inexpensive “Wal-Mart” type clock. Many competitors use a Sawtooth Rally Clock. This clock is the correct size, has a continuous motion, has minimal backlash on the hands and every second is numbered. The picture below shows a Sawtooth clock mounted on the dash where it can be read by both the navigator and driver. Notice the factory speedometer is covered up completely. Some teams drive by time alone. Your factory odometer has to be covered as per rules the speedometer is optional. By the way your cell phone goes in the trunk and is for emergency use only.

An Analog clock needs to be large enough to be read by both the driver and navigator.


A good stopwatch is a necessity for accurate rallying. Be sure to get one that has a lap-split function and a time-of-day function. Most navigators wear their stopwatch on a lanyard around their neck but it is also possible to attach it to your lapboard.


A lapboard is the place to hold the route instructions, pens and pencils, and car calibration charts. Every navigator has their own preference for organizing these materials. There are two basic types of lapboards, flat style and roller style. The roller style scrolls the rally instructions by rolling the instructions. Most teams use the flat style. The following picture illustrates a typical lapboard. Many team navigators make their own.

You will get your course instructions each morning at a minimum of 30 minutes and maybe as long as two hours before you leave or longer depending on what number you draw for a start position. You will want to study the course instructions carefully and highlight with a yellow highlighter marker any tricky instructions (and there are usually a few to try and trip you up if you are not paying attention) so you note and specific instructions.

     A typical Lap board.  Note Speed Calibration Charts.

Car Calibration

In order to have good scores you need to be able to drive your car consistently. This means accelerating the same every time, holding exact speeds, stopping the same every time and making turns the same every time. In addition you need to be able to make adjustments to account for losses and gains during the rally. Calibration charts are the basis for making these adjustments. Consistent driving and good calibration charts go together to achieve good scores.

You may not think that an accurate speedometer is needed, but consider that if your stock speedometer is only off by 1 per cent, your error will be 36 seconds per hour. Most teams, including rookies, will have scores of less than 10 seconds per hour. If you can’t tell the difference between 49 and 50 miles per hour on your stock speedometer, your error will be 2 per cent which amounts to 72 seconds per hour.

Practice Driving

You have decided to enter the Great Race and the guidelines strongly suggest that you should calibrate the performance of your car. Actually, you need to calibrate the car, the navigator,  the driver and the car together. The car and the driver / navigator team need to be calibrated together, so that they can perform in the race the same each day every day,  as they did during the practice calibration.

The Great Race and similar rallies have a basic assumption that makes it challenging. This assumption is that a car can stop instantaneously and accelerate to speed instantaneously. Of course, your car cannot do this. Accordingly you will lose time on many of the maneuvers in the Course Instructions. These losses will add up to very large time errors and resulting poor scores. By calibrating your car you will know the size of these losses as they occur and can make corrections.

There are several methods for doing this calibration. What follows is a relatively simple way for rookies. This method will calibrate your car, give the driver experience in consistent driving, and give the navigator experience using the stop watch. The numbers used as examples are purely for illustration and do not reflect the actual performance of a particular car.

First, you will need a location to do your calibrations. The location should have a straight section of road about a half mile long with little or no traffic. You will also need a way to turn around near each end of the course. You may be able to find a little used road out in the country or maybe in a very large mall parking lot. You will be traversing this course at different speeds ranging from 15 to 50 mph and making frequent stops.

The exact length of the course is not important since you will be making time comparisons for different runs. A course that takes about 40 seconds to traverse at 50 mph is about right. Mark each end of the course with a visible marker. An orange traffic cone or a stick with a flag will work. You may want to use a shorter course for the lower speed runs to save time.

Run the course at speeds of 15, 20, 25, 30, 35, 40, 45 and 50 mph. Make at least 4 runs at each speed and record the times. Run the course in both directions. You need at least 4 runs to get a good average time. If you have a lot of variation, make more runs. You need to be as consistent on every run as possible in order to chart exact time and speeds.

At the start of a timed section of the race, the Course Instructions might say to accelerate from a stop to 40 mph. From your practise time you will know that accelerating from 0 to 40 mph results in a net time lost of 4.5 seconds. You have two options to correct for this time lost. One is to start 4.5 seconds before the instructed time. The other is to make up for the lost time after starting at the instructed time.

Stop and Go Pause Times

The Course Instructions for stop signs usually say to stop at the sign, pause for 15 seconds, and proceed at the assigned speed. Since the race cars cannot decelerate and accelerate instantaneously as assumed by the Course Instructions, you can make up for the deceleration and acceleration errors by changing the 15 second pause time to a lesser amount depending on the speeds involved. Note: Always check the course instructions carefully since sometimes the instructed pause time may be different than 15 seconds.

To use the chart simply begin with the “IN” speed on the left of the chart and move to the “OUT” speed across the top to find the new pause time. For instance, if you are doing 30 mph before a stop sign and will leave the stop sign at 40 mph, the pause time would be 8.6 seconds rather than the instructed 15 seconds. By changing the pause time there is no need to make up time for the deceleration and acceleration losses. However, if you have to wait for traffic longer than your planned pause time, you will need to make up the difference between your planned and actual pause times.

How to Make Up Lost Time

Let’s use the example of a 40 – 35 turn. After leaving the turn you need to make up 4 seconds. The easy way is to use the “ten per cent rule”. Simply drive 10 per cent above the instructed speed for 10 times the seconds needed to be made up. So for this example, drive 38.5 mph (10 per cent faster than 35 mph) for 40 seconds (10 times the 4 seconds lost) and then return to the specified speed of 35 mph and you will be back on time.

Another example would be an additional delay due to traffic at a stop sign. If your pause time for a 30 – 40 stop is 8.6 seconds (see Stop & Go chart above) and you actually pause for 13 seconds due to traffic, you need to make up 4.4 seconds. To do this, drive 44 mph (10 per cent above 40) for 44 seconds (10 times 4.4 seconds).

This method works the same way for losing time. To lose time, drive 10 per cent below the instructed speed for 10 times the seconds needed to be lost.

Another useful formula is used for making up time when you drive slower than the specified speed due to traffic or other conditions. Simply divide the difference between your actual speed and the assigned speed by the specified speed and multiply by the time driven at the reduced speed. This will result in the number of seconds lost.

As an example, lets say you catch up with traffic and have to slow from the specified speed of 40 mph to 30 mph for 20 seconds. Your lost time would be 10 divided by 40 times 20 which equal 5 seconds.

Speedometer Calibration

After completion of the speedometer calibration run which will be the first instruction of the day... your clock time might show an actual time of 28 min 47.3s compared to the correct time of 28 min 43.2s. This is an error of 4.1 seconds late. You will need to figure this correction into every instruction you complete throughout the day.

And it will likely be different tomorrow. Everyday is different which is why it is a daily task. Things like air pressure, tire wear will change daily due to temperature and related. Natural rubber tires grow in diameter when they get warm which will change the diameter of the tire and in turn the calibration readings. On a 95 degree day the tire will be a different diameter than it will on the same day when driving thru the rain and the temperature at 60 degrees.

Stop Signs

Stop signs are straight forward. Pull up to the stop sign, pause for the time indicated in your performance chart and then depart at the indicated speed. Since the pause time in your performance chart takes into account the losses for braking and acceleration, there is no loss or gain to be made up after the stop sign. However, if there is traffic and you leave sooner or later than your pause time, the difference will have to be made up using the 10% rule. Don't forget your speedometer correction. 


At a turn, slow to the speed your performance chart is based on, make the turn and accelerate to the indicated speed. From your performance chart you will find the loss for a particular turn. Now you know why you had to practice driving at all of those different speeds. Use the 10% rule to make up this time as soon as practical after the corner.

Speed Changes

You instructions may say to change your speed from 35 to 30 at a “SPEED LIMIT 35” sign. The best way to do this maneuver is to split the speed change at the sign. Decrease your speed just before the sign, cross the sign at 32.5 mph and continue slowing down until you reach 30 mph. This gain and loss cancel each other and you are back on the correct time.


Typically there will be between 6 and 8 hidden checkpoints along the route each day. They typically are hidden just over the crest of a hill or at the bottom of a blind corner, anyplace that you are likely to be off time. There are no set rules, the checkpoints may be 60 miles apart or ten miles apart. You will not know where they are until you see them...and they see you! Being early to arrive at a checkpoint is just as bad as arriving late to a checkpoint. This is a mental challenge. Sometimes your mind knows what to do but your body will not cooperate. It is easy to get flustered and then things go down hill fast.


So by now you you have some idea what the Great Racers do on a daily basis. It also become painfully apparent that a reliable car is a must. Keep in mind besides the time loss the racers can have no outside help to fix their cars if they have a breakdown. As a result they practice a lot including changing flat tires which they can change in 8 to 11 minutes on average. To do it that fast takes practice and they have to each know what the other person is going to do. You have to also have the proper tools along and remember to not leave them beside the road when you are done.

When you are done with your flat tire repair and are back on the road... you will have to makeup the time you spent changing the flat tire so you will need to keep track of the time you spent fixing that flat tire then figure that correction into your course instructions along with your tire calibration instructions. Does your head hurt yet...?

So there is a lot going on behind the wheel of a Great Race car. You also need to keep in mind that the older the car the bigger the scoring handicap but the more work it is to keep the older cars on time. Keep in mind that you will be doing this for about 7 days straight. Most cars do not have power steering or air conditioning and some have no top like the 1911 Velie or the 1916 Hudson that I sponsor every year.

If you are thinking about entering the Great Race you should go visit the race at one of the overnight stops. You can talk to the drivers and navigators first hand. They are all very user friendly and will gladly answer any questions you have. You can also go to the hotel and watch them work in the parking lot preparing their cars for the next day.

Next up you need to go to the Great Race website and download a copy of the rookie handbook. From there you can watch some of the videos on scoring, and most every other subject related to the race. Watch the highlights of this and previous years races and get involved it truly is the adventure of a lifetime.

Picture credits and sample speed charts sourced from Great If you are interested in more details and want to get involved in the Great Race go to their website watch the videos and download a copy of the rookie manual. That will get you off to a good start.

Then there is the VCRA...

Rex Gardner the founder of the Vintage Car Rally Association is a long time Great Race rally participant. All of his events are very user friendly and everyone involved will help you get started and answer any questions you may have. Rex's rally is one I would recommend if you wan to get started in vintage car rallying. There is no better place to learn. His rally works just like most all vintage car rallies so you will need the same equipment, follow the same basic rules, and will need the same basic car and mental preparation.

The one major difference in a VCRA rally compared to The Great Race is the VCRA Rally uses a cloverleaf format (you travel a different direction every day but return to the same starting point) to reduce costs and to make the Rally a more family oriented atmosphere. The Great Race travels to a different overnight stop every day. There is the added expense of moving support vehicles and equipment, along with checking in and out of hotels etc.

On the technical side the VCRA uses a more equitable handicap scoring system, to make it simpler to understand. The VCRA also has a smaller entry fee / and a expanded class structure, which makes for more class winners, and a better payout program. In summary the VCRA is a good way to experience what it is like to be a part of the Great Race without the greater expense. Participating in the VCRA will give you a good insight into how a vintage car rally works.

The VCRA Rally is held each spring in the Springfield Missouri area and is an excellent way to get involved in vintage car rallying.  You can go to for more details.

If you get the chance you should go and visit an overnight stop
at either a Great Race or VCRA event. Even if you go as just a spectator, you now have a good understanding of how a vintage car rally works. You will also have more appreciation for the job the driver and navigator does each day. The odds that the teams in the great race will be driving a antique vehicle the same make and model that you own is also pretty good. Many of the Great Race entrants today were first spectators. You could be next!

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About Me

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Since 1987, Fifth Avenue owner, Randy Rundle, has been making antique, classic and special interest vehicles more reliable and fun to drive.