Vintage race Rolls into town

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It's the equivalent of completing the Tour de France on a tricycle. Drivers race 4,200 miles in early 1900s cars with no map, no power steering and no air conditioning.

It's the perfect challenge for Pat McClelland, 57, and Norm Hibbard, 74.

McClelland, a Steamboat Springs resident, and Hibbard from Tuscaloosa, Ala., are competing together in the 22nd annual Great Race, a vintage car rally in which cars drive across the country in two weeks. More than $260,000 goes to the cars that most precisely follow course instructions on the transcontinental trek.

In Hibbard's yellow 1925 Rolls Royce, McClelland and Hibbard sped away from the start line June 19 in Jacksonville, Fla., and will cross the finish July 3 in Monterey, Calif. But first they and 186 other competitors will make a pit stop in Steamboat Springs on Monday.

Starting at about 5:30 p.m. Monday, 94 vintage cars valued at more than $3 million will stream into Steamboat. The cars range from a 1909 Lozier Model J to a 1959 Cadillac convertible.

Among teams arriving will be the Two Mallards -- McClelland and Hibbard's team name.

"The reason we chose that name is that our families traveled a good bit together in Europe, and from our rental cars, we could see the hotels we were trying to get to, but we would have to circle around them several times before we could get there, like two mallards trying to find their place to land," McClelland said. "It's appropriate because I'm sure we're going to make similar navigational mistakes in this race."

And navigation is the name of the game for the Great Race. Rather than vying for speed, contestants compete to complete each day's course the most precisely. Each morning, 20 minutes before that day's race begins, contestants receive 300 to 400 pages of instructions such as "Go 35 miles per hour for two minutes and 35 seconds, turn right at this sign, go 40 miles per hour for five minutes and 23 seconds," and so on.

Race organizers measured exactly how long each day's course should take to complete, and at the end of the day, the car that finishes with a time closest to the expected time wins that leg.

"It's all about precise speed and timing," said McClelland, who is going to be the navigator while Hibbard drives. "It's not going to be a scenic ride. We're going to be working the whole time."

The winner last year was only one minute and 14 seconds off from the ideal time, out of more than 100 hours of driving. This year, the team with the best time for the two weeks wins $40,000. Officials also award daily prizes to the teams that have the best times for an individual day. If a team wins all the individual days as well as the overall prize, it takes home more than $65,000, said Mike Ewing, a spokesman for the Great Race.

That money won't come easy though. Contestants must navigate the countryside using very minimal tools. All they can carry is a stopwatch, a clock, a pad of paper, a pencil and a cell phone sealed in a bag for emergencies. Maps are not allowed, and despite the long drive through Kansas, neither are CD players or air conditioning. Even wristwatches are banned because they may contain a Global Positioning System.

"You only know where there's going to be a morning pit stop, lunch, afternoon pit stop and sleeping place," McClelland said.

Other than that, it's the driver, the navigator and eight hours of highway a day. So it's a good thing McClelland and Hibbard tested the compatibility of each other's company long ago.

The two meet 30 years ago when McClelland's wife taught Hibbard's family to ski at Steamboat.

"The Hibbards asked us out to dinner, and it was amazing because they had a school bus they had come down from Alabama in with 25 of their family members," McClelland said. The two families have been friends ever since, he said

McClelland and Hibbard got the idea for doing the Great Race the last time the race came through Steamboat in 1988.

"We were looking at the cars on display, and Norm said, 'You know, I've a '25 Rolls sitting in my garage, and Pat, when you retire, we're going to do this deal," said McClelland who has been retired two years now.

Driving an octogenarian auto across the country is no pleasure cruise, however. In the 1920s, power steering, heavy horsepower and air conditioning were still glimmers in an inventor's eye. Also, a turning crank started the ignition rather than a convenient key.

But more than the cars just lacking luxuries, contestants have to cope with less reliable and durable systems, Ewing said.

"Four-wheel brakes hadn't been invented before the early 20s, the cars didn't have as much horsepower and the durability of the engines wasn't that great," Ewing said.

High speeds and balancing can also be tricky for the vintage cars.

"I sure wouldn't go around any sharp curves at 60 miles per. It's just not stable," Hibbard said.

Additionally, the transmissions in the vintage cars only have four gears, Hibbard said, and the engine's revolutions per minute has to precisely match the gear when you shift.

Combining all those factors makes for a risky road trip.

"They have to try and get across country with these rudimentary vehicles, which were basically the beginning of an invention," Ewing said.

But for Hibbard, his love of antique autos outweighs the inconveniences.

"I just always had an interest in old cars. Some folks like to hunt, some to swim; I like old cars," Hibbard said.

He bought the 1925 Rolls Royce about 40 years ago from the widow of a deceased friend. Over eight years, Hibbard completely tore the car apart and repaired every damaged nut, bolt and screw. Today, "You can put your hand on the hood when it's running and not feel it at all," McClelland said.

Nevertheless, McClelland and Hibbard are taking their own 'mobile medics with them. Hibbard's son and grandson, one a former helicopter mechanic and the other a graduate of NASCAR's race mechanic school, will follow in a chase car.

In case of a breakdown, McClelland and Hibbard stockpiled spare parts in the chase car because a quick stop at an auto shop won't work: all the parts in the car must coincide with the car's original make and model and can take weeks to order.

In fact, before the Great Race started, officials inspected the cars to make sure everything was original, and throughout the race, they conduct spot inspections.

"We've never had anyone caught cheating though because most people are out here just trying to achieve their personal best," Ewing said.

Teams are allowed, however, to have an approved modern speedometer.

"That way, you're not using a 1925 speedometer, which might not be too accurate," McClelland said.

With their approved speedometer, personal mechanics and stopwatch, the Two Mallards were ready for action, but still, sitting in a car for 100-plus hours requires endurance, especially in the gluteus region.

McClelland's not worried, though.

"We'll be so busy keeping track of the route instructions that we won't even notice," he said.

Plus, all the sitting and sweating in a hot car will be worth it for the sweet moment when they cross the finish line, he said.

"The best part will be when we roll into Monterey," Hibbard said.

Once there, however, they'll quickly roll back out, but this time in a modern, air-conditioned car with the yellow Rolls Royce coasting behind in a trailer. The Two Mallards then circle back to their nests the way they came.


--To reach Kristin Bjornsen, call 879-1502.

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