NASCAR competition a cakewalk compared to the Great Race

Ned Jilton • Nov 20, 2019 at 7:30 PM

The NASCAR season has come to an end, and Kyle Busch, driving a Toyota, is the 2019 champion.

During the race, two of the other contenders for the title faced problems. Martin Truex’s car had tire trouble and Denny Hamlin’s car had an overheating engine late in the race. But the challenges and problems all three of these drivers faced would pale in comparison to the problems met by the drivers in the New York to Paris race of 1908.

In the early 1900’s, horses were still considered the most reliable source of transportation. As of 1908, only nine cars had driven across the United States and they had done so in the summer, no car had crossed in winter. Now a race sponsored by the New York Times and a Paris newspaper, La Matin, would put the automobile to the test.

Starting in New York City on Feb. 12, the route of the race would go through Albany, New York, and then on to Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle and up to Valdez, Alaska, where the race sponsors thought the cars would drive across the frozen Bearing Strait. This is why the race was being held in winter. Then the cars would race through Japan and into Russia where they would pass through Vladivostok, Omsk, Moscow and St. Petersburg before entering Germany, where they would pass through Berlin and then on to France where they would cross the finish line at the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

Six cars entered the race, three from France and one each from Germany, Italy and the United States. At this time France and Germany were considered the best car builders in the world. France was represented by a De Dion-Bouton, a Motobloc and a Sizaire-Naudin. Germany’s car was a Protos and the Italian entry was a Zust. All five of these cars were special built for the race.

The United States entry into the race was a 1907 Thomas Flyer model 36. The Flyer was an early American muscle car, its four-cylinder engine putting out 60 horsepower. The car entered in the race was stock, picked-up from the dealer three days before the race.

Only a day before the race, George Schuster, who started out as the mechanic for the Thomas Flyer before ending up driving three-fourths of the race as well, was told by the company he was part of the race team. Monty Roberts, who was the starting driver for the Flyer, quit halfway across the United States leaving Schuster to pull double duty. Also on the race team was a reporter from the New York Times.

The mayor of New York was to be the official starter, but the crowd in Time Square was so big he couldn’t get through so a race official fired the gun and the cars made there way through the mob that had gathered along Broadway to see the event.

The cars had gotten as far as Albany, New York, when one of the French cars dropped out of the race due to a broken axle. Halfway across the United States, about the time Roberts left the Flyer team, a second French entry dropped out of the race.

Many people in America at this time had never seen a car. As the race made its way across the country, schools would dismiss their students so they could see this rare sight. After 41 days, 8 hours and 15 minutes of racing, the Thomas Flyer arrived at San Francisco in the lead, becoming the first car to cross the United States in winter.

The Flyer then turned towards Seattle, bound for Alaska. But at this moment, there was controversy brewing.

The German entry had broken down in Utah, and rather than wait for a replacement part to be shipped to them, they shipped their car to Seattle by railroad to make repairs there. Shipping the car by rail was a rules violation and race officials would add a 15 day penalty to the German’s time when they finished.

Meanwhile, the Flyer arrived in Alaska to become the first car ever seen there. Now the race officials faced another problem. The snow was so deep (6 to 10-feet) that there was no way the cars could make it through. Even if they could, the Bearing Strait was not frozen so the cars could not cross.

Race officials rerouted the race, all cars would be shipped by boat from Seattle to Japan. Since the American entry was the only one to go to Alaska, wasting time and putting extra wear on the car, race officials decided to subtract 15 days from the Thomas Flyer’s finial time to compensate.

The cars raced through Japan and into Russia. It was in Siberia that the last French entry dropped out of the race. With the Italians falling very far behind the competition came down to the Germans and the Americans.

With no roads to speak of, it was tough going in Russia, at one point in Siberia it took four days to go 60 miles. In an effort to make better time, Schuster drove the Thomas Flyer down the tracks of the Siberian railroad. The car bounced along the cross ties until the frame finally broke. Undaunted, Schuster picked up a piece of iron from a nearby rail yard and bolted the frame back together.

The delay while Schuster made repairs allowed the Germans into the lead. But the Thomas Flyer caught up when the Protos became hopelessly stuck in the mud. In a great display of sportsmanship, the Americans stopped to pull the Germans out of the mud. The German driver, Hans Koeppen, pulled out a bottle of cognac and drank a toast with his rescuers.

The Americans would lose the lead to the Germans again when Schuster had to stop just outside of Moscow to repair the Thomas Flyer’s clutch. As Schuster scrambled to catch up to the Protos, he faced one last obstacle in France.

The Thomas Flyer entered Paris on July 30 and was only blocks away from the Eiffel Tower where the finish line was located when it was stopped by the police.

Parisian law requires all cars to have two headlights. At some point during the race one of the Flyer’s headlights had been knocked off and now the police refused to allow the car to continue. A local bicyclist who had a headlight on his bike volunteered its use.

Schuster quickly strapped the bike to the hood of the car and the police, now satisfied that there were two headlights on the car, allowed the Thomas Flyer to continue on to the finish line.

The German Protos had crossed the finish line four days earlier but faced the 15 day penalty for shipping their car to Seattle by railroad when it broke down earlier in the race. Also there was the adjustment for the Americans driving to Alaska when no one else did.

Officially, the Thomas Flyer from the United States was declared the winner of the Great Race by 26 days over the German Protos. The Italian Zust would not cross the finish line until some time in September.

There was no prize money. All George Schuster got for driving 22,000 miles in 169 days was the satisfaction of winning the race plus a 1,400 pound trophy. Schuster was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame, located in Dearborn, Michigan, on Oct. 12, 2010. The Thomas Flyer and the massive trophy are on display at the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada.