The Longest Race

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Italy entered the Brixia Zust, a name commonly abbreviated so that it fitted the entry’s motto: Paris or Zust. From France the De Dion was the pre-race favorite to win, coming from one of the older, more respected auto companies. Like the Zust, it was under reconstruction for a half-year in anticipation of the trip, with additions that included a fitting for a sail and a heater for the occupants, each being a unique accessory among the entries. The Moto-Bloc was a new make of car, built in France, but with an American connection, in that it was designed by Charles Schwab’s former chauffeur. It was a lighter car than some others and had a fuel capacity of only eighty gallons. Another small French car, the Sizaire-Naudin, also started the race. The only American entry was the car with the best name, the Thomas Speedway Flyer. It was grayish white, a handsome combination of a fairly light car and a fairly powerful drive train. At the last moment the German newspaper Zeitung am Mittag sponsored an entry for its country, the Protos, a heavyweight that was rebuilt for the race in a little over two months.

On February 11, 1908, the eve of the race start, all the midtown hotels in New York City were decorated with commemorative flags. Talk of the race was in the air, and that night the devil, a character in the hit play The Soul Kiss , delivered a little special material. Standing under an eerie light, he pointed upstage (and uptown). “What do I see?” he said. “A line of automobiles in front of the Times Building, starting on the race from New York to Paris. Ah. They’ll all come to me …!”

 

The next morning the first part of his prophecy came true. The six cars were parked in front of the building occupied by The New York Times , the American sponsor of the race. The weather was terrible, even for February in New York. Some of the drivers were already dressed—which is to say, covered except for the eyes—in their Arctic outfits. One hundred and fifty thousand people turned out in the brisk winter chill to watch the start. The one person who didn’t show was the mayor, who was supposed to fire the starting pistol. Someone else snatched the gun, fired it, and fifteen minutes into their six-month race, the cars roared forward. The Sizaire-Naudin, however, roared only as far as Peekskill, forty-four miles up the Hudson, where it plowed into a snowdrift and quit the race.

ONE TINY INDIANA VILLAGE posted a sign wishing the Thomas: “Good Luck on Kendallville-to-Paris Race.”
 
 

BUT THEN, TO DRIVE UP the Hudson Valley that day was to plow into a snowdrift. The other cars made progress the way a curling stone does, with two men out in front most of the time, shoveling frantically. Little boys threw snowballs, meanwhile, and old men hovered nearby giving advice. The cars followed wagon tracks where they could and sleigh tracks where they had to. West of Albany they followed the towpath of the Erie Canal; when it started to pour around Syracuse, they followed the water that collected where the road had been. Then they hit the Montezuma Swamp, where there was nothing whatsoever to follow, and it took six horses to pull the De Dion out of a quagmire near a town called Dismal Hollow. The eyes of the world were on New York State, and the consensus among the drivers, freely expressed in the newspapers, was that Siberia couldn’t possibly be worse.

When the Thomas Flyer reached Buffalo, it was home, in the city where it had been built. The Thomas Company had entered the race in order to prove that it made the best car in the world, but it first had to prove it had the best car in Buffalo, because the estimable Fierce-Arrow was made on the other side of town. Pierce cars, being naturally impeccable, came in first every year that they entered the sedate, almost armchair rallies called the Glidden Tours. They were held, prudently, in the summertime in places like New Hampshire. When Percy Pierce competed in them, he brought his fiancée. Not so the Thomas Flyer; it was almost uncouth. And it was definitely uncouth honking into Buffalo on February 16, all covered in mud and leftover swamp water and chased from the east by foreigners. Buffalo seemed to love it, coming out in crowds to rival those in Times Square just to cheer the Flyer and, while they were at it, the De Dion and the Zust, not far behind.

Fitted out for twenty thousand miles, the New York to Paris cars were more like pack animals than thoroughbred racecars. Each car carried three or four men but became especially associated with one of them. The Thomas Flyer was Montague Roberts, athletic and easygoing. The De Dion was G. Bourcier St. Chaffray, quirky and conniving. The Zust was Emilio Sirtori, animated and popular. The Moto-Bloc was Baron Charles Godard, quick-tempered. The Protos was Lt. Hans Koeppen, on leave from the German army, determined and … yet more determined.