- Historic Sites
The Longest Race
At a time when driving from Manhattan to Yonkers was a supreme challenge, a half-dozen cars pointed their radiators west and set out from Times Square for Paris
November 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 7
In Wyoming at the end of March, the De Dion dashed after the Thomas and the Zust, while the others lagged. Bourcier St. Chaffray, heading the De Dion effort, had the spirit of his countryman Tocqueville in him, and along the way he made pointed observations on American society. Many of his comments fell into two categories: Americans were more egalitarian than Europeans, yet they were much more money-mad. No sooner did St. Chaffray note that there is only one class in this country, with no visible difference between rich and poor, than he wondered why the primary interest that little boys had in the New York to Paris race was how much the drivers would get for winning. (Nothing.)
The mileage was carried out like the score of the race, and after a month and a half, the distances covered and the locations were: Thomas Flyer 3,832 (San Francisco); Zust 2,718 (Nevada); De Dion 2,536 (Utah); Protos 2,325 (Wyoming). Baron Godard, in the Moto-Bloc, had become so hopelessly lost in the fields of Marshalltown, Iowa (1,191 miles), that he was out of the race. The Thomas Flyer was so far ahead that even the ship schedules worked out conveniently, bringing it, and it alone, to Valdez, Alaska, for the next stage of the race. Valdez is a port on the southern coast; the plan was to go from there to Fairbanks, which is in the middle of Alaska, give or take two hundred miles, and then due west to Nome, on the west coast. The people of Nome possessed a total of two automobiles, according to a young man who had helped found the city a few years before. The more practical transportation there, and certainly back in Valdez, was the dogsled, driven by “mushers.” In mid-April the Valdez mushers were loading up with assorted merchandise for their first selling trip of the year, buying, for example, crabs, (at five cents apiece) from the local Indians to sell in Fairbanks (for one dollar). They were the big rigs of Alaska, and they were going the same way as the Thomas: north.
Lieutenant Koeppen was at the time speeding along at a phenomenal rate toward Seattle—which would have been good news except that he was sitting on a train, while the Protos remained in Utah. It was broken, but that is needless to say, and stuck in a snowstorm, but that is needless to say. Of greater interest was that Lieutenant Koeppen was going to Seattle to buy parts and that his Chicago teammate had suddenly diagnosed in himself some medical condition or other that would keep him from continuing in the Protos around the rest of the world. Cables soon flew back and forth between Seattle and Germany.
Directed to skip Alaska, Schuster and the Thomas team loaded their car on the first ship bound for Seattle. Meanwhile St. Chaffray in the De Dion and Sirtori in the Zust had boarded the first ship bound for Japan. And Lieutenant Koeppen had finally figured out, on his trip to Seattle, how to keep the Protos from breaking down so much: He loaded it onto a train. After arriving on the coast, he and the car shipped out for Russia, skipping Japan, which the Race Committee had designated optional. All agreed that the Thomas would retain its fifteen-day lead when the cars collected in Russia and that the Protos would sustain a fifteen-day penalty for taking a shortcut on the train. Still, having broken the trail all along the way, the Thomas found itself following up the rear by the time it finally arrived in Seattle to catch its ship west.