- 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
Although the cars were not required to go across Japan, after studying the schedules the De Dion and Zust teams realized that they could pick up some time by doing so. They landed at Yokohama, in the middle of the main island, and drove across the mountainous central region to Tsuruga, from which they could sail for Vladivostok. About a week later the Thomas took approximately the same route.
And so Russia, to he properly dramatic about it. For all the mutterings about upstate New York in February being just like Siberia, there is only one Siberia on this planet: vast, seemingly empty, unimaginably full. It reached more than five thousand miles east from Vladivostok, crossing over bogs, windy plains, and two major mountain ranges and through forests. The weather could be expected to be bitter cold, desert hot, and almost tropically wet, by turns. Wild animals still presided over almost all of it in 1908, including wolves, bears, and tigers.
Since the racers would have to cross Manchuria first, the list of predators should have included one other, the bandit, and in this case it was the genuine article and not just another flinty-eyed Indiana innkeeper. Three bandits who were captured at the time told officials that word had spread about the rich automobilists planning to cross the countryside alone and that speculation was rife in the ranks as to just what a rich automobilist might be worth in ransom money.
On the brink of such a morass of unknown quantities, the De Dion and Zust cars hesitated at Vladivostok. The De Dion withdrew from the race. The Protos not only surged ahead but did not even wait to allow the Thomas its fifteen-day head start. On arrival the Thomas Flyer team lost no time (except for two days in clearing customs) in following; the new goal was to reach Paris first, regardless of the time allowance. Suddenly the world had a real race. The Thomas and the Protos were within hours of each other and fighting hard. It wasn’t always easy to tell how hard, though. Over miles of mushy bogland the Thomas rolled gingerly forward, following two team members wading out in front to look for the way. The excess of water came from melting snow. It was now May, and nearly all the snow would be gone from Manchuria by June. When the team stopped in a village called Manchesuria, they were even shown where the melting snow had revealed the bodies of thirty men murdered and dumped, probably by bandits, over the winter. It wasn’t funny.
The Thomas pushed on nonetheless, and it was making progress on a dry stretch of terrain when Schuster stripped the gears. The team members hadn’t seen another automobile since leaving Japan, and they hadn’t seen another person all day. Replacement parts were a couple of days away, at best, so Schuster left on foot, leaving the other three members of the team to guard the car. One night they heard footsteps coming toward them. They were terrified, but it turned out to be a group of Cossacks, delivering extra ammunition and bayonets, along with three guard dogs and the admonition that the team’s campfire, the only cheery thing as far as the eye could see, was bound to draw bandits.
The Protos wasn’t breaking down much in Russia, nor was it getting stuck the way it always had in America. The Thomas team soon found out why: Lieutenant Koeppen and his two new co-drivers were going for broke and traveling over railroad beds. In the first place, that was expressly forbidden by the rules of the race. In the second place, trains coming in the other direction were not used to seeing approaching traffic, and on at least one occasion the Protos was almost hit by an eastbound Trans-Siberian train. (The Trans-Siberian Railroad, the pride of Imperial Russia, was only three years old in 1908.) George Schuster soon decided that there was no choice but to drive over the rails as well, and Grand Duke Sergius arranged special permission for the cars to use the Russian rails, on a schedule and with safety precautions.
A half-hour later Schuster was back behind the wheel. He wanted to drive, he had to drive, and the car settled into its former pace, a stout heart apparently being an advantage for only the first ten or twelve thousand miles. After that perhaps it just got in the way.
The Zust was not out of the race, as everyone assumed. After a long delay in Vladivostok, the riding mechanic, Henri Haaga, took over the driving, and the Zust team set off doggedly after the front-runners. The Italians were thousands of miles behind, but they were hopeful nonetheless, and the mood in their car was certainly more affable than that in the Thomas.