The Longest Race

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The deepest lake in the world is Baikal, in southern Siberia, a pristine world unto itself—and very pristine back in 1908. But the occupants of the Thomas Flyer didn’t care about that; they were just out to catch the 6:00 A.M. lake ferry in Missovala on June 20. After a harrowing night on the road, and sometimes off it, they arrived at dawn, only to learn that there was no such thing as a 6:00 A.M. lake ferry in Missovala. There was, however, a freight train that led directly to a ferry, and with the help of a hobo, they found the train station. They had been traveling for hundreds of miles in the same foul mood, complaining of mosquitoes ever buzzing in their ears, of days too hot and nights too cold, of inns too fetid (by far), of bridges too flimsy, of officials too stubborn and, everywhere they went, of horses that bolted, herds of stupid animals that stampeded, and villagers who ran into their houses and locked the windows. But the next sight irked them as nothing else had.

Lieutenant Koeppen and his crew were just finishing up loading the Protos onto the ferry train, and in the nick of time too, since the train was due to leave in four minutes. So it did. As it glided away, though, Lieutenant Koeppen promised that he would not dream of taking advantage of his twenty-hour head start but would await Schuster on the other side of the lake.

 

IN SIBERIA, ALL the teams grew ornery. They tried to insult it with their speed, and in turn it toyed with them. By the time the Zust’s Antonio Scarfoglio left the central region, he was so dizzy from it all that he hated beauty more than blight, describing Irkutsk in a dispatch for the London Daily Mail as having “a miserable appearance, sunk in mud; the smoke is dense about it, and rain was falling all the time. Not the less, Irkutsk seemed beautiful in our eyes, tired of the monotonous, eternal green and flowery plain.” Perhaps they all were getting dizzy….

Lieutenant Koeppen did not wait on the other side of Lake Baikal, as he had said he would. He was away like a shot. Eventually the Thomas managed to catch up and take the lead for about a half-day. Then it broke down, and the repair took days. The Protos forged ahead and was first into Moscow, a big city at last, where it was hailed in triumph. Nobody there really knew about the Thomas’s time allowance, which it got in Valdez, which is in Alaska, which is really very far from the Imperial Automobile Club, which is where Koeppen and his team were the guests of honor at a banquet the night they arrived in Moscow.

That was only the first in a veritable tour of the banquet facilities at Imperial Automobile Clubs across Eastern Europe. In another week, a mere heartbeat by comparison to the ordeals in the past, the Protos was rolling down Unter den Linden in Berlin, a hero come home. While he was home, Koeppen wrote the story of his trip for the newspapers, under the jarring headline GERMANS TO THE FRONT . It was a reference to a battle charge once made by a general. On July 26 the Protos reached the city of Paris, after a journey of twenty-one thousand miles. The journey had taken 165 days, and the Protos was hailed as the winner—of the Vladivostok to Paris stage of the race. Four days later the Thomas Flyer arrived in Paris, where it was paraded through the streets and cheered as the true winner … until a traffic policeman, who didn’t care where it had just been, actually stopped it for driving without a headlight. Scratching out solutions to the very last, the team borrowed a bicycle with a light on it and propped the whole thing on the front of the car. The officer was satisfied, and the procession continued. Even so, the Paris to New York race was far from over.

The following week the American team went home, with the Flyer, of course, and on August 20 they were entertained at Oyster Bay by President Theodore Roosevelt. They informed him that the worst roads they’d found on the trip were those in the United States. That didn’t surprise him at all, so he changed the subject, making the point that he admired Americans who did things, as the Thomas team had. He did not admire the good, timid man who didn’t have the courage of his convictions.

By early September the car and its driver, George Schuster, were back in place at the Thomas factory in Buffalo; thanks to their showing, the sale of Thomas cars had picked up. Schuster must have been pleased about that and the fact that before the race even ended, the federal government had authorized funds to make the route north from Valdez to Fairbanks fit for automobiles. All over the country, in fact, a “good roads” movement had emerged in the wake of many such embarrassments along the course of the race. Something else may have changed, too, during the running. Good, timid people may have realized that a car was itself a road, in dreams, and that it might lead anywhere at all.

On September 17, 1908, the Zust finally arrived in Paris. The Great Race was over, and there never was another. By its very nature there couldn’t be.