TREMONT — There are plenty of challenges to driving a topless, 88-year-old car, but adding rain makes it downright messy.
Peter Brown, head mechanic of the Seal Cove Auto Museum, was participating in the 10-day Hemmings Motor News Great Race from Buffalo, N.Y., to Halifax, Nova Scotia.
But on Thursday, when more than 100 vintage cars arrived at the museum, he was needed there. His girlfriend, Susan Nourse, agreed to fill his seat at the wheel of the 1930 Ford Model A Boattail Speedster he was racing for the one day, rain or shine.
Well, it rained. It rained a lot.
“It was cold. Rain was coming down in sheets,” said Nourse about the calculated course from Bangor to Tremont. “Once you get wet you can’t get wetter.”
Nourse and navigator Ford Reiche relied on hand signals and team work during the wet trek. Theirs was the first vehicle to arrive at the Seal Cove Auto Museum. Organizers set it up that way as a nod to Brown’s role at the museum.
“He was yelling. It was so noisy with the rain and wind outside,” said Nourse who was covered in a helmet, rain gear and aviator glasses, but unfazed. “This whole event is so amazing I’ve had a smile on my face the whole time.”
Every so often Reiche would wipe off Nourse’s glasses to help her see.
“I had to ask permission so I wouldn’t surprise her while she was driving,” he said.
Reiche had scored five aces – a perfect score in navigation and timing – the day before. “I have room in my little brain to do five things at once,” he said. “You have to be able to do seven to 10 things at once.”
A half hour before taking off for each leg of the race, participants are given their instructions.
“We had an important instruction fly out of the car the day before,” said Reiche. Luckily he had committed the information to memory, or that glitch would have become a major disaster.
Without the use of any electronic or satellite navigation systems, digital speedometer, phones or watches, racers need to know the intricacies of their car’s operation to adjust successfully. This year’s Great Race was open to vehicles from 1972 and older. Use of an analog speedometer and stopwatch were permitted.
“We have a chart that we made up prior to this,” said Jim Menneto of Bennington, Vt., who works for Hemmings Motor News.
He and navigator Stephanie Sigot, also a Hemmings Motor News employee, were driving a 1932 Ford Speedster without windshield wipers.
Each day of the race presented its own adventure. Two nights before arriving on Mount Desert Island, Brown and Reiche had to repair a piston.
“The whole front of the car was taken apart,” said Reiche, noting they also had to unpack the entire car to get to their tools.
Some of the racers traveled with a support vehicle to hold luggage and tools.
“We really needed a marriage counselor earlier,” joked Roger Kicklighter, of Sandersville, Ga.
He and his navigator, Ed Foster, were driving a 1940 Ford Sedan they called Midnight Run that had been in storage for 12 years.
“We rebuilt it and had no idea what we were doing,” said Kicklighter, noting they were rookie racers. “We’re pretending we’re bootleggers.”
Within the first leg of the race, the Sedan lost an alternator, said Kicklighter, adding that a dealership in Lockport, N.Y., fixed it for free. A cracked engine block presented a whole other challenge.
Midnight Run had gone through six gallons of coolant in the last two days, Kicklighter explained with a grin.
“This is truly a trip of a lifetime,” he said.
“You know, it’s a family,” said Sister McRae sitting in the souvenir booth at the Seal Cove Auto Museum. “It’s the only best experience of your life you can have each year.”
McRae, the sister of race founder Tom McRae, was sporting a pair of magnesium alloy wheel earrings for the event. She has attended nearly every Great Race since it began in 1983.
“Classic cars is so much an older man’s sport,” said McRae. “What we’re trying to do is get the younger generation into older cars.”