After enduring rain squalls and pesky mechanical problems while dodging overly enthusiastic photographers and bugs that hit his facemask like bullets, Newtown resident Frank Buonanno finally settled back into his life as a semiretired classic car restoration expert.
But for nine days in late June, he spent most of each day tightly gripping the wheel of his 1915 Hudson as it careened from Ogunquit, Maine, to The Villages, Fla., in the 2014 Great Race. This was Mr Buonanno’s fourth Great Race adventure behind the wheel of a vintage auto competing against the clock and dozens of other drivers — and his third piloting the Hudson, which has been meticulously restored at his business, Black Horse Garage in Bridgeport.
The Great Race was the brainchild of Tom McRae and Norman Miller, who in 1983 bought out an ailing promoter who planned to race pre-World War II automobiles across the United States for a massive purse, according to the event’s website. Since these pre-World War II cars were not exactly cut out for interstate driving, Great Race organizers plotted out intricate routes to suit antique cars and their capabilities, in terms of speed and durability.
These days, any car up through model year 1972 is eligible to enter. But for purposes of scoring, the older the vehicle, the better the age factor adjustment the team will receive.
Mr Buonanno explained that each day of the race, each driver and navigator team receives a set of course instructions that indicate every turn, speed change, stop, and start that the team must make, usually 220 to 250 such instructions per day.
Along the course route there are between four and seven checkpoints recording the exact time that the team passes that point. The objective is to arrive at each checkpoint at the correct time, not the fastest.
The score for each team is the result of the team’s ability to follow the designated course instructions precisely. Every second off the perfect time (early or late) at each checkpoint is a penalty point. To add to the “fun,” GPS and computers are not permitted, and all vehicle odometers are taped over to test both the mental agility and endurance of driver and vehicle alike.
While some of the course carried participants onto interstate highways, much of The Great Race plays out on scenic local, county, and state highways through some of the prettiest country in the United States.
Mr Buonanno got hooked during his first Great Race in 1990, when he drove a 1928 Renault 4,500 miles from upstate New York to Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif.
“That was a big deal, pulling into Disneyland at the end of the race with fireworks going off and Mickey Mouse greeting us at the gate,” he recalled. But for all three subsequent races, and his planned final bow next year, the intrepid Newtowner will put his faith in his 1915 Hudson “Speedway Racer.”
Almost All Vintage
The vehicle is virtually original vintage from the ground up — with the only contemporary aspect being the elongated, boat-tailed body which he and his Black Horse crew meticulously created from sheets of aluminum. Although there were several other Hudsons competing in this year’s race, Mr Buonanno said they all had “mechanical advantages.”
“The 1915 Hudson was the last year the car was made without a cylinder head, and there were no counterbalances on the crank shaft, so to keep it going on such a demanding, lengthy ride, we had to add a special oil system,” he explained. “Basically it posed more of a mechanical obstacle than the other Hudson drivers faced.”
In the end, it was a 1966 Ford Mustang that won the race and $150,000 purse, but Mr Buonanno and his navigator, Chris Clark, only had one true goal — “to finish the race.”
Mr Buonanno said it was true that this year’s competition took him through some beautiful byways down the East Coast, but the trip also had its share of harrowing moments.
“The Chesapeake Bay Bridge was particularly hairy since the vehicle has us sitting way up high and there was a lot of crosswind that day chopping up the water below,” he recalled. “All I could do was hang on with both hands and concentrate on keeping her in the lane.”
And while the first of several rain squalls early in the race didn’t slow down the Hudson, it did take all the cushion out of the memory foam seat cushions, leaving Mr Buonanno and Mr Clark “riding basically on plywood for the rest of the trip.” Combined with nearly solid rubber tires pumped up with 60 pounds of pressure, virtually every pavement crack and pebble was amplified to bone-jarring proportions.
Since there is no windshield in their vehicle, there was also the issue of bugs. Sure, the pair always wore goggles, but that only protected their eyes from the onslaught.
“We had a few patches where the dragonflies were hitting our face like bullets,” Mr Buonanno said. But it wasn’t just the bugs providing hazardous distractions.
“There were a few times when people driving by in their own cars decided they wanted to take pictures with their cellphones,” he said. “So I would see them out of the corner of my eye weaving in close — and there were a few times where I had to swerve to keep from getting bumped.”
The challenge of keeping tight to the timer’s clock was also more challenging than fun, but the Buonanno/Clark team kept their Hudson close to the mark.
“Our best run was one second off, but some of these drivers were getting zeros. Imagine that, keeping so close to the course that they were hitting each checkpoint at exactly the minute the race designers intended,” he marveled.
Then there were the mercifully few, but sometimes hair-raising, mechanical issues.
“You know if something breaks down on a 1915 Hudson, you can’t just pull into AutoZone for a new part,” he said. “If a part breaks, you have to make a new one or improvise.”
The Old Shoelace Trick
One of those mechanical improvisations came when the Hudson’s water pump started leaking. So Mr Buonanno started cutting up his shoe laces, soaking them in grease to fashion a makeshift plug.
“I used all my shoe laces for packing that water pump, but it worked,” he affirmed.
Another less stressful morning found Newtown’s vintage racer conserving enough time to stop for a bagel with cream cheese.
“So I put half the bagel away for later when I was feeling hungry. When the time came I reached down and grabbed it and went to take a bite and proceeded to mush cream cheese all over my face mask,” he recalled smiling. “After a few minutes I got that cleaned off and managed to take a bite. But when I started chewing, I realized I was also chewing on my headset microphone — which ended up all caked with cream cheese for most of the rest of the trip.”
On the final day of the race, the Newtown team faced an almost event-ending breakdown when a crack in the Hudson’s combustion chamber kept spewing water.
“We just had to keep stopping to add water every few miles, but we got the car over the finish line and that’s all that really counts,” Mr Buonanno said.
Despite all the bugs, paparazzi, rain, wind, mechanical, and condiment mishaps, Mr Buonanno said he wouldn’t have traded this latest Great Race experience for anything.
“Many of the towns hosted special meals for the drivers and our support teams, who we only saw each evening because they had to drive separate routes than the cars that were participating. And the food was fantastic — a lot of home cooked and regional specialties,” he said. “And on many of the stops, we met people who lived or used to live in Newtown.”
But at age 73, Mr Buonanno has realized his cross country racing days are nearly over.
“At this age, it really starts getting hard on your body. For the past couple of weeks since we got back, every time I sit down I fall asleep,” he said. “But I am planning to do one more Great Race next year, when we’ll be driving Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles.”
Mr Buonanno credited his main support team of Mr Clark, who was beside him every one of the 2,200 miles of the race, and his wife, Rita, who monitored weather conditions from their remote support vehicle, as well as handling logistics like nightly room reservations and other day-to-day business on the course.
“It was a real team effort,” Mr Buonanno concluded, “but I think they’re ready, willing, and able to go around with me for one more Great Race next year.”