Pioneering “automobilist” George Schuster, who drove to victory in the 1908 New York to Paris Race, was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame on October 12, 2010, in Dearborn, Michigan. The hall has also honored the likes of Henry Ford, Mario Andretti, Enzo Ferrari and Carroll Shelby. It was, some said, a long overdue honor for the unlikely hero of what has been called the World’s Greatest Auto Race.
In 2011, a new version of the event, known as the World Race, is planned.
Schuster, who died in 1972 at age 99, was quickly fading into the mists of history, until his achievement was recalled in 2008, in connection with the centennial of the so-called “Great Race” of 1908.
Check out my 2008 feature that ran in The New York Times, recounting the race and the magnitude of Schuster’s accomplishment. (See also Time’s top notch slide show of historic photos.) Automotive historians credit the race with helping prove to the world that these new-fangled automobiles could be a reliable and dependable form of transportation.
Schuster had been a mechanic and engineer at the E. R. Thomas Motor Company of Buffalo, N.Y., when he got a last-minute call from the company’s founder who asked him to ride along and take care of the 1907 Thomas Flyer Model 35, an open touring car, that they’d entered in the race. The event started on a wintry morning February 12, 1908, in New York City’s Times Square; the grueling conditions took their toll on at least three drivers before the team reached California. Schuster, initially just a riding mechanic, was compelled to take over the driving duties the rest of the way. Months later, on July 30, he was at the wheel when the Flyer triumphantly rolled into Paris.
Schuster never raced again; he was soon out of a job too, as the race’s heavy cost helped bankrupt the Thomas Motor Company.
The Flyer disappeared for many years, but was later discovered by casino entrepreneur and auto collector extraordinaire Bill Harrah, who restored it and put it on display in his Reno, Nevada, auto museum.
Schuster was called in to help authenticate the vehicle as the actual race-winner.
Schuster’s accomplishment had been obscured somewhat during his lifetime by two other short-stint drivers who were erroneously credited as the winner. In 1966, he wrote a book, “The Longest Auto Race“, detailing his triumph. In 1968, The New York Times, which sponsored the race along with the Paris Matin newspaper, discovered that Schuster had never received the $1,000 prize he had been owed for winning; the Times held a banquet in his honor, and presented him with the belated check.
Schuster good-naturedly pointed out $1,000 did not have quite the same buying power in 1968 that it would have had 50 years earlier!
In 1965, director Blake Edwards made a comedic movie called, “The Great Race“, which was very loosely based on the race. (Yes – do not adjust your set; the hysterically funny clip below with Jack Lemmon, Peter Falk and Natalie Wood has been dubbed into Russian. Surely, that shows the race’s international appeal!)
But the plot does feature some of its more outlandish things that really happened en route – such as one of the competitors trying to corner the market on all the gasoline in Vladivostok, Russia.
But the actual Great Race began a long, slow slide from public consciousness after that. It wasn’t until 2007, when a group attempted to stage a revival of it, that much was said about it again.
That event, which had been planned around the race’s centennial in 2008, was canceled after the Chinese government revoked permission to travel through the country (vaguely in retaliation for international protests against the Beijing Olympics).
But for 2011, the famed 1908 classic’s revival is back on. World Race 2011 leaves New York on April 14. Here’s a documentary look back at 1908, as well as sneak preview of what’s to come in 2011:
After two weeks crossing the U.S., three weeks in China, a week in Kazahkstan, and ten days traversing Europe, the epic event is scheduled to conclude on July 11 at the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Two classes of vehicles will compete – the Schuster class, for historic vehicles produced prior to 1960, and the Innovation category for electric cars, hybrids and alternative fuel vehicles.
I plan to follow along, riding with Jeff Mahl – Mr. Schuster’s great-grandson – in a hybrid vehicle. Look for my reports from the route.
On April 16, the entourage is scheduled to stop in Michigan at the Automotive Hall of Fame, where Schuster will no doubt be given his due once again.
“The induction was one of those once in a lifetime experiences,” Mr. Mahl said of his great-grandfather’s enshrinement in the hall. “For Great Gramp to be included with automotive legends like Ford, Andretti, Benz, Ferrari, Olds and Shelby – it’s hard to put into words…”
October 23, 2010