Great Race ambles through Chambersburg

June 14, 2011|By ROXANN MILLER |
  • Ben Franklin, portrayed by Bob Harrison, greets Hemmings Motor News Great Race participants Kileen and Neil Pitt Tuesday as they make their way to downtown Chambersburg, Pa., in a 1928 Model A Boat Tail Speedster.
By Ric Dugan/Staff Photographer

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. — The Hemmings Motor News Great Race motored into Chambersburg on Tuesday as hundreds of local car buffs waved them into the historic downtown and they received a personal greeting from Ben Franklin.

Memorial Square in Chambersburg was transformed to a bygone era as more than 55 of the Great Race antique automobiles parked around the square.

The race, featuring cars from 1911 to 1969, began Saturday in Chattanooga, Tenn., and will end Friday in Bennington, Vt.

Scott Hershberger of the Franklin County Visitors Bureau was pleasantly surprised by the large crowd that came out to greet the antique car rally.

“Obviously, the scheduling of the Great Race makes it tough, since it’s during the week, but I told people if you work downtown over lunch, take a lunch break and check out a car,” Hershberger said. “There are a lot of car enthusiasts and people of all ages that are here.”

The race, which ran coast to coast from 1983 to 2007, has never been about speed.

The vehicles, each with a driver and navigator, are given precise instructions each day that detail every move down to the second. They are scored at secret checkpoints along the way and are penalized one second for each second they are early or late.

The lowest score wins, said Wes Kliner, assistant director of the Great Race.

Kliner said the race began with 60 vehicles, and 56 still were in the race Tuesday.

“These are old cars, and going the mountainous course we are going, it’s been rough on a couple of transmissions, so we’ve lost a couple of (vehicles),” Kliner said.

Each car travels 200 to 250 miles per day, Kliner said.

Ray Wagner of Chambersburg was snapping pictures of the vintage cars and reliving some memories.

His first car was a 1933 Plymouth PC four-door sedan — a gift from an older lady who appreciated a teenager’s kindness.

Wagner, 82, remembers every detail about how he acquired his first automobile.

“I drove my dad’s car from the city to her old farm, and she liked the way I drove,” Wagner said. “I asked her if she would part with the car. I had no idea what the car was. I just knew she had a car in the garage.”

Her father bought the car for her and two years later, he died, followed by her mother. The car only had 12,000 miles on it. The woman didn’t drive, so she put the car in the garage, Wagner said.

Two weeks later, Wagner said he came home from his part-time job and found something he would never forget under his dinner plate.

“My mom said, ‘Look under your plate.’ I did and saw a sign that said I had inherited an automobile,” Wagner said as his face lit up with a smile.

When he finally sold the car, it had 95,000 miles on it.

“It was a beautiful car. It was dark blue with black fenders and cream pinstripes on the hood,” Wagner said. “It was my favorite car.”

Until Tuesday, he had only read about the Great Race.

“This is great seeing the Great Race up close like this,” he said. “These are all gentlemen, and they take pride in their cars. It is not a race for speed. It’s timing and stopping to see different parts of the country, and it gives us a chance to see it.”

This is the first year that Mike and Mary Bitterman of Swenksville, Pa., have participated in the Great Race in their 1966 Dodge Charger.

Both fell in love with Chambersburg’s charm.

“I love the quaint, old architecture,” Mike Bitterman said.

While Mike does the driving, Mary is the navigator.

“Mary is the ‘nagigator’” Mike said jokingly.

Mary explained that navigating is more difficult than driving because you have an instruction booklet, not a map.

“We’re doing good so far,” Mary Bitterman said. “We’re second-place rookie so far.”

Mike Bitterman agreed that being the navigator is challenging.

“You have no clue what road you’re on,” he said. “Half the time, you don’t know what state you are in.”

Joe Florence of Waynesboro, Pa., brought his 12-year-old son Mitchell to the event.

“They look really cool,” Mitchell said while standing by one of the classic cars as his father snapped a few photos.

“We like to do neat, different stuff,” Joe Florence said. “I like the history that’s behind them all.”

Florence said his first car was a 1963 Volkswagen Beetle.

For car buff Norman Harper of Chambersburg, being a Great Race volunteer had a few perks.

“I have a 1949 Chevrolet pickup that I drove when I graduated high (school) in ’49,” Harper said. “So this brings back a lot of memories, and I think you need to keep it alive. I have a younger son and he restores cars. I guess the automobile is a part of America.”

After the 90-minute pit stop, the vintage cars pulled out of Chambersburg en route to Hershey, Pa.

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