First Stop, JACKSONVILLE

Imagine this, motorheads: Nearly 150 vintage cars lined up on the street. The father of drag racing in the flesh. The aroma of fresh cooking pours from food trucks, leaving a trail in the air. Live music echoes through the area as you and your family mill about smartly. No, car lovers, you’re not dreaming. This scene will unfold in Historic Springfield this weekend, when the city hosts the starting gate for the Great Race.

The only race of its kind, the Great Race will launch from Main Street on June 24, with a feast of sights, tastes, smells and sounds. Don’t expect to see any stock cars or racecars, though; only autos built through 1972 may enter. According to the website, the Great Race is “an antique, vintage and collector car competitive controlled-speed endurance road rally.”

Unlike NASCAR, there is no track, no pit crew changing tires in 2.05 seconds, no 200 mph speeds. In fact, there are no high speeds at all; drivers are required to drive at or below the posted speed limit. Precision is the only way to win; drivers must follow to the letter the 220 to 250 detailed instructions handed out every morning. These instructions lead them to every checkpoint (ranging from four to seven) on each leg of the race. Drivers are penalized for every second off the “perfect time” they arrive at each checkpoint.

Over the course of nine days and 2,400 miles, the contestants—skillfully steering their beloved machines—drive across America, eventually winding up in Traverse, Michigan. The drivers, each trying for the $50,000 grand prize, include racers from all over the nation, as well as two from Japan and Europe who shipped their cars to town for the event.

“We have several antique car displays and new car displays in the closed venue areas on Main Street,” said Michael Trautmann, Springfield Improvement Association and Archives’ Great Race committee chairman.

“This will probably be the biggest event that’s happened on Main Street,” said John Wells, Main Street Cruise founder. Along with SIAA, the Cruise, a monthly gathering of Northeast Florida classic car aficionados, has worked directly with the Great Race to make the major event happen.

This year, racers are driving antique and unique cars built from 1909 through 1972. Essentially every high-end manufacturer of vehicles from this time frame are in the competition: Maserati, Mercedes, Porsche, Volkswagen, Studebaker, Hudson, Chevys (SS 396! Impalas!), Fords (Mustangs! Model As! Edsels!) and many more. Those who drool over whitewall tires, monstrous fins, chrome all over and leather interiors will be thrilled to see the original cars that defined what it meant to be cool, including the ‘63 Jaguar E Type, ’68 Chevrolet Camaro, and the ’55 Ford Thunderbird. Also treasured or rare cars on hand are a 1928 Ford Model A Speedster, ’65 Corvette and a 1909 American Simplex.

To prepare to show off their neighborhood on the world stage, SIAA has been busy planting flowers, hanging banners and flags, upgrading street medallions, and getting the word out far and wide. Serving as the starting gate for the Great Race is a huge honor, in part because a different city hosts every year, kind of like the Super Bowl. Some past hosts were Kirkwood, Missouri; Chambersburg, Pennsylvania; and New Bern, North Carolina.

The celebration kicks off Friday evening. Jacksonville is one of the cradles of Southern rock, so the festivities naturally begin with a free concert featuring local bands Fratello, Second Shot and Big Engine. The weekend’s festivities include a showing in Klutho Park of the 1965 film that helped to inspire it all, The Great Race.

At the main event the next morning, starting at 10:30 a.m., racers depart in one-minute intervals over the course of two hours, heading to Tifton, Georgia. Waving them off as Grand Marshall will be the father of drag racing himself, 85-year-old Don Garlits, better known as “Big Daddy.” Garlits is the first drag racer to officially top the 170, 180, 200, 240, 250 and 270 mile-per-hour marks.

Garlits, who has 17 World Championship titles, is bringing a dragster to showcase as well as his popular mobile museum chronicling the history of the sport—visitors can see photos and memorabilia. Food trucks, live music by local Motown singer Mama Blue and Southern rockers Highway Jones, vendors and family-friendly events complement the displays.

The Great Race is nothing new here, having roared through in 1997, 2004 and 2014. During an overnight stop in 2014, participants received the largest reception in race history, which inspired the organizers to make the River City the launching arena this year. “The car community is huge in Jacksonville,” Wells said. “They like the hot rods and classic cars … a lot of them still race.”

Wells estimates that several thousand car lovers and regular folks will attend the events over the weekend.

“It’s going to be really awesome for Springfield,” added Trautmann.

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