UPPER MERION — With a finish line 2,100 miles and nine days away, the 2014 Hemmings Motor News Great Race only has time for a handful of primo pit stops along the route.
One of them will be an overnighter at Valley Forge Casino Resort on Monday, June 23.
The iconic 31-year-old race — the word “race” being a misnomer, since none of the 109 antique vehicles ever comes close to approaching Indy 500-level speeds on the highways of America — will launch on Saturday in Ogunquit, Maine, and wind its way through 13 states before putting on the brakes in Florida on June 29.
With hundreds of participants and all-around car guys from everywhere streaming onto the First Avenue property, Valley Forge Casino Resort CEO Mike Bowman was not complaining about the surplus of business coming his way.
“When they approached us about it, I immediately said yes,” he recalled. “This will be great for us. We’re putting them all up in our hotel, and they’ll be eating at the restaurants, and the car shows are always a great attraction for our guests.”
The Great Race — formerly known as The Great American Race — was named for and vaguely inspired by the 1965 movie of the same name, starring Jack Lemmon and Natalie Wood, and first hit the road in 1983 as the brainchild of dedicated car buff Tom McRae and sponsor Interstate Batteries.
Cars are expected to arrive at the casino after 5:15 p.m. at 1-minute intervals over the course of an hour and a half and will stay parked to allow fans to get a good look at them while talking to the participants.
With $150,000 in prize money at stake, precision is key in the event where time, distance and speed determine the outcome, as each driver and navigator are scored at intermittent stops on the route and are penalized for every second they are early or late.
Cars built before 1972 are eligible, but most are manufactured before World War II, said director and race veteran Jeff Stumb by phone from Ogunquit.
“In 1983, it was all prewar cars and probably stayed that way for 20 years, and we gradually changed the age limit. A 1969 Camaro is older today than the newest car was back in 1983 when it started,” Stumb said, adding that a 1941 Cadillac, which was only 42 years old at the time, was the winner of the first event. “We can only travel so far with these old cars in a day. We will lose a few along the way from mechanical problems, but we hope to finish with 95 percent of the cars.”
Even after decades, the race, which is sponsored by Hemmings Motor News, Hagerty, Coker Tire, Reliable Carriers and Best Western, grows a little each year, Stumb pointed out.
“We went from 99 cars last year to 109 this year, and we have drivers not only from the United States but also Germany, England, Canada and Japan. We have a record number of first timers this year, too.”
The first entrant, Curtis Graf of Irving, Texas, is back for another road trip, driving a 1916 Packard.
Casino pit stops are nothing new for the country’s foremost old car rally, Stumb allowed.
“We stopped at a casino in Baton Rouge last year and one in Michigan the year before that. Everybody at Valley Forge Casino has been very receptive. King of Prussia is a nice high-traffic area and we hope to draw a big crowd, and we’ll be driving through Valley Forge National Historical Park on the way. When The Great Race pulls into a city,” he added, “it becomes an instant festival.”
Follow Gary Puleo on Twitter @Mustangman48.