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Revisiting and Reliving The Great Race

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By Rich Place

This upcoming Monday is an important anniversary in automotive history, as the date marks 110 years since the beginning of the 1908 Great Race that took participants from New York City to Paris over a 169-day span.

And as many in this community know, the race has quite the local connection with Springville native George Schuster winning that race by arriving in Paris on July 30 behind the wheel of the Buffalo-built Thomas Flyer automobile. In the event, Schuster’s team went head-to-head against five other teams from Italy, France and Germany — all of which took off from Times Square in what would become the longest automobile competition in history.

The race would later serve as the inspiration for the 1965 movie “The Great Race” starring Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Natalie Wood and Peter Falk. But that’s not the only inspiration created by the memorable race and Jeff Mahl, Schuster’s great-grandson who grew up in Springville, is now looking to continue that legacy this summer.

The 2018 Great Race, which is set to begin June 23 in Buffalo and end July 1 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, is expected to include two teams from Alfred State, Mahl’s alma mater. But while more than 100 cars will be heading from Buffalo to Halifax that day, another group of antique automobile drivers will embark on a more symbolic journey.

“Since 2018 marks the 110th anniversary of the original Great Race from New York to Paris, something special will also be happening,” Mahl said in December. “A group of us will be starting in New York City at Times Square and arriving in Buffalo on the 23rd. We will then be departing from the starting line that morning as well, however, we will be going west for the Eiffel Tower in Paris, covering the 13,000-plus-mile original 1908 route across three continents.”

The itinerary includes arriving in the Oakland and San Francisco area on July 5. However, organizers announced this month the second leg in Asia and Europe has been postponed due to instability in Asia, most notably in North Korea, until events improve.

Mahl will be driving a 1929 Ford Model A Roadster Pickup in the race, which has relaxed pace and is expected to cover about 300 miles per day with three days of rest mixed in. A visit to Springville, including a tour of the new Heritage Building, is scheduled for June 22 before the official start in Buffalo the following day.

“It will be a great experience comparing the world today with pictures and stories from the same spots Great Gramp passed through in 1908,” Mahl said. “It will also be much easier with things like paved roads and GPS.”

For the special anniversary of the 1908 race this summer, highlights in the United States will include a joint start at the Pierce Arrow Museum in Buffalo; a classic lunch at the Plains Hotel in Cheyenne, Wyo., featuring menu items from the March 8, 1908 banquet in honor of the Thomas crew; a visit to the National Automobile Museum in Nevada, home of the restored Thomas Flyer; and various other stops.

Mahl acknowledged he was fortunate to bond with his Great Gramp, who also lived in Springville before he passed in 1972 at the age of 99. George was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in Detroit in 2010 for his racing accomplishments.

“He was quite a guy, still driving at 95 and shoveling snow in the Western New York winters at 98,” Mahl said. “By that time, I was in my 20s and had heard the story (about The Great Race) many times. He also kept extensive notes as he was circumnavigating the globe, saved hundreds of original photographs and artifacts from the race, and even wrote a book with his memoir.”

According to a press release from Alfred State, a visit by Mahl to its Wellsville campus in 2013 prompted the college to enter a modern version of the race. Each year since 2014, Alfred State has competed in the 2,000-plus-mile controlled-speed endurance rally in a 1953 Dodge Power Wagon tow truck.

A retired ship captain, Mahl devotes his time to The Great Race, having been closely involved with mentoring teams for the past several years in the competition’s X-Cup Division, which is designed for high school and college teams.

A complete itinerary of the symbolic recreation of 1908 The Great Race from New York to Paris, including a daily schedule plus videos and news, can be viewed at 2018nytoparis.com.

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