A pilot for 50 years with his own small plane, Leo Janssens thinks nothing of taking off – literally – and flying to parts unknown. After all, Leo’s Air Force career as a test pilot took him to Viet Nam during that war and far beyond, all over the world.
So why did Leo become fascinated with pavement – driving to parts unknown, like the potholes of Siberia, old camel paths of China, and rough roads of Russia? Blame it on his childhood: Leo grew up around old cars, with his dad letting him drive a 1928 Chevy (purchased from a neighbor for $15) on the family’s farm in Michigan. Since then, Leo has rehabbed vintage cars, with several featured in automotive magazines.
With MIR’s logistics and on-the-ground expertise in overland expeditions, Leo was part of a pioneering team that became first in the world to faithfully duplicate the 1908 around-the-world journey of American George Schuster in his Thomas Flyer. Here Leo shares his highlights and incredible challenges of this unique auto adventure which he joined – on a whim!
Note: MIR president Douglas Grimes highlights some of MIR’s landmark overland expeditions, including this one of driving Siberia and beyond in a vintage car. Each of the four “Longest Race” participants that Douglas mentions has an utterly unique story to tell: Leo Janssens, Luke Rizzuto, John Quam, and Eileen Bjorkman. Leo is featured here.
Acting on Impulse
I didn’t know anything about this “Great Race of 1908” until I met Luke Rizzuto in 2011 at the 100th anniversary of the Chevrolet Motor Factory in Flint, Michigan. Luke said he and John Quam completed the U.S. leg of the race in 2008 in a vintage car, and they were planning to go around the world and finish the tour in 2014, driving from Japan to Paris through China, Siberia, Russia and more. In this way, the would be re-creating the 1908 “Great Race,” and honoring American George Schuster’s victory in motoring around the world in the newest invention to hit the mass market: the automobile.
Did I want to join them?
I said, “Are you kidding me? No one in their right mind would do that!” And then I added, “I’m going!”
It was an instant decision. Of course, people told me I was crazy and wondered why I’d want to drive through places like Siberia. You know, I figured out they had grudges, or prejudices – stuff like that. I kept telling myself, “This is a chance of a lifetime!”
I’ve flown over so many places in the world, but never into Russia and the old U.S.S.R. because it wasn’t allowed. I told people I wanted to drive on the ground in my own car, my 2008 GMC, and see these places firsthand, see what it’s like. I served in Vietnam in 1966 and traveled back there to see the changes – fantastic changes! I wanted to see what Russia was like, there’s still such a stigma.
So I never wavered after I said “yes” to the “Great Race.” But I did insist that I wasn’t going anywhere without local guides, after my tour bus in Vietnam was shaken down for money by the local cops. No guide, no trip for me. Having MIR in the picture – with their planning, local guides and translators, and hotels – that’s what made the difference for me, especially in Russia.
[Not] Driving in China
I’m a retired Air Force pilot, test pilot. I fly anywhere I want in my own plane. I drive my cars anywhere I want.
Our group was driving through Japan to the Russia-China border at Vladivostok. Luke and John were in the 1928 Plymouth Roadster and Eileen and I were in my GMC. There were problems, but we made it through the border and into China, after a 12-hour ordeal at the border.
Once we got to China that night, we had to rest up for mandatory driver’s school in the morning so we could learn how to drive in China and get our licenses there. No problem, the class was easy for me.
Then they told us, “Come back this afternoon and we’ll process your license,” so we did. They gave licenses to Luke, John and Eileen – but not to me.
“Why?” I asked.
“You’re too old to drive in China,” they answered. I’m 77, and 70 is the oldest you can be to drive there.
I told them, “I just drove 4,000 miles to get here!” Then I half-seriously added, “I’m reporting this as age discrimination to the United Nations when I get home!” (I didn’t.)
So I couldn’t even drive my own car! I had to leave all the driving in China to Eileen – she’s younger than me. So get this: I can fly my plane all over the world, but I can’t drive my car in China!
Getting Gas, and Upset Stomachs
The cars weren’t the real problem.
It was the roads: I never expected roads to be so rough – some were nothing more than logging trails. Sometimes we couldn’t go more than 30 miles an hour, and it might take us 10 hours to go 250 miles.
So we needed to get gas a lot.
MIR researched where the big gas stations were ahead of time, but sometimes we’d come across a gas station in some small town in Siberia and it wouldn’t take our American credit cards, even with a chip and pin number. Not always, but sometimes a debit card would work.
Thankfully, Siberia has ATMs, and we sure used them! Those ATMs were our salvation for paying for gas in cash. Not unlike in the States, there were gas stations in Siberia where you’d slide your Russia rubles under a window to a person behind the counter, paying for the gas you pumped.
Oh, and the currency. It’s hard to keep the exchange rate straight – Russian money looks like Monopoly money! It was hard to know exactly what we were paying in dollars, but no one tried to rip us off.
An Unexpected DetourBeyond getting gas, there was one incident that was enough to give all of us upset stomachs. Just before loading up the cars in a small Siberian town, we sang “Happy Birthday” in Russian on a cell phone to Luke’s son in the States. So, our daily packing routine wasn’t — well, routine.
I won’t name names, but one of us in our group left a bag on the car with his money, visa, passport, driver’s license, iPad, camera, and official vehicle documents on the car in Siberia. We were already three hours on the road when we realized what had happened.
Our MIR guide and translator, Ksenia, (who was with us for 22 days) made calls to the hotel, the local police, the MIR contact in Irkutsk and even to MIR-Seattle. The bag was never found. Our entire trip could have ended right then and there, but Ksenia kept plowing away.
As we drove through Siberian town after Siberian town, she made progress: Ksenia reported the loss to police and got the passport/visa replacement in motion. Our next MIR guide, Natalya, picked up Ksenia’s work to get a new visa, passport, and car documents – no easy task in Siberia or Russia! It’s wasn’t until Moscow and the help of a MIR staffer there that everything was squared away.
Advice: don’t ever, ever, ever lose your documents in Siberia and Russia! Even with MIR’s help and expertise, it was a time-consuming and gut-wrenching experience.
During the whole trip, there were so many highlights. But the experience of Lake Baikal – that tops them all.
Our Russian MIR guide, Ksenia, had everything set up for us there. We had a boat ride on the lake, the scenery was incredible, and we stayed in these rustic cabins overlooking Lake Baikal. Ksenia even made this delicious lunch onboard the boat for us: boiled potatoes, salad, apple dumplings, Siberian vodka, and smoked omul fish – it’s a kind of salmon found only in Lake Baikal. It was truly the highlight of the trip for me.
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The MIR guides would ride in my car, and I got to really know them. They have so much energy! And they know so much about everything we were seeing and doing.
Another highlight was Russians’ reaction to us. Everywhere we went people swarmed the old car – that 1928 Plymouth Roadster. Because I was driving the newer car, the GMC, and I’d park it next to the Roadster, people would use my car as a tripod for everyone else to take pictures! Here are some highlights:
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Lacking a License Plate in Latvia
I’m from Florida and we don’t have front license plates. So when we got to the border of Latvia (in the Baltics, in northern Europe) the border officials took me aside and said, “You can’t go anywhere. You need a front license plate.”
Through MIR’s guide and translator, Natalya, I told them, “I live in Florida. We don’t HAVE front license plates!” It’s a Catch-22. We went round and round this thing for hours, with Natalya negotiating for us. On the other side of the border in Latvia another MIR guide, Karen Bradbury, was waiting for us, calling the American Embassy repeatedly for advice and intervention. (It was a Saturday and they were closed. No one was on duty to help us; we were on our own.)
Yet, nothing was going to stop us!
We were polite, but we didn’t back down. Finally, for some reason unknown to any of us, the Latvian border crossing official told me to get back in my car, drive around the building and come back to the border crossing. Then they just waved us through!
(By the way, later we took a photo of my Florida license plate, photocopied it, and placed it on my front dashboard. No one bothered us again again about it.)
But that’s not all. The border officials were also asking for original vehicle titles for John’s 1928 Roadster – not copies – which he didn’t have. After more negotiations, in the end they let him through as well.
There’s simply no logic to it. We were so lucky to have Natalya and Karen with us, negotiating all the red tape for us. Actually, we simply couldn’t have made it through Russia and all the border crossings without the help of MIR’s guides: Svetlana, Ksenia, Natalya and Karen.
Finish Line: Paris!
We finished our tour in the same place where George Schuster finished and won the 1908 “Great Race:” in Paris. We got there in time for Bastille Day, with all the celebrations and fireworks.
MIR booked our hotel a block from the Eiffel Tower, so we all walked over to watch the holiday fireworks. I got separated from the group and literally could not move for 45 minutes – there was such a crush of people there. It was wild! It was so moving, too – hearing them sing their national anthem in French. It brought tears to my eyes. It was a great way to end this trip.
I would definitely recommend MIR to anybody trying to do a trip like this. I was so adamant: no guide, no trip for me. And what MIR gave us was excellent.
Chance of a LifetimeWhat I did was once-in-a-lifetime.
It’s like a wagon train trip, pioneers setting out toward the West Coast and not having any idea what they’d encounter along the way. Yes, they had guides – like Sacajawea – back then, but they still didn’t know what would happen.
It’s a pioneering spirit to say, “I’m going to see the country, really see it by driving across it.”
And the way we did it, it was good.
–– Leo Janssens
Learn MoreDiscover why the Great Race of 1908 was important not only to the auto industry, but to the entire world in MIR’s special stories on these automotive adventures. For starters, MIR President Douglas Grimes offers an overview on MIR’s expertise in overland expeditions, and especially on this complex multi-country journey by car. Then read the travel stories of Leo Janssens’ motoring colleagues in the “Longest Race,” each with a unique perspective on why they traveled and what they experienced along the way:
- Luke Rizzuto: “Longest Race: Living a Vision, 1908 Style”
- John Quam: “Longest Race: Recycling a Dream, 1908 Style”
- Eileen Bjorkman: “Longest Race: Driving Siberia, 1908 Style”
You can also delve into the day-to-day journey of these four “Longest Race” participants in their own travel blog, “World Auto Tour.” It chronicles the pitfalls, pit stops, and motoring passions as they re-create in 2008 and 2014 this electrifying, around-the-world “Great Race.”
Does all this compel you to imagine your own adventurous journey? If so, imagine that journey with MIR. With nearly 30 years of logistical expertise, MIR specialists help you create your own hand-crafted itinerary focused on your own interests and activities, and on your own timeline. Truly, it’s a “journey of a lifetime.”