Longest Race: Living a Vision, 1908 Style

Longest Race: Living a Vision, 1908 Style

Luke Rizzuto had an idea he couldn’t shake off: to follow in the tire tracks of George Schuster, winner of that historic 1908 around-the-world “Great Race.”  It seemed impossible back then, traveling by car through remote regions like China, Siberia and Russia. It seemed impossible today with border crossings, political tensions, and reams of red tape.

As a child, Luke lived on a California ranch near Santa Cruz, in charge of keeping the family’s 1930 Model A truck in tip-top shape. As an adult, Luke made a dream purchase: a 1918 Chevy V8 Touring Car. Luke coddled his Chevy into tip-top shape to recreate the U.S. portion of that global “Great Race,” commemorating its 100th anniversary in 2008.  Motoring companion, John Quam, joined him on that journey. In 2014, the two revved up John’s vintage 1928 Plymouth Roadster to finish what they had begun: re-creating Schuster’s around-the-world journey, traveling far-flung roads of China, Siberia, Russia and beyond. That first race began in New York City’s Time Square on February 12, 1908, with a crowd of 250,000 at the start line and a driving blizzard on the way.

12,000 miles: the longest leg of the group's 2014 route, from Yokohama to Paris <br>Photo credit: Debbie Cooper / Sotheby's, San Carlos, CA

12,000 miles: the longest leg of the group’s 2014 route, from Yokohama to Paris
Photo credit: Debbie Cooper / Sotheby’s, San Carlos, CA

Kaliningrad traffic cops flank John Quam and Luke Rizzuto – no problem really, just posing for a souvenir photo <br>Photo credit: Leo Janssens

Traffic cops flank John Quam and Luke Rizzuto – no problem really, just posing for a souvenir photo
Photo credit: Leo Janssens

Aided by MIR’s logistics and on-the-ground guides and support, Luke and John are now the first in the world to re-create that entire epic ride of 1908. Joining them on that journey in a late-model GMC were pilot Leo Janssens and freelance writer Eileen Bjorkman, both retired Air Force officers. Now back home in California, bags unpacked, here Luke shares  – in his own words – why he did what he did.

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: Luke Rizzuto, John Quam, Eileen Bjorkman, and Leo Janssens. Luke is featured here.

  • A Presidential Vision

    What a great experience! Although our “Longest Race” from beginning to end was 16,358 driving miles (that doesn’t even include the miles on ships and airplanes), it all happened so fast – a blur. This will be on my mind until I die; it was such an adventurous learning trip that I will never forget.

    World-wide, the automobile was a head-turning motorized wonder in the early 1900s  Photo credit: Bain Collection, Library of Congress

    World-wide, the automobile was a head-turning motorized wonder in the early 1900s
    Photo credit: Bain Collection, Library of Congress

    Remember, back in 1908 automobiles were a novelty, and there were less than 1,000 miles of paved roads in the United States. George Schuster, who won the 1908 “Great Race,” had less than 48 hours notice that he’d be driving around the world in a 1907 Thomas Flyer. We had more time to plan, six years from start to finish.

    Making history: George Schuster in the  Thomas Flyer at the NYC start line, February 12, 1908 <br>Photo credit: Bain Collection,  Library of Congress

    Making history: George Schuster in the Thomas Flyer at the NYC start line, February 12, 1908
    Photo credit: Bain Collection, Library of Congress

    Schuster was recruited at the request of President Teddy Roosevelt, outraged that this 1908 auto race starting in New York City’s Times Square had entries from Germany, France and Italy, but none from the United States. A presidential phone call to the CEO of the Thomas Flyer company and suddenly there was an American, and an American car, at that start line on race day. Since this around-the-world race was starting in winter (they originally planned to drive across the frozen Bering Sea), Schuster – the Thomas Flyer Company’s head mechanic – figured he’d be home to his wife and four kids in less than two weeks.  Motoring across Japan, China, Siberia, and Russia, Schuster crossed the finish line in Paris as winner of the 1908 “Great Race” – 169 days later.

     (click on photo to see larger version)

    That grand piece of automotive history inspired us to replicate Schuster’s journey. But first things first: This was way out of my comfort zone. Everyone was afraid for me to go to Russia, China, and all those “forbidden places.” I mean, I grew up on a ranch!

    St. Basil's in Moscow's Red Square has long symbolized East-West differences, especially in Cold War daysPhoto credit: Eileen Bjorkman

    St. Basil’s in Moscow’s Red Square has long symbolized East-West differences, especially in Cold War days
    Photo credit: Eileen Bjorkman

    The USSR's first leader, Lenin, still towers over the main square in Novosibirsk, which means  <i>"New Siberia"</i><br>Photo credit: Eileen Bjorkman

    The USSR’s first leader, Lenin, still towers over the main square in Novosibirsk, which means “New Siberia”
    Photo credit: Eileen Bjorkman

    Well, the common men throughout the world are not enemies of anybody. They live in harmony. Politicians are the problem. I remember that in one of President Eisenhower’s speeches he said,

    “I like to believe that people, in the long run, are going to do more to promote peace than our governments. Indeed, I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it.” ––U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, August 31, 1959

    That was in 1959. Eisenhower had a vision, and he knew way back then what’s been going on for years now.

    Eisenhower made sense: Everyone was so friendly in Russia, no negative feelings. I liked talking to common people – locals – because they know what’s really happening in the country, including politics.

    Russian locals flocked to our Roadster, sparking conversations and forging friendshipsPhoto credit: Luke Rizzuto

    Russian locals flocked to our Roadster, sparking conversations and forging friendships
    Photo credit: Luke Rizzuto

     

  • Rough Road Ahead

    It was a rough beginning.

    Early on, I was invited to be part of the original 100th anniversary of the “Great Race of 1908.” Actually, it wasn’t me who was invited, it was my car – that Chevrolet 1918 Overhead Valve V8. All the other cars at the time were flatheads. I had to raise money to participate, so I did TV interviews and made my own videos showcasing my “baby,” like this one on YouTube:

    But in the middle of fundraising the $100,000 I needed to participate, the Great Race Corporation went bankrupt.

    What to do?

    I decided I was going, anyway. I sent out a mass email saying I was leaving Times Square in New York City on October 17th, 2008 at 10 a.m., with no entry fee – just pay your own way for food, gas, lodging, and repairs. I called it the “Longest Auto Race” because that’s the title of the book about George Schuster – the driver who won that 1908 race. Nineteen people with eight cars showed up, so we revved up our engines!

    Yes, it's blurry! 100 years after George Schuster rolled into Times Square for the Great Race, so did I, in my Chevy V8 <br /> Photo credit: Luke Rizzuto

    Yes, it’s blurry! 100 years after George Schuster rolled into Times Square for the Great Race, so did I, in my Chevy V8
    Photo credit: Luke Rizzuto

    We hit the road – often dirt – day after day, reliving what George Schuster saw in 1908 <br>Photo credit: Luke Rizzuto

    We hit the road – often dirt – day after day, reliving what George Schuster saw in 1908
    Photo credit: Luke Rizzuto

    Everything George Schuster did, we did. The same dirt roads – 500 miles – and the same ranches, even the same place where he got stuck in the mud.

    We did it all, exactly.

    So that’s the story behind how, in 2008, we motored the U.S. portion of that 1908 around-the-world Great Race, driving from New York City to San Francisco.

     

    The U.S. portion of that 1908 "Great Race" followed the Yellowstone Trail; this is the Yellowstone River<br>Photo credit: Luke Rizzuto

    The U.S. portion of that 1908 “Great Race” followed the Yellowstone Trail; this is the Yellowstone River
    Photo credit: Luke Rizzuto

    Race Redux

    That was 2008, and I thought I was done at that time. But then I thought, “You know, we really should finish. Why not? So John Quam, my sister-in-law (she’s been to 140 countries), and I came up with a route across Japan, China, Siberia, Russia and Latvia.

    We asked MIR to give us a hand.

  • Just One Border Crossing

    Kazan, known for its religious tolerance, was once a "closed" Soviet military center <br>Photo credit: Eileen Bjorkman

    Kazan, known for its religious tolerance, was once a “closed” Soviet military center
    Photo credit: Eileen Bjorkman

    MIR helped in the planning and logistics of our “Longest Race,” set for 2014. I gave MIR’s president, Doug Grimes, a list of cities that we had to drive through, following the exact 1908 route of George Schuster.

    It wasn’t easy, since some of the cities and towns changed names from Soviet times.  For example, Ekaterinburg is in the Ural Mountains bordering Asia and Europe. If you look at a Soviet-era map before 1991, it was called Sverdlovsk, named after Lenin’s communist comrade, Jakob Sverdlovsk.

    I learned that other cities weren’t even on maps at all. They were “closed cities,” off-limits during the Cold War and even earlier because of nuclear or military production.

     

    My first glimpse of Vladivostok – once a "closed" Pacific naval city – as we arrived in Russia from Japan <br>Photo credit: Luke Rizzuto

    My first glimpse of Vladivostok – once a “closed” Pacific naval city – as we arrived in Russia from Japan
    Photo credit: Luke Rizzuto

    Making (Automotive) History

    We hit every city that George Schuster hit along the way, and that makes us the only ones in the world who ever did the exact route of that 1908 around-the-world race.

    Why?

    Because of this ONE border from Vladivostok, Russia into China. It was a commercial border only for vessels and trucks: no pedestrians, no bicycles, no cars. Everyone who ever tried to duplicate this route went around China, and stayed in Russia. Well, that’s not the route.

    So our huge challenge: get through that ONE border. MIR helped us pull it off. In Vladivostok, Russia, we got two commercial trucks, loaded the cars onto the trucks using an abandoned railroad loading dock, thanks to “out-of-the-box” thinking of MIR’s guide, Svetlana, drove across the border one mile, and unloaded. Then I took a bus trip – all of 100 yards! – across the border and got out. So that’s how we did it!

    Our creative MIR guide, Svetlana, found an abandoned railroad dock to load our precious cargo <br>Photo credit: Eileen Bjorkman

    Our creative MIR guide, Svetlana, found an abandoned railroad dock to load our precious cargo
    Photo credit: Eileen Bjorkman

    Siberian ingenuity and not taking <i>nyet</i> for an answer = successful border crossing! <br>Photo credit: Luke Rizzuto

    Siberian ingenuity and not taking nyet for an answer = successful border crossing!
    Photo credit: Luke Rizzuto

    The Roadster (left) and GMC (right) must first suffer in "customs purgatory" at the Russia-China border<br>Photo credit Luke Rizzuto

    The Roadster (left) and GMC (right) must first suffer in “customs purgatory” at the Russia-China border
    Photo credit Luke Rizzuto

    You know, I’m a problem solver, and I’ve been doing that for 35-40 years in my business. I know there’s always a way to get around a problem, and it’s usually by addressing it directly. That’s what saved us on this.

  • On the Road Again – and Again and Again

    MIR created a great itinerary for us – “doable” in a 1928 car. We stayed in comfortable hotels with free breakfasts, while we know George Schuster slept under the car most of the time, even in Siberia. He made fires to sleep by, drained the water at night from his car. Even though we duplicated the exact route, it was impossible to duplicate the setting and conditions of 1908.

    Japan was OK, a bit sterile, but Russia, wow! If I did this again I’d go straight to Russia. I thought Vladivostok was a beautiful place. Then there’s Siberia and Mongolia. Lake Baikal was so dramatic it was unlike any of the other 12,000 miles we drove.

    I love Siberia's Lake Baikal; the 1908 Great Race drivers once stood on that left shore <br>Photo credit: Eileen Bjorkman

    I love Siberia’s Lake Baikal; the 1908 Great Race drivers once stood on that left shore
    Photo credit: Eileen Bjorkman

    (click on photo to see larger version)

    Driving Siberia with <i>"nyet"</i> (no): today there's <i>nyet</i> wind, <i>nyet</i> rain and <i>nyet</i> gumbo mud! <br>Photo credit: Luke Rizzuto

    Driving Siberia with “nyet” (no): today there’s nyet wind, nyet rain and nyet gumbo mud!
    Photo credit: Luke Rizzuto

    The roads are terrible, but that’s all part of the adventure. The truth is that I spent so much time under the Roadster replacing shocks, pumping flat tires, or adding yet another plastic tie to hold things together that the joke was “Cathedral, what cathedral?” or “Monument, what monument?” when we had a chance to tour a town. I’m not complaining; that’s just the reality of driving a vintage car in these parts of the world.

     

     

    John and I saw a lot of Siberia from under the Roadster, making repairs <br>Photo credit: Eileen Bjorkman

    John and I saw a lot of Siberia from under the Roadster, making repairs
    Photo credit: Eileen Bjorkman

    (click on photo to see larger version)

    One of the surprising things is that for six thousand miles in Europe and Siberia it looked like the Midwest: rolling grain fields, cornfields, birch forests.

    In terms of geography, I couldn't get homesick with familiar views like this <br>Photo credit: Eillen Bjorkman

    In terms of geography, I couldn’t get homesick with familiar views like this
    Photo credit: Eillen Bjorkman

    After shipping the car from Copenhagen, we returned to the U.S. and drove the Yellowstone Trail (just as we did in 2008), starting at Plymouth, Massachusetts over to Seattle, Washington. Then we drove the Coast Road down to Santa Cruz.

    That makes John Quam and I the only people in the world who drove door-to-door westward, around the world. Wow!

    With 16,392 miles on the odometer, it's mission accomplished: John and I have driven around the world! <br>Photo credit: Luke Rizzuto

    With 16,392 miles on the odometer, it’s mission accomplished: John and I have driven around the world!
    Photo credit: Luke Rizzuto

     

  • Travel, the Adventure Itself

    To wrap it up, this “Longest Race” was unbelievable. I had a vision; we all had a vision. I am a better person for doing this because I now understand a lot more about people. Travel does that…

    Our 1928 Roadster became an all-wheels ambassador of goodwill, like here in China <br>Photo credit: Luke Rizzuto

    Our 1928 Roadster became an all-wheels ambassador of goodwill, like here in China
    Photo credit: Luke Rizzuto

    I'm helping locals line up in Pogranichny, Russia to get their photos taken in the Roadster <br>Photo credit: Eileen Bjorkman

    I’m helping locals line up in Pogranichny, Russia to get their photos taken in the Roadster
    Photo credit: Eileen Bjorkman

    End of the iconic 1908 Great Race: the iconic Eiffel Tower in Paris <br>Photo credit: Bain Collection, Library of Congress

    End of the iconic 1908 Great Race: the iconic Eiffel Tower in Paris
    Photo credit: Bain Collection, Library of Congress

    I like to promote history, and that’s why I give talks and presentations on the “Great Race” of 1908 and that unlikely American hero, George Schuster and his Thomas Flyer. Seriously, that race is really what put the car on the map. Everybody thought it was just a toy back then until the “Great Race” proved that the car was a viable means of transportation. We sometimes forget there were just 1,000 miles of paved roads in the U.S. back in 1908, and a lot of the world had never seen an automobile before.

    MIR Thanks

    What can I say about MIR? They have really, really good guides. MIR and Doug Grimes pulled this trip off with their logistics; it was amazing. If it weren’t for MIR, we never could have gone. They were instrumental in making this trip a dream trip, following the exact route of George Schuster and 1908.

    MIR's Siberian guide and translator,  Ksenia, autographs the GMC she rode in for a couple thousand miles <br>Photo credit: Eileen Bjorkman

    MIR’s Siberian guide and translator, Ksenia, autographs the GMC she rode in for a couple thousand miles
    Photo credit: Eileen Bjorkman

    Sim, MIR's guide and translator in China, signs his name to the 1928 Roadster <br>Photo credit: Eileen Bjorkman

    Sim, MIR’s guide and translator in China, signs his name on the 1928 Roadster
    Photo credit: Eileen Bjorkman

    Right now I’m just cherishing the experience I had, and all the people who lived through me. I had a long email list and everybody wrote to me and said, “We’re living vicariously through you.” It was just unbelievable.

    That race changed lives. It changed history.

    And, it changed me…

    –– Luke Rizzuto

    The roads I took, following in George Schuster's tire tracks, led me into bumps as well as into beauty <br>Photo credit: Eileen Bjorkman

    The roads I took, following in George Schuster’s tire tracks, led me into bumps as well as into beauty
    Photo credit: Eileen Bjorkman

    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 Luke Rizzuto’s motoring colleagues in the “Longest Race,” each with a unique perspective on why they traveled and what they experienced along the way:

    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.”