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.
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.
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.
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.
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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!
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.
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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.
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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.
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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.
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!
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…
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.
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.
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
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:
- John Quam: “Longest Race: Recycling a Dream, 1908 Style”
- Leo Janssens: “Longest Race: Driving to Parts Unknown, 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.”