““We’ve changed motors, transmissions, rear ends, springs, brakes – you name it – in the parking lot of a hotel on multiple occasions.”
Describing it as "the hardest thing to win I’ve ever been involved with," Bobby Hadskey and his partner G.R. Pike navigated their way across 2,600 miles (4184 km) of American backroads in their MacDon co-sponsored 1916 Hudson Indy Racer to win the 2016 edition of The Great Race. It was the second time Hadskey and Pike had triumphed
in the vintage car event, 2004 being the first time they had made their championship run.
“Winning this year was just a thrill, because we entered with absolutely no expectations,” said Hadskey. “We were coaxed to enter by our good friends David Reeder and Sawyer Stone who also have a 1916 Hudson. They said to us you have to race with us because we both have vehicles that are a century old.”
Inspired by the 1965 movie The Great Race starring Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, The Great Race has been run since 1983 when a small group of “like-minded car nuts” thought that it would be a cool idea to take their antique vehicles out of the show rooms and pit them against each other in a precision driving game that tested both their vehicles and personal endurance. Since then the race has been run almost every year, each time attracting vintage car enthusiasts from across the world. Along the way they can encounter an array of possible perils including freak snowstorms, slow trains, mechanical breakdowns, road washouts, indifferent animals (both wild and farm) and, of course, impatient drivers.
In truth The Great Race is actually misnamed, as it is not actually a race at all, but rather a timed, long distance, multi-day rally where the top speed is never more than 50 mph (80 km/h). Each morning competitors are handed a set of driving instructions that require them to follow a prescribed route, indicating up to 250 starts, stops, turns and speed changes that they must make throughout the day. Cars are started a minute apart and must hit a series of checkpoints at a specific time. Teams are scored by how close they can match each interval time, and such is the skill of the participants that victory is often measured in seconds when the results are tallied at the end of the race.
“Just to finish the Great Race is a big deal,” said Hadskey. “It’s such fun to be with all of the old car guys, with the many friends we have made over the years. This race is a passion that we all share.”
This year’s event was a nine day affair, starting in San Rafael, California, on the north side of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, then tracing its way along the Lincoln Highway to finish in front of the John Deere Museum in Moline, Illinois. In total, 137 participants paid between $1,500 to $7,000 each, depending on entry category, for a chance at the total purse of $150,000 (USD). Hadskey, the team’s navigator, and Pike, the driver, competed in the Grand Champion category for the event’s $50,000 grand prize. It was the 15th time they had entered the rally since their first entry in 1994.
Counting drivers, navigators, support teams, race officials and event workers, The Great Race amounts to a travelling car show of up to 800 people moving across the country. For each town along the route, it’s often a chance for celebration with spectators coming from the surrounding area for the chance to see automotive history in motion.
“With more than 100 cars in the race, it can take up to two hours for all of the cars to arrive in a town. When we arrive there’s often a marching band or a pep squad to greet you and, of course, lots of other old car and motorcycle guys and people who just like old cars.” Part of MacDon’s sponsorship this year was to provide Hadskey and Pike with some commemorative postcards featuring their ‘16 Hudson.
“We would hand them out to the crowds every day at lunch and every night. A lot of people wanted us to autograph them. It’s kind of what you do.”
As fun and exciting as the race is, Hadskey says that the routine of each day on the road can be grueling.
“Each day really starts the night before when we do maintenance on the car and receive our start time for the next day. We usually start in the morning around 7AM and spend about 10 to 12 hours on the road. When we arrive in a town we’ll spend time visiting with the many people who have come out to see the cars. It doesn’t leave a lot of time for bar room activities and, generally you are just so beat from doing 300 to 450 miles travelling that you just want to go to bed.”
To help them, Hadskey and Pike typically have a support crew of one or two people who will drive ahead to check them into the next night’s hotel, as well as transport the team’s trailer of supplies and spare parts.
“We’ve changed motors, transmissions, rear ends, springs, brakes – you name it– in the parking lot of a hotel on multiple occasions. Fortunately, this year the old car is seasoned enough that all we had to do was put in a couple of quarts of oil and a couple of quarts of water to keep her going.”
That’s pretty remarkable for a vehicle that celebrated it’s 100th birthday this year. Hadskey says that their right hand drive 1916 Hudson, which his partner Pike purchased in Melbourne, Australia, is his favorite of the three vehicles they have entered in the race over the years; the other two being a ‘24 Hudson and a ‘32 Ford.
“I just love the open wheel, open cockpit style of car. Our car is an exact replica of a car that raced in Indianapolis in 1916, even though this one did it’s racing in Australia. Much of the car is original, but we have made enhancements to it such as adding a fan on the cooling system, an alternator, four wheel hydraulic brakes and an overdrive on the transmission to make it go faster.”
But as much fun as it is to drive the ‘16 Hudson, driving in an open cockpit car can be downright uncomfortable if the weather isn’t cooperating.
“There’s been times when we’ve been in rain, sleet, hail and snow all in the same day. When it’s raining, every inch of you gets wet; there’s no way to keep it out.
Hadskey says that having the right partner is essential in overcoming such discomforts and challenges.
“I put a lot of internal pressure on myself navigating, but my driver is a very calm individual. We get along famously well and don’t put pressure on each other. When we have a bad score it is a team score - not my fault or his.”
Spending a lot of time on the road is something Hadskey is quite used to. As part owner of Shortline Sales in Memphis, Tennessee, he distributes MacDon equipment to dealers all across the American Southeast.
“We basically cover the confederate states, everything south of the Mason Dixon Line. It’s a diverse territory.”
The business was started by his uncle Glen Hadskey in 1969, with Bobby joining the company in 1976. Today the business is run by four Hadskeys, all first cousins who have played an important role in bringing MacDon equipment to the American Southeast. Hadskey says that racing a MacDon sponsored vehicle in this year’s Great Race had personal importance to him.
“We love the MacDon product. We love the MacDon people. So I knew that finishing with a MacDon sponsored car would be something very special for me. But it was something that I tried not to even think about because I didn’t need the added pressure.”
And it was a good thing that Hadskey was able to keep that pressure at bay because, when he and Pike finally reached Moline to claim the $50,000 grand prize this year, it would prove to be by the slimmest of margins. After 2,600 miles (4184 km), only a second separated them from the second place team, the other ‘16 Hudson in the race driven by their friends Reeder and Stone.
“I would not have wanted to lose like that, but they were good sports. Still, that one second cost them $40,000.”
With this year’s victory, Hadskey says that he and Pike plan to retire from the competition for a few years, at least until The Great Race runs a route that looks like it would be too fun to miss.
“Like my uncle Glen used to say, ‘when you beat the best pool player in town by accident, you dang sure don’t want to play him again.’”