|The French Team in a Sizarre-Naudin|
|The crowd in Times Square cheering the racers|
On February 12th, 1908 two hundred thousand people showed up in Times Square, New York City to watch six competitors start off on a 165 day race to Paris, France. A counter-clockwise circle of the world via auto. Of the six competitors, the American Thomas Flyer with its team comprised of George Schuster, Montague Roberts and Harold Briankes and the German Protos were the fan favorites. Kaiser Wilhelm II saw the race as a chance to assert Germany's surpremacy of the motoring industr and so urged the leading German auto manufacturer, Protos, to enter a car. The Protos was driven by Hans Koeppen, a lieutenant in the Prussian Infantry, military engineer Hans Knape and an officer, Ernst Maas. Other competitors included an Italian team driving a Zust, and three French teams driving a Motoblanc, a De Dion, and a little Sizaire-Naudin.
|Scarfolglio and companions in Zust car|
And away they went! Amidst cheers, and flag waving and back-firing smoke they took off in a flash. But alas, the flashy start slowed down quite a bit once they were on their way. The race was extremely difficult. Rain, mud, snow and ice immediatly tested the reliability of the cars. The Midwest was hit with one of it's worst blizzards in years and the racers went head first into it. Reportedly, it was so cold that the Italians had to break their sandwiches in pieces with a hammer and defrost them on the radiator before eating them.
The Thomas was the first to reach the Pacific coast ( after 41 days of road travel ) while the Protos was weeks behind. The other competitors were not even in the race - so to speak - they fared so much worse and were all having disputes among their crews. Although the Protos was built like a tank and was designed for all types of terrain, it was not prepared for good ol' American mud.
|The Thomas Flyer|
|The Protos stuck in Idaho|
Eventually, George Schuster and his Thomas Flyer had a breakdown in Manchuria and it was Hans Koeppen and his Protos that arrived first at the finish line in Paris. However, the crowds cheered for the intrepid American and gave him the winning hurrahs. George Schuster became the true winner when the race commitee revealed that due to "penalizations" the Protos was in fact days behind the Thomas Flyer.
Blake Edwards immortalized this famous race and the sportsman-like behavior of Schuster with the character of the Great Leslie ( played by Tony Curtis ) in his 1965 comedy "The Great Race" and even included a devious opponent...Professor Fate ( Jack Lemmon ) and his tank-like gadgetry filled Hannibal 8 automobile.
Some say the movie had no resemblance at all to the real race but I must differ....the teams did in fact stop in a town in the west to recieve a rousing welcome ( alas, but there was no Dorothy Provine belting out " He Shouldn't-a, Hadn't-a, Oughtn't-a Swang on Me" ); the Thomas Flyer followed the railway tracks to save time at one point - much like Prof. Fate tried to; a reporter from the New York Times joined one of the crews to be there to report the latest news, just like Natalie Wood did; the village folk of Germany came out in droves to cheer the passerbys ( especially Hans Koeppen ) and last but not least Professor Fate crossed the finish line first...just like Koeppen did. Gosh, how many more similiarites could you ask for? And with those catchy Henry Mancini tunes added in for good measure, the film was just as fun as participating in a GREAT RACE ourselves. ( Although, that doesn't mean I'll cross that item off my list of Things to Do ).