Picture a father and son spending summer days enjoying the countryside, meandering along winding Dixie Highway back roads in a classic car.
This pleasant imagery brings to mind carefree Sunday drives, but there's no time for nonchalance in the Great Race. Small talk and scenery take a back seat to crunching numbers on speed and distance to the decimal while navigating a 101-year-old model vehicle — without a calculator or GPS.
"This is no Sunday drive," Brad Epple said.
"You're working your butt off the entire time," Daniel Epple added. "Most people are going to think we are completely crazy for doing this."
Blood, sweat and motor oil
The Great Race is one of the most celebrated cross-country events in the nation. The 34-year-old tradition brought the Epples together for one of their most prized family-bonding experiences.
Jefferson City's Brad and Daniel Epple are a classic car-collecting father-son duo and expert-class veterans of the week-long precision pace competition of pre-1972 model vehicles. The race pits classic auto enthusiasts against one another for more than 2,000 miles in a family-oriented annual event.
"The Great Race became an iconic figure in the old car world almost immediately after starting in 1983 because there was nothing else like it anywhere," Director Jeff Stumb said. "And it is still the same today. We sell out almost a year in advance and have (120 cars and) almost 500 people in our entourage from all over the world. There are teams from Japan, Germany, England, Canada and all across the United States."
Brad is the father and navigator. His son, Daniel, drives. This year's Great Race will begin Saturday in Jacksonville, Florida, and take the Epples to Traverse City, Michigan, by July 2.
"We have been doing themed routes for the last several years Route 66, the Lincoln Highway and now the Dixie Highway," Stumb said. "It is just a 'theme,' but most of the city stops were part of the Dixie Highway."
Precision pace races aren't won by the first finisher, but by the competitor who completes routes nearest to prescribed times. Drivers are released in one-minute intervals. Mystery checkpoints along the way record when the racers pass and determine if they are traversing the course too quickly or slowly. Crossing the checkpoint one second late or early results in a minus-one score. Crossing at the exact right moment scores an ace.
"It's an absolute team effort," Brad said. "You can't make a mistake and get (angry) at one another. There's no time for that. It creates great communication skills."
All of the scores are combined daily, and a winner of the day is named based on the score nearest zero. At the end of the race, all of the daily scores are amassed, and whoever finishes with the best overall tally is declared champion of their division. The competitive divisions include rookie, expert, sportsman and grand champion.
Racers are given instructions that include directions, predetermined speeds and stop times to correctly meet checkpoints. They calculate how best to take turns and cruise to meet the prescribed times while factoring in things like traffic and stop lights. Then there's the tricky stuff to consider — like altitude, weather and tire pressure.
"It's a rolling math problem," Brad said. "You're constantly timing every maneuver and making sure that you're in exactly the right spot on the road at the right split second you should be at that spot in the road."
This level of precision requires the driver to have a steady foot on the accelerator. Altering speed by a fraction can change everything. So Daniel doesn't take in much of the scenery.
"I stare at that speedometer all day long," Daniel said. "When (the instructions) say 35 mph, it's not 34.9 and it's not 35.1."
Climbing the classes
The Epples started participating in the Great Race in 2013, driving a red 1965 Corvette, and won the title of Rookie Champions.
"We had no idea what we were getting into," Daniel said. "It was a bucket list thing. Dad had seen it on TV and said, 'We are going to go do that.'
"We finished down in Mobile, Alabama, in '13, and getting across with my dad and confetti coming down — it's a big old deal. It's a memory you never give up for the rest of your life."
The mathematics required for the race were astounding at first.
"We didn't know what we didn't know yet. We figured it out as we went each day," Brad said. "It was like drinking from a firehouse of information."
Luckily, the Epples' background in aviation helped, as flying a plane requires similar calculations and precision.
Brad is CEO and president of Computer Service Professionals Inc. (CSPI), and Daniel is an IT support technician. The company provides software and hardware solutions to more than 400 community banks in 32 states. Brad said having a plane helps their company grow and provides math practice as well.
"We use the aircraft daily in our business moving people around and doing sales calls. The calculations and the thought process of turn loss and those things weren't foreign to us," Brad said.
The duo raced a 1934 York-bodied Ford delivery truck the past three years and advanced to the expert class, which fields 15 of the 120 racers.
"The competition in the expert class is absolutely brutal," Daniel said.
This year, they will debut their 1916 Hudson Indy Racer, the boat tail model driven by the most Great Race winners of any vehicle. Historically, the 1916 Hudson marked a huge step forward in automotive performance by introducing new engine technology. The Epples' racer is one of three 1916 Hudsons put together in Australia 18 years ago. The body is a reproduction, but its chassis and engine are 101-year-old originals.
Daniel said it is the oldest model car he would recommend driving in the race because pre-1916 vehicles aren't fast enough. "I can go down the road in (our 1916 Hudson) at 75 miles an hour all day long," he said.
The Hudson also has an advantage against new cars. Older cars are granted an edge, like when elderly horseshoe pitchers are allowed to throw from closer to the stake. "It's graded on a curve," Brad said. "So, with (our 1934 Ford), say we finish (10 seconds from the prescribed finish time), our factor on that truck is 82 percent, so we'd get an 8.2-second day. With the same 10-second day in (the Hudson), we get a 66 percent factor, so we will get a 6.6-second day. So, even if you finish in the exact same time, (the older car) gets the trophy."
The Epples also plan to reconstruct their own 1916 Hudson they hope to drive in the Great Race in about two years. "It will be a fully enclosed dreamliner," Daniel said. "It will be completely unique."
Despite the trials of precision pace racing, the Epples enjoy the challenge. Their sights are set on pulling into Traverse City as the veterans class victors and earning a spot in the grand champion class.
"We're almost addicted," Daniel said. "It's all we talk about."
The Great Race's finish line finale is like an antique auto gallery at a block party. "It is very much a festival — there are old cars parked in the streets and excitement in the air," Stumb said. "It's as American as it gets!"
Brad said he most enjoys the camaraderie of racing with his son, building communication skills and being part of the classic car community. "This is one of the most fun things you can do with an old car," he said.
Daniel was more sentimental. "It's (all about) memories, like that Ford over there," he said, motioning to the 1934 delivery vehicle.
The quaint bottle green truck appeared rather modest parked beside a '65 Mustang Coupe, Harley-Davidson motorcycles and two showroom quality classics — a '55 Thunderbird and '64 Falcon Sprint convertible, each respectively encapsulated in translucent plastic bubbles. Despite appearances, the race-tested old truck is supreme in Daniel's eyes.
"We're never getting rid of that (Ford). That thing means more to me than any other car on the road."