BENNINGTON -- Next Sunday, June 22, the Great Race will return to Bennington for the first time since 2011, making the town the first host community to ever welcome drivers for more than one visit.
Unlike in 2011, when Bennington was the finish-line for the race, drivers will stop for lunch on day two of the eight-day race. The first car will pull into Bennington Station on Depot Street at approximately 12:05 p.m., with each subsequent car arriving at one minute intervals. Each car will stay in the parking lot for one hour, and visitors will be able to speak to the drivers and look at the cars. There are 109 cars signed up for the race.
The Great Race, first organized in 1983 by Tom McRae and Norman Miller, is not a speed race, but instead uses a complicated scoring system based on timing at hidden checkpoints along the route. Every car receives a set of instructions on their route 30 minutes before each leg of the race begins, and must follow the instructions exactly. At each checkpoint, an evaluator will assess a penalty of one second for each second the car is ahead or behind their scheduled time. Drivers are also credited for using older cars -- The older the car is, the more seconds will be removed from your overall time at the end of the race.
This year's race will begin on Saturday, June 21, in Ogunquit, Maine, and will end eight days and 2,100 miles later, on Sunday June 29, at The Villages, Florida. On the first night, the drivers will sleep in Lowell, Massachusetts, before heading inland to Bennington. Cars will enter Bennington travelling westbound on Route 9, before making their way to Bennington Station.
Each car will have a driver and a navigator, whose duty it is to make sure the car is staying on course and on schedule. Hemmings Motor News of Bennington, which became one of the primary sponsors of the race in 2005, will, as always, enter its 1932 Ford Speedster into the race, driven by president Jim Menneto and navigated by Mari Parizo, Hemmings' business manager. "It's both a physical and mental battle," said Menneto.
The first year Hemmings participated, said Menneto, "We had no idea what we were doing. Most don't when they start." Menneto had run the first leg of the course as fast as possible, finishing ahead of all the other vehicles. Unfortunately, this led to a very poor score. However, Menneto said he and the other drivers look forward to mentoring the rookie drivers, and helping them avoid the mistakes the veterans made when they were first starting out. There are 40 rookie drivers participating in the Great Race this year, which, according to Menneto, "is great, because there's 40 new people coming into the sport. A lot of people that do it once, get the bug."
The lowest scoring driver takes $50,000, out of a total purse of $150,000. "There's a lot of prize money to be won," said Menneto, "but most just do it for the fun and the camaraderie. It's a lot of fun, and the crowds really enjoy it."
Menneto said that the turnout in 2011 was a big reason why Bennington was chosen to be on the route of this year's race, despite it being somewhat out of the way. "When we came here the last time," he said, "it was Friday, the middle of the day in the pouring rain, and the turnout was amazing. That stuck with a lot of people."
The race will see entrants from all over the world, with two cars from Germany and one from Japan entering the race. H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, former president and general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina, and the voice of Tex Dinoco in the Disney/Pixar movie "Cars," will be entering the race with his grandson, driving their replica of the Hudson Hornet.
Last year, Menneto finished 33rd, and rates his chances of taking home first place this year as, "slim to none," saying that his team's goal is to finish in the top twenty.
A couple from Texas has won the race each of the last two years.
Keeping it simple, Menneto said the goal for each day of the race is exactly the same: "Ride, repair, repeat."
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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