LEADVILLE, COLORADO-"America's not what you see on the six o'clock news," said Tom McRae, founder and CEO of The Great Race. "America's about loving God, honoring country, and singing 'God Bless America.'"
It often doesn't seem that way, but on June 24-the biggest day in years in Leadville, which at 10,200 feet is the highest incorporated city in the United States-Mr. McRae's summary seemed pretty close. The 19th annual Great Race, featuring over 100 antique cars making their way from Atlanta to Pasadena, was having its lunch stop in this city of 2,800 located near the Continental Divide.
First, the 22-piece U.S. Navy Ceremonial Band marched down Harrison Ave., the city's main road, past the town theater that was once a Presbyterian church. The band regularly traveled at the head of the race until budget cuts four years ago forced it to stay home; now $50,000 in private contributions covers the group's travel budget. Perhaps a thousand townsfolk and tourists clapped to Sousa's "The Stars and Stripes Forever."
Then Mr. McRae, a white-bearded 62-year-old who 25 years ago was a manic depressive addicted to marijuana and alcohol, asked onlookers to take off their caps and place hands over hearts as the band played the National Anthem. He explained that the event he founded is a timed endurance rally-race, with $290,000 in prizes going not to the fastest but the most accurate. Drivers of fractious antique cars try to match to the second the times for each segment of the trip established by a test driver earlier this year.
Then the cars rolled in. Spectators high-fived drivers of a 1916 Hudson Speedster and other cars with thin, sculpted bodies, spindly wheels, and narrow axles. Onlookers applauded a sporty 1925 Pierce Arrow Roadster, a 1917 Hudson Super Six Racer that looked like a steel mailbox on wheels, and a 1935 Auburn Cabriolet with a rumble seat. The stuff of movies-a black 1932 Ford sedan perfect for a gangster film, and a 1934 red Ford pickup truck (the farmer's best friend)-came to life.
It was also fun to see a 1909 Ford Race Car, not much more than a plank on wheels with an engine at the front and a stuffed chair in the middle. A 1916 American La France Speedster, resembling a flashlight topped by an upholstered couch, had also made it all the way from Atlanta, as had a 1917 Hudson Super Six Racer that seems carved for entry into a soap box derby. The very names are evocative: 1925 Rickenbacker Roadster, 1936 Dodge Business Coupe, 1937 Ford Phaeton.
The Great Race is now sponsored by the History Channel, which is appropriate since the excitement of individual mobility has so powerfully affected America for a century. We have more freedom and less community, roomier homes and traffic jams, and lots of other auto-related changes, for good and ill. Soviet audiences in the 1950s watched a propaganda film about the supposed capitalist oppression of factory workers, but the film made the mistake of showing the factory's parking lot. Astoundingly, the workers had cars, and Soviets living in crowded apartment blocs and reliant on mass transportation wanted some of that oppression.
Cars for all were America's second Declaration of Independence, and the Leadville lunch stop 10 days before July 4th was an opportunity to celebrate liberty. A key question throughout America's history, though, has been, "Liberty for what?" Some say liberty for liberty's sake, but race founder McRae offers a different emphasis-love God, honor country-and uses his own story to indicate what happens when we grasp liberty but neglect purpose.
"At age 37," Mr. McRae tells one and all, "I had tried it all ... going for the gusto, living the good life. It turned out to be a black hole so deep I couldn't see a way out." He went to a doctor, figuring "maybe he's got some pills that will fix everything. But Doc didn't give me any pills, he pointed me to Jesus Christ." Doc presented his patient with C.S. Lewis's challenge: "Either Jesus was who He said He was, or He was a liar or lunatic." Mr. McRae became a Christian.
With that change, everything else changed. By 1983 drug and alcohol addictions were in the past, and a Christian worldview led to new confidence about the future. Mr. McRae seized the opportunity to build his cross-country race for classic cars, but he writes at the beginning of the race yearbook that "for some of us the 'Great Race' has to do with life itself…. Are you unhappy with your life? God is in the business of changing lives. He changed mine; He will change yours."