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Great-grandson of winner to retell the tales of the Great Auto Race of 1908

By Staff | Dec 26, 2012

A special island program, which will benefit the Calusa Land Trust in February, will tell the story of the Great Auto Race of 1908 through the great-grandson of the winner.

Jeff Mahl, great-grandson of George Schuster Sr., will provide a program about the race, which most people know about through the 1960s movie “The Great Race” – a slapstick comedy about the automobiles that raced around the world.

The program will be held Saturday, Feb. 2, from 3-5 p.m. A vintage car show will be on display prior to the show from 1-3 p.m. at the Pine Island Methodist Church.

He said the race actually did happen during a time where there were no roads and automobiles did not cross the United States.

The race included drivers from Germany, Italy, France and at the very last moment, the United States.

The race, Mahl said, was done in the middle of the wintertime.

“They were going to literally drive from New York to Paris,” he said, adding that there was just one obstacle in the way – the Pacific Ocean.

Due to the winter months, the competitors figured they could use the Pacific Ocean as an ice bridge from North America to Asia. Since the Canadian police prohibited the race from going through Canada, the organizers redrew the race course from New York to San Francisco then to Alaska.

Mahl said President Teddy Roosevelt heard about the race after Henry Ford refused to enter one of his cars. He said Roosevelt really did not care which auto manufacture would provide a car for the race.

“He knew a famous manufacturer in Buffalo, N.Y.,” Mahl said, who came through the day before the race on Feb. 11.

Thomas Motor Company agreed to provide a car, the Thomas Flyer, for the race and Mahl’s great-grandfather, George Schuster, was asked to drive in the race.

He said his great-grandfather got onto a train that night and arrived in New York City the next morning.

The Thomas Flyer did not have a top, windshield or doors.

“They were driving in blizzards and exposed to everything,” he said.

Although the features on the car were limited, Mahl said the worst part for the drivers was probably that there were only a little over 1,000 miles of paved roads in North America, which were mostly found in the cities.

There were 250,000 people gathered in Time Square waiting for the race, which was scheduled to begin at 11 a.m., to start Feb. 12, 1908. Mahl said the crowd was so thick that the mayor of New York City could not get through, which delayed the race 15 minutes.

“The president of the Auto Club of America raised a gold plated pistol and fired a shot in the middle of Time Square,” he said, which started the race.

One hundred and sixty nine days and 22,000 miles later the cars arrived in Paris. Schuster was declared the winner.

“George was the first person to drive 41 days, eight hours and 15 minutes from New York to San Francisco,” Mahl said.

Three of the six cars actually made it to Paris and no one died in the event.

Schuster was later inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame.

Mahl said the New York Times cosponsored the race and T Walter Williams rode in the back seat of the Thomas Flyer to telegraph the story and five photographs a day back to New York City.

“That’s why this particular event was the best photographically documented event in the early 1900s,” he said. “Nearly 2,000 pictures that survived through that race. The images are incredible.”

Mahl said the best part is his great grandfather lived to be 99 years old.

“He was still driving automobiles at the age of 95,” he said.

The special presentation will relay the stories that Mahl heard as a boy from his great-grandfather.

“I tell them the same way as great-grandpa tells them to me,” he said. “The audience is hearing the story in the words of George and the man that won that event.”

The show will also include an update of what the race route looks like 104 years later.

Mahl said he will tell his great grandfather’s story through original pictures taken from the race.

“You don’t have to be a car person to enjoy this story,” Mahl said. “To hear this and see this in this particular way is sure a lot better way than sitting down with a text book.”

All proceeds from the show will benefit the Calusa Land Trust. Questions call Ron Wesorick at 283-7249.