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Winner’s great-grandson to tell tale of the Great Race of 1908

By Staff | Jan 6, 2015

On Saturday, Jan. 31, Jeff Mahl, great-grandson of the winner of the Great Race of 1908, will present his great-grandfather’s story at Pine Island United Methodist Church. Doors open at 11:30 a.m.

Tickets are $20 and profits from the event will be donated to the Pine Island Elementary School for its Acquisition for Education Program.

The Great Race of 1908 was an automobile competition from New York to Paris. Six cars entered the race from four countries: Germany, France, Italy and the United States. Considering the state of automobile technology, and the lack of paved roads in the early 20th century, this was a considerable challenge. Only three of the six cars that entered the race finished. The winning driver was the U.S. driver George Schuster in his Thomas Flyer Mahl’s great-grandfather.

“My great-grandfather was chosen at the last minute, the day before the race was to begin,” Mahl said. “And it all happened because of Teddy Roosevelt. When Roosevelt heard that the Italians, Germans and the French were going to be racing cars across the United States, he wanted an American manufacturer to enter the race. Both Henry Ford and Ransom Olds refused to enter cars but Teddy Roosevelt knew E.R. Thomas, owner of the Thomas Motor Company in Buffalo, N.Y. Roosevelt contacted his friend ‘E.R.’ and ‘asked’ him to enter the Thomas Flyer in the race. When Teddy Roosevelt ‘asks’ you to do something you do it.”

An employee of E.R. Thomas, George Schuster, was chosen to be part of the race because of his proven mechanical abilities. Schuster started at E.R. Thomas Motor Company building radiators in 1902. From there he quickly progressed to become a troubleshooter in charge of vehicle assembly and often delivered Thomas Flyers to their new owners. Schuster’s mechanical ability made him a perfect choice to be a member of the team.

“On the day before the race started (Feb. 11, 1908), my great-grandfather was in Providence, R.I., demonstrating the new model of the Thomas Flyer when he got a call,” Mahl said. “He was told, ‘George, ER has decided to enter the car in the race and we need you to be in Times Square tomorrow morning to begin this race around the world.'”

The race began in Times Square at 12:15 p.m.,,Feb. 12, 1908, with more than 250,000 cheering people. The race would become the longest automobile race in history.

“At the time there was only 110 miles of paved roads and snow plows hadn’t been invented yet,” Mahl said. “The race would cover 22,000 miles and take 169 days.”

The Flyer left Times Square with a New York Times reporter in the back seat. His orders were to take five photos every day and file a story. The cars crossed the United States, north into Canada and westward into Alaska. The reporter filed his stories by telegraph until they entered Canada where he resorted to using carrier pigeons.

The reason the race was held in winter was because the Bering Strait would be frozen allowing the cars to drive across from Alaska to Siberia. Once across the Bering Strait the cars then entered the Russian wilderness of Siberia where they were advised to give up and take the Trans-Siberian railway. The drivers were told that in Siberia they would face “Chinese brigands, Manchurian tigers, fever, plague, pestilence and famine.” Once they crossed Siberia they went on to Moscow, St. Petersburg, Berlin and Paris. This story was front page news in the Times for six months.

Schultz and the Thomas Flyer arrived in Berlin on July 27 and three days later crossed the finish line in Paris at 6 p.m. 26 days ahead of the Germans and weeks ahead of the Italians. When the team returned to the United States, New York City held a ticker tape parade and President Roosevelt invited the team to his home at Sagamore Hill.

A Smithsonian Institution article of March 2012 said, “He (Schuster) continued to sacrifice himself for the journey when no one else could or would, walking 10 miles in the dead of night to find gasoline and navigating the car out of gullies they couldn’t avoid. His acumen had kept the car running through blizzards, freezing temperatures and sandstorms. At each overnight stop, he repaired the fresh damage and readied the Flyer for the next leg of the journey. And he was so unheralded that newspaper reports frequently misspelled his name when they bothered to mention him at all.” Schuster was the only American to go the full distance from New York to Paris. He was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame Oct. 12, 2010.

The day will include a car show. If you have a vintage car (1945 or earlier) free tickets will be provided to the first 10 vintage car owners to sign up for the event. Contact: Rubye Woodhead at 283-1288.

Tickets are $20. Ticket sellers are Bonnie Kellen 283-8677, Karen Hanson 246-1350 and Rubye Woodhead 283-1288. Tickets will be limited.