God, America and Classic Cars

Posted: Jul 04, 2001 12:00 AM
LEADVILLE, COLO. -- "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.'" Rhetoric and reality often differ, except maybe on the Fourth of July, but last week Leadville -- at 10,200 feet the highest incorporated city in the United States -- brought the two together. That's because the 19th annual Great Race, featuring over 100 antique cars making their way from Atlanta to Pasadena, had 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 Avenue, the city's main road. 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 McRae, a white-bearded 62-year-old who 25 years ago was a pot-smoking, heavy-drinking manic depressive, explained that the event he founded is a timed endurance rally-race that awards $290,000 in prizes 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 began to roll in, with spectators high-fiving 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. Amazingly, a 1909 Ford Race Car -- a plank on wheels with an engine at the front and a stuffed chair in the middle -- had made it all the way from Atlanta. So had a 1916 American La France Speedster, resembling a flashlight topped by an upholstered couch, and a 1917 Hudson Super Six Racer that seems carved for a soap box derby race. The stuff of movies came to life: a black 1932 Ford sedan perfect for a gangster film, a 1934 red Ford pickup truck, a 1925 Rickenbacker Roadster. The Great Race is now sponsored by the History Channel, which makes sense given the way a century of cars has changed America. We have more mobility and less community, roomier homes and traffic jams, and many other auto-related changes -- for good and ill. Autos for all: that was America's second Declaration of Independence, and the Leadville lunch stop was an opportunity to celebrate liberty. But some people, living under liberty, imprison themselves. That was Great Race founder McRae's story. "At age 37," he 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/friend, figuring "maybe he's got some pills that will fix everything." Instead, the doctor talked about Christ and challenged him to learn more: "Either Jesus was who He said He was, or He was a liar or lunatic." McRae became a Christian and filled that black hole. By 1983, drug and alcohol addictions were in the past, and a newly confident McRae seized the opportunity to build his cross-country race for classic cars. Last week, as he led Leadville in the singing of "God Bless America," he noted that the song title contains his two favorite proper nouns, "God" and "America." Those two words are separate and unequal, even though they are sometimes mixed up, but this week most Americans are thankful for the existence of both.