With engines growling and exhaust spewing, Studebakers, Hudsons, Ford Model A’s and more than 160 other vintage cars rolled into the parking lot of Angell Park Speedway in Sun Prairie Thursday as part of a 2,300-mile cross-country rally race.
This year’s Hemmings Motor News Great Race began Saturday in Warwick, Rhode Island, and will finish Sunday in Fargo, North Dakota.
The race reached Sun Prairie on Thursday, with the cars en route to Wisconsin Dells for the night after leaving from Plainfield, Illinois, in the morning.
One by one, the classic cars — the oldest a pair of 1916 Hudsons, the newest a 1974 Plymouth Bluesmobile — drove into the park to cheers, which most drivers responded to with a friendly honk. Those in convertibles sported bucket hats to block out the sun.
Madison residents Dick Tiedeman and Tim Romano stood in the back of the lot, pointing at cars as they drove in. “Would you look at that Packard,” Tiedeman said as a cream-and-yellow Packard Station Sedan puttered in. “Is that a ‘40?” Romano asked.
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Romano and Tiedeman grew up across the street in Madison “messing around” with cars, Romano said. They never lost their love for cars, which prompted the “frustrated gearheads” to make the short drive northeast for the event.
Kevin Smith and Leo Schneider, of Windsor, grew up on farms in the 1960s, where you “had to have a car and fix it yourself,” Smith said.
The two gushed about what they had seen that day: A 1952 Dodge M-37 Army truck, 1930s Chevrolets and a Ford Flathead V8 engine that looked like the one Schneider said he built as a teenager.
“They’re all cool, but the old ones are the best,” Schneider said.
Rally racing differs from a classic car race. Making their way down county roads and scenic highways, the cars do not compete solely based on speed, but instead on the metrics of time, speed and distance. In each vehicle, a navigator reads specific instructions timed to the second for a driver to follow; cars are scored at unmarked checkpoints, gaining a point for each second early or late, with the lowest score winning.
“It’s quite a challenge navigating on time and velocity,” said Zachary McFarland, of Indianapolis, a first-time navigator working a four-day stretch in a 1952 Hudson Hornet. “It’s not turn on X street … (it’s) go down this road at 50 mph for 53 seconds and then turn right. It’s quite a challenge.”
McFarland’s mint green car, which evokes the “Doc Hudson” car from the Disney-Pixar movie “Cars,” drew a crowd while it sat in the lot. At every stop, children have swarmed the car, he said, looking to take a photo or go for a ride.
Other crowd favorites included a 1966 Aston Martin from England with the steering wheel on the right that evoked a James Bond film, a checkered forest-green 1964 Mini Cooper with 10-inch wheels and the Dodge military truck.
Katie Krubsack, 31, of Sun Prairie, came with her fiancé, considering herself less of a “car person” than he. But she said she “connected” comparing the cars she saw to those she knew from the movies.
Most exciting to Smith and a number of other attendees: The cars were actually on the road, instead of sitting in storage.
Over the public address system, announcer Jason White echoed that point. “It’s like we broke these cars out of a museum,” he said.
“There’s something cool about driving these classic cars that were meant to be driven,” McFarland said. “They’re not meant to sit in some garage and be a garage princess. They’re meant to drive cross-country, just like people used to.”
Schneider said he would love to try rally racing one day, but admitted it would be a challenge: He might lose track of time talking to the drivers about their cars.
“I didn’t expect this many cars,” said Konrad Plomedahl, 27, of Sun Prairie. “It’s cool that they’re in my hometown.”
Sun Prairie began preparing for the Great Race to come to town in 2020, said Deb Krebs, who began working as a volunteer for the event on “day one.” Over 100 volunteers helped put on the event, while hundreds of attendees cycled in and out.
Andrea Kwong, 41, of Sun Prairie, came with her three children and her parents, who made the drive from La Crescent, Minnesota, just across the river from La Crosse.
“I wish this was coming back again,” she said.
The drivers and the crowd skewed older, but a cadre of younger drivers and spectators were present, too.
“It’s great to see a lot of young people with vintage cars carrying it on,” Tiedeman said.
Owen Hinthorn and Owen Weber, ages 12 and 13, of Cottage Grove, came with Hinthorn’s grandparents. Hinthorn said he started going to car shows when the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions began to lift last year, while Weber said his interest began looking at cars on the internet.
While neither is old enough to drive, Hinthorn said he would pick “one of the Mustangs” as his first car if he could — while Weber favored the Aston Martin.
“It’s great that something like this comes through here,” Hinthorn said.