Growing up in Springville, Alfred State alum Jeff Mahl had heard the story many times before – the one about how his great-grandfather, George Schuster, had won the 1908 Great Race from New York City to Paris.
But as can be expected for any youngster, he hadn’t paid very much attention. That is, until he reached age 14 and wrote a paper on the subject for an English assignment.
“I of course waited until the last minute on Thursday night to settle on a subject,” he said. “Desperate, I decided to do a story on the 1908 race. I received an “A+” (knowing more about this part of automotive history than the teacher), and then it dawned on me that I was hearing history from the man who lived it. Fortunately, from that time on, I paid very close attention to what ‘Great Gramp’ was saying.”
As it turned out, “Great Gramp” had a pretty amazing story to tell. On Feb. 12, 1908, in New York City, George Schuster got behind the wheel of the Buffalo-built Thomas Flyer automobile for a thrilling international competition known as “The Great Race.”
In this event, George went head to head against five other teams from Italy, France, and Germany, all of which took off from Times Square on that cold winter day for what would become the longest automobile competition in history. Altogether, the race covered 22,000 miles, 13,341 of which were driven, as it was necessary for the teams to cross the Pacific Ocean by ship, as opposed to the original plan of crossing via the frozen Bering Straits.
The race drew international interest and was extensively covered, earning front-page news in the New York Times for six months. It would later serve as the inspiration for the 1965 movie “The Great Race,” starring Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Natalie Wood, and Peter Falk.
Finally, after 169 days of facing unpaved and unplowed roads, unreliable maps, and little food, George Schuster and the Thomas Flyer arrived in Paris on July 30 to win The Great Race. The American Thomas Flyer was one of only three vehicles to have finished the competition, along with the German Protos and the Italian Briax-Zust.
Over the years, Jeff, a 1967 Alfred State marketing graduate, has researched The Great Race passionately, and at one point provided narration for a video on the competition. He has also told the story in person numerous times to audiences around the world, including once at his alma mater, Alfred State.
Jeff’s visit to the Wellsville campus in 2013 prompted the college to enter a modern version of the Great Race that bears the same name and is for vintage cars only. Each year since 2014, Alfred State has competed in the 2,000-plus-mile controlled-speed endurance rally in a 1953 Dodge Power Wagon tow truck.
A retired ship captain, Jeff now passionately devotes his time to The Great Race, having been closely involved with mentoring teams for the past several years in the competition’s X-Cup Division, which is designed for high school and college teams.
For the 2018 Great Race, which is set to begin June 23 in Buffalo and end July 1 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Alfred State is looking to field two teams, including one all-female squad, which would be a first for the X-Cup Division.
But while more than 100 cars will be heading from Buffalo to Halifax that day, another group of antique automobile drivers will be embarking on a much more symbolic journey.
“Since 2018 marks the 110th anniversary of the original Great Race from New York to Paris, something special will also be happening,” Jeff said. “A group of us will be starting in New York City at Times Square and arriving in Buffalo on the 23rd. We will then be departing from the starting line that morning as well, however, we will be going west for the Eiffel Tower in Paris, covering the 13,000-plus-mile original 1908 route across three continents.”
As he follows in his grandfather’s footsteps (or rather race tracks), Jeff will be driving a 1929 Ford Model A Roadster Pickup.
“It will be a great experience comparing the world today with pictures and stories from the same spots Great Gramp passed through in 1908,” he said. “It will also be much easier with things like paved roads and GPS.”
No doubt, repeating the same race course his great-grandfather took more than a century ago will mean a lot to Jeff. He acknowledged that he was fortunate to have had the chance to bond with his Great Gramp, who also lived in Springville before he passed in 1972 at the age of 99. George was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in Detroit in 2010 for his racing accomplishments.
“He was quite a guy, still driving at 95 and shoveling snow in the western New York winters at 98,” Jeff said. “By that time, I was in my 20s and had heard the story (about The Great Race) many times. He also kept extensive notes as he was circumnavigating the globe, saved hundreds of original photographs and artifacts from the race, and even wrote a book with his memoir.”
Though he may not have initially paid much attention to the story when he was very young, Jeff has certainly more than made up for it over the years through his research, his involvement with the modern Great Race, and by spreading the word about his great-grandfather’s amazing feat. And for the first time ever when he heads from New York City to Paris in June, Jeff will not only be sharing Great Gramp’s story, he will also be living it.