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LOTE presents ‘The Great Race’ revisited

March 8, 2017
By ED FRANKS ( , Pine Island Eagle

Once again, Jeff Mahl's retelling of his great-grandfather's epic feat of winning the Great Race of 1908 has earned him five stars.

Mahl, great-grandson of George Schuster, the winner of the Great Race, presented his great-grandfather's story at Pine Island United Methodist Church last Saturday afternoon. After donning a mechanic's work coat and sitting in a wingback chair alongside a floor lamp, Mahl told the story of his great-grandfather's amazing journey.

The program was hosted by the Ladies of the Elks.

Article Photos

Jeff Mahl during his presentation about his great-grandfather, George Schuster, the winner of the Great Race of 1908.


The Great Race of 1908 was an international automobile competition that took place at the dawn of the automobile age. Sponsored by the New York Times as a "world" competition, teams arrived in New York from Germany, Italy, France and the United States. The U.S. team, with George Schuster at the wheel of the Thomas Flyer, won the 22,000-mile, 5 -month race.

More than 250,000 people filled Times Square when the race began at 12:15 p.m. on Feb. 12, 1908.

"The race would be from New York to Paris, cover 22,000 miles and take 169 days," Mahl said. "This race would be the longest automobile race in history. Remember at the time (1908), there were only 110 miles of paved roads in the country and snow plows hadn't been invented yet."

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. From the time the teams left Times Square on their journey through Albany; Chicago; San Francisco; Seattle; Valdez, Alaska; Japan; Vladivostok; Omsk; Moscow; St. Petersburg; Berlin and finally Paris, obstacles were presented in the first and only around-the-world automobile race ever held.

The American team, in the Thomas Flyer, was in the lead battling snow storms across the U.S. arriving in San Francisco 41 days after the start of the race. This was the first crossing of the U.S. by an automobile in winter. The team then headed for Alaska but found the crossing impossible and headed back to San Francisco to cross by boat.

Siberia and Manchuria offered even bigger challenges in the spring thaw with mud several feet deep.

"Several times progress was measured in feet rather than miles," Mahl said, "Upon arriving just outside Paris, the team was informed by a Paris Gendarme (police) that the Flyer couldn't enter Paris without two working headlights (one had been damaged). Fortunately, a boy on a bicycle with a working light offered his bicycle. So the American team and the Thomas Flyer finished the race on July 30, 1908, with a bicycle strapped to the front of the Flyer."

A Smithsonian Institution article of March 2012 said, "He (George Schuster) continued to sacrifice himself for the journey when no one else could or would, walking ten 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."

George 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.

"I always try to do something different, or add something new to these performances," Mahl said. "This time in addition to the performance, I located audio of great-grandfather talking about the race on the TV show 'I've got a Secret'..So the audience will see my great-grandfather live."

Five decades after the race car collector William Harrah (Harrah's Casino - Reno, Nevada) contacted an aged Schuster in Buffalo, N.Y. Harrah had a car collection of over 100 cars including a rusted out Thomas Flyer. Harrah invited Schuster to fly to Reno to confirm that Harrah's car was the actual Thomas Flyer that won the Great Race. After carefully looking the car over, Schuster identified the two welds used to repair the frame broken in Siberia.

"I was very lucky my great-grandfather lived until he was 99 years old he died in 1972," Mahl said. "I used to ride my bicycle from my parents house across town to my great-grandfather's house. We would sit in an old swing on the front porch for hours while he would tell me his stories. I have some great memories."



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