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Ypsilanti — For 34 years, the Great Race has been crisscrossing the country in a rally that gets old cars out of garages and onto the byways of America.

This year’s race started in Jacksonville, Florida, on Saturday, stopped through Ypsilanti’s Depot Town on Thursday and will end in Traverse City on Sunday.

“People in Michigan and the Midwest love old cars,” said Jeff Stumb, director of the Great Race since 2011. “It’s just natural to come to these historic old cities like Ypsilanti with a bunch of old cars. It makes for the most unique events in all motor sports.”

Nine international teams comprising 121 cars are competing in the time, speed and distance race. Each vehicle has a driver and a navigator, with only a manual clock, their speedometers covered, a map and pencil.

It’s not about which car finishes first. If the contestants follow the plotted map driving the speed limit, calculating their miles per hour, they should make it to the final checkpoint in Traverse City at a specific time. The one closest to that time wins.

“It’s like golf, the one with the lowest score wins. It’s about who’s the most accurate,” said Stumb. “The one who drives the speed the most accurate, who makes the turns the most accurate, who stays on time. We measure it out before hand and make secret checkpoints so we know where they should be at any given time.”

It’s $5,500 per car to enter along withtravel expenses. Participants compete for the prize money of $158,750. The first-place winner gets $50,000; the remaining money is divided among the others.

Curtis Graf is the only man to have taken part in every race since 1983 and is traveling in car No. 2. He has won the race once and his navigator, Wayne Bell has won five times.

“We get to see this great country. I feel like I’ve seen it all,” said Graf, 74.

Participants since 2006, Gary and Jean Ann Martin from Simpsonville, Kentucky, drive a blue 1964 Chevy Nova. So far, they are in the top 10.

“It’s going so smoothly,” Gary Martin said. “It’s been great and so beautiful.”

As navigator, Jean Ann Martin said the best part of the Great Race is the people.

“Our fellow Great Racers are family and our arrival at each event is like a reunion. Yes, it’s stressful, but it’s something amazing we’ll always remember,” she said.

Each car must be older than a 1972 model year. The older the vehicle, the better age-factor adjustment the team will receive during scoring.

The oldest vehicles ever to compete were a 1907 Renault and a 1914 Ford Model T in 2012. Both finished the race. In 2011, a 1911 Velie won the Great Race.

“There are a couple 1960 Hudson and since we are at the (auto museum in Ypsilanti) ; it’s pretty fitting,” Stumb said.

Last year’s first place winners were G.R. Pike and Bobby Hadskey driving a 1916 Hudson Indy Racer. They took home $40,000.

Not every car makes it to the end of the race. A few dropped out on the way to Michigan, but it’s common for cars to break down and for drivers to get tired, Stumb said.

The race has traversed over 3 million miles.

“One of things that makes us strongest in Ypsilanti is our heritage,” said Ypsilanti Mayor Amanda Edmonds. “Not only that we continue ... to celebrate that automotive history in this region, but what makes us strong is that we use that rooting to carry us into the future.”

The area is rich with automotive references that drive tourism, she said.

The former Ford Motor Co. Willow Run Bomber Plant nearby now holds a cargo airport and museum and has been selected as the site for proving grounds for autonomous vehicles by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The American Center for Mobility will be one of 10 facilities designated to foster self-driving auto innovations.

“… To recognize that industry and our community’s contribution to the war effort and the other part of the facility is being made into the American Center for Mobility, an investment in connected vehicles of the future,” Edmonds said.

srahal@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-1855

Twitter: @SarahRahal_

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