The convoy will approach downtown Franklin like a rolling automobile museum.
Spectators may see a 1916 Hudson or a 1946 Dodge WD20 Pickup. A Studebaker Racer, Ford Model A and Auburn Boattail Speedster will be chugging towards the courthouse square.
The oldest cars include a 1916 Chevrolet Phaeton, a 1917 Peerless Racer and a chain-driven 1918 American LaFrance Speedster.
But this won’t simply be a group of classic car enthusiasts out for a drive. Each car will be a competitor in one of the greatest long-distance automobile races in the U.S. — and Franklin will be part of the fun.
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The Great Race, a controlled-speed endurance road rally for antique, vintage, and collector cars, has chosen the city to be an overnight stop. Competitors will arrive on the evening of June 27, park around the courthouse and interact with fans and car enthusiasts. The stop will be part of a nine-day trek, spanning 2,100 miles, from Jacksonville, Florida, to Traverse City, Michigan.
“It’s a chance to get these old cars out on the backroads of America and let people see them,” said Jeff Stumb, director of the Great Race. “We’re bringing $5 million worth of antique cars to downtown Franklin. If you went to a fine automobile museum, you’d be fortunate to see the types of vehicles we’re bringing to town.”
More than 3,500 people are expected to come as spectators for the race. Local organizers have been working to close roads, set up meals for the drivers and arrange a stop for the public to create a unique community event not just for Johnson County, but for the whole region.
“The drivers are going to see a lot of places during the race, so anything where it can be remembered, I want them to remember Franklin,” said Carisa Delph, executive director of Discover Downtown Franklin.
Discover Downtown Franklin staff will have a meal for the drivers to eat after they arrive, which has been donated by Meijer, Delph said. After eating, they’ll come back to their cars parked around the courthouse square to mingle with car enthusiasts and guests.
Housing drivers and support personnel totaling nearly 500 people locally is a challenge, and race organizers want to keep everyone together. Great Race officials have reserved a full hotel on the east side of Indianapolis near Interstate 70.
Following the festivities in Franklin, the competitors will drive to the hotel and prepare for the next leg of the race June 28, heading to central Ohio.
Still, the city will be the main host. The energy and excitement of the Great Race will be focused on Franklin, Delph said.
“I think it can be our biggest event. They haven’t been to Indiana in years, so this is something people haven’t seen before,” she said.
The Great Race came together in the 1980s, as founders Tom McRae and Curtis Graf staged a cross-country race from California to Indianapolis using only pre-World War II cars.
From that point on, the race was done yearly. Different routes were planned to give drivers a chance to see the country on the backroads.
“There’s really nothing else out there like it. We really believe it’s one of the most unique events in motorsports, because anybody can do it. The competition isn’t hard, it’s a lot of fun,” Stumb said.
Unlike what you’d expect from a race, the competitors in this rally are not going for a top speed. That wouldn’t work using public roads, and rules stipulate that each car drive at or below posted speed limits at all times, Stumb said.
Rather, the event is a navigational test, as drivers and their co-pilots need to follow a precise course. Each day the driver and navigator team receives a set of instructions that indicate every turn, speed change, stop and start the team must make throughout the day.
In a typical day of the competition, teams have between 220 to 250 instructions to follow. Cars depart at one-minute intervals, and checkpoints along the course will record the exact time that a team passes.
The goal is to arrive at the checkpoint at the correct time, not the fastest. Teams are scored on their ability to arrive at the checkpoint precisely, Stumb said.
“You could be in the middle of the pack, the first car or the last car, and still be the winner of the day, because it is based on being at the right place at the right time,” he said.
In choosing a route this year, organizers started by picking the stopping and starting points. A south-to-north plan was mapped out, implementing parts of the old Dixie Highway into the course. Jacksonville and Traverse City will serve as the bookends of the race.
From there, they looked at potential cities to stop in that were reasonable distances apart each day, Stumb said.
“There are only so many miles we want to drive each day. We don’t like to stop in large cities — old cars and big cities don’t mix well,” he said.
Other Indiana stop points include French Lick, Auburn and Shipshewana. Johnson County was the right distance from the midday stop, and touring Franklin, Stumb was immediately struck by the design and location of its downtown square.
“As soon as I saw that courthouse and the surrounding downtown area, it fit our model of what we like to do in having a festival. We think it’ll be one of the bigger events of the year in Franklin,” he said.
Organizers worked with the Johnson County Development Corp. to finalize plans. Franklin officials have had to work out road closures June 27.
The cars will be coming up South Main Street, detouring around the bridge construction just south of the courthouse square before finishing at Main and Monroe streets, Delph said.
Franklin organizers are hoping to get people lining the roads leading to the courthouse square to cheer competitors on.
Because of the structure of the race, cars will start arriving at 5 p.m. June 27, and a new car will show up every minute.
“It really lends itself to a great show at the end of the day, with all these cool cars come in one minute apart,” Stumb said. We’ll have an announcer, and a finish gate to serve as a visual finish line. It gets more and more exciting every time.”
The Great Race
What: A 2,100-mile controlled-speed road rally for antique, vintage and classic cars.
When does the race start: June 24 in Jacksonville, Florida
When does the race end: July 2 in Traverse City, Michigan
When do they come to Franklin: 5 p.m. June 27
Number of competitors: 149
How can people get involved: The public is invited to come cheer on competitors as they arrive in downtown Franklin, then check out the cars parked around the square.