Hundreds of people lined the streets of downtown Kirkwood Saturday to see 130 classic cars start an eight-day, 2,400 mile journey along Route 66.
The cars — and their drivers — are competing in the 33rd annual Great Race, a competition judged on arriving at set checkpoints at pre-ordained times. The Grand Champion will be awarded $50,000 after they cross the finish line in Santa Monica, Calif.
Dennis O’Connell of Peculiar, Mo. and his brother-in-law Stephen Hebert were rookie contestants in the race, driving Hebert’s 1966 Dodge Coronet Hemi called the “Green Machine.”
“It goes real fast and it will knock your socks off from 0 to 60,” said O’Connell. “It’s what they consider unrestored. No modifications.”
The car’s big Hemi engine takes up most of the space under its dark green hood, but this race is more about accuracy than speed.
“We have to be able to follow the instructions, and that’s the hard part because sometimes they’re obscure,” O’Connell said, adding that their strategy will be to “keep the car in front of them in sight.”
To make the competition fair, cars are weighted according to age, and competitors are placed in different divisions based on experience. The oldest car in this year’s race is a 1915 Hudson 6-40. The cut-off year for participation in the race was 1972.
This is the first time Kirkwood has hosted the start of the race, an honor sought by the Downtown Kirkwood Special Business District.
“We thought that it was a good fit for downtown Kirkwood, especially the Main Street kind of Route 66 theme. And we thought it would be a good opportunity to showcase downtown Kirkwood and all the businesses we have here,” said Donna Poe, executive director of the special business district.
Poe said she couldn’t pinpoint a dollar amount for the economic impact of the event, but that 400 people had been in town for the Great Race for three days.
Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.