Looking back to the inception of the Great Race, the curious would ask where the idea originated, and by whom? We sat down with Dr. Donald Westee, Marty Keogh, Al Hastings and James Hanley to get some of the history of the inception of The Great Race.
Doc Westee and Marty Keogh, both avid cyclists, attended a race in Massachusetts, “The Josh Billings Race,” which referred the pen name for Henery Wheeler Shaw, an American humorist. They brought a team from Auburn, including John Sabotka and Steve Schwartz. Doc and Marty were so thrilled with this experience that the idea for a race in Auburn was born. They brought it to Al Hastings, one of the directors of the Auburn YMCA. Al, along with Doc and Marty, put a committee together to begin planning the first Great Race to be held in the summer of 1978.
James Hanley, Lee Michaels, Dick Balian, Mike Bincz, Terry Maetreo and Al Wilson joined as founding committee members. Al Hastings said it sounded like a fascinating project, one that would inspire physical fitness in and around the community. Al said he included his YMCA committee of events to help in planning the race.
The original name for the race was “The Myles Keough Paddle Wheel and Run.” Myles Keough was a soldier in Custer’s 7th Calvary and is buried in Fort Hill Cemetery. Captain Keough’s horse, Comanche, was the sole survivor from Custer’s 7th Calvary at the battle of Little Big Horn. The committee realized the full name of the race was a mouthful, and wanted something catchy.
Doc Westee suggested a movie back then that was popular, called “The Great Race,” and it caught on. The 1965 movie was about a spectacular race from New York to Paris, and starred Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon.
Al said Schlitz beer sponsored the Great Race with $10,000 each of the first few years. Participants were charged an entry fee that also helped cover the costs of the race. Other fundraising was also done in those early years, including a program book that listed sponsors.
The Great Race is different from The Josh Billings Race, in that the order of the legs of the relay has been switched. Both Doc and Marty noticed at The Josh Billings Race the congestion of the bicycle leg followed by the running leg created the potential for crashes. So the committee decided to start with the runner’s relay first, then the bicycles. The original course for the Great Race began at Auburn High School and continued through downtown Auburn, and came back out by the boat launch at Emerson Park. The long course was the only relay for the first several years of the Great Race’s history.
One year a repair to the road used by the runner’s race course changed it to its current route. Also changed was the use of the West Lake Road course for the bicycle leg of the relay. This change was due to unsafe conditions which were determined not only by race participants, but also by the law enforcement and first response agencies that monitor the race course. Another change that made things easier on the Great Race committee was to have the starting points for the runners and bicyclists at the same location.
Prior to the use of cell phones and walkie-talkies, members would have to move a speaker system from start location to the next leg of the relay, which not only was labor- and time-intensive, but had the added issue of finding an electrical source to plug into. Around the fourth Great Race, the starting point was consolidated at the entrance of Emerson Park to save time and effort. At this same time, the long course for runners was certified to be 6.2 miles, the official course measurement that is still used today.
Around the 19th year of the Great Race, the committee added the short course to the competition. The committee felt that they were losing the participation of their older competitors and felt that adding a shorter course would potentially boost participation in the race. The race did see a rise in entries due to this addition and today there are many more short-course participants than long-course participants.
The initial Great Race had 125 teams registered. In the weeks prior to the first race, the committee only registered about 50 teams and were worried that the race would not be a success. But, by the time the race day was upon them, they had a respectable number of entrants that made for a great race day.
Entertainment for the first Great Race was provided by The Cranberry Lake Folk Group, using borrowed instruments. Marty remembers loading a loaned piano into the back of his pick-up, and driving off with the pianist in the bed of the truck, plunking away at the keys. At the time, he was worried that either the piano or its player would slide out of the truck bed when he went around the corners.
Doc remembers one Great Race where the committee decided to have a Myles Keogh tribute, with actors dressed in cavalry and Native American garb, complete with horses. The plan was for the contingent to lead off the race, moving through a set route. But, as many best laid plans go, there was confusion and the actors took off at the wrong time and headed in the wrong direction. They were able to be regrouped and make an appearance at the end of the race, so all was not lost.
While the first Great Race seemed to be a success, the committee was unsure of its future. James Hanley said that he was not at all sure that an annual race would catch on, and if it did, would they have enough participation with both entrants and volunteers to work the future races. Al Hastings said that he was worried about all aspects of the race. He ran into difficulties at times when encountering bureaucracy of certain agencies in the community.
It was not easy to start a race that involved city, town and county property with hundreds of people participating and volunteering that would all need to be kept safe during race day. Within the first few years these relationships and interactions matured and the community embraced the race as its own.
Most races go off without problems, but there have been times when emergency medical technicians were needed for accidents, and the care and response given during those times has been excellent. The community participation with families and neighbors on the course that offer water stations and cheers to continue on shows the communities dedication to the race.
The target participant is not the professional athlete. Jim Hanley said his goal is to get the guy or gal off the couch to come out and run the race and do something physical. Marty said we started this race for the average person and not the athlete; teams were made up of people in the community that wanted to try something different, would encourage each other to compete and do an event that would motivate them. Marty added that John Connor was one of these people. Today John is remembered with an award that is given out to an outstanding Great Race volunteer over the years.
When asked how The Great Race lasted 40 years, Marty said that supplementing the committee was key in the race’s continuation. The volunteers have been a backbone of the race; as the race has grown, so has the committee, new people coming on are helping to impact its future. Of course, then there are the participants. Doc said you don’t stop playing because you grow old, you grow old because you stop playing. So the race, while growing older, still keeps on playing.
The Great Race Committee wants to thank all those who have participated in and volunteered during The Great Races in the past. We also acknowledge the current Great Race Committee members: Robert Blair, Rick Falsey, Lee Michaels, John Dalziel, Tom Falsey, Rich Newman, Brad Davidson, Amy Fuller, Molly Pinker, Heather Davidson, Richard Gray, Paul Ringwood, Kristin Dipronio, James Hanley, Robert Schmerhorn, Tony Dipronio, Kevin Kelly, Derek Simmonds, Mallorie Dygert, Marty Keough, Timothy Walczyk and John Lawler.
This year the 40th Great Race, which takes place Aug. 13, is benefiting their designated Charities of Hope: HEAL (Heroin Epidemic Action League), OWLA (Owasco Watershed Lake Association), Hospice of the Finger Lakes and the YMCA Scholarship program. We have also opened up two new categories for the race this year: teams with paddleboards or two-person kayaks; it is not a competitive category by age group with awards, but will be a test category to see if there is interest in adding these as competitive categories in the future.
Bernie Simmons of Balloon’s Catering is providing food and drink for sale, The Destination Band from Ithaca will provide entertainment and this year the committee is planning something special for some veteran Great Racers who register for Great Race 40. Any person who participated in all 40 races or in the very first Great Race will receive a special recognition. These individuals should leave a message on our website, www.great-race.com.