1907 Thomas Flyer back in spotlight 100 years after Great Race

For almost a half century, it sat among the relics of the auto industry at the National Automobile Museum, almost lost among the shinier, more polished exhibits.

Yet the 1907 Thomas Flyer - the American automobile that won the New York to Paris Great Race of 1908 - has seemingly been rediscovered on the eve of the race's centennial celebration.

The car is a source of national historical pride, museum officials said - winning the first race around the world and winning the title against teams from the industrial giants of the day: France, Germany and Italy.

The Auto Museum will take the car center stage for the next year in a centennial celebration of the race.

After 100 years, the Thomas Flyer is being recognized as one of the most important race cars in U.S. history, on par with Don Garlits' top fuel dragster or Dale Earnhardt's No. 3 NASCAR racer, experts said.

"From a collector's and historian's standpoint, the 1907 Thomas Flyer has always been considered as one of America's most historic
automobiles," Jackie Frady, the museum's executive director said. "But with the 100th anniversary, there is so much more attention given to the race and what it meant, to the industry and to the sport, that the car has taken center stage. In the coming year, there will be events all over the country commemorating the race."

Legendary casino owner, Bill Harrah, a car collector, brought the Flyer to Reno in 1964. After years of disrespect, passing through many owners, the car was almost unrecognizable.

Harrah had first read about the Great Race in a Reader's Digest article about the car's driver, George Schuster. So, he flew Schuster to Reno to assure the authenticity of his purchase. Schuster gave his OK after recognizing the initials that folks along the race route had carved into the side of the car.

He also noticed the hole he had cut in the floor to get some of the engine's heat to his feet as he sat in the open, fighting the stinging winter weather of the Great Plains and Siberia.

The Flyer is a city treasure, worthy of the Smithsonian Institute, experts said.

"Certainly, it is worthy of the Smithsonian," said Phillip Earl, curator emeritus of history at the Nevada Historical Society. "But I don't think it ought to be there. It ought to be here (in Reno).

"Bill Harrah is our guy, and he's the guy who bought it, and he's the guy who restored it, and he is the one who brought George Schuster here to authenticate it," Earl said.

The victory of the Flyer further fueled America's notion that it was an emerging superpower, state archivist Guy Rocha said.

"We had won the Spanish-American War, and we were expanding our
empire," Rocha said. "It was a time when people worshipped the
machine, the dreadnoughts (battleships), the automobile. This particular race was one of our efforts to challenge the European nations for industrial leadership of the new century."

The victory instilled many Americans with national pride in the Flyer, Frady said. The race was closely monitored by the nation's newspapers, who had reporters "embedded" with the race teams. The
race was sponsored by the New York Times and a Paris newspaper.

"It really proved that the American automobile was here to stay," Frady said. "It proved that the American automobile was a sound production piece and it had a great influence on the fledging American auto industry."

The Thomas Flyer's success in the Great Race paved the way for America's century-long love affair with gas-powered cars and

The race marked the first time that an automobile crossed the United States in the winter, Frady said.

"And that illustrated that cars were reliable and that they could be used for long-distance travel, all year long and not just in the summer.

"The race also stimulated the building of roads across the United States," Frady said. "And from those beginnings came motels, food services, gas stations and all sorts of those things. So, when you look back at this one momentous event, it really set the tone of what happened with the automobile in this nation."

About 250,000 people crowded New York's Time Square for the start of the race on Feb. 12, 1908, according to historical accounts.

The race was staged when most people had never seen an automobile, Frady said. Roads were few or nonexistent. Teams had to
shovel snow and hire workers to cut down trees to make pathways for
the cars. Teams of farm horses had to pull cars through snow and
out of snowdrifts. Race teams had to drive through swamps, travel
through hub-deep mud and ford streams.

The tortuous route went from New York City to Chicago and across the Midwest. It passed through Nevada. The Flyer entered Nevada at Currie in southern Elko County. The team headed for Ely, then to
Tonopah and Goldfield before heading north to San Francisco.

The route was to take the Flyer through Reno and Carson City but reports of 20-foot snowdrifts in the Sierra forced the team into a
southern route.

The racers scrapped plans to drive across the frozen Bering Strait to Russia after getting stuck in the Alaskan port of Valdez.

Instead, racers took a ship to Japan, traveled across that nation and on to Vladivostok, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Berlin and finally Paris.

The Flyer covered three continents, more than 23,000 miles in 170 days.

On the 35th day of the race, the Flyer came to Nevada. On the way to Ely, the Flyer stampeded several bands of wild horses. Outside of Tonopah, the Flyer suffered one of its most serious breakdowns - one that almost ended the quest.

"On March 19, they crossed a steep bank and the chassis twisted from the strain and that cracked the transmission case," Frady said. "They were 75 miles from Tonopah. George Schuster got what he described as a flea-bitten horse for $20 and set out for Tonopah. Along the way, he stopped at a ranch, and they gave him shelter and a lean-to. Then, some people drove in from Tonopah, looking for the Flyer, knowing that it was on route. They met Schuster and took him by car into Tonopah. There was a doctor in town who had a Flyer, and he gave his transmission to Schuster.

"They went back and repaired the car," Frady said. "At 11 the next night, the Flyer got to Tonopah, where the town was cheering and staying up for them."

The potential for heightened interest in the Great Race could mean a boost in museum visitors, Frady said. The staff also is compiling a coffee-table book about the Flyer and the Great Race, which should be published in the spring.

"The fact that we are having this yearlong exhibit will draw people to the museum to see this car," Frady said. "This car has a legendary history, and people will want to see it."

The exhibit is an example of a new strategy to lure visitors to Reno with "historical tourism," said Michael Thomas, marketing director for the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority.

"It has been an increasing focus for us to go after the niche of the travel industry that we call cultural heritage or historic tourism," Thomas said. "People love to go and experience a destination that is rooted in history, and this is an example of a piece of history that actually came through Nevada on its route."

On the Net: National Automobile Museum: http://www.automuseum.org/

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)