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Great 1908 race lives on with great-grandson's help; Great grandson helps great 1908 race live on

Jeff Mahl's life has threaded through his great-grandfather George Schuster's story since he was 14 and earned an A-plus for a school paper about the race his Great Gramp won driving a Buffalo-made car around the world in 1908.

Back then there were no paved interstates, snowplows or road maps and Schuster, a 35-year-old mechanic, drove through Siberia navigating by the stars and a sextant he made himself.

Mahl, who will perform the story with a multimedia show at 5:30 p.m. Friday in the Pierce Arrow Museum, remembers riding his bicycle two miles from his house in Springville to sit on the porch with his great-grandfather and listen to his stories.

Schuster's tales were like listening to a modern Homer's Odyssey. He told of outwitting Siberian bandits, driving along railroad tracks, how the Italian team fixed a broken bearing by melting down bullets and of keeping a baby shoe stuffed with a silk American flag so people would know where to send the body if he died.

"I would hear the story more than once," said Mahl, whose performance includes wearing a "duster" driving coat and going into character as his Great Gramp. "When you're talking about an epic journey like that, it has a flow to it."

Mahl's show "New York to Paris: 1908 and 2011" follows a free, old-fashioned car hullabaloo today just outside the museum at the corner of Michigan and Seneca streets. A fleet of 92 vintage cars ā€” from a 1916 bright red Hudson Hillclimber to a red-orange 1938 Ford coupe and a cream 1966 Dodge Challenger ā€” will roll by as part of the annual competition called the "Great Race" that was inspired by the one Schuster won driving a "Thomas Flyer" made at a Niagara Street E.R. Thomas Motor Car Co. factory, where Rich Products is now.

At 3 p.m. hot dogs, sausages and drinks will be for sale near the big, inflatable "finish" line by the museum. By 4 p.m. one of the race sponsors, Corky Coker, owner of an antique Coker tire company, will tell the story of the original "Great Race" and Buffalo's connection. At 5 p.m., the old cars will start to end the day's leg of the race.

The modern race feels like a combination of Schuster's amazing trek and the 1965 Blake Edwards comedy "The Great Race," a movie based on the original race, said race director Jeff Stumb, speaking by phone from Travers City, Mich., where the race started last week.

"The 1908 race around the world is a feat they accomplished 100 years ago you couldn't even do today. There were no roads," said Stumb, who drove the route last year. "We did have a moose jump out in front of us near Elliott Lake, Ont. Stride for stride, he actually kept up with the car, and it was actually quite amusing."

Museum founder Jim Sandoro would like the convergence he helped arrange, of old cars and a great story, to encourage people to visit the collection of Buffalo-made cars, carriages and even a golf cart at his Pierce Arrow Museum, where workers have been assembling a giant red wheel design over the doorway.

Mahl, the "Great Race" and its Buffalo story should serve as a reminder, said Sandoro, of "how great we were and how great we could still be."

Unlike the 1908 race, this summer's "Great Race" cars tabulate the times, measuring from one landmark to another as they aim for a $120,000 prize in a nine-day journey around the Great Lakes set to end Sunday.

When Schuster reached the Paris finish line the evening of July 30, 1908, people jammed a boulevard. After the 169-day trip, the Thomas Flyer's speedometer was broken, the car had driven an estimated 13,341 miles and cars that had been considered playthings for the rich had a new workmanlike public image.

Schuster's version of his story appeared in the January 1963 issue of Reader's Digest. He set off from Times Square on Feb. 12, after a telegram from work the day before: "Be in New York in the morning. Your salary will be doubled to $50 a week."

The Thomas Flyer, with no windshield and an open top, was a last-minute entry at a time when American cars didn't have as good a reputation as the Europeans in the race: Yet two French cars broke down and dropped out. A third French owner sold his. Germans finished first but were disqualified for crossing part of the U.S. by train. The Italians arrived in September.

Schuster, who ingeniously used blacksmith tools to weld stumps on a stripped gear, made the journey with a New York Times reporter who sent story dispatches by carrier pigeon, another Thomas mechanic and a Norwegian sea captain who had lived in Siberia and left a French team after a falling out.

Mahl, who is thin and tan, has a wiry energy he uses to play his great-grandfather as a youthful mechanic. At the Pierce Arrow Museum, he admired a 1908 Thomas car on loan and similar to the one Schuster drove.

"Isn't that a beauty?" he said, admiring the car with gleaming brass trim. In spite of its fame, by about 1913, Thomas Car went bankrupt. At about $6,500, the cars cost more than a house. Close to the same time, Ford's cheaper $400 Model Ts had taken off.

Schuster went on to work for Pierce Arrow and, later, opened a Dodge dealership and moved to Springville.

Mahl's personal "Great Race" journey, which includes the website www.thegreatautorace.com and giving his presentation a few times a year, started two decades ago after a successful talk at the Buffalo Historical Society.

"As I went on," he said, "I began to realize that this was a story that was important to preserve."

He grew up the oldest son of a farmer and has a younger sister who lives in Springville, Jennifer Burkhalter. He and his brother Matt once ran an auto parts store in Springville. Mahl will consider his life's work complete if one day, people think of the "Great Race" not for the slapstick movie with a great pie fight, but for the world's record for a long-distance car race still held by his great-grandfather, a gentle man with a dry sense of humor.

"Great Gramp, I don't think fully realized the significance of the victory," Mahl said. "For him, it was part of his job."

email: mkearns@buffnews.com

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Event preview

Buffalo Transportation/Pierce Arrow Museum, 263 Michigan Ave. Museum admission is $10 adults, $5 children. Call 853-0084 or visit www.pierce-arrow.com.

"Great Race" events start outside ?the museum at 3 p.m. today; the first of 92 autos are expected to arrive at ?5 p.m., continuing to 6:30 p.m.; free.

Jeff Mahl presents "New York to Paris: 1908 and 2011," a multimedia show at 5:30 p.m. Friday; $20.