The knock on the office door of Ken Wallace’s Valley Chevrolet dealership came 20 years ago.
But the way he remembers the story, that meeting with former Times Leader publisher Dale Duncan may as well have come 20 minutes ago.
“They came to me about the Great American Race,” Wallace said. “I thought they just wanted money from me to sponsor it. Here, they wanted to put a car into it.
“And wanted me to drive it!”
What happened with a six-man crew from the Wyoming Valley during a two-week trek across the country 20 years ago drove Wallace to the brink of frustration, exasperation and ultimately, elation.
And it still drives some of his fondest memories to this day.
“I said, ‘Oh, sure, I have all the time in the world to do this,’ ” Wallace said, describing his initial response to the offer. “I have five car dealerships, a 1-year-old (child), a 5-year-old, a son (Kenny Jr.) racing in NASCAR (on the Busch Grand National circuit).’ But I ended up committing to it. What I thought was going to be a $500 sponsorship probably ended up to be a $75,000 deal. But no regrets.
“I loved it.”
So did more than 30,000 fans who congregated in Kirby Park to greet the finish of a race that captivated a community.
“That was a big deal in this area,” Wallace said.
It was the final destination for a Wallace-driven car that was sponsored by The Times Leader and crossed the entire country in 1994 during a road rally for antique automobiles called The Great American Race — an annual event that had twice previously visited Wilkes-Barre and finally ended up there.
That was the year Wallace, his navigator Mickey Cohen and a four-man mechanical support crew coaxed a 1940 Chevy Special Deluxe convertible named the “Spirit of Northeastern PA” through a 4,250-mile journey that began in Huntington Beach, Calif. on June 19, 1994, and finished in Kirby Park on July 2. It was the only time the event ended in the Wyoming Valley.
“Has it really been 20 years?” asked Cohen, a Kingston landlord whose expert directions and calculations propelled the Spirit to an eighth-place overall finish in the race.
Eric Lippi, a Wyoming business owner who was a mechanic on that Spirit crew, and many other Spirit team members expressed similar surprise that so much time’s gone by since their cross-country run. They believe those two weeks in the summer of 1994 are still at a standstill in their minds, even as time keeps flashing forward.
“Just the sights,” said Joe Anusiewicz, a Parsons resident and the Spirit’s crew chief. “Everything that you saw, when you’re away from the touristy areas — the local people, different areas and different states, it was just a truly amazing thing.”
Mesmerizing is more like it — and right from the race’s start.
Four stealth bombers flew overhead as the race opened from the pier on Huntington Beach.
“I never saw a stealth bomber before in my life,” said Wallace, a Dallas resident who is now semi-retired from the Valley Chevrolet dealership he still owns. “They were just coming out with stealth bombers then.”
And the Eddie Cochran weekend during a lunch stop in Albert Lea, Minnesota, certainly tickled his fancy.
“That,” Wallace said, “was a memory.”
Lippi counted the off-day layover in St. Paul, Minnesota, as one of his favorites.
“The Mall of America was there,” he said. “You got to see a lot of places in the country and a lot of different things you wouldn’t normally see.”
Cohen took a special liking to the laid-back demeanor and gracious hospitality of Midwestern folks as the race became a big deal in remote towns across the country.
“On a lot of the stops, there was always a group greeting us there,” Cohen said, “providing us with all kinds of goodies. All the folks were overly friendly.”
Dave Daris, a backup driver on the race, saw the faces of four presidents etched in stone as a moving moment.
“Mount Rushmore was pretty impressive,” said Daris, also from Dallas. “Somewhere in Northern California, we saw a former gold-digging area. Most of the stops, mid-morning, mid-afternoon, were all designed to be in very interesting places.”
Of course, what happened just before the race’s start caught everyone’s interest.
As a prelude to the event, drivers and navigators along with their teams were invited to a tour of the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk, stationed in Coronado, California. Afterward, the Spirit crew headed back up California’s Interstate 10 on the way back to their Huntington Beach Hotel.
Smack in the middle of O.J. Simpson’s low-speed Ford Bronco chase on that highway following the grisly double-slaying of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.
“All the overpasses on the highway had people waving and carrying on,” Daris said. “I thought it was for us. I got back to the hotel and realized it was for the white Bronco.”
The trip included some white-knuckle nights.
The Spirit suffered through a rebuilt transmission, trying engine problems and a Wyoming wind shear that blew it off a sweep truck after a faulty generator stalled the car well short of the finish line on the fifth day.
“The first couple days, we had a lot of breakdowns — timers, lifters,” said Frank Wallace of Sweet Valley, who is Ken’s brother and was a mechanic on the Spirit team. “So we didn’t get much sleep. It was a lot of hard work. But the end result was pretty incredible.”
In the car, Ken Wallace and Cohen delivered three fantastic finishes, while coming within seconds of matching pre-determined “perfect” times — the time race officials designated it should take to get from one point to the next and which racers tried to match during each stage of the event.
The pair also ran most of the race dangerously close to being eliminated, since a second day of night finishing would knock them out of contention.
“I never had any thoughts of any scenario that would cause this trip to be discontinued prematurely,” Cohen insisted.
Still, the car’s daily ebbs and flows created growing suspense back home.
The Spirit’s soaring success in the daily race standings and pesky problems under the hood had its followers from the Wyoming Valley wondering.
Would the car collapse at any moment? Would it wind up winning the whole race?
“The local people have a great interest in cars,” said Cohen, who participated in a slew of auto and motorcycle races before and since. “The race was attractive, because you had a very well-known businessman in the area as a driver and a local, rally-experienced driver as the navigator. All the press was interested to see if we would do such a good job in a national event like the Great American Race.”
They crossed the finish line at Kirby Park to finish among the top eight, and create a memories that have lasted for decades.
“The Market Street Bridge was jammed with people,” Ken Wallace said. “I think people were following us. The people were really into seeing how we were succeeding or how we were screwing up. My father (now deceased), he was so proud to be at Kirby Park that day with his Valley Chevrolet hat on. Even to this day, I have customers who come in and they say, ‘Do you remember doing the Great American Race?’”
How can he forget?
Really, how can any of them?
“What would be bigger than that that ever happened here?” Ken Wallace wondered. “Of all the things I’ve done in my life — and over the past 20 years, I’ve been around the world — this is such a great part of my life.