After taking a break from driving through North Carolina, Neal Patton stood near his shiny 1954 Bentley at Sampson’s Agri-Expo Center and observed the other classics glistening in the sun.
“There are some magnificent automobiles here,” he said with a smile. “A lot of these guys and ladies have been doing this for a long time.”
For the first time, Neal is participating in The Great Race, a nine-day competition based on precision driving and navigational skills. The route goes from Maine to Florida. Thursday it made a stop in Clinton.
The Jackson, Miss. driver is being assisted by his wife, Cheryl,a navigator.
“It’s a challenge that I don’t kill my wife and she doesn’t kill me; we just argue,” he said with a chuckle. “It’s just like a day at home.”
In 2013, the race came through Vicksburg, Miss. They decided to give it a try this year in their antique vehicle.
“We went over and saw it and caught the bug,” he said. “It’s a great hobby, plus you get to see the countryside.”
Neal enjoyed being in the company of the antique car owners and the camaraderie that comes along with it. Some of it was shown after they had mechanical problems.
“Everybody got together and helped so we can stay in the race,” Neal said.
Close to 100 drivers like Neal are being challenged to make it first to the Sunshine State. The Grand Champion of the 2014 event will win $50,000 and the total purse will be $150,000. In order to win, the teams are required to navigate a course set by officials of The Great Race.
Bryan Groudge, the emcee also known as “Motormouth,” welcomed the drivers and the navigator as they arrived at the Expo Center.
“It’s just been an amazing afternoon,” Groudge said about stopping in Clinton.
He said the teams receive the satisfaction of participating in a challenging competition.
“It’s nine days of rallying,” Groudge said. “We rally every morning, every afternoon. They have to stay on display at every night venue and then they have to go to their hotels, work on their cars, get rested and do it all over again.”
Broudge said another benefit is seeing America. For about three decades, drivers have passed through many states.
“This hospitality here in Clinton and Sampson County has just been amazing,” he said. “The drivers and navigators are thrilled that we stopped here.”
Third-year driver Tabetha Hammer and rookie navigator Samantha Bonter, are one of two all-female teams in the race. Their vehicle is a 1964 ½ Ford Mustang coupe.
“For the last couple of years, I’ve been a part of the only female team in the race,” Hammer said. “It’s pretty awesome to see other women involved and competing in it. Hopefully in the next couple of years we’ll see more female teams.”
Their vehicle was restored by fellow employees of Hagerty, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the vehicle.
“Now we’re putting some miles on it,” she said.
Hammer said it’s a phenomenal event.
“There’s truly nothing like it,” she said about The Great Race. “It’s one the bizarre and interesting events that I’ve done in my life. It’s exciting and it’s thrilling.”
As the cars began to leave the parking lot, Neal put his key into his ignition and fired up the engine.
“We got to run,” Neal said.
Vendors, a Sampson car show and some great music filled the Expo parking lot before, and after, the race, giving locals a hometown feel for the national event that came to town.
Organizers called the event a success and thanked all those who participated.