You do not want to tangle with Mt. Washington, in central New Hampshire. The highest wind speed ever recorded on Earth was on top of Mt. Washington – a gust of 231 miles per hour.
Its height is 6,288 feet, the highest mountain in the northeast U.S. It has some of the worst weather in the world, and over 150 people have been killed on the mountain, mostly through falls, hypothermia and skiing accidents.
Surprisingly, only three have died driving on the steep, narrow, twisting eight-mile Auto Road that goes to the top.
One who died was a passenger in 1880 in a stagecoach which overturned, due to a drunken driver. Another was a woman in 1984 when her brakes failed. The last was a motorcyclist in 2009 who went off the road and hit a tree.
Lots of vehicles are banned from even attempting Mt. Washington, including Lincoln Continentals, Acuras, Hondas and Saturns made before 2009 – due to brakes that tend to overheat – and H-1 Hummers, dually pickups, large trucks, RVs, trailers and any vehicles more than 85 inches wide. Even cars with overweight passengers (over 900 pounds total in a standard vehicle) may be banned! No mopeds, scooters or bicycles are allowed.
The road is truly terrifying in places, since there are no guardrails of any kind, in some places, there are 1000-foot cliffs, and there is a two-mile-long slippery gravel stretch.
Passing any car headed in the opposite direction on the narrow road is alarming, and scraping past an oncoming car when your wheels are an inch from the edge of a cliff is absolutely horrifying.
But all that did not stop about 25 intrepid Great Race participants from attempting the mountain, an optional leg on the 2018 rally.
At least three cars had minor problems, due to engine overheating or brake issues, but there was only one major incident that was almost deadly, and it would have been the first fatal accident in the 33-year history of the Great Race –probably the safest motoring event on Earth.
Team Henderson, consisting of driver Scott Henderson and daughter/navigator Mallory, made it up Mt. Washington and visited the gift shop and museum on top. The Henderson family owns a prosperous lumber business and auto museum in Mobile, Alabama.
They headed down the mountain in their beautifully restored aqua 1964½ Ford Mustang, ahead of their friends Carl Schneider and Jack Juratovic in their 1955 Buick Estate wagon, and behind a large modern SUV.
The Buick’s brakes suddenly failed, and the car accelerated uncontrollably down the steep gravel road. Buick navigator Juratovic called out “No brakes” as they passed the Mustang on the strictly-no-passing road. Driver Schneider in the Buick realized that he had to slow or stop the Buick, or else they would go off a cliff ahead, so he intentionally drove his classic station wagon into a large hillock of stone, going about 35 mph.
At first, this seemed to work, as the car reared into the air and slowed, but then the car lurched onto its right side and started to slide down the gravel road on its side.
Before it could stop, the Buick hit a small bump and flopped back onto its wheels, then started rolling again. Now there was nothing in front of the Buick except a cliff edge, about 100 feet away, and still no brakes.
Back in the Mustang, Mallory Henderson had been yelling, “Oh my God, Daddy, they’re going to hit!”
Scott Henderson realized what was happening and raced ahead of the Buick as it hit the rocks, rolled over, flopped back,and started its deadly roll again.
Henderson quickly turned his Mustang left into the stone hillock and blocked the Buick, which collided at low speed with the Mustang’s left rear quarter and finally stopped. Two lives and a classic Buick were saved.
Amazingly, after the Buick’s brakes were repaired, both cars were fully driveable and made it down the mountain unassisted. That’s Detroit metal for you!
Henderson was the hero of the day and was deservedly given the Tom McRae Spirit of the Event Award at the 2018 Great Race closing ceremony in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Tragically, Henderson died of cancer just months later, in October 2018. His funeral cortege consisted of over 200 cars, including many classic cars and Great Racers.
Lew and Susan Toulmin rallied their 1968 “Bullitt” Mustang in the 2005 Great Race from Washington, DC to Tacoma, Washington. They plan to drive the Mustang down the entire Blue Ridge Parkway and Natchez Trace to Mississippi and Alabama in 2020.