ARLINGTON – Back home after finishing the 36-day Peking to Paris Motor Challenge, an Arlington doctor and his teammate say they met their share of adversity from behind the wheel in the world’s most grueling vintage car rally.
But the mechanical problems, aches and sleep deprivation they endured on their 10,000-mile odyssey are nothing compared to the pain and suffering that polio has wrought in the world.
Polio and its eradication was the cause that fueled Lee Harmon and longtime friend Bill Ward as they drove a 1938 Model A Ford Victoria – named “Miss Vicky,” competing in the vintage car category.
“We took this car on a 10,000 mile journey to prove a point,” Harmon said, addressing fellow Arlington Rotarians at a presentation last week on World Polio Day. “That point was to raise public awareness, and make people aware of what Rotary has done.”
Rotary raised $120 million over three years in the early ’80s, helping inoculate 160 million kids at 650,000 vaccination booths, and it’s still helping.
World Polio Day, health experts announced that wild poliovirus type 3 has been eradicated worldwide, following the elimination of smallpox and the type 2 strain in 2015. The World Health Organization said while the three immunologically distinct polio strains are identical in that they cause irreversible paralysis or death, targeting humankind’s most vulnerable, each must be eradicated individually through surveillance and vaccination.
“The journey to eliminate polio has been rough, too, and yet we continue, and the end is in sight,” said Harmon, who serves as PolioPlus chairman for District 5050 that extends from Everett to member clubs north of the U.S.-Canada border.
Harmon estimates they raised around $50,000 through the Rotary Foundation, an amount that will be tripled by the Gates Foundation, meaning that they and Miss Vicky will have contributed $150,000 toward polio eradication.
These were not easy miles for Harmon of Camano Island and his buddy Bill Ward of Olympia, who nicknamed themselves the “Co-conspirators.”
Harmon said there aren’t enough superlatives to describe the odyssey.
“From awesome to unbelievable to life-changing to fearsome to frightful,” Harmon said. “Every emotion, it was there. You just couldn’t avoid it.”
From June 2 to July 7 the pair sat shoulder to shoulder in their little car, traversing some of the harshest country known to man. Their journey took them through unending plains on sometimes mud-covered farm tracks, treacherous mountain passes, blistering hot deserts, and the occasional goat herds or cows blocking the road.
Harmon said the racers stayed each night in plush hotels or camped in tents on grassy fields in Mongolia, with food and cultural entertainment coordinated by rally organizers.
“When Bill and I set out, we had two goals in mind: We want to get to Paris under our own power, and we still want to be friends at the end of it,” Harmon said.
Harmon figures they averaged about 280 miles per day.
Participants didn’t have road signs to guide them. They had “Tulip” tour books that gave them directions where to turn and landmarks to look for down to the minutest detail, and hazards to watch for such as rickety bridges with loose or missing boards, challenging dirt tracks up and over hills, rivers and, at times, oncoming or crossing traffic. A scout car stayed a day or two ahead of the racers, dispatching updated bulletins for changes in the tour books.
Potholes and ruts in the road did their share of damage to Miss Vicky on several occasions, Harmon said.
He pointed out two situations that could have ended the race for them: a broken fuel line and fatigue.
The broken fuel line shot fuel beneath the hood that could have exploded, but they were able to repair it.
Fatigue was more tied to human error. Harmon and Ward worked long shifts taking turns driving.
At one point, Ward shook Harmon, who had dozed off at the wheel and was drifting over the centerline.
Harmon heard Ward say, “Bear to the right, Lee, if you would.”
“I woke up and saw a big eighteen-wheeler coming at us,” Harmon said. He corrected his course and everything turned out fine.
Harmon marveled at the kindness and generosity he came across mingling with different cultures. In particular, the Mongolian and Russian people were eager to meet the racers, photograph the cars and have them sign rally books.
In Ufa, Russia, they stopped by a Ford Dealership for maintenance. “The crew finished their work. They wouldn’t allow us to pay, despite strong efforts on our part, saying, ‘Your Miss Vicky is a car with soul.’”
Harmon said he came away from the race with several life lessons.
“People are friendly the world over, people want to live happy, carefree lives, the world is a beautiful place, and I’m absolutely convinced the world needs fewer politicians,” he said.
Harmon befriended several of the competitors who hailed from all corners of the globe, and knew each other. He referenced the Larksters, or people who did the race on a lark who were wealthy and adventurous but not mechanically-minded; the rookies like himself and Ward; the Rallyists who had been on other rallies; and the Rally Lifers, rich enthusiasts who have made rallies their lifestyle, joining in two or three a year.
In all, 120 vehicles left the starting line in Peking; 103 made it to Paris, but only 21 arrived under their own power – never towed or in need of transport in a flatbed truck.
“I’m happy to report that we were one of the twenty-one,” Harmon said. They finished 4th in their vintage subclass, and 18th out of 31 in the Vintage group.
The rally kicked off at the Great Wall featuring dancers and Chinese dragons moving to traditional music.
Harmon and Ward shared the road with challengers driving custom and vintage cars including Porsche 911s, Bentleys, Rolls Royces, Mercedes Benzs, Fords, Volvos, Datsun 240Zs, Alfa Romeos and others.
The route took them through China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Finland, the Baltic States, Poland, Germany, Belgium and France. Another way to view it is in three legs driving through Asia, the middle section of Russia and the Baltics, and wrapping up in Western Europe.
During the rally, the team wracked up their share of mishaps.
Harmon said they had to repair a blown tire and two ruptured hydraulic brake lines. The second time Miss Vicky went airborne, the auto body separated from the wooden subframe. In addition, mud shorted out spark plugs that caused the ignition to fail, and the car to labor on two cylinders. The tailpipe snapped off after hitting a big rock, and they fixed a leaky head gasket using silicon window caulking they picked up in a Russian hardware store.
They also experienced a broken axle, and used a “bush fix,” removing the wheel and tightening the axle daily before taking off. When a water pump failed, they kept putting water in until Paris, where the roads were gridlocked. They got stuck without water and had to replace it with a spare, Harmon said.
Among mishaps, Ward lost his phone in Kazakhstan as well as the keys to Miss Vicky, and someone snatched Harmon’s cell phone on his last day in Paris.
The winner was 87-year-old Australian Gerry Crown and his navigator Matt Bryson claiming their third victory, in Crown’s 1974 Leyland P76. In the Vintage category, Brits Graham and Marina Goodwin took the honors in their 1925 Bentley Super Sports car.
If you had asked Harmon the week after Miss Vicky rolled across the finish line in Paris whether he would do the rally again, he would have gave an emphatic “no. It was very, very tough.”
“I would go to Mongolia in a heartbeat,” he said. “I reckon Mongolia looks a lot like Montana did a hundred and fifty years ago. Extremely gorgeous. And I would like to go back to St. Petersburg, too.”
But four months later, there’s a twinkle in his eye and a restlessness in his legs to give a rally other than the Peking to Paris a go.
“I’m sniffing the bait again,” he said.
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