Durham men travel to France for vintage car rally

jprice@newsobserver.comJanuary 25, 2014 

— Three friends from Durham traveled to Europe last week for a gentlemen’s adventure and are now trying to nurse a 52-year-old vintage car through a five-day rally among the icy mountains (and vineyards) of western France.

Duke neurologist Donald Sanders is mainly the navigator in a 1961 Alfa Romeo Giulietta TI during the Rallye Monte-Carlo Historique, though he may do some of the driving. Helping man a support car for the Alfa is fellow Duke neurologist Mark Skeen and Cliff Cox, who works at the Durham Herald-Sun newspaper. The driver and owner of the rally car is an English friend of Sanders, Jon Dooley.

It is among 314 cars entered, nearly all of them by British and European teams.

“It will be a challenge, but it will also be an opportunity to get together with a bunch of old guys with a lot of old cars and camaraderie and relive old events,” Sanders said last week.

The event is an homage to the history of the Monte Carlo Rally, a kind of race on public streets that’s put on by the same organizer, the Automobile Club de Monte Carlo, and has been run since 1911. In the Monte Carlo Rally, driver-navigator teams are timed along several stretches of roadway, with the navigator calling out detailed instructions from notes on the course. The timed segments are often unusually challenging, commonly run in wet, snowy or icy conditions.

A plan in place

The historical version of the rally covers many of the same sections of road that the rally has used over the years, but it’s all about precision rather than speed. On the 14 timed sections up to 50 kilometers long called “regularity runs,” the teams have to maintain precise – and legal – average speeds, as close as they can to whatever average speed they are assigned. A GPS tracker aboard each car will let the organizers determine how close they come to perfection.

Sanders, who is 75 and no longer practices neurology but still teaches and does research, said he thinks the average age of the participants will be about 70.

Sanders said that he will use everything from a special computer to route maps he has prepared in advance to help coach Dooley to hit the target speeds. He hopes that Dooley will do most of the driving, since he knows the car well and as a semi-professional driver in the 1980s was a regular winner in the British racing series for small sedans.

Trailing Dooley and Sanders in a station wagon will be the support team, which also will include a doctor from California and another English car enthusiast. They’ll have extra gas, spare tires and other parts, and ropes to pull the old Alfa out of ditches or tow it if something big breaks.

Teams started from six European cities, some Thursday and some Friday, and converged on the town of Die on Saturday. After a couple of timed sections, they’ll arrive in Valence on Sunday and make forays into the mountains for a couple of days before heading for Monaco where, after the finish, there will be a black-tie dinner.

Sanders left Monday night for England, where he helped Dooley finish preparing the car, then joined him in shepherding it through the Chunnel and into northern France to Rheims, just north of Paris. There they handled final touches for the start Friday, including putting on studded snow tires. Skeen and Cox followed on Wednesday, traveling directly to Rheims.

Car enthusiasts

They’re all car buffs. Sanders has a small collection of the quirky older Alfas, and Skeen is a high-performance driving instructor and races vintage BMWs. And they know how to work on cars. But they’re not quite sure what to expect, in part because they’ve never done the event, but also because of the conditions on the road and the age of the car, no matter how well-prepared.

“I’m hoping we won’t have to do a lot of major repairs, but some of the driving will be through the night, and we anticipate wet conditions and snow,” Skeen said. “We could have carburetor issues just because the elevation changes quite a lot, but beyond that, I hope anything that happens is just regular stuff like flat tires.”

Late-night starts for some legs of the event, and the distinct possibility of breakdowns, could make it grueling. But still, they will be in France. In wine country. With a bunch of other car buffs.

“To me, it’s an opportunity to get together with a bunch of of people from other countries who like cars and socialize,” Skeen said. “I think we’ll have a blast. I don’t know exactly what kind of blast, but I know it will be a blast.

It can’t really go wrong, Sanders said.

“One way or the other, we’ll have fun,” he said. “Even if we break down, we’ll be among friends.”

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