Great Race comes to Holtville

June 22, 2002|By TIM YANNI

Staff Writer

When Ken Smith served with John Swett in the U.S. Army during World War II, neither knew where their camaraderie would take them.

Smith of Tucson and Swett of Mount Carmel, Ill., served and fought together in the Battle of the Bulge, were captured together and were held in a German prison camp together. Today they share the hobby of vintage car racing.

Smith jokingly referred to himself as "just the dumb driver" and Swett as the "smart navigator" as they made their stop in Holtville as the 20th Anniversary Great Race came through the Imperial Valley on Friday.


"We lost track of each other for 45 years," Smith said. "We reunited at a reunion of the 106th infantry division in 1989," he explained, adding that the decision to enter the vintage car races came when the two made a trip to Europe a few years back.

Smith said he drove while Swett gave him directions and the idea just clicked.

"He was doing such a good job, I thought he'd make a good navigator," Smith said of his buddy. "We decided if we were going to do it, we were going to do it in a Jeep," he added, explaining why the two chose an old Army Jeep as their vehicle.

"We found the jeep in a junk yard in Houston," Smith said. "We spent 14 months restoring it."

"This is a new adventure for us," Swett said. "In the Army, we never had anything like this."

Swett said he and Smith are competing in the Great Race for the third time, and they enter their Jeep in races around the West.

"It takes a powerful vehicle and a very accurate speedometer," Swett said, adding stamina and patience are also essential.

The Great Race, which was making a stop in Holtville en rout from San Antonio to Anaheim, is an annual event featuring more than 100 vintage cars and a combined prize package of $250,000.

The stamina and patience Swett spoke of are necessary because of the limitation of what racers can have on board.

Drivers are limited to an analog clock and a speedometer and they are required to arrive at checkpoints along the way at a specified time in order to earn a good score. The specified time allows for traffic signals and the speed limit, which drivers are not supposed to exceed.

"It's fun and I hope we can do it forever," the 77-year-old Swett said.

"It's a grueling process," Smith said of the race. He said his best strategy for competing with the heat of driving through the desert is "just suck it up and keep going."

"When you're this dumb, you've got to be tough," Smith said, noting that air conditioning is not permitted in the vehicles.

Swett, who claims he is a third generation "car nut," said he really enjoys having Smith at his side again and he said races like the Great Race help keep him busy.

"I've always been interested in automobiles," Swett said.

The stop in Holtville included a performance by the U.S. Navy Ceremonial Band and a patriotic theme of American flags and red, white and blue balloons.

"I came out here and I thought it was just going to be a car show," said Sandra Martinez of Calexico. "It turned out to be a whole lot more."

Martinez said she was impressed by the cars and drivers in attendance.

"There's a lot of Americana here," Martinez said. "It's an old-fashioned, small-town scene."

The Great Race, which began June 15, made its way through the Imperial Valley and concluded in Anaheim on Saturday.

Results were not available by presstime Saturday night.

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