Northwest motor racing history was made last month when for the first time a woman won the prestigious Montana 500. Nan Robison, of Spokane Valley, took the checkered flag in the 50th running of the three-day event.
“It’s the dream of a lifetime,” said Robison, who drove to victory in her bright yellow 1925 roadster, Tweety Bird.
The Montana 500, which has been run annually since 1961, is a race for stock Model T Fords and is thought to be the only timed race for speed held on public roads in the United States. “Speed” is relative, however: Only five of the 80-plus-year-old cars averaged over 50 mph this year.
But any thrill missing in the Montana 500’s speed is more than made up for by the narrowness of its margins. After three days of racing, Robison was less than three minutes ahead of the runner-up, her brother Tom Carnegie, and three-tenths of a mile per hour faster.
“The tiniest detail can make all the difference,” said racer Mark Hutchinson, of Spokane. “At the end of day one, I was three seconds behind the car ahead of me. Squeezing a fraction of a mile per hour more from my T or straightening a few corners would make up for that.”
But even the most meticulous strategizing can’t account for one unpredictable factor: the Model T itself.
“They’re just cantankerous,” said Mike Robison, a Spokane-based racer and son of Nan Robison. And he’d know: A mechanic, he specializes in Model T’s at the Antique Auto Ranch, the Spokane Valley shop owned by Carnegie. Carnegie himself fell victim to the Model T’s personality in the race’s final miles.
“My mom and I passed Tom pulling a large hill on the way into Missoula,” Robison said of his uncle, who was leading the race. “His car had no power, and he got passed by five drivers on the last leg.” In true Model T fashion, the car worked perfectly post-race. That irony doesn’t bother Carnegie.
“I’m very happy with the final results,” he said following the race. “I built the car that Nan drove to win, but having a good car is only half the battle. You still have to drive it to its potential, and she did. I’m really proud of my sister.”
Though many features of the Montana 500 have remained the same over the years, one difference is unmistakable. Whereas early drivers were almost all Montanans, Spokane-based racers now dominate the field, with 10 of this year’s 17 drivers hailing from the area. The reason for this phenomenon: Carnegie and the Antique Auto Ranch. Besides providing unbridled enthusiasm for racing Model T’s, Carnegie offers the Spokane racers access to his shop, tools, expertise and, often, his cars themselves. And the T racers respond in kind, competing fiercely on race day, but pulling out all the stops to help each other compete.
“It’s truly a community,” said Hutchinson.
By today’s standards, Model T’s seem quaint. So it’s easy to forget that they were, in many ways, groundbreaking.
“The Model T was the real deal,” Carnegie said. “It was a car years ahead of its time and absolutely full of innovations.”
One of those innovations was the basis for something Americans do without even thinking: drive on the right-hand side of the road. Ford’s decision to make the Model T left-hand drive – a first in a mass-produced American car – proved instantly popular, and was copied immediately by other American automakers.
Two of the original Montana 500 competitors were on hand for the 2010 race, including its founder, Ed Towe, of Sierra Vista, Ariz., who served as grand marshal. At 96, he no longer drives, but he waved the green and checkered flags to begin and end each day’s racing.
“For years, guys all over Montana were holding informal local races with their T’s,” he recalled. “I got the idea to put on one big race across the state.” One of the goals of the first Montana 500, said Towe, was to test the endurance of the cars. It was a test the Model T continues to pass, as does the Montana 500 itself.