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Willy Jeep racers return to Bantam

Driver Adam Schultz, right, and co-pilot Steve Girard, of Wisconsin, winners in the 2023 Epic Willys Adventure Jeep race, Rusty Trombone, No. 68 with hold up their trophies Saturday, June 17, at the Bantam Quarry in Portersville. Laura Welsh/Special to the Eagle
Rusty Trombone wins 2023 EWA Concord Cup

PORTERSVILLE — Racers from the 2023 Epic Willys Adventure returned to Bantam Quarry following a rugged road trip that saw them through the back-roads of five states in New England. Team Rusty Trombone, manned by Steve Girard and Adam Schultz of Wisconsin, won the coveted Concord Cup.

“It just feels amazing. After this many days bouncing around in that old Jeep, it’s just nice to get out. It’s one of those things where sometimes it’s hard when you’re in it, but when you’re done, you’re like, ‘Wow. I did that,” said Girard, a three-time participant.

Nine racers departed Butler on June 11. They were welcomed back by dozens of volunteers at Kildoo Road about a week later on Sunday, June 17.

Racers hit hundreds of miles of back roads each day on the multi-day competition.

What drives someone to drive thousands of miles in a relic of Jeep history?

For Epic Willys Adventure co-founder Phil Norvold, it’s “the spirit of adventure, seeing a new part of the country, the love of a machine as well as being able to build new relationships.”

This year’s event proved a new experience for participants and organizers alike of the Epic Willys Adventure race.

“Usually, we’re out West where you have a lot more road and a lot less people,” Norvold said. “It’s tighter quarters in New England.”

“This is also the first time that we’ve done a race-style event,” he said. “It was just close friends. This is the first year that we opened it up to the public to allow anybody that wants to enter to enter. And so we were able to get several kinds of contestants that way, which was fun.”

The rules are laid out before registration: no GPS, no cellphones and no interstate roads. Instead, drivers and their co-navigators relied on maps, road signs and clear heads to keep track of their mileage as they drove vintage-era military vehicles off the beaten paths. In the evenings, racers camped out in their Jeeps.

Racers drove through Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, said Tony Colangeli, vice president of Bantam’s board of directors.

To qualify for the race, they could only modify their old Willy jeeps in ways that would be true to the time period in which they were designed. These were models from the 1940s, ’50s and early ‘60s, said Bill Ringeisen, manager of the Jeep Heritage Festival history exhibit.

When it comes to cars, there is a caveat to historical accuracy.

“These are old military Jeeps. They can’t go more than 30 — 40 miles per hour,” said Patti Jo Lambert, founding director of the Bantam Jeep Heritage Festival.

“They were built for power, not speed,” Ringeisen said.

Navigating the route

Drivers averaged about 220 miles a day, Girard said, while some days were longer.

While they couldn’t rely on GPS, racers had trackers on their cars. They could post social media updates in the evenings, Colangeli said. Online, fans could follow the racers on the route and check the leaderboard.

For each checkpoint, landmark crossed and picture taken, racers received points that propped them up higher on the virtual leaderboard. Virtual points were physically translated into “gold doubloons” that were given to racers each evening, said racer Scott Gilbert of Cincinnati.

“The race is not only trying to do the navigation without the GPS … it’s a race scavenger hunt. So you’re having to do all kinds of things to accumulate points,” said racer Joe Deyoung of Madison, Wis.

Gilbert and Deyoung came in second place. Their Jeep brandished their team name — Roos Racer — in honor of Delmar Gerle “Barney” Roos, legendary chief engineer at Willys-Overland Motors, who was responsible for overseeing the design of the military Willys MB.

“At the end of the day, we’re camping and hanging out, telling stories … it was awesome, the Camaraderie, the competition,” Deyoung said.

“We got to see all the country,” Gilbert said.

From left, Kellie Rea, of Slippery Rock, and Tony Colangeli and Enzo Colangeli, both of Sarver, wait Saturday, June 17, for Jeep racers to return from the 2023 Epic Willys Adventure. The end of the race was at the Bantam Quarry in Portersville. Laura Welsh/Special to the Eagle

Chaser vehicles, holding camping gear and a camp kitchen, followed the racers along the route.

“We were in campgrounds — we slept right on the ground. We put up tents. We slept in the front yard of a Car Quest in some town, because they’re one of our sponsors,” Girard said. “Camped right out in the parking lot.”

While the chaser vehicle crew had access to GPS and could use their cellphones to navigate the roads, they couldn’t share the information with the racers, Colangeli said.

If the Jeeps took a wrong turn, the chaser vehicles followed. They got lost minutes into the race, Colangeli said.

Navigating by paper alone proved difficult for even the most seasoned drivers. Maps don’t list all the county roads, Girard noted.

“We were just winging it half the time,” Gilbert said.

“You have these written rules. No phones, no GPS. Now we have to record the mileage. We have to know how much mileage is to the next (stop),” he said. “Once you make a mistake, you have to undo it yourself.”

Sixteen participants originally registered for the race, but some dropped out, leaving nine to cross the starting line, Lambert said. Three were disqualified down the line for calling a “code red,” Norvold said. Calling the emergency number for a broken-down vehicle means the racers forfeit their points.

Two out of the three racers who called the emergency number were able to fix their vehicles and re-enter themselves back in the event. After calling the emergency number and managing to fix their Jeep, they would be able to continue along the route but would no longer be ranked for points, Norvold said.

The third racer who called the emergency number was not able to re-enter in the race.

“One just couldn’t fix itself,” Norvold said. A tow truck, carrying two Jeeps, was among the vehicles that returned to Bantam Quarry on Sunday.

Girard and Schultz, who won the Concord Cup, encountered their own share of obstacles.

“We had to fix the exhaust, and then periodically the starter button wouldn’t work, so I had to lay on the ground and go up there with a wire and cross some wires,” Girard said.

Norvold said that discussion around where the race might take place next year will open up with the completion of the 2023 Epic Willys Jeep Adventure. The route is based on “logistics and places we haven’t been before,” he said.

“We have an idea that we’d like to propose for next year,” Norvold said.

Winners of the Concord Cup, driver Adam Schultz, right, and co-pilot Steve Girard enjoy a drink out of the trophy Saturday, June 17, at the Bantam Quarry in Portersville. The team named the Rusty Trombone were first in the 2023 Epic Willys Adventure race. Laura Welsh/Special to the Butler Eagle
Jeep, Rusty Trombone, No. 68, center, with driver Adam Schultz and co-pilot Steve Girard, cheer as the cross the finish line Saturday, June 17, in first place. Behind them, in second place is, driver Joe Deyoung, of Wisconsin, and co-pilot Scott Gilbert, of Ohio, driving Roo's Racer, No. 00. Laura Welsh/Special to the Eagle
Driver Jonah Hodgking, right, and co-pilot John Vilbert, both of Missouri, come in seventh in the 2023 Epic Willys Adventure race. The endpoint was at the Bantam Quarry in Portersville. Laura Welsh/Special to the Eagle
Driver Jonah Hodgking, of Missouri, and co-pilot John Vilbert, of Missouri, kick up a little dust as the end the Epic Willys Adventure race Saturday. Laura Welsh/Special to the Butler Eagle
Second place finishers Joe Deyoung, left, of Wisconsin, and co-pilot Scott Gilbert, of Ohio, driving Roo's Racer, #00, smile as they reach the end of the race. Laura Welsh/Special to the Butler Eagle
Friends of the Bantam Jeep Association committee members, from left, Nick Colangeli, David Klein, Brian Rea and Betsy Pazehoski wait for Epic Willys Adventures racers to finish the race Saturday, June 17, in Portersville. Laura Welsh/Special to the Eagle
Enzo Colangeli, of Sarver, gets his Jeep ready Saturday, June 17, to welcome back participants in the Epic Willys Adventure event. Laura Welsh/Special to the Eagle
A group of Friends of Bantam Jeep Association members stand ready to welcome the Epic Willys Adventure racers back to end of the weeklong race Saturday, June 17, at the Bantam Quarry in Portersville. Laura Welsh/Special to the Butler Eagle

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