Last updated: March 10. 2013 11:57PM - 6336 Views
By - psokoloski@timesleader.com - (570) 991-6392

Ken Wallace, owner of Valley Chevrolet, stands with the Spirit of Northeast Pennsylvania. The car, a 1940 Chevrolet Special Deluxe that took part in the Great American Race in 1994, will drive in the St. Patrick's Day Parade on March 16.
(Fred Adams / For The Times Leader)
Ken Wallace, owner of Valley Chevrolet, stands with the Spirit of Northeast Pennsylvania. The car, a 1940 Chevrolet Special Deluxe that took part in the Great American Race in 1994, will drive in the St. Patrick's Day Parade on March 16. (Fred Adams / For The Times Leader)
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The Spirit of Northeast PA is revving up its engine again.

And this time, it's bringing along a new friend.

After nearly 20 years of inactivity, the last Wyoming Valley car that crossed the country as part of the Interstate Batteries Great American Race in 1994 will be back on a new trail Saturday as part of the City of Wilkes-Barre's 33rd annual St. Patrick's Day Parade.

“After the (1994) race was over, we took it out of the trailer, pulled it onto our property in Sweet Valley and it sat there until last September,” said Valley Chevrolet owner Ken Wallace, also the car's owner and driver in that 1994 Great American Race.

“Now it's going to make its debut in the St. Patrick's Day Parade.”

That's fitting, since the Spirit of Northeast PA is an Irish green-colored 1940 Chevrolet Special Deluxe convertible.

“We thought it was a great idea,” Wallace said, “and when we talked to the parade organizers about it, they thought it was a great idea.”

Wallace won't be driving it this time.

He has a previous engagement in Florida that will run all week, leaving the Spirit's cockpit for the parade to his Valley Chevrolet manager Bernie Rinko and the passenger's seats to Rinko's children, 9-year-old Tyler and 6-year-old Brianna.

“If I was here, I'd drive it,” Wallace said before leaving town.

While the Spirit may spark the parade with a blast from the past, it'll be followed with a sleek machine from the present. Right behind the Spirit's in the Wilkes-Barre procession will be a 2013 Camaro from Wallace's Valley Chevrolet lot, driven by Wallace's daugher Katrina and her boyfriend Zach Berger, a Dallas resident and Penn State student. Both vehicles will be tagged with emblems of The Times Leader - one of the primary sponsors of the Spirit's 1994 Great American Race run.

“We hadn't even washed it for 19 years,” Wallace said of his old Ford.

The car probably deserved a long rest.

It got cranky in California with transmission trouble that turned out to be a stripped second gear. It was left listless by a faulty lifter in Utah. And it was whipped off the back of a hauler by a Wyoming wind shear.

Somehow, the Spirit of Northeast PA endured a mystical, 4,250-mile journey that started from a pier in Huntington Beach, Calif. and finished by crossing the Market Street Bridge in front of 30,000 people in Wilkes-Barre's Kirby Park.

“When you look back, that was such a good thing,” Wallace said, “not only for us, but for the city of Wilkes-Barre.”

The journey was a romantic travel through yesteryear, taking people across the country back to a wistful era when cars that are now antiques conjured up memories of America's simpler times. Wallace's 1940 Chevy - purchased for $22,000 specifically to run in the event - was one of the newest models in that year's Great Race that featured cars as old as the turn of the 20th century.

The yearly race was actually a road rally, as cars attempted to make it from town to town by matching a predetermined time the journey should take, with stop signs, signals and various speed changes factored in. Wallace and his navigator Mickey Cohen recorded perfect times on two of the nearly 40 stages that comprised the trek.

“I think the biggest memory for me was probably the last memory,” Wallace said, “when we were all staged to come over the Market Street Bridge with my wife and my daughter there.”

He has other moments forever etched in his mind from that two-week journey.

Such as the stop in Albert Lea, Minn. during the city's annual Eddie Cochran weekend that honored the late singer and the town's favored son; the farmer who toppled off his chair with excitment over seeing the Great Race cars pass by in South Dakota; and Conneaut High School girls donning dresses from the roaring '20s to great Great Racers in Ohio.

“We came from California. Every place we pulled into, it was a pretty big deal,” Wallace said of the Great Race. “I remember pulling into Eddie Cochran's hometown, they had his songs playing, they had the girls on rollerskates dressed up like barhops, they had the streets blocked off for us. I liked all of that.”

It all began with Wallace and his co-pilot Cohen - a veteran navigator in three previous Great Race journeys with Swoyersville's Durland Edwards - watching a movie called “Iron Will” on their flight out to California. And once they started running, the journey turned the pair - along with their mechanical crew of Joe Anusiewicz, Ken's brother Frank Wallace, Eric Lippi and Dave Daris - into men of steel.

The fireworks began early for them, as a pre-race tour of the USS Kitty Hawk in Coronado, Calif. ended with a curious onlookers land sporadic road blocks lining California's I-5 on their trip back to their Huntington Beach hotel.

“We had the ship thing, we left there, we were coming back,” Wallace said, “and we see all these people on the overpass. And we're going, 'This is really great. This wasn't even part of the race route, and all these people are on this route. How did they know?

“We found out later, O.J. Simpson was coming behind us.”

Yep, the Great Racers made their return from one of the nation's most famous battleships on one of the nation's most infamous nights - on the same road and just ahead of Simpson's slow-speed Ford Bronco chase in the aftermath of his wife Nicole Brown Simpson's murder.

The few days afterward turned out to be a near-killer for the car.

The Spirit suffered transmission damage, a lifter in the motor that mushroomed, and then body damage and broken kingpin when a wind shear blew through as the car was being transported from competition on the back of a hauler.

“I remember we had the transmission problem the one night, and we had no parts,” Wallace laughed. “My brother and Joe Anusiewicz took the (support) van and they came back with parts. Nobody was open that time of night. But I remember we didn't have to pay for the parts and they never told me where they got the parts.

“Who knows where they got them from.”

But the Spirit kept rolling, picking up perfect scores on two different legs, taking fourth place during one full days's stage and finishing eighth overall in the race's Buick Sportsman Division. And with each passing day, Wallace felt area interest in the car's trek kept increasing, thanks in large part to Valley Chevrolet marketing director Barbara Ross.

“She was a big part of the success of the whole thing,” Wallace said. “The association with Valley Chevrolet and the newspapar was a big thing. To call home when you're out in South Dakota and hear that the car's out on the front page, and know there are stories about it … people couldn't wait to read the paper every day to find out how we did.

“I really think the community was into it in 1994.”

He believes the area will get into it again, taking a ride down memory lane during Saturday's parade route.

“People are going to remember that,” Wallace predicted. “When you look back on it, it was a great two or three weeks of my life.”

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