NICHOLASVILLE — Clay Miller's 1932 Ford three-window coupe looks none the worse for wear from its recent scenic tour. The dust and grime accumulated on the back roads of Asia and Eastern Europe have been washed off.
But look closely and you can see some dings at the rear from stones the tires threw up, and some scratches in front from the time in Kazakhstan when the engine had to be removed after it lost its oil and locked up.
"Before we left, I said my biggest fear was to have the engine come apart in some country where I didn't speak the language," Miller said. "And that's exactly what happened."
Clay Miller, 66, his son, Mark Miller, 48, and his grandson Blake Garrison, 20, all of Nicholasville, spent more than three months this spring and summer participating in the 2011 World Race, an outlandish 12,000-mile automobile competition from New York to Paris, by way of Beijing and just about all points in between.
The men, and about a dozen other competitors, left New York's Times Square on April 14, racing across the country to San Francisco. Clay and Mark won that leg.
The second leg — from Beijing to Paris — included only four cars. Because of that, participants decided not to make it a race but just to make it a challenge, Clay Miller said.
"We felt like if we could just finish, everybody would win," Clay Miller said.
The cars were shipped to China by boat, then they hit the road for the arduous grind from Beijing to the finish line at the Eiffel Tower on July 21. The entire race route passed through a dozen U.S. states and parts of China, Kazakhstan, Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and other Asian and European nations.
Clay Miller, a businessman and vintage-car fan, drove the specially built two-seat Ford. Mark Miller was the navigator from New York to San Francisco. Blake Garrison, taking the summer off from his studies at Western Kentucky University, navigated from Beijing to Paris.
All four cars ultimately reached Paris. In addition to Miller's car, there were a 1929 Model A Ford, a modified 2007 Chevrolet Corvette and a stock 1967 Volkswagen Beetle.
Clay Miller said the trio saw sights they couldn't have imagined. They met all kinds of people, became closer and found that they were perhaps more resourceful at handling crises than they had thought.
"I've given it a lot of thought since we got home, and if I'd been with either my son or grandson at a cottage by the lake or somewhere, it would not have been nearly the same experience," he said. "We were constantly working together toward a goal. And that was just great."
The 2011 event was patterned after the legendary 1908 New York-to-Paris race, won by American George Schuster in a Thomas Flyer that was built in Buffalo, N.Y. By some accounts, Schuster got into the race only because then-President Theodore Roosevelt insisted that America should have an entry to compete with cars from France, Italy and Germany.
The Miller team had more than its share of problems in this year's race, including a broken axle in Colorado and that blown engine in Kazakhstan.
"It's a little overwhelming to be sitting on the side of the road in the middle of the Kazakhstan desert, and you can see a herd of wild camels on one side, some wild cattle on the other, and absolutely nothing else," Clay Miller said.
Fortunately, a tour-organizing company helped Miller and Garrison find a truck to haul their stricken car 800 miles to Kazakhstan's capital, Astana, where they found a mechanic.
"I had more tools in the trunk of my car than this guy had in his whole shop," Clay Miller said.
Still, they managed to take apart the Ford's flathead V-8 engine, and they found that some bearings were damaged beyond repair. But thanks to replacement parts delivered by UPS, they rejoined the race.
There were other problems, including almost impassable roads in rural China and cops looking to pad their paychecks.
"In Kazakhstan and Russia, they would have police cars randomly along the roads, and if they saw you speed or pass in a no-pass zone, or if they just felt like it, they would pull you over," Clay Miller said.
"They wanted bribes. But an interpreter made up a story that we were museum operators just delivering the car and had no money. So they let us go."
There was a sobering moment in Vilnius, Lithuania, when the racers passed a building that had been the local KGB headquarters when the country was under Soviet rule. Plaques lined the building's outside walls.
"The plaques had the names of people who had been tortured or killed there," Clay Miller said. "The KGB had put them up as sort of a warning for people to toe the line.
"It really sank in for me what atrocities they had laid on their own people, basically within my own lifetime. How fortunate we are that our country has never experienced things like that."
But there also were good times on the back roads, such as the day they crossed paths with a group of motorcyclists two-wheeling from Turkey to China and stopped to have dinner with them.
Wherever the Kentuckians stopped, they were mobbed by local folks wanting to take their pictures or peek inside their car.
"We made a lot of good friends," Clay Miller said. "Like the truck driver who didn't speak any English, and we didn't speak any Russian, but we managed to communicate. And the mechanic who didn't speak any English but was proud to help us and have us in his shop."
Mark Miller cherishes the camaraderie among the race competitors, and that friends and family members were waiting in Paris when they reached the finish. And that an American flag, carried in the 1908 race, was pulled out and waved in celebration.
"I think it would have been something to have been there in 1908 and see them come across the finish," he said. "There were over 200,000 people in Times Square to see the cars off at the start of that race. Those drivers really were carrying the pride of the whole country."
Garrison says the family's difficulties in the 2011 race can't compare with those faced by the 1908 competitors as they maneuvered primitive cars over almost non-existent roads 103 years ago.
"I have no idea how they did it," he said.
Still, Clay Miller thinks he, his son and his grandson found some of the creativity and resourcefulness that the drivers of 1908 had to have.
"I'm not comparing us to what they did," he said. "But we had things go wrong, had an engine that blew up, and we did what we had to do to fix it and carry on. That's the definition of perseverance."