As a young boy growing up in Missouri, Lawrenceville resident Thom Hopen saw his first Corvette. He’s carried a torch for what is often referred to as Chevrolet’s “halo vehicle” ever since, and he currently owns two ‘Vettes — one of which is 50 years older than the other.
“I can remember seeing one of my first Corvettes when I was a young kid and I actually had one for a while when I was in college,” said Hopen, 73. “I traded a Ford Galaxy for a Corvette and my father said I was crazy because I had a car that seats four and now I’ve got a car that seats two.
“He thought (the Ford) was a better car than the junk I had. But a two-seater car in college is sporty. I thought I was pretty cool. I finally got that rid of that Corvette to get our first house.”
Hopen has also had an abiding interest in participating in The Great Race, a nine-day race now in its 39th year that features up to 150 vehicles built before 1973 competing in a time, speed and distance rally. Each car, which has a driver and a navigator, is provided precise directions at the onset of each day and cars are scored at various checkpoints, receiving penalties for being early or late. At the end of the road, the driver with the lowest score wins.
The grand champion of the 2021 Great Race took home a purse of $50,000, and there was more than $158,000 in prize money at stake.
The Great Race — the 2020 event was cancelled due to COVID— began June 19 at the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas, and ended June 27 in downtown Greenville, South Carolina.
With his navigator, Walton County resident Joe Godown, Hopen traversed the course over eight states and finished 86th overall among 105 competitors with a cumulative score of 35 minutes, 43.27 seconds. Hopen drove a 1963 Corvette that he’s owned since 1998. He also owns a 2013 Corvette.
“It’s pretty much original, with the original engine, and late ‘63 or ‘64 transmission, not the one that came with it but it’s better so I’m not pulling it out,” said Hopen of his “roadster” a few days before leaving home to travel to San Antonio. “As far as cars go, it’s stock. My mechanic has said that I’m good to go and the car will go first class to San Antonio while I fly economy.”
Not surprisingly, it’s not easy to break into the ranks of The Great Racers. Hopen said he’s been waiting several years to get to the startling line.
“I haven’t done this before,” he said. “I have tried to do it, but they have a waiting list that’s a mile long. 70 percent of the people who do the race this year will do it again next year. Then another 10 percent who have done the race before will do it, so there’s only about a 20 percent window for new people to get into the race.
“It’s a really unique race. I finally got in and I’m happy. I was on the waiting list and I got a call in January letting me know I was in.”
Although this will be his first Great Race, Hopen is no stranger to road rallies.
“I’ve done the Coker Road Rally in Chattanooga several years ago just to see if it would be something I’d like,” he said. “I drove my car to Chattanooga and rallied for two and a half days and then I drove home and the car broke down in the driveway. I can’t really complain.”
A Vietnam veteran who retired six years ago after a 40-year career as a forensic chemist for the Atlanta branch of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Hopen admitted to “excitement” and “apprehension” in the days before the race, but said there were several stops along the way he was looking forward to.
“My hometown is Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and we’ll be stopping there for the fourth night,” he said. “I’ll get to see all my high school friends and my siblings and people I grew up with. Going in to my hometown and spending the night there is going to be special. And the next day we stop in Paducah, Kentucky, and that’s where my wife is from.”