Virl Norton and The Great American Horse Race of 1976
by Lori Oleson
Virl Norton would tell people he was a horseman, as was his father before him. He was born to ride. It all started in Wyoming, where he was born in 1916. By age five Virl was herding cows on his Shetland pony. As a teenager, he would find wild horses, break them and sell them for up to $150.
Year later, as our country entered World War II, Virl joined the Army as a tank gunner. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and was wounded. He recuperated in an Army hospital in Auburn when the war ended.
For the next 35 years, Virl worked as a steeplejack. A steeplejack is one who makes repairs and paints buildings, chimneys, smokestacks, church steeples, flagpoles, or anything else that requires working at heights.
Through it all, Virl never stopped riding. Living in what would later be known as Silicon Valley, he bought, sold, trained, and rode horses. He didn’t limit himself to just horses. He was known as “The Mule Man” during the Great American Horse Race (GAHR) in 1976, riding two mules across the continental United States to win the event.
Virl saw an article in Western Horseman about the GAHR and felt he had what it took to win the race. At the time, he was very involved in barrel racing. In the early 70’s, he was introduced to the sport of endurance racing. He rode to his first Tevis finish in 1973.
The GAHR was a bicentennial gift to the United States, created by Randall Scheiding and Charles Waggoner of Illinois. The race began on Memorial Day at the Herkimer County Fairgrounds in New York and finished on Labor Day in Sacramento, California. Ninety-one riders began the record breaking ride, on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
The cost of entry was $500, plus $5 per day. Entrants would cover all their own expenses for the 100 days. The winning purse was originally to be $100,000, but that was later halved to $50,000. The purse was placed in an escrow account in a Sacramento bank. Many problems arose early on, and some questioned whether anyone would ever have a chance to win the purse.
Bob Harney of Idaho was named as the national logistics coordinator and Dr. Hank Cook was the chief race veterinarian. Working with Dr. Cook was Dr. Homer Webb of California, Dr. Bruce Branscomb (HOF 1977) of Nevada, and Dr. Dave Nicholson (HOF 1997) of Wyoming.
There were a total of 54 rules. Among them:
● Each entrant would be allowed a maximum of two equines, one ridden and one led.
● The race would be comprised of a series of daily races with each person carrying a time card to check in and out.
● Entrants would be clocked double time (daily time multiplied by two) for any given day’s ride, if one equine was running and one was trailered.
● There would be no penalty if an entrant had just one equine.
● Total clock time would determine placing at the end.
In May 1976, over 500 people were set to make history. There was a total of 91 riders to start the 3,200-mile race. It also took 450 support people—including crews, officials, and veterinarians—to make it successful.
Virl (60 years old at the time) came to win. He was very thoughtful about the equines he chose for the event. He decided to bring seven-year-old Lord Fauntleroy (Leroy) and five-year-old Lady Eloise. Both were ½ Thoroughbred Mules, each standing about 16 hands. Virl commented before the race that it would take a comfortable, fast, steady pace (and no problems) to win. That was his strategy, and he stuck to it.
There was a wide variety of entrants, including experienced endurance riders from California such as Smokey Killen (HOF 1987), Diane Marquard, and Rick Bingham. Other entrants ranged from; Juel Ashley, a successful cattleman and cutting horse trainer of Oklahoma, to several riders of Austria riding Icelandic ponies. In all, the GAHR drew participants from 32 different states and 8 foreign countries.
Virl was known to many as a true sportsman and someone always willing to lend a helping hand to a rider in need. Two days before the start of the GAHR, 19-year-old Ann Babbott was in need of a mount because her horse hadn’t passed the veterinary exam. Virl offered her his spare mule, Deacon, which was back in California. She accepted the offer, and Virl had the huge, dun mule put on a plane and flown to New York in time to start the ride.
Every rider started this race with her or his own approach and strategy. Some started the race like it was a short race, taking off at a run. Others decided to trailer their second horse, accumulating time penalties but keeping their equines safe from the early chaos of kicking horses and mules, bad mannered stallions, fallen riders, and loose horses.
Virl and his mules were contenders from the start, not with their burst of speed, but with their steady pace. Every evening, Virl would study the next day’s route and turn in early. This was to be a long, physically demanding ride and he wanted to be at his best each day.
By the time they reached Kankakee, Illinois, about 50 miles south of Chicago, Virl Norton and his mules were in the lead. People began referring to the competition as “The Great American Mule Race”. His decision to bring the big, strong mules was paying off. The constant pounding of hooves on pavement was taking its toll on the finer-boned horses. The mules were able to pace themselves and expend a minimal amount of energy. This was a huge advantage. The horses would always have speed advantage over the mules, but this was a marathon, not a sprint.
By the time competitors reached Indiana, the race was in big trouble. Officials and veterinarians started leaving. Everything came to a head in Hannibal, Missouri. The ride organizers filed for bankruptcy and left. Chaos followed, but what emerged from it were new leaders who would see this race through to Sacramento. They demonstrated a do-or-die attitude. This rough and tumble, like-minded group were committed to ride to California.
The spirit of the riders kept enthusiasm alive. They were a determined bunch and nicknamed “the 76er’s” after the pioneers who came before them. The name fit them. They truly were pioneers in the sport of endurance, showing that, properly cared for horses, could go down the trail day after day.
One person who broke away from the GAHR was Dr. Dave Nicholson. He formed a new ride, “The Pony Express Ride”, which would follow the old Pony Express Route starting in St. Joseph, Missouri and head west. There were about 25 rider The competitors wanted to make a move on Virl and the slower mules in the heat of the desert or in the mountains, but they were unable to overtake them.
Someone notified the Humane Society in Nebraska that riders were mistreating their horses. The Director went out to check on the horses and found that they were being well cared for. It turned out that riders wore casts and bandages, but the horses were healthy.
Virl’s 16-year-old son, Pierce, was his only driver and crew. He would take care of the mules when his dad came into camp, sleeping in the trailer to stay close to them. Pierce fondly remembers Leroy as a kind and gentle mule, but that riding him was like sitting atop a jackhammer.
Towards the end, near Winnemucca, in northern Nevada, Lady Eloise came up slightly lame, Virl chose to withdraw her from the race, so no penalty time would accumulate. Now it was up to Leroy to bring Virl to Sacramento for the win.
All the careful planning paid off. “The Mule Man” and his one-man crew (“The Mule Boy”), outlasted everyone else. Virl held the lead longer than anyone else, and—after the second week— In the end, the participants covered approximately 1,900 miles. It was shorter than the advertised 3,200 miles owing to town meetings, strict veterinary restrictions, and management problems. On September 6, a total of 54 riders made it all the way to Sacramento.
Virl, as a full-time retiree, lived with his horses on his ranch in south San Jose, working 10 to 12 hours a day. He helped form the California Gymkhana Association and the Quicksilver Endurance Riders. Additionally, he was a long-time member of the Santa Clara Horsemen’s Association. He served several years as an AERC Regional Director.
The only race Virl failed to finish in the top ten was Tevis. He did complete the ride eight times, three times on horses and five times on Leroy. His son, Pierce rode with him in 1974 and his daughter, Eleanor rode in 1978. Overall, Virl completed 3,470 AERC miles. Of course, this does not include any miles from the GAHR because it was not AERC sanctioned.
In the winter of 1979, he rode two Arabians 1,000 miles from Effingham, Illinois to Washington, DC. to deliver letters from school children. Pierce was again his support crew. It was a very cold journey and Virl would be out riding when the horses had icicles hanging from their noses. This was a no frills, solitary effort that was probably harder than the GAHR. His journey ended at the White House to see President Jimmy Carter. Unfortunately, the President was unavailable to receive the letters.
On February 10, 1995, Virl’s heart failed after a series of complications at the Veteran’s Affairs Medical Center in Palo Alto, California. Before he passed, Maryben Stover (HOF 2006) promised him that she would take care of Leroy, then 25 year old. His great mule, Leroy, who carried him across the United States, lived a good long life and passed at the age of 37 only about a mile from Virl’s old ranch.
Top Ten GAHR Finishers:
1st place Virl Norton - San Jose, California - riding time 315.27 hours
7-year-old jack mule - Lord Fauntleroy (“Leroy”)
5-year-old mare mule - Lady Eloise
2nd place R.B. Juel Ashley - Ada, Oklahoma - riding time 327.02 hours
6-year-old Arabian stallion - Hammon’s Pride
7-year-old Arabian mare - Granny
3rd place Rhonda Utt - Red Bluff, California - riding time 350.76 hours
8-year-old Arabian gelding - Ali Basa
10-year-old Anglo-Arabian gelding - Checuke
4th place Cortez “Smokey” Killen - Puerto Vallarta, Mexico and Auburn, California riding time 359.3 hours
6-year-old ½ Arabian gelding - Bandit
8-year-old Arabian gelding - Shablaze
5th place Diane (Claggett) Marquard - Carmel Valley, California - riding time 378.95 hours
7-year-old Arabian gelding - Rushcreek Dan
7-year-old Arabian mare - Valentina
6th place Irene Burd - Lambertville, New Jersey - riding time 391.11 hours
6-year-old Arabian/Quarter Horse gelding - Dolty
10-year-old Anglo-Arabian mare - High Hopes
7th place Roger Justice - Sarasota, Florida - riding time 391.89 hours
6-year-old Appaloosa mare - Spot
8-year-old Appaloosa gelding -
8th place Samuel Garner - Theodore, Alabama - riding time 394.46 hours
Arabian stallion - Bogam’s Dude
9th place Dr. Marian Molthan - Laveen, Arizona - riding time 394.90 hours
14-year-old Connemara pony mare - Bridgit
14-year-old Connemara pony mare - Heather
10th place Eva Taylor - Port Townsend, Washington - riding time 402.26 hours
11-year-old jack mule - Hugo
8-year-old mare mule – Sugar
This article is republished courtesy of equestrian historian Lori Oleson and appears in her book Endurance…Years Gone By.
Additional information about the Great American Horse Race is preserved on a dedicated website.
Photo of Historical Long Rider Virl Norton courtesy of Curtis Lewis.
Information about Virl’s celebrated mule, Lord Fauntleroy has also been saved for posterity.