For the adventure of lifetime to be just that—one you’ll never forget—it’s best to be prepared, but bury your expectations. Tjerk Bury and his son, Chris, can tell you that. In 2016, Tjerk, a prominent Thousand Oaks plastic surgeon, and Chris, an aeronautical engineer for a SoCal startup, set off to Peking, China. From the Great Wall, the novice father-and-son racing team planned to travel a distance of 8,500 miles in 36 days while driving—get this—a 1972 Datsun 240z. Destination: Paris. The event: The Peking to Paris Motor Challenge.
Tjerk’s and Chris’s lean mean flying machine fulfilled the criteria of the EPA (Endurance Rally Association), the race’s official sponsor, that cars competing in the event be “vintage cars only.” Held every three years, the event began in 1907, but due to geopolitical factors, the race wasn’t held again until decades later. In June of 2019, father and son, whose Datsun came in 26th out of 110 cars in the 2016 race, will be joining again, hopefully learning from the mishaps they experienced previously.
It was not father and son who chose the car for this historic race, but rather the car chose them. After reading an automobile enthusiast magazine article about the Peking to Paris Motor Challenge, Tjerk’s ears pricked up at the words, “If you don’t want to spend a boatload of money on this race, there are only three cars to consider.” As fate would have it, one of those cars was the ’72 Datsun 240z—a classic ’70s “everyman” car that Chris already owned (purchased in “rust bucket” condition) and kept in Tjerk’s garage.
Suddenly, Tjerk went from wanting to tell his son, “Get that dang car out of my garage” to “Hey, let’s get this car ‘race ready’ and take our father-and-son act on the road … albeit, a loooong road.”
Despite the many challenges they endured in 2016—including an engine fire and carbon monoxide poisoning—their Peking to Paris race was, they both agree, “a life-changing experience.” This was true as much for the stunning and diverse landscape they enjoyed en route (including eerie, half-built dystopian Chinese “ghost cities” that popped up out of nowhere) as it was for the warm and welcoming people they met along the way. Nomads, herdsmen and villagers, most of whom led lives of extreme hardship, won over both father and son with their easy smiles and generous natures.
“I have a theory that humans need a certain amount of hardship,” states Chris. “And when you get that drama from real problems”—not lattes with too little froth or “putting up” with a 3G signal rather than 4G—“you have a more satisfying life than those of us in the First World.”
Chris recounts one memorable example of universal brotherhood where they were in imminent danger of breaking down—facing disqualification from the race. Driving by “mashing the shifts” for days, the pair had to wait until they left Russia and entered Poland to find the parts they needed. As it turned out, hands reached across the border to help the duo. “Suddenly these guys from neighboring Hungary, who had a Datsun 240z enthusiasts club, were reaching out to us on social media saying they wanted to help,” recalls Chris. “Before we knew it, there were four of us—my dad, a Hungarian, a Polish guy and myself all working on our engine together in a shop that the Polish guy’s father owned and graciously let us use.”
It was the ultimate in international “car guys” camaraderie—with each of them making universally understood car jokes by way of “pointing” during the repair. Compared to these kinds of human bonding experiences, life back in LA for Chris now seems boring and antiseptic … even for a rocket scientist.
So how did father and son get along driving shoulder-to- shoulder on a grueling 8,500-mile road trip? Fortunately, the two decided not to get a father-and-son divorce. (Other “actual” couples did split up afterwards, which proves that the Peking to Paris Motor Challenge really is an endurance race and not just a gentlemen’s rally.)
For Tjerk, winning is definitely not everything. He’s content just to endure to the end. “I have to make it Paris, but I don’t need to be first,” he says circumspectly.
“Speak for yourself,” the more competitive Chris might say. Thus far in the 2019 race, he’s driving “fast and furious” in hopes of being the first to cross the finish line. As a reminder that this is not a one-man race, Tjerk was quick to point out during a documentary interview, “I’m the navigator and Chris won’t get there without me.”
While Tjerk makes this paternal pronouncement on camera, Chris gives a wry sideways smile—as if to say, “Yeah, right dad.” That amusing interaction may very well define the typical father and son relationship in everyday life—not just those forged in adversity while racing 8,500 miles from Peking to Paris.
As for the 7th Annual Peking to Paris Motor Challenge 2019 currently underway (as of this writing), to both father and son we say, “Good Luck Burys … keep your eyes on the prize—Paris—but remember that ‘the race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong.’ More often than not, it’s about taking the time to enjoy the ride … and each other!”
Did Chris and Tjerk win? Actually, they came in at third place—which is a big improvement over their 2016 results! To get the complete results and view all the photos from that race go here.