Mahl is re-creating his great-grandfather's victory in the 1908 around-the-world automobile race that he says for its day "was like launching a man to the moon."
Mahl is driving a replica of the Thomas Flyer that George Schuster took to victory in the race from New York to Paris 103 years ago. In Reno, Mahl got to ride around town in the back seat of the original.
The restored 1907 vehicle is rarely driven and has been in Reno since the late casino mogul Bill Harrah found it and restored it in the 1960s.
Mahl, who lives in St. James City, Fla., made only a ceremonial trip around town before changing vehicles and heading off with 30 other racing teams for San Francisco on day 14 of the trek.
They started in New York City on April 14 bound for Paris on July 21. On Wednesday, the cars are to be loaded on a ship to China, where the teams will be reunited with their cars on June 14.
The re-enactment originally was set for 2008 in conjunction with the race centennial but was scrapped when the Chinese government revoked travel permits following demonstrations in Tibet.
Mahl said his great-grandfather's race still holds spots in the Guinness Book of World Records. He said the trip's lengths of 22,000-miles and 169 days are both records.
Jackie Frady, the museum's executive director, joined Mahl on Tuesday in the car she said is "one of the nation's most celebrated pieces of automotive history."
"I think it is so significant that the car remains today," Frady said. "I was so thrilled to ride in it."
That it is still around is a story in itself.
Harrah became interested in the car after reading Schuster's account of the race in The Readers Digest in 1963. He eventually found it in poor condition at the Long Island Auto Museum in New York.
"It was just sort of rusting away," Frady said Tuesday.
Schuster, who died in 1972 at the age of 99, long had believed the car was sold for scrap during World War I. He dismissed requests over the years to inspect various vehicles before accepting Harrah's offer to fly him to Reno in 1964 to try to authenticate it.
Mahl said Schuster — 91 at the time — looked the car over and told Harrah flatly: "You are wasting your money and my time. This isn't the Flyer."
It wasn't until they dismantled it piece by piece the next day that Schuster was able to identify three repairs he'd made that no one else would have known about. Finally, he was convinced.
"Great-Grandpa said to Mr. Harrah, 'The worth of the car, the importance of the car is how it finished the race, not how it started,' " Mahl said.
Harrah agreed and "restored the car to its condition at the end of the race, right down to the broken front, right headlight," he said.
The headlight nearly kept Schuster from finishing the race after a pigeon hit it outside of Moscow, Mahl said. Prohibited from entering Paris without two working headlights, they found a bicyclist and bought his bike. When they couldn't get the light off of the bike, he said, they hoisted the bike onto the hood of the car.
"They crossed the finish line to win the race with a bicycle strapped to the hood of the Thomas Flyer," Mahl said.