Text + Photos: Mike Blanchard
Feature | Summer 2017. It was time to go back to Bonneville. Time to drive the roadster to the hot rod freakout. 1,050 miles round trip in an open car with no top: Damn it; it’s time for an adventure. It’s been years since RUST had been to the salt and it was high time we went back to catch the opening weekend of Speed Week.
I lit out Wednesday afternoon on the first leg to Reno to visit friends and hook up with Dean and Hunter coming over the hill the next morning. Our plan was to hit the Alviso Roadster Reunion in Winnemucca on Thursday night then head east the next day to be on the salt by Friday afternoon. The last time I drove my ’27 roadster, El Cheapo, over Donner Pass on Highway 80 the surface of the road was rough as a cob. The concrete above the snow line was heaved and rough from years of big rigs and freezing temps. A real handful in a straight axle car with bias ply tires.
Turned out the trip over the hill in the evening was really nice. The car ran great, and fast, up and over to Truckee and down the canyon to Reno in the night air. It was really fun to fly up some of the big grades blasting past the other traffic.
I dodged thunder and lightning on the way over the hill, and when I stopped for gas in Truckee I was buttonholed by a news team from Sacramento looking for a story and ended up on the evening news with the roadster.
Hot August Nights was just getting loaded as I pulled into town. Street rods and muscle cars were crawling all over the place. But for me the August nights that are hot is not really my thing … and there is this one bar that I like. So El Cheapo and I turned our backs on the strip. And sought the darker side of town. I love Reno. Something cool always happens there for me.
Thursday morning I met up with Dean and Hunter bringing out Hunter’s Ranchero on the trailer. The ’59 Ranchero was once Keith Black’s push car and spent several years pushing the Black and Prudhomme top fueler around at the track. It has recently been cleaned up and repainted with the old Keith Black Racing Engines graphics on the doors. Bruce Gossett did the work after extensive research of period documents to get the art right. Gossett killed it.
So, all week long it was Keith jokes. Keith Moon, Toby Keith, Brian Keith, Keith this Keith that. Are you Keith Black? I’m talking to you, Keith Black … with all due respect, sir.
The trip from Reno to Winnemucca is just a slog. After running through the Truckee river canyon out to Fernley, Highway 80 runs east through the Humboldt Desert. The pioneers of old in their wagons found the Humboldt to be one of the worst parts of the trip as well. A final insult just as they were getting close to their destination.
Sitting in the roadster in the sun blazing along at 75 was just something to get through. It was our own damn fault; we didn’t get out of Reno early enough. Years ago at one of the Alviso parties an old fellow told me that you have to be tough to drive a roadster. He was right.
We stopped for gas and a barley-pop in Lovelock, and while we were shooting the shit, boldly tailgating in the parking lot, a fellow sauntered up to look at the cars and we offered him a beer, which he thanked us for and put in his pocket. It was such a funny and unexpected thing. He put the beer in his pocket. We all looked at each other out the corner of our eyes with the look that only your good friends know. You know, the one that means, "Hmmm ... what the fuck?” He proceeded to tell us about his ‘50s International pickup, which he would be willing to let go of for a price in the neighborhood of $40,000. Hmmm … well now; how about that? To be honest, some of the little wayside towns out in rural America are getting a little desperate, and I can’t fault the guy for trying to sniff up a little cash.
Needless to say, Winnemucca looked pretty good Thursday afternoon after sitting in the sun for a few hours. Time for some BBQ at Jerry and Marsha Foreman’ s place. Jerry is a collector and hot rodder from way back with an amazing sense of style. He is also one of the few people ever to get a speeding ticket in a street sweeper, but that’s another story. Jerry and his family and friends have put on the Alviso Roadster Reunion for a number of years, and it is a first class thing.
This was our first time attending since they moved the party from Jerry’s place in Austin, Nevada. Picnic tables and cars were spread out on the lawn outside his shop under big cottonwood trees. Some old friends, and some new ones, from all over Northern California and Nevada greeted us. Everything from Model Ts to Shelby Mustangs were on display, but hot rods were the main theme.
The shop is a wonderland of car culture and racing. Just an amazing place to hang out and pursue your hobby. I met a guy named Johnny from Petaluma with an open model T roadster pickup in red oxide primer with a flattie V8. Super relaxed and thin as a rail with slicked back white hair. Have to respect a cat pushing a rattly old car across the desert for the salty pilgrimage. After driving out from Reno, that’s what it felt like. Almost like the Haj, something every pious hot rodder should do. Make a pilgrimage. Hit the stations of the cross. Be blessed by the journey and the effort required.
The BBQ was served and the sun went down, and there are few things as beautiful as twilight in the desert and sagebrush at the golden hour. We met some folks at dinner and learned the back story of a fellow who had been planning a hotrod museum in Winnemucca. This was the cat who purchased Von Dutch’s paint box for some ungodly price. The whole thing fell through in the end.
Later after we all had eaten and folded up tables and chairs and made our thank yous we took off through the neighborhood out into the dark. Hunter hammering the Rancho and El Cheapo howling along in hot pursuit. One of the neighbors called the cops and they got on Jerry and he told them it was some tuner kids racing. I don’t think he minded and the cops took it and headed off into the night to find some kids.
Later, back at the Model T (I had to get rooms in the Model T Hotel. I mean, come on, man! It’s the Model T Hotel, with Model Ts in the lobby) we met some old boys in the parking lot with a crazy, raced-out orange Model A roaster on a trailer. Sporting a big GMC six, the driver, can’t for the life of me remember his name, was a huge guy in his 80s. He told us he drove the thing on the street with his wife. And then fired the thing up and twisted it good just so we could appreciate the exhaust note properly. He ended up regaling us with stories of his career racing flat track. In the middle of this he pulled up his pant leg to show us his prosthetic leg…which he raced flat track with for years. Damn, I wish I could remember his name. (Late addition: Hunter says the guy's name was Marsh.) Later, there were hijinks in the bar of the Model T Hotel. The things you see and the people you meet.
Humorously, there seemed to be a lot of people confused about why we were heading east to Bonneville instead of west to Hot August Nights. Well, dude, those cats are for show and we are for GO!
Had to have the right front wheel rebalanced at an old tire shop before we headed out. It was run by a woman who was cracking the whip on a bunch of very dirty and hungover dudes. The wheel had been jumpin' around too much and at 75 mph it was a bit disconcerting.
And then we hit the on-ramp. I love on-ramps. That is where you get to hammer your car and feel the acceleration, just pure fun. On the road to Elko and the final run to Wendover, El Cheapo ran great in the thick, cool morning air. Lots of oxygen to run through the Alfa Romeo engine in the roadster, and I ran out in front of the guys in the big diesel all morning long. El Cheapo is kind of a sports rod. Equally confusing to the hot rod guys and the sports car guys. I always wanted a ‘20s Alfa but they are ungodly expensive, so I made my own version out of what was laying around. It’s part Alfa 1750, part Caballero Hiero and part track roadster, all on a model A frame with a T roadster pickup body.
The car has a 122 inch (that’s 2 liter for the metric folks out there) Alfa Romeo double overhead cam hemi engine with a five speed Alfa trans and an Alfa rear end. The rear end has a finned aluminum center section and it has a good look. The front end is Model A with a dropped axle and ’39 juice brakes. It has plenty of brakes, gets on down the road expeditiously and gets good gas mileage too. There is a lot more under the sun than flatties and small blocks, much of it with significant racing history. The Alfa engine looks good in its alloy glory and it is light.
The hood ornament is a statue of the Hindu god Ganesh that a friend brought back from Thailand years ago. He is in the pose of a rude boy skanking if you take my meaning. Turns out, among other attributes, Ganesh is the patron saint of writers and artists, and also the remover of obstacles from peoples' lives. So he is out front, a nod to the hood ornament on the ‘30s Rolls Royce my father owned when I was a kid.
The scenery as you get to Elko is dramatic. There is nothing like an interesting vista to make the drive pass quickly. Elko is an old town in the middle of a resurgence. It has a lot of vintage signage and a palpable sense of civic pride. The old downtown area looks good and there are interesting shops and good restaurants. Also a tiki bar ... which came into play naturally.
Led by Dean, we made a beeline for Capriola’s saddle shop. If you pass through Elko, stop in at this place. They’ve been in business for over 100 years. Upstairs they have a fantastic museum of saddles and tack. Especially strong is the collection of fancy bits and spurs from the Garcia Bit and Spur company, famous in the early part of the last century. The level of craftsmanship is amazing and they are really nice folks.
And then we were back on the road watching the desert go by.
I didn’t miss the radio as much as I thought I would. The Cheapo does not deign to stoop to such modernisms, and I haven’t moved on to the earbuds. A little Haggard would have been nice but, into each life…
I had been dodging summer storms for two days so far. Clouds come off the Pacific, get squished by the Sierras and then drop their water out over Nevada and Utah all summer long. It was clear sailing for our small convoy going east through patches of sunshine and shadows made by the huge clouds sailing on above us. We sped along surrounded by a brushy green sea, through the old lake beds of the inland oceans as we watched the light on the ridges and cliffs.
We passed the old boys with the orange Model A on a trailer and them honking as we sped on by. Later we drove slowly by a massive big rig wreck as we were coming out of the Ruby Mountains, the driver surely killed in the crash.
On east, on east, past Battle Mountain, past Wells, until finally coming down through the canyon, and there was Wendover below us with a glimpse of the salt shining off on the horizon. And then the gaudy glitz of the casinos hits you with a savage full frontal assault to the soul. There, off in the distance, the salt flats, something magnetic, a white plane, blinding salt, mechanical beasts roaring, determined men and women, the romance of speed, danger, hope, all out on the salt.
We met up with RUST photographer and designer Saroyan Humphrey and got ourselves organized and stretched out after the drive. Later out on the salt there was a ritual beer and a minor celebration. And there we were, Friday afternoon, at Bonneville enjoying the distinct pleasure of seeing Jo Ann at the press trailer, laughing with her friends but dead serious, giving you the lecture about where you can and what you can’t and you have to wear the yellow press vest. Aaaaagh! The dreaded press vest. The delight of all racing promoters nowadays, the bright yellow press vest ... ah, well; C’est la vie.
I drove the Cheapo out on the salt. You drive a roadster 600-some-odd miles and you are taking it out on the salt. But I am too much of Jerry Blanchard’s son to not feel a pang driving my admittedly rusty, old car out into one of the most corrosive environments this side of the Pacific Ocean. That did not turn out to be the issue. No, it was the distinct lack of suspension travel in the Cheapo. It is sprung like a racer. On a smooth road it is brilliant, crisp and comfortable with handling like a big go-kart. On the other hand, I know all the roads that need repaving in that car.
I tried different speeds to see if I could hit a sweet spot, but it was a brutal pounder at every speed; bummer. The service road to the short course was really gnarly. Huge pot holes and swampy sections of slushy salt made the trip really rough for some of the guys driving lowered cars. I saw a slammed Tudor creeping along like he was going up the Rubicon Trail in a wheeler. The salt this year was just about as wet as it could be and still hold the meet. I have been there when the salt was smooth as if it had been rolled, but not this year, brother.
I’ll tip my hat to Hunter. He and Dean unloaded the Ranchero and drove out on the salt every day. This is a historic car that just got done, unibody no less, and it went right out onto the salt. That was a bold thing to do. There are cats who would not have done it. I think it is important to use the old cars and bikes. Some vehicle in a museum or collection that never gets driven or used is a waste. Fire it up; drive it.
The first spin around the pits Friday is always interesting. Dean headed straight to the Moon Eyes booth for a first crack at some merch and we all followed to check it out. We lingered around there jaw-jackin' with folks, but the lure of the pits pulled us away to see what there was to see.
The setup is long. The pits are roped off in the middle a mile or so long with four rows of pits. The SCTA trailers and Tech, impound and some vending are next to the pits, and the spectator area stretches for several miles on either side of the pits along a precise line parallel to the long course. There are motorhomes, and trucks, and easy ups, and cars with flags so their friends can find them, and crazy adventure buses and sometimes just a guy sitting in the cab of his truck facing the course. Cars and motorcycles are buzzing back and forth from the pits. There are amazing hot rods and racers parked behind the line of vehicles.
The SCTA broadcasts a running commentary on the race and the people participating, so spectators tune in on their radios. Since everyone tunes in, as you walk along the multitude of radios almost acts like a P.A.
Out in front of the spectator line is the service road on which teams tow their vehicles to the starting lines and bring them back to the pits. In front of the faithful is the long course, seven miles, with the short course and the rookie course only existing as a shimmering mirage off in the distance.
Some teams are set up and working on the car. Some are just now unpacking. There will be race teams coming and going all week. For the spectators the opening weekend is the big attraction. There are parties and a nightly car show at the Nugget. The esteemed folks of the Inliners throw a BBQ at the KOA on Saturday night. There is the 200 mph club dinner, and Hop Up Magazine throws a party Sunday evening.
Friday night there is always a hell of a press in the parking lot of the Nugget. All the car guys and a bunch of tourists are milling around drinking and having a good time in the parking lot checking out old cars. There is everything in the hot rod world, from crazy cartoon super improbable rat rods to hyper correct traditional style cars to rumbling muscle cars. The ratters are generally carrying on and the traditionalists are all trying to look like rugged individualists while their cars all look exactly the same.
There were eight or ten coupes lined up in a neat row, all looking the same, all the same headlights mounted on the same bars with the same chop and ride height (a couple with track noses). All of these cars are some variation on a ’32-’37 chopped and channeled Ford coupe. Nicely done cars, but all the same. Like I said, rugged individualists. There are also a bunch of cars that you see in town that aren’t driven out on the salt.
The Ranchero was drawing a lot of attention, and Hunter got all the old Keith Black stories and people asked him “are you Keith Black?” This drew gales of laughter. The rest of us were people watching and knocking off beers. The Cheapo was even getting some attention. Some of these guys could not figure out how to even say the name Alfa Romeo, so that was kind of funny. The parking attendants stuck us front and center, so there we were with all the traditionalists who were trying not to look at the heresy that the Cheapo is.
I like the guys who try to get as much salt as they can on the car. There is an unspoken competition among these guys to see whose tree is flocked the best. It can be quite gaudy. Huge sprays of salt all over the engine and body, clumped up on the headers and covering the sidewalls.
The rat rod guys were blasting Johnny Cash, which was clashing with the Top 40 the casino was blasting. Mixed in with the occasional engine revving, it made a heady soundtrack. The thing in Nevada is that you can carry on all night and no one cares. And people do that.
Next morning we hit the salt for the drivers' meeting (missed it) and the first runs on the long course. The first run of the meet was a nostalgic photo op. The vehicle is a re-creation of a twin-engined truck, the Odd Rod, which was run by Kenz and Leslie at the first SCTA meet at Bonneville in 1949 and did 140.95. It was re-created brilliantly by Mike Nicholas of Nick's Hot Rod Shop for Duane Helms, who had started the project years before. The truck is amazing and I highly recommend checking it out online. There is really nifty engineering there. The young lady who waved it off was barefoot and waving a Hop Up flag and everyone kept thinking about how that might not be the best idea, barefoot on the salt that is, but she gave quite a performance jumping in the air and waving the flag like crazy.
Then the serious stuff started. George Poteet’s crew wheeled up his gold streamliner and he cranked off a run in the 435 mph range. Beat that, suckas. Supposedly he hit 470 or so before he hit the 'chutes. And then it was time to race on every course and we quickly settled into the routine of B-Ville.
Following Poteet was Danny Thompson. The Poteet-Thompson showdown was the talk of the week’s competition. These cars are like airplanes as much as any car can be. They are made like airplanes in many ways, with the exception of weight. Where an aircraft needs to be light, a certain amount of weight is good for a land speed car. The cars have large crews to maintain and run them and every detail is thought of, down to the guy who brings out the mini rug so that the driver can put his shoes on without tracking salt into the car
The place is hot and very bright and if you are not careful you will get a sunburn in spots you never expected. The damp salt is clinging and gets all over your shoes, and despite the amazing things everywhere you have to be careful that the environment does not grind you down. Beer is great but it tires you out over the long haul. You have to keep hydrated.
Saroyan spent the day at the start of the rookie and short course shooting photos. The rest of us prowled the pits until we had to leave. The Indian Motorcycles team had a large, well-organized pit area with everything Indian-branded, very impressive. However, the coolest thing they had was Burt Munro’s original Indian racer. Off to the side sitting kind of forlornly was the legendary World's Fastest Indian. They got it out of the museum at Invercargill in New Zealand.
The bike is the ’21 Scout that Munro pushed to the very limit of its abilities. It has the aesthetic of an old tool room special. You can see the tool marks on the parts and the stains from years of oil leaks. There were a bunch of folks from New Zealand who had made the journey. One of the old guys said Munro knew a machinist who would let him use the machines when the shop was having lunch. It was very inspirational to have the opportunity to get up close to a motorcycle like this. Something basically hand-made. There is not a huge amount of original bike left on old Burt’s Indian. His grand-nephew Lee Munro was down to ride the Indian entry in a blast of promo synchronicity.
Later back at the hotel we downloaded photos. Saroyan had some nice shots of a team from Japan running an old Indian bobber. Outside the casino it was car show. Take Two. A lot more guys had pulled in and there were even more cars parked in the casino parking lot. Once was enough for me so I parked the Cheapo in the covered parking garage out of the way and we wandered around looking at cars a bit.
There was the amazing red ’32 coupe that was on the cover of Rust magazine in 2004. The STP car, it is a time-warp original-paint car from the ‘50s dug out of a barn, literally. In the forecourt of the casino there is a Ford T that has a body made out of an aluminum boat with a boat steering wheel like an old pirate ship. Parked in the driveway was a wicked red Galaxy done up like a '60s stock car.
After an hour or so, Dean told us about a rumor of a bar called the Black and White off on the edges of town in a trailer park. By this time we were all getting a bit burnt on the scene at the Nugget. We grabbed some road sodas and headed off into the dark. Despite being told that the place was too far to walk we found it in about 20 minutes a few hundred yards away from the casino, as advertised, in a trailer park. This place is awesome (Ed.: See the article on Carmen’s Black and White elsewhere in RUST) and almost empty. If only the hordes of dudes hanging in the parking lot at the casino knew what they were missing. I'm conflicted here. I know Carmen could use the business but this is a really cool bar and sweet relief from the Casino thing. I ain't-a gonna tell 'em.
Carmen's is covered with photos and posters of land speed drivers and teams. We cut into the beer and as so often happens in bars we had a brilliant idea about midnight. The thing to do, we figured, was to get up before dawn and take Hunter’s Ranchero out on the salt for a photo session at sunrise. We calculated that getting up about 4 a.m. should get us there on time. So, what? Four hours away after a day of sun and a night of drinking? Arghh!! It’s for art, so fuck it.
Next morning, after an all too short bit of sleep there we were on the salt way out north of the pits by the end of the long course. As we set up, some brainiac in an SUV pulled right into our shot and parked to make out with his girl, at dawn, out on the salt, in our shot. We ran him off and got the shots. And the sunrise over the salt was so calm, subtle and dramatic all at the same time and so worth the effort. It was a great piece of art that slowly changed as the sun rose.The rest of us took photos and tried to stay out of the way while Saroyan prowled around shooting the real photos of the Ranchero with a battery of very serious cameras.
We so seldom get up before dawn and go out to the edge of some great geological wonder. And most people never get up early after being up late drinking, if they can help it, so it is a moment of wonder and the fatigue is forgotten ... for a while.
Since we are near the end of the long course after the photo session we put on our yellow press vests and go out to see Poteet come by at over 400 miles an hour. Saroyan brought a huge Nikon 600 mm lens that really got a close shot of the cars as they sped by.
The thing that was striking, out past the safety line (The line that civilians are supposed to stay behind), is the support trucks blazing by at very high speed following the race cars to the end of the course. Most of the teams use big pickup trucks and they are hauling the mail out where no one can see them. There was an SCTA official in a big diesel truck towing a trailer that went by a couple times at what was surely faster than the 55 mph speed limit.
It turned out later that teams tear-assing around at high speed was a bad idea. On Wednesday after we left there was a head-on crash just outside the pit entrance to the race course involving two support vehicles, a truck and a minivan, that killed two people and injured four others. As you might imagine this cast a huge pall over the rest of the meet.
I think we figured out the perfect Bonneville schedule. Get up early and get out on the salt when the light is good. Work/hang out until about noon or so and then go back to the campsite and have lunch and rest for a while and then head back out about 3:00 or 4:00 and shoot photos until it is so dark you can’t see. Gets you out of the heat of the day. Gives you a break from the unrelenting sun. Besides, the light is crappy during the middle of the day.
Later in the afternoon while prowling the pits I met a group of racers from France running in mostly small-bore motorcycle classes, 50cc and up. The thing that caught my eye was the fully streamlined Zundapp fairing sitting out in front of the easy-ups. They had a Triumph twin, an unusual blue pre-war style motorcycle and some other bikes tucked away.
In an effort to cut the cost of shipping a team across the pond, people/friends will go in together on a container shipped from Europe crammed with all the gear you might need on the salt as well as the motorcycles. It is low budget racing at its finest. There is a certain appeal to the lower-displacement motorcycle classes. I get the star appeal of a vehicle that is really fast. But there are many issues that go along with that quest, not least of which is huge expense. The small-displacement classes are quite competitive, and an area of great individuality that is within the budget of many more people.
I met David Tiger who is the rider of a 50cc moped-based racer made with a large aluminum-beam frame in bright orange. Tiger, an effusive Frenchman who owns a pastry business in Salinas, is very into Motobecane mopeds. As a kid his teachers were not at all complementary about his chances in life. “When I was 12 my teacher said I would be messing around with mopeds when I was 40,” he said. “I stood up and said, 'For once, you are right.'”
Tiger said the racer revs to 13,000 RPM. They ran the thing this year at Mojave and did 96 mph. That’s cookin' on a little bike.
The French contingent is super hospitable as are most of the folks you meet on the salt. They are open and willing to talk about their equipment and tell their story. Oh sure, there are some uptight people (like the team that got super pissed off that I used their personal porta potty) but in general, unless they are under pressure, the cool thing about Bonneville is that open atmosphere.
The salt is very democratic. It stands in contrast to events like the Monterey Historics/Pebble Beach weekend where there is an explicit attempt made to keep the “wrong” crowd out of some of the venues. And by wrong they mean less-monied.
When we came back in the afternoon we had the opportunity photograph two bikes. Saroyan shot Serge Campistron’s Motobecane 175 and the Vespa entry from team Dafne of Italy. (You can see photos of these bikes elsewhere in Rust.)
The number of teams from outside the U.S. was impressive. There is a simplicity to this kind of racing that is appealing for people. There is a romance about America and this type of racing that has caught on with people outside of the U.S.. I think that the DIY aspect of this type of racing is appealing to people who feel limited by money and cultural norms in Europe and Asia. As Campistron said, there is a lightness about America. It is not crushed by the weight of history. You write a new piece of history with each run.
The days pass like that at Bonneville, hot, half blinding liquid light, the search for speed, the search for shade, the radio broadcasting the commentary on the racers and the constant roar of high performance engines. In our case the search for interesting stories was how we spent the days. The place is crawling with them so one simply has to apply oneself.
And then the cool of the desert night and Carmen’s and cold beer and tamales. Saroyan and I climbed to the top of the ridge behind the casino to take time-lapse photos of the lights on top of an old water tank and trees blowing around in the night wind. We got some good stuff.
The standout attraction in Wendover, other than Carmen's, is the old army air base. A scattering of dusty, mostly abandoned hanger and shop buildings clustered around the old operations building, which houses a small museum. The field was the training base for the crew of the Enola Gay before they dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
On the day we were there the museum was host to a bunch of firefighters waiting for a chopper ride out to the next fire.
The airfield still sees flights in and out. There were a number of planes parked on the tarmac flown out by people who were racing. The eye-catcher was a bright yellow and blue navy fighter trainer of WW2 vintage gleaming in the sun. The girl in the com hut said it was flown in by some cat at the races. Like I said, it takes cubic money to play this game at the highest levels, and a speed freak is a speed freak, in the air or on the ground.
You used to see guys fly over the salt flats, land just outside the pits and stroll over to take in the action. Apparently that practice has been banned. Too dangerous is the justification. What a joke. The whole damn place is crawling with people who do dangerous things for fun. I’m sure they are worried that a plane will land on some dope out wandering around in a car. I know, I know “Safety is our watch word,” but the salt flats are huge.
There are some more old shops next to the airbase with rows of vintage cars lined up and large signs saying: Keep the hell away, nothing is for sale. Dean strolls over to look at the cars and the owner comes out to tell him to go away. Dean gets the guy to calm down a bit and the owner tells him that guys from California are always trying to get his cars and it pisses him off. Hey, fair enough. Later that night we drank beer with him in Carmen's.
Sunday night, Hop Up Magazine threw a party with food and entertainment. A guy was playing solo, rocking an electric guitar and he was killing it. The Hop Up staff was grilling dogs and mixing drinks. Everyone was engaged in the activity of the weekend, mingling and checking out hot rods, hanging with old friends and making new ones.
I headed out Monday morning alone, just me and El Cheapo. Saroyan had to get out on the salt for the morning light, and Dean and Hunter wanted to to hang out one more day. The car had been great all weekend, it hadn’t missed a beat but we had a long way to go to get home so I was hoping for the best. You never know what could go wrong on an old car. Blessed virgin of acceleration, don’t fail us now. I heard later that Johnny’s T roadster pickup threw a rod on the way home. Heading out of Wendover I always think of things I should have done, photos I missed or forgot to take as I pull the long grade going west on 80.
Outside of Battle Mountain it started to rain, hard. El Cheapo does not have windshield wipers, or a hood covering the engine, or a top, or a heater but as long as you keep going most of the rain goes over you in the blast of air squeezed over the windshield. I was warm, so I figured I would just keep the pedal down as long as the car ran. If it died my plan was to pull over and throw my tarp over me and the car until the rain stopped and then dry out the ignition. Once again you have to be tough to drive a roadster. They are like motorcycles in that way; you are out there in the elements.
I followed a big rig at a bit of a distance. The visibility was awful but not as bad as forging my own path, and I could follow the lights of the 18-wheeler as it punched a hole in the rain. People passing by in their modern cars were looking at me with pity or shock like I was the craziest dude on earth. Probably looked a bit of a drowned rat in my rain jacket. It rained all the way to Elko, and then it stopped. And I was damn glad to hit a diner for breakfast and a bunch of coffee.
As it turns out on the trip across Nevada there are stops about every 150-200 miles. Just about when you have to stop and stretch there is a town to drop in to and gas up. People in modern cars probably don’t notice this need as much as the person driving a vintage car. I think you miss a lot in modern cars that is plainly obvious to the person driving vintage.
One of my favorite quotes is from the great British journalist and racer Dennis Jenkinson commenting on riding vintage bikes: “Fear rides pillion with the vintage rider,” he wrote, and this is applicable to the hot rodder as well. In the back of your mind as you are speeding along there is a part of you that is always listening to the note of the engine, looking at the tires spinning, thinking about how much gas there might be in a vehicle with no gas gauge and thinking about things like stories of guys whose spindles had cracks in them.
When driving these cars, especially long distance, you confront this fear. You have to overcome that inner thing that says, “Sit in the Lazy Boy and watch TV,” the voice that says “Get a Volvo; they’re safe and warm. Don’t drive that deathtrap across Nevada to Bonneville. It’s unsafe, for God’s sake!” You think about these things; at least I do, and then you forget and watch the landscape go by as your engine pulls strong and fast. You look at the column of smoke from a brush fire just off the highway and feel the blast as a dust devil passes over you (A column of smoke by day and a column of fire by night) and make small talk with strangers curious about your car as you gas up and you watch the rain falling miles to the north as the storm passes over the sage.
And then you hit Lovelock, and Fernley, and Reno, and Truckee and Auburn after the high-speed concrete canyons of the west side of the Sierras. Finally you are home and very tired. Tired and very happy to be home; it is all you can do to get back in the car to drive it in the garage. And you have a memory and an experience to be proud of, something accomplished that most people will never know or understand. In the end it is all about the journey and it is good.