The cross country road trip is one of those American phenomena that simply cannot be delivered similarly anywhere else. Sure, there are wide expanses of countryside in Canada, Russia, Australia, China, etc., but none are quite like the good ‘ol US with its widely varying countryside vistas, the excellent cityscapes, the comfortably large well-paved lanes. Our interstate system is becoming rapidly outdated, but still makes for relatively easy drives from end to end.
A recent shift in the paradigm of my employment has facilitated a relocation to Reno, Nevada from Cleveland, OH. I’ve been in Nevada for almost three months now, and my girlfriend (though she is featured heavily in this story will be henceforth referred to as “the girl”) has continued to live in Ohio in that time until the lease was up. At the beginning of October, that became the case, and the full move was finally upon us. I flew in to CLE airport, enduring the excruciating pressure change from nearly a mile high to just above sea level along the way, to help pack up the remainder of our belongings and prepare for our cross-country trek. We stayed in Ohio for two years, making some great friends along the way, but it was time for us to move on to (hopefully) bigger and better.
Leg 1: Medina, OH to Kalamazoo, MI
After finishing packing the apartment, I immediately caught a flight to Portland, OR for the opportunity to drive Porsche’s new Panamera lineup, which you will read more about in an upcoming feature. After the Porsche event was over, I flew back to the Midwest, landing in Grand Rapids, MI. While I was out West, The Girl drove with the dog to her folk’s house in Michigan.
We had planned the beginning of our trip in conjunction with my best friend’s wedding in Kalamazoo, MI, so that was our first stop along the way. The majority of our family lives in the Kzoo area, so it was nice to be able to see parents, grandparents, cousins and high school chums before leaving. Being that we’re still relatively young and saddled with college debt, we won’t be returning for an indeterminate amount of time. We’ll probably grow to miss the mid-west, but for now, I’m excited to get out and live somewhere new. Besides, the high desert isn’t exactly known for rust, so there are plenty of older cars still puttering around that would have rotted to nothing back in the rust belt.
The wedding was excellent, and they were nice enough to keep it shorter than most. As best man, I performed my duties, supported my friends in their new stage of life, delivered an amazing best man speech (No, I’m not a narcissist, I’m just fully aware of how awesome I am) and then was rewarded with the ability to drink their booze and eat their food. I’ve been best friends with the groom since 4th grade, and I am happy he was able to find his ‘one’. After brunch the following day, though, we were forced to say our goodbyes and get on the road.
Leg 2: Kalamazoo, MI to Le Claire, IA
Protip: If you ever find yourself in Kalamazoo with a few hours to kill, knock on over to Hickory Corners, MI (coincidentally my home town) and see the amazing Gilmore Car Museum. It has been a handful of years since I’ve been back, but I hear they have made some amazing additions in recent years. They only show vintage American cars, and IIRC, the owner of the museum currently holds the largest collection of pre-war Cadillacs in the world. The grounds are littered with reconstructed barns from across the country, and each one is filled to the gills with vintage machinery. The 60’s and 70s barn is naturally my favorite, but some of the early stuff is neat, too. They have a Tucker, so if you’ve ever wanted to see one of those, it’s a good opportunity.
After leaving around 1PM Eastern, we had made plans to meet with my cousin for dinner in Le Claire, Iowa. Our lovely little Basset Hound, Alois (ed note: yes, named after Alois Ruf), the girl, and I, piled into our boringly reliable 2009 Mazda3 hatch to make the slog across the country. With more time, I would have liked to have stayed in Chicago for a few hours at least, but time constraints being what they are, we trekked onward. We had planned five days to get where we were going, and had a few stops in mind along the way. We pulled into my cousin’s driveway around 5, and spent some time introducing our dog to their pair of pugs with hilarious result. A dinner and a few hours of sleep resulted, and again, we said our goodbyes and headed on our merry way.
On our way out of town, we decided to see if we could find the ‘American Pickers’ hideout there in Le Claire. From the looks of the place on the show, we kinda figured it would be off in the middle of a field somewhere, but the place is practically right downtown, within sight of the Mississippi river. Unfortunately our early rise was well before store hours, and we had to snap a photo and keep going. We wanted to get almost 850 miles under our belt for the day, so there was no time to lose.
Leg 3: Le Claire, IA to Denver, CO
Pro tip: When driving across Nebraska on I80, always stop in Grand Island, because there is about 200 miles of nothing afterward. Make sure you use the facilities, have something to eat, and get your fuel there, because it’ll be a while before you see anything but corn.
I can tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt that driving across Iowa and Nebraska in one day is about the most boring way to spend a day in the history of days. Given the option of staying overnight in Nebraska somewhere or staying an extra day in Colorado, we chose the latter, and I believe we made the right choice. Denver bound, Dog, Girl, and I made good time stopping every two to three hours for fuel, refreshment, and leg stretching. Between the Missipp’ and the Rockies, there wasn’t much change of scenery, just corn fields dotted with the occasional windbreak tree line planted in squares around houses. The cars become fewer and fewer, and the 18 wheelers become more abundant (Oh what I would have given for a good CB and an aerial in Nebraska. ‘Uh breaker 1-9, this here’s the rubber duck. You gotta copy on me Big Ben, c’mon.’)
When we rolled into Denver, it was just after dinner, so we checked into our La Quinta room (La Quinta still accepts pets without any additional fees) and settled in for a restful evening. It was at this point that I remembered some internet friends of mine lived in Grand Junction, CO, and they had some interesting metal for me to check out. I dropped them a line and they agreed to meet us for dinner the following evening at the GJ Texas Roadhouse before a quick shop tour the next day. I was a little excited, but we’ll get to that later.
Being giant bookworm nerds, the both of us, we decided a few days earlier that we would spend our time in Denver poking around a bookstore that we had heard was epic. We were walking to the “Tattered Cover” LODO (apparently that’s hipster slang for Lower Downtown) location when I spotted this wicked black clown shoe with a roundel on the front. The absurdity of the BMW Z3 M Coupe is not lost on me, and I’ve been infatuated with the oddly shaped little runabout for years. This particular one was only made better by the bike racks on the roof, clearly a sign of use. I would have taken more photos of this car and done a V.I.S.I.T. post, but as I spotted it, the owner got in and took off mere seconds after I snapped this picture.
When we arrived at the Tattered Cover, we were not let down. The bookshop on the corner was amazing, housing two giant floors of literary goodness. I, of course, scouted the motorsport section and the transportation sections first, and while I was swayed by a copy of Rush to Glory, and with the promise of Schlegelmilch photography it looked great, however I hadn’t seen the movie Rush yet, and didn’t want the ending spoiled ([Foghorn Leghorn] I say, I say, now that’s a joke, son. [/Foghorn Leghorn]. I did get a first edition English print of one of my favorite books; ‘The Angel’s Game’ by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I had first read his novel ‘Sombra del Viento’ (Shadow of the Wind) when I was living in Spain a number of years ago, and fell in love with his turn of phrase. With such a good experience at the LODO location, we also stopped by another of the Tattered Cover locations and were equally impressed.
On our way out of town, we stopped by the dog park to let Alois out for a run. He was a bit jittery from being cooped up in the car, and he was a little uneasy around the other dogs. After about half an hour, he eventually warmed up and started being a little less reclusive and a little more playful. It was nice for all of us to get out of the car, and it felt good to play a little fetch.
Leg 4: Denver, CO to Grand Junction, CO
We left Denver a little after two in the afternoon to get on with our four-ish hour journey to Grand Junction. As boring as the previous day’s drive had been, this one was SO much better. The weather was perfect, the mountains actually were as majestic as the songs lead you to believe, and the drive along I-70 through Glenwood Canyon was a near life-changing experience. Before I go any further, I distinctly remember passively watching a documentary on the construction of the highway in the canyon, perhaps on the Discovery Channel (maybe Modern Marvels?), so if you know what series or episode number that particular one was, I would greatly appreciate you putting a note in the comments below, as I’ve been dying to watch it again.
By this point in the trip, we’d gathered quite a smattering of bugs, so passenger-seat-through-the-windshield photos were near on useless. I regret that we hadn’t cleaned it better before we left Denver, because I would have loved to have some better photos of the area than what is presented here. It is truly gorgeous to witness, and I hope everyone has the opportunity at some point to drive that road. It isn’t particularly engaging, as driving roads go, but it is a panoramic masterclass in natural architecture, among the most beautiful places I have ever been.
These views, however, come at a cost. Namely, that cost is in horsepower. At the Eisenhower Tunnel, I70 reaches it’s highest point at 11,158 feet above sea level. At that height, our car had lost more than 50 horsepower of its original 156 (the calculation for horsepower at altitude is ‘((H*E)/1000)*0.03-H’ where H=horsepower and E=elevation in feet). By our calculations, we were running on 103.78 horsepower at the flywheel in a small hatchback with a curb weight of just shy of 3000 pounds loaded down with two adults, a dog, and all of their stuff for a week journey across the US. Needless to say, our little Mazda was feeling a little anemic, and we did our best to keep the revs down, but they kept creeping ever higher. Luckily, the cooling system stayed in perfect condition following the recent 70,000 mile service.
The beautiful but otherwise uneventful trip to Grand Junction went off without a hitch. We saw snow coated mountain tops in Vail, valleys and rivers, and loads of really neat tiny secluded towns. It was an interesting trip, but it was over pretty quick. If you are ever traveling across the northern US, take the extra couple of hours to dip down off of I80 to drive the I70 route, as it is definitely worth it. After checking in to yet another La Quinta, we headed out to the Texas Roadhouse for our dinner appointment. We were the first to arrive, which was a good thing, as it allowed us to witness Elvis enter the building. As the little blue NB Miata rounded the corner, it was easy to tell that it was no ordinary Miata, as it sounded vaguely like a Corvette, featured marginally legal slick tires on lightweight wheels, and a signature harddog rollbar. A few minutes later, Nancy, a Supercharged NC Miata pulls into the parking lot, followed closely by NA generation car. Yep, we were out to dinner with three of the crew from Flyin’ Miata. As car guys go, these three were among the most enthusiastic and interesting I’ve met, and I’m glad they invited us out. After dinner, we arranged to be shown around the shop the next day for a bit, and get an opportunity to drive ‘ol Elvis.
Leg 5: Grand Junction, CO to Salt Lake City, UT
The FM shop is located about 2 clicks west of nowhere outside of Grand Junction, but it was worth it to get out there on our way out of town. We were only planning to make it as far as Salt Lake City that day, so we had some time to burn before we had to leave. As luck would have it, Keith Tanner had a few spare minutes to show us around the shop. I’m not sure if there is a more knowledgeable guy in the world of cars, let alone the world of Miatas. He knows Miatas like the back of his hand, but also has a full stable of cars at home that most of us Hoons would love to drive, and that isn’t even to mention the cars he gets to drive while at work. In addition to being knowledgeable and a capable author, Keith is a genuinely nice guy (as are the rest of the FM crew).
First up on the tour is a customer car in for a lot of work. It’s already received the new FM staple V8 swap with T56 transmission, a bevvy of suspension goodies, chassis stiffening bits, extensive aero treatments, a full roll cage, and a gutted interior. While we were there, it was being fitted with a large array of high intensity lighting (hence the tape marked hood), and a fuel cell installation in preparation for an overnight endurance race (somehow I suspect it will be the 25 hours of Thunderhill, and I’m super jealous). The car looks like a handful, but it is stunningly fast, I’m sure. I know I would like an opportunity behind the wheel on the track. Being 6’2″ probably hurts my chances at fitting just a bit, but I’d gladly have foot-removal surgery in order to race this beast.
The above car is an NB Mazdaspeed Miata that is being prepared for a V8 swap. This is the level of stripping that goes into a chassis before it is modified to receive a Chevy transplant. Flyin’ Miata has to cut about an inch of material out of the leading edge of the tunnel in order for the T56 transmission to fit properly, but aside from that minor modification, the chassis simply remains mostly intact (though some owners do opt to have their shell seam welded for additional stiffening).
The car on the rack in beautiful Martini livery (painted, not wrapped) is Keith Tanner’s personal Targa Newfoundland racer. When it first attacked the rock, the car was simply a rally prepped NA Miata, but the last time he attended, he decided V8 power was more in line with what he needed. An L33 engine was installed in the engine bay, and Keith (along with his wife Janel) headed to the far reaches of eastern Canada. The car performed well, and a DVD documentary was even created following the two FM entrants (Nancy was entered in the GT class). The car has gained something of a following on the internet, and you may have even seen it around the horn yourself. Several videos are around showing off its skills.
A recent development on The Targa Miata is the installation of active aero. Keith, a fiddler at heart, crafted this relatively simple solution for testing, using a pair of NA Miata headlight actuator motors to increase the angle of attack of the wing under braking. No solid data has been recorded at the track yet, but early indications from “the seat of the pants test” are positive, being worth “a second or so” around a full length road course. Currently, the motors are triggered by the same input that turns on the brake lights. Some internet racers have brought up the fact that mid-corner braking and brake modulation would upset the aero balance of the car, but Keith reckons he is a better driver than to fall victim to these types of poor driving habits. Some future iterations of the system may include a DRS-like low downforce setting for long straights, and some aerodynamic fine tuning to figure out the best angles for each setting.
The L33 V8 is currently on the floor of the shop, as the car is being prepped to accept a larger LS engine for even more power. As I stood there talking, I couldn’t fathom such a light car being able to handle more power.
This car has a turbo the size of my head, and my head is not small as heads go. The story goes that this car is the reason Flyin’ Miata bought a new roller dynomometer, as it maxed out their old hub-mount style dyno. They still aren’t sure exactly how much power this car is making.
Remember when I said that Keith was a knowledgeable car guy? Well, this car is the pudding in which proof can be found. Starting life as a bog standard MGB GT, Mr. Tanner turned it into an Aston Martin beating style king that handles much better than it did when new. From the firewall forward, the car was modified to accept Miata suspension geometry, a late 4th generation Camaro LS engine, and larger brakes, wheels, and tires. Out back, the car has a GM sourced rear end, larger brakes, and matching wheels and tires. The aim with this car was to make it a true ‘GT’ car capable of comfortable cruising across the united states. I can tell already that it would be a better road trip car than my Mazda3 was turning out to be.
There were two really exciting things at FM that I knew I wanted to experience before I left. The first of these was to see the Exocet chassis in progress. The chassis was still mostly unassembled, because the shop has been loaded with customer projects as of late. Just out of shot on the left is a “rollerskate” drivetrain dropped out of the bottom of an NB salvage car. From this point, Exomotive makes it relatively easy to pop the Exocet chassis on top of the rolling drivetrain and simply hook everything back up. Mounting points and such are in the same places, so the car is very easy to simply drop into and drive like a super light Miata. From those who have driven a completed car, I hear that it is very well balanced, very confidence inspiring, and very ugly.
The other thing I was seriously looking forward to was driving. Elvis was the car that I chose out of the “fleet”, and we got along famously. Keith drove for a little while to give me an idea of what the car was capable of, and then let me squeeze into the driver’s seat and have a go. Not wanting to wrap it around a pole somewhere, I took it easy for a few, only really getting on it when I hit a comfortably long straight. It seemed strange, because I was sitting in a Miata, but I think I had psyched myself into being a bit afraid of it. Elvis does have a 480 horsepower V8 under the hood, after all. As I got used to it, though, it became clear that the car drove just like a Miata. It handled like a Miata on sticky tires, the steering was quick and crisp, the gearchanges were nice (not as nice as the stock box, but a T-56 is no slouch). The only difference, it seemed, was the sound (oh that sound), and the immediate response to the go-fast pedal. In a stock Miata, you are ultimately aware that you need to drive to maintain momentum, you are constantly shifting gears, and you are fighting the car to maintain speed. While those things help lead to a car that is a ball of fun to drive in stock form, it is fun to drive a slow car fast, after all, it is ultimately impressive when you remove those worries. The V8 engine transforms this Miata into a monster, easily eating up tarmac the way I plowed through beef jerkey on I80 a few days before.
I have heard a V8 Miata described as being a “modern day Cobra”, but it’s more than that. The Cobra was crude, loud, obnoxious, and heavy. Shelby transformed the delicate AC Ace into Mjolnir, the hammer of Thor. A V8 Miata is simply a more powerful Miata. It feels refined, finished, and near-factory in appearance. To the untrained eye, you couldn’t tell Elvis from a standard NB. Heck, even trained eyes have a tough time figuring it out until they hear it start up. The great thing about this car, though, is that it is just as comfortable just above idle as it is flat to the rev limiter. I never felt out of control, I never felt like it was going to get out of hand. It is a civilized car that can really perform when asked to. Elvis could be the best car I’ve ever driven, simply because it is the car that has made me smile the most.
The drive up to Salt Lake City from Grand Junction was another 4 and something hours, and again proved uneventful. As we moved along 70, then north on highway 6, we were reintroduced to two lane blacktop and dual direction traffic. There were a few passing lanes, but when you got stuck behind someone actually going the speed limit, you were going to be stuck for a few miles. In all, we made good time, and we weren’t in a particular hurry, so we stopped at a few rest areas to let the dog out. By this point in the trip, though, we were certainly ready to be out of our smelly, cluttered, uncomfortable car.
Leg 6: Salt Lake City, UT to Reno, NV
As we drove along the south shore of the Great Salt Lake in the torrential rain on our way out of SLC before sunrise, strangely, this song began to play on my Pandora channel, and it made me smile at the crazy happenstance of existence in general.
It has long been a life goal of mine to see the sun rise over the Bonneville Salt Flats, so we left SLC before sun up in order to accomplish that task on our way further west. The Googles said sunrise in Wendover, UT was around 7:30 AM, and that we were just over an hour from Wendover. The rain was horrible, coming down in sheets and leaving rivers across the interstate. I’ll admit that I was a bit intimidated by the 18 wheel monsters screaming past me at 70 in the fast lane, but it was all I could do to keep the car pointed in the right direction at 55. The tires are nearly new, but apparently couldn’t handle an ark-style flood. Luckily, we’re moving to a place that accumulates 8 inches of precipitation per annum. We did eventually make it out to the flats, and it was immediately clear that this area of Utah had not seen rain for quite a while. It was as dry as a bone out on the salt, and as we crossed, it became a little more clear just how surreal this surface was. From the eastern edge of the flats to the western edge, we’d traversed more than 45 miles, and while it was as flat and featureless as Nebraska had been, for some reason I was super excited about being there. As we sat in silent amazement regarding the wide expanses of salt on all sides of us, and the preposterousness of the expanse of blacktop stretched out before us in the middle of that salt, we began to get existential… I think the salt has that effect on people.
It was the perfect spot. I could feel the history of the salt as we approached the exit marked “speedway”. I could feel every ounce of gasoline and nitromethane burned here, I could feel the pulses of Craig Breedlove, Art Arfons, Mickey Thompson, Ed Iskenderian, and Vic Edelbrock. The history of hot rodding was here, and my own personal history is now etched in the salt. We drove (relatively) slowly out onto the salt, and made our way about a mile or so onto the speedway course. The three of us unloaded from the car and admired the tranquility of the area. With a little imagination, it wasn’t hard to feel like we were the only humans alive, or perhaps that we had found ourselves on another planet altogether. It was quite cold out there so early in the morning, but we took our photos and watched the sun creeping over the horizon. As the sun crested, I knelt down, smudging salt into my left knee and told ‘the girl’ everything that made her awesome. With my heart in my throat and tears rolling the expanses of my cheek, I offered her a little shiny ring and asked the question, the only question that mattered, the only question in the world.
Luckily, she said yes. Happy and celebratory, we piled back into the car and cranked the heat. There’s nothing like some windy 30 degree weather to make you love a Mazda3 interior again.
From the flats, it was only another 6 hours of driving until we got home. Having lost our abilities to care, we had McDonalds for breakfast AND lunch that day. Crossing the Nevada desert is interesting, as there are outcroppings of habitation and three prisons which are miles from anything, as well as several exits off of the interstate that seemingly lead to nothing. If they did lead to anything, it was nothing within my ken, anyhow. Aside from Elko and Winnemucca, we didn’t see much civilization, and it was another few hours before we crested back into the view of Reno/Sparks. Just a couple of miles from our exit, it still looked like we were in the middle of nowhere, but as soon as we came over the edge of the valley, we could see most of the city. It was nice to be home, and this time we were home as an engaged couple. I have never been so relieved to see the casino pillars rising from the valley floor. The bronze colored windows of the Grand Sierra greeted us to our new home together.
In all, it was an interesting ride. We saw the amber waves of grain, and we saw the purple mountains majesty, and we saw everything in between. While not quite “sea to shining sea”, we drove through Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, and Nevada, nearly 20% of these United States. We traveled I-76, I-80, I-69, I-94, I-294, I-70, and US 6 to get there, but we’re finally home. We slept our last night together in our old apartment on the floor, and we slept the first night in our new apartment on the floor. It’s a good thing we have a hot tub in our apartment complex, because after five different flights, 2500 miles, several unfamiliar beds, and a couple nights on the floor, the kinks won’t be worked out of my back for several weeks.
An interesting thing to note; over the course of the trip, our little Mazda3 averaged just under 25 miles to the gallon. The 2014 Porsche Panamera Turbo that I drove in Oregon was just evaluated by the EPA to have achieve 24 MPG highway. A 2.3 liter four cylinder small hatchback somehow manages nearly the same mileage that a two ton 4.8 liter twin turbo V8 full sized sedan does. WHA?
Another interesting thing to note; I have now lived in three different apartments that have been within 30 minutes of each of the Summit Racing retail locations, one in Marietta, GA, one in Medina, OH, and currently Sparks, NV. I think it’s a conspiracy.
Thanks for reading along. Thanks to ‘the girl’ who is now ‘the fiancée’ for saying yes. Thanks to Keith and the rest of the FM crew for being so hospitable. Thanks to my employer for their help facilitating this transition.
So, now that I’m back, tell me what cool car stuff I missed. I had wanted to go to the Miller Motorsports Museum in Tooele, UT, but we didn’t end up making it there after Bonneville. That’ll have to be for another time.
Image source: All images barring “tattered cover” ©2013 Hooniverse/Bradley C. Brownell, All Rights Reserved. “Tattered Cover” image source: tatteredcover.com