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CAMARO ACROSS AMERICA - The Star Spangled Road

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Mister, you may have travelled near or far,
But you haven't seen the country,
'Till you've seen the country by car!

December 4, 2009
Day Zero: New York
The beginning
New York was cold. It always is, they say. But it was not cold enough for Srini to be shivering all the time. He was obsessed about the weather, right from the time we planned this drive. He wanted to avoid colder climes – that meant almost all of the north. So in one sweeping stroke, he eliminated Detroit and Chicago – thereby truncating our trip. In our hotel room, The Weather Channel dominated; the anchors seemed to be very excited, as a record early snowfall hit Houston. Wait a minute, I thought, Houston is way below south and that meant only one thing… we will hit snow on the way.

John, the lanky New Yorker who came to show us the 2010 Chevrolet Camaro that we were supposed to drive across the US (we promptly named her Veronica), was quick to point out that he had put snow tyres on. ‘The ride will be harsh, but you’ll be better off with them,’ he said, immediately adding another worry line to Srini’s already crowded face. After getting familiar with the car, GM’s OnStar assistance system and so on, we got dropped at the colourful Columbus Square near Central Park and did what most people who come to NY on the run-up to Xmas would do – strained our necks, looked around in total awe and breathed in the crisp and cold air. We walked around a stunningly beautiful local fair with handicraft shops (wooden toys and flattened liquor bottles, anyone?). When the cold became unbearable, we decided to get some food and hit the bed. It was already a long day; my friend Thomas and I had travelled from Miami to reach NY, while adding to Srini’s woes was a foggy jet lag that was beginning to hit him.

In the quiet of the NY night, interspaced by howling sirens of course, I could hear an Imperial Blue Camaro calling out to us. 'Come and get me guys, we have some way to go,' she whispered!   Mister, may I recommend a royal route?
It starts in Illinois, let me tell you boy!
If you ever plan to motor west,
Travel my way, take the highway, that's the best!
Get your kicks... on Route 66!

Day One: NY to Indianapolis
747 miles, 12 hours
The show’s on the road!

‘Can we do with a room without a hair dryer?’ It would have been an apt question coming from a friendly blonde with whom you are about to hit the road for the ride of a lifetime. But Thomas, I can tell you, has not been improving the bottom-line of hair product firms for more than a decade or so. ‘It is in the options list,’ he added. We had divided our chores into three – Thomas handles route planning, navigation and accommodation (all the tough stuff), Srini pays for it all and keeps accounts (the other tough job) and I, ahem, take care of our Camaro (modern car that it is, doesn’t even need an oil-paani check!).
 
Day One was planned in such a way that we should get as far away from NY as we could – enthusiasm was high and we could cover some serious interstate miles while we came to terms with Veronica. It was just another cold NY morning when we started off. Our destination? Liberty Park, from where we could take a neat picture of the car against the famous Manhattan backdrop. And we immediately found the merit of the OnStar assistance system. The customary picture taken, we hit the road. Soon the mighty skyscrapers that seemed to grow into a thick veil of mist were left behind in the rear view mirror, as we navigated out of THE city.
 
In the beginning, they looked like tiny rain drops. But then they started flying towards us and smashing onto our windscreen. Snowflakes! The weather gods seemed to have added some colour to our ‘simple’ blast across to Indianapolis. Soon, the size of the flakes grew in size and before we knew it, we were trundling down an interstate with Christmas card weather all around us. I am surprised someone hasn’t engineered a windshield for Mr Santa’s reindeer sleigh – driving anything is impossible without one. A quick stop for coffee later, it was time for me to get behind the wheel. As if on cue, someone up there turned the ‘snow’ knob to full chat. It was nothing short of a blizzard as we headed into Pennsylvania. Driving in these conditions – especially for someone who hasn’t been living in Sweden or without a name that ends in ‘nen’ – was going to be a tough task indeed.   The eighteen-wheelers were occupying prime real estate on the road and it was getting tricky to keep the Camaro on a single lane, despite traction control. But as Srini pointed out, the sight of our Imperial Blue Camaro running through a sheet of snow, flanked by snowed-out hills, and in and out of tunnels, would have made for some sensuous television footage. Especially from a chopper.

When we stopped three hours later for a quick bite, Veronica was wearing white lipstick and there was no let-up to the snowfall. Talk in the car centred around the weather too… would it be the same throughout the trip? Is that the sun peeking out? Can we cast an Indian spell to ward off the snow? But the fact remains that what would have been a characterless day was given true colours by the weather – so what if most of the shades were grey and white?
Srini put in a strong drive of two hours and soon we were driving on tarmac again. The hills were devoid of snow and despite The Casualties playing in our XM Sirius satellite radio, the mood in the car cheered up. It was time for Thomas to do the ‘illegal hour’ – time to catch up with the day’s log and put in another strong effort that averaged 80 mph rather than the legal 65. No, we didn’t stop to see the Biggest Hamburger In The Whole World right across the Ohio border (we passed parts of New York state, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio before cruising into Indiana). Before we knew it, the great road system took us to the suburbs of Indianapolis – the great town where the greatest show on earth takes place every year. But that’s tomorrow’s log!It winds from Chicago to LA,
More than two thousand miles all the way!
Get your kicks... on Route 66!   Day Two: Indianapolis to St Louis
314 miles, 6 hours
The Brickyard moment

We woke up to a spectacular sunrise – it was still cold, but the only bits of snow were the pieces falling off the bumper of our car. In the sunlight, Veronica looked battle weary. The scars of yesterday’s marathon run through the snow storm were visible in the form of fine sludge-spray that accentuated the lines of the Camaro. It is indeed funny that we had named the car Veronica, when it was full of muscles and was ready to answer to the name Moose. But then cars are feminine and BSM was not going to argue with that.
We had a late start, as the agenda for the day was to take it easy and reach St Louis – a 300-mile run. But December 6, 2009 will be etched in our memories for the all-important stop that we made – at the motor racing capital of the world. Navigating the Indianapolis suburbs, you don’t realise that you are minutes away from the most hallowed turf for any motorsport enthusiast. Only a few garages with Speedway suffixes give the game away. And before we knew it, we were driving under the ‘oval’ and were inside the Speedway.

The stands were empty and the only noise to be heard was the light burble of our Camaro’s V6. But you could stand there, close your eyes and visualise the commotion as thundering V8s matched the vocal chords of over two lakh spectators. We spent considerable time at the museum and the adjoining gift shop (for a change, the gift shop made some sense, as we wanted to get something to mark this - as the Americans would put it - historic day in our lives). The museum too was a non-antiseptic affair, unlike the modern car museums of Europe. You could breathe in the smell of coagulated oil from the engine sumps of the cars on display. They wore battle scars with elan and there was no extra layer of polish – not even for the magnificent Ferrari 250 LM. The Mercedes W196 of 1954 vintage got a new coat of sheen as Srini drooled all over it. Occupying centre stage was a brightly liveried new Camaro in silver – the official pace car for 2009.   Our hearts were filled with joy and every nook and cranny of the Camaro’s boot was filled with bags carrying Speedway goodies. From then on, the drive was predictable and the Camaro was on cruise control mode. We rolled into St Louis as the sun was going down. The last rays were playing truant with the Gateway arch – a structure that is as epoch making for its size as much as its useless nature. We were hungry and ready for an American diner experience – and that is exactly what we got at the City Diner. Srini, the vegetarian, got something nice and spicy and full of eggplant, while Thomas and I marvelled at the sheer quantity of accompaniments that can come with simple steaks.

Later in the night, I would unleash Veronica’s 310-odd horses on the banked corners of the Speedway, overtake legends such as Al Unser Jr and Jacques Villeneuve to get to the chequered flag, to the cheer of packed stands. What is America all about without a few cheap dreams?

Now, you go through St. Louis, Joplin, Missouri,
And Oklahoma City is mighty purdy!

Day Three: St Louis to Tulsa
476 miles, 9 hours
In search of the Mother Road

For half a day we drove through little towns and villages of America looking for one road sign: Route 66. We knew that the Mother Road did not exist any more, but thought we would encounter it somewhere as a ‘historic route’ to attract tourists and such. But the driving was fantastic, as superbly paved and banked country roads allowed us to get the sportscar out of the Camaro. She is not as lithe or agile as European sportscars on twisties, and the weight is an impediment too – but when driven with the intent of having fun, the Camaro does not disappoint. That said, this car was born to rule the drag strip rather than good mountain roads. Also, there is something innately nice about a big, bad cruiser – driving one soon becomes a personal experience and you tend to love it the way you love escapades in early British motorcycles. You start loving the machine with all its flaws.   It was at a coffee shop in a small town that we heard of Cuba. The town was some twenty miles away and we could actually hit the ‘historic 66’ there. Srini took over from Thomas and a quick shortcut in the form of interstate 44 later, we were back in small town America. Cuba was pretty, complete with beautiful murals and yes, had a part of ‘Route 66’ all for ourselves to play around with. Lots of photography and another diner meal later, we hit the road again.
Driving through state highways of central America showed us the real American ‘neighbourhoods’ too… abandoned and rotting cars and trucks and farm equipment, farmers at work, rolled-up hay with motifs on either end – we wanted to stop several times to take pics, but refrained only because we have been seeing far too many gun shops for comfort. Most small town centres have a pharmacy, fast food joints, a book store and a gun store. And we didn’t want to become a statistic while trying to capture rotting Chevy trucks on some lawn.

Honestly, I had never heard of Tulsa before – how could I, it is after all the 45th largest city in the US. But that was where we were destined to sleep the night. Cheap Mexican fast food later, we found a very cheap hotel room. It was barely $50 for three of us for one night. As it turned out, the motel was the haunt of serial killers and mafia dons. Alright, we did hear a few screams in the night and once someone knocked on the door to asked whether the Camaro belonged to us or not - enough for me to wake up every other hour to check on the car. I made a mental note to spend more on accommodation. It was going to be a long day tomorrow!   You'll see Amarillo, Gallup, New Mexico,
Flagstaff, Arizona, don't forget Winona,
Kingman, Barstow, San Bernardino!
Won't you get hip to this timely tip,
When you make that California trip?
Get your kicks... on Route 66!

Day Four: Tulsa to Amarillo
359 miles, 7 hours
Lost history

As you can make out, we were not really making much progress over the last two days – all thanks to the magical, mythical Route 66. We hunted down towns on the map – and discovered that all that was left ‘old’ were museums and mock-up architecture. We were directed to the ‘real old road’ several times – only to rejoin the interstate 40 that proved to be the nemesis of Route 66 back then. It took us a while and a few perplexed OnStar assistants who searched for the ‘lost road’ to realise that the Route 66 is more of a phenomenon than an actual driveable road in these parts of the world. The Americans have created history in Route 66, as history is something that is hard to come by in a country that is only 200-odd years old. Maybe in Texas there are some stretches that are still motorable, said a brochure. After visiting three towns and a stunning museum complete with a very nice gift shop at Clinton, we decided to leave THE road and get on with the continent crossing. Commercial groups have ensured that the Route 66 magic will continue – but in searching for the road we encountered some real Americana and loved every morsel of it. ‘The Mainstreet of America is dead… long live Route 66.’

It had been an easy couple of days and we were now longing for a full day of driving and hoping to cover some serious ground. Amarillo, Texas had the famous Cadillac ranch which should make a pretty background for images – and that would be the first thing on the agenda tomorrow.

Springfield, Illinois... Springfield, Missouri too!
Seven states, count 'em, seven,
Spread out in front of you!   Day Five: Amarillo to Flagstaff
614 miles, 12 hours
Sites and sights
 
The day was supposed to be spent covering ground. We had to cross Texas and New Mexico and reach Flagstaff, Arizona, by evening. That would mean that we would be within striking distance of Las Vegas. The conversation in the car revolved around Las Vegas – for Srini, Vegas was not important as it was ‘typical, cliched’ America. For Thomas, it was important to include it in our route for the fantastic cars that we may encounter. My feeble argument was that Vegas, despite the clichéd glitz, is part and parcel of the American story – any American story, including ours. We agreed to disagree on this point and there was a lull in the car for a while. I am not alien to this – living in a confined space (like that of a muscle car interior) for almost a week had to have its effects. Featureless junk food did not help matters either. Just ten miles out of Amarillo, we reached the Cadillac Ranch – another stereotyped image of America. And as luck would have it, it was Srini’s turn to run and photograph the Cadillacs painted in psychedelic colours and ‘planted’ at an angle. It was freezing cold thanks to the wind-chill factor that the pretty hostess in The Weather Channel was talking about – but that didn’t stop Srini from getting some neat pics. I had been doing the photography on this trip and by then I knew how tough it was to get your picture without a few digits falling off in the bitter cold.

Route 66, as mentioned in the last log, was not on our mind at all. But somewhere in New Mexico, we actually found the real piece of tarmac – with real painted markings and a genuine old bridge. That cheered us quite a bit – more photographs were taken and before we left, I planted a little peck on the wrinkled face of the Mother Road. And then unleashed 300-odd horsepower on it as we emulated a quarter-mile drag run – what better tribute and what better way to ‘Get Our Kicks On Route 66’!   Veronica was running great and happily consuming unleaded at the rate of 9 kpl – not bad for a muscle car. Around us there were attractions to stop at – the World Famous Fudge didn’t have any takers in our car and neither were we interested in the meteor-hit site or gift shops that sold dinosaur bones. A few statuettes of the prehistoric animals made glaring silhouettes against the setting sun. And yes, we were hungry, but not enough to eat from the charmingly named Roadkill Restaurant (You Hit It, We Grill It!).
Around us, the topography was changing. Arid desert land gave way to canyon country and there were patches of snow to boot. We knew our destination, Flagstaff, had had snowfall a few days back, but what we didn’t expect was a city ready for the Winter Olympics. There was fifteen inches or more of snow everywhere, except on the road, as we checked into a Travelodge. We toasted our exceptionally fast day with a diner dinner that was a degree better than the normal fare. Vegas, here we come baby!

You'll like the aroma, of Tulsa, Oklahoma,
Albuquerque and Tucumcari, make New Mexico extraordinary!

Day Six: Flagstaff to Las Vegas
287 miles, 6 hours
Angels and demons

Beautiful days begin with hearty breakfasts – or so I believe. The Hogs Family Restaurant adjacent to the Travelodge we were staying in, promised a sumptuous hot breakfast – something you look forward to when you are surrounded by the white, freezing stuff. Three dollars each bought us eggs, sausages, hash browns, pancakes, orange juice and loads of coffee. Armed with the stuff that keeps hungry Harley riders happy, we started loading our Camaro.  ‘Nice car,’ quipped the lady who was about to fire up her SUV, ‘she’s got sharp lines.’ We had been getting nods and glances throughout this trip. People loved the way this car looked, and alongside the formidable bunch consisting of the Mustang, the Challenger and the Charger, the Camaro completed the renaissance of the muscle car era that the US is going through. And the best part is that people across age groups loved it.   It was my turn to drive out of Flagstaff and onto winding roads flanked by snow everywhere. The aforementioned lady had warned us to ‘keep it in one piece’ and I was in no mood to disobey her. Back in the hotel parking lot, I did check the adhesion level of the Pirellis and found out that the tail could wag easily in solid snow – not exactly agreeable behaviour when monstrous Peterbilt trucks are hovering on the lane next to you.
 
A chance discovery of the morning was Seligman – a small Route 66 town with its own period street that was now covered in snow. Soon it was time to bid good bye to the younger interpretation of the interstate 40 as it wound its way to the City of Angels. Our destination for the day was Sin City itself – Las Vegas. Powering over the Hoover dam and heading towards the west, we got the first sight of the Vegas skyline. And best of all, our friends at OnStar directed us to a $100 Holiday Inn Express bang on the head of the famous Strip.

Veronica needed a bath and that is exactly what we did next. A machine-human wash exercise that lasted just 15 minutes and $14 later, she emerged gleaming and pretty... yes, ready for the strip. Neons were up in full form and it reflected on the shiny Imperial Blue paint as we showboated in style. Just then, the satellite radio woke up to Bryan Adams and Summer Of 69. Those who know me will know how much that song means to me. There are two kinds of people on earth – those who have driven an exotic car on the Las Vegas Boulevard listening to <I>Summer Of 69<I> while being drenched in neon, and those who haven't!

We walked around the Strip later that night to take in the sights. The lit-up neons, the peddlers wearing t-shirts with ‘Girls’ and telephone numbers printed on them (we didn’t check, honest!) and a Korean taxi driver eager to drive us anywhere but back to our hotel didn’t stop us from hitting the sack early... by Vegas standards, at least.   You'll wanna own a piece of Arizona,
Needles, Essex, Amboy, Azusa,
No one in sunny Cal is a loser...

Day Seven: Las Vegas to Bishop (via Death Valley)
299 miles, 7 hours
Summer proving grounds in winter

As the Camaro levelled out on to the flats, it was carrying close to 100 mph. It was now or never, I thought. We had been going easy on speeds throughout this trip, except for those exuberant moments of liberation. But how long can you restrain yourself when you are driving an American muscle car worth over 300 ponies and when the road is straighter than a laser beam? We were in the middle of nowhere – in Death Valley, to be precise, and the chances of being copped meant speed enforcement using aircraft or nothing else. I let the accelerator sink further into the mat. Veronica was in brilliant form as she hunkered down a bit and charged forward. The road surface was bouncy and I decided to move to the middle of the road (I could see 10 miles ahead and back and there was no traffic!). 110 mph, 120 mph… the snow rubber started to send a humming noise inside the car; perhaps it was time to ease off. 130 mph and climbing and I let go of the throttle. That was the fastest we went during this entire drive.

Death Valley (ahem, we are the first Indian car magazine to go there) is famous for its landscape and terrain. But it is the unique hot weather that has made it a favourite spot for automotive testing. Like the Nurburgring, most car makers prefer that their car passes the Death Valley torture test before being signed off for production. In summer, temperatures climb to well over 50 degrees centigrade here. The gradual climb to 4,000 feet ensures that every ball-bearing in the engine is tested to the limit. Then there are exceptionally straight roads to punish motors further and then a bit of the Sierra Nevada chain of mountains to test those struts and wishbones. The Camaro is not a narrow car and throwing it around corners is not exactly what she is happy about. With the fluid, overservoed steering and lots of metal to move, you have to get the hang of working the car to suit your speed. Putting it into sport/manual mode with the paddles for shifting gears is the best way to do that. Needless to say, I had a great day of driving. The best 300 miles of driving during the trip? Oh yes!

Soon we hit Lone Pine, a pretty ski town with an airport, lots of small restaurants and also ‘world famous’ for a film festival, which helped us get off the hypnotic spell cast by Death Valley. The mood in the car was high as we rolled into the nearby town of Bishop for the night halt. It was going to be a seven-hour haul to SF tomorrow, thanks to fresh snowfall in the mountain passes. Home run? You bet.   So, get hip to this timely tip,
When you make that California trip!
If any Joe... tells you to go... some other way,
Say nix!
Get your kicks... on Route 66!

Day Eight: Bishop to San Francisco
585 miles, 9 hours
SF or bust!

It was supposed to be a four-hour journey to SF and had we blindly followed the advice from the OnStar Centre, it would have taken us over 24 hours and a visit to the traffic police office – the weather advisory was dead against us. We needed to have either four-wheel drive or snow chains to go through the short route. An informed call was taken in the morning to back track our way towards Los Angeles and hit interstate 5, instead of continuing on the mountain road. It took over nine hours of driving, some through sheets of blinding rain, but by six in the evening Veronica blended into SF traffic as we crossed the Bay Bridge onto the big city. The sight of the Pacific (albeit in the dark) signalled the end of our trip. About 6,000 km of weather-hit America lay behind us and we were glad that we made it in time, all in one piece. Coming back to India, we realised we had missed being stranded in the country by a few days, as the cold blizzard turned out to be menacing.

Though it all started as a continent crossing exercise, I think we achieved far more than that. Visiting Indy, tracing the Mother Road and the blast across Death Valley remain the highlights (got to be for BSM staffers, right?). Allow me to thank my friend Thomas Philip who took time out to join us on our trip – his contribution was priceless when it came to serious hours behind the wheel as well as navigating us through the maze of roads. Also, more than anything else, he talked in a Yankee accent that the OnStar advisors and fast food waiters understood.

Latin America? Here we come.

Get Your Kicks... On Route 66 by Bobby Troup, 1946