I think I can safely blame this whole thing on a fit of winter madness, and deflect any questions about my sanity. I was in an odd situation: I’d spent the last two years driving an old BMW with way too many miles on it, racing it on weekends, and it died right before I had to leave the country to spend a bit over a year working at the South Pole. I missed my car, I missed racing, and I was at the end of the earth where the fastest thing I could drive topped out at a bit over 20mph. It was August and the first faint glimmers of the sun were on the horizon, the first I had seen in months. And out of the blue, while taking advantage of a satellite pass to absentmindedly browse the specialstage classifieds, there it was. A small pickup, a 1992 mighty max. Rally proven, logbooked, and ready to go. I had to have it, despite its issues. Never mind I couldn’t afford to ship it, I haven’t done a road trip in a long time! It’ll be fun, right?
I fly in to Portland, and it’s evening. I meet the seller in the dark, look at what I can see by flashlight, take it for a quick spin up and down the road, hand him cash and drive off. There’s always a sense of exhilaration that comes along with any new vehicle purchase. It blinds you. And it’s especially strong when the vehicle you just bought is a racecar, so I hadn’t even noticed that the fuel gauge wasn’t working and the right turn signal only worked if you held the lever in place. The seat was as far forwards as it could be, and I could only just barely get the clutch all the way in. I couldn’t really see over the dash, and there were so many spare parts in the bed that the truck was raked back anyway. Those spares also somehow made the ride quality even worse. I fill up the tank. Premium. The freakin’ truck takes premium because of the shaved heads and high-compression pistons. And I’m exhausted after driving several hours in the dumping rain to my stop for the night. Bed time.
Morning comes, and with it a fresh set of eyes and a new appreciation for what I’m doing. I have a walk around the truck while the engine warms up. I’ve come 100 miles from Portland, and I have 2,700 to go. The tires are completely bald, and the fronts are leaking around the bead where the wheels are bald. That probably explained the hydroplaning and horrible vibration on the highway. The gas gauge starts working all on its own, but the speedometer and odometer have quit. I take note of the mileage, and drive off to get some caffeine. If there’s one thing the pacific northwest does well, it’s coffee. It’s hard to be bothered by the fact that it’s always raining when you have a hot fresh cup of deliciousness in your hand that you got at a drive-through. Air up the tires, hydroplane down the street to the DMV, get a temporary registration, and the tires are already flat again. Good thing I have six spares in the back…
There’s a warm fuzzy feeling that comes from fresh tires. It’s like you can take on anything, drive anywhere. Caffeinated and fed, I got on the highway with the intention of making miles and staying the night in Oakland, California. Nothing could stand in my way. I was belted into a caged monstrosity with less miles than anything else I’d ever driven. 16,000 miles and change. They’re all race miles, but so what? Everything is great! And as I merge into traffic, the whole truck starts shaking. It’s a race vehicle, build straight off the showroom floor to destroy the SCCA RallyTruck series, which it did in 1995. Ride quality was not a concern. Neither was noise, and there’s plenty from the engine and the road. But this is something else. I keep it in line until I can pull over, and do a quick alignment in the parking lot of a rest area. Back on the road, it’s like a new truck. I have the seat adjusted so I can see where I’m going, the wipers are keeping the rain off the windshield, and I have traction. I turn on the heater, and beetles blow out of the vents as if to remind me that the truck came from the Oregon forest. I hate beetles. They go out the window.
The rain keeps on dumping as I climb into the passes on I-5 approaching the California border. I can’t see, and I’m not making enough power at my current engine speed to go up hills in top gear, so I drop down to fourth and punch it. At the top of the pass, it stops raining like I just crossed a line the rain can’t. That line is called the California border, and it’s amazing. Screw the drought, I’m happy to be somewhere where it doesn’t rain. Visibility is not overrated.
I make it to Oakland later than planned; those hills really add time to my driving. The “scenic routes” don’t help make miles faster, despite my best efforts. And it’s getting gas in California that I met the first curious guy. People swarm fancy Porsches and nice Lamborghinis, but they leave the guy with the beat-up race truck alone. I like that. But not this guy.
“Do you actually race that thing? I didn’t know there was any off-road stuff here!”
“Yeah, I do. I’m giving it a new life on the Midwest rally circuit.”
“And you’re coming from Oregon?”
“How do you drive that thing on the highway?”
I want to explain that you drive it like anything else. You ignore the noise, the fact that it’s doing the best it can to make me shorter. That there’s nothing special about it. It just has a cage and some engine work. But instead I just tell him it’s more civilized than it seems. Maybe it’s that I spent the last year living in a 5x9 box. Or that my last employer thought it was easier to cram me around a bulldozer engine from the top to change things on the bottom than to drop the belly pans. Or that I worked on engines that make so much noise that there’s a dip in my hearing frequency response that’s been filled by crickets, and I’m not even old enough to have a drink yet. Maybe everyone else is soft, but I don’t mind driving this… thing while riding on the bump stops. But never mind why it works, it does and that’s what matters. Time for sleep now.
The best thing about a road trip is that things can change. I can wake up to a gorgeous California morning and decide not to go drive somewhere cold and spend the day in San Francisco instead.
I learned to drive in hectic Chicago traffic. Navigating the constant ebb and flow of cars between city lights is no new game for me. But doing it in a vehicle I don’t yet know when all the streets are up or down steep hills, that’s the bay area. This is when I discover that the clutch hydraulics have air in them somewhere, so the gears don’t want to go properly. And the clutch never quite disengages all the way. Screw it, I don’t need that thing, except for starting and stopping, and there’s all these hills and the guy behind me always seems to be driving something fancy and likes to pull up an inch behind by bumper at every light. Dammit.
I didn’t scratch his Range Rover. Or the other guy’s Aston. Screw San Francisco traffic. I parked somewhere sketchy and walked the rest of the day. It was a wonderful day of carspotting and hiking. I saw a beautifully painted and polished Ford Festiva. Who does that? Why? I’ve always kind of wanted a gestiva, because I think they look like toasters. But I digress.
Evidently the truck was jealous that I had such a nice day. Driving along the freeway, I watched the oil pressure gauge bounce around at some point between zero and 25. All the way back I repeated:
“The service bulletin says damage starts below 11psi.”
“The service bulletin says damage starts below 11psi.”
“The service bulletin says damage starts below 11psi.”
I think it was fine. It felt fine, anyway. And so the next morning, I changed the oil. A 1992 Mitsubishi Mighty max holds 4.1qt, and takes one extra if you’re changing the filter. And in the case of mine, it’s hard to gauge the oil level because there are no markings on the dipstick. However, it’s a fairly safe assumption to make in any vehicle that if there’s no oil on the dipstick at all, it needs oil. Just under two quarts of diesel-engine black oil came out. A new filter and five quarts of full synthetic went in. The oil pressure pegged at 65lb on idle. And so confident that I had not blown anything up, I headed out from Oakland towards Salt Lake City.
According to most popular mapping programs, it should be nine or so hours to do that trip. But it can’t account for the fact that even with a 4.10 rear gear and a race-built engine I have to drop a gear and slow down for miles and miles of steep grade climbing into the Sierra Nevada. And it can’t account for the fact that shortly after dark and just barely outside Reno, my headlights started to get really dim. If there’s one problem I really dread, it’s this. I don’t have a jump pack, and if my battery is too low to crank and I’m not on a hill I’m just boned. Full stop. I turn off the radiator fan and the blower to try to make the two miles to the next rest stop, but it’s not enough. The ignition gives up halfway across a bridge. The shoulder really isn’t wide enough for the truck, and I don’t have any signal on my phone.
I can’t say I really blame anyone who doesn’t stop for someone on the side of the road late at night in the desert. I probably wouldn’t, especially in such a perfectly hazardous area. But eventually, someone did. I had to leave the truck on the shoulder of the bridge, with no lights on. A semi even slightly out of its lane would obliterate it, and it was the hour where semis are often slightly out of their lane. Because of the combination of the stress and exhaustion, my irrational brain worried that it may be the last time I saw the truck intact. An hour after being dropped off at a gas station, a AAA tow truck picked me up. My truck was still in one piece.
Back at the same gas station, the tow truck driver unloaded my truck from the back of his. I tightened the alternator belt, he jumped me, and I was off on my way… for all of about 200 feet. It was apparent that the truck was not charging. The very generous tow truck driver picked me up and dropped me off in the parking lot of a nearby hotel that was on the way to his shop.
The morning brought light and a rested mind, and with those came a quick diagnosis: the belt was shot. It was so worn down that I couldn’t tighten it enough to spin the alternator. The alternator was also in bad shape; the bearings were being lubricated by the remains of previous belts doing their best powdered graphite impression. I had a spare belt, which was an easy change. What was not so easy was finding someone to jump me in the parking lot of a small hotel in rural Nevada. I needed a jump pack.
Morning in the desert is beautiful. It’s still cool, the sun it low, and the sky is clear. There are mountains in the distance and obscenely fine dirt grinding into my shoes. The NAPA parts store didn’t have what I wanted, so I had to walk to the next town over, but it was hard to be mad with that kind of scenery. It was relaxing, and exactly what I needed to forget about the things stressing me.
“The truck is going to make it, this isn’t the tip of an iceberg.”
“I am going to make it home for Thanksgiving.”
“I am not going to have to drive 14-hour days to make it home for Thanksgiving.”
Lithium batteries are awesome. I found a plastic box the size of a small book that could jump the truck. And like that, I was on the way. The trip to Salt Lake City was blissfully uneventful, with the exception of the glares I tend to get driving through a residential area in the truck when people are actually home. It’s a bit loud.
And from there, I’m pleaded to say, everything went well. Another overnight in Nebraska, an oil change (much less sludgy this time, and a normal quantity of oil came out!), and I was back home only a day late.
Honestly, I got lucky. I brought a toolkit with me expecting that there would be major issues that didn’t crop up. The issues I did have were small and I was ill-equipped to deal with them, but I got by anyway. Even by my standards, buying a race car sight-unseen and driving it most of the way across the country is a bad idea. And it doesn’t even make that good a story, much less the 2,500 words I’ve laid out here for you. Sorry about that. But there’s good news still. Winter is theoretically going to descend upon us here in the Midwest, and with it comes ice racing and the Ohio Winter Rallysprint, which I will be eligible to compete in. I also now drive a race car, which I think makes me a racecar driver.
And so the moral of the story is that if you do something stupid like this and get away with it, when someone asks what you do you can say “I’m a racecar driver” and not be lying. And that makes the whole thing worth it.