From The Vault (2001): The Year I Didn’t Travel By Air

What would you say if I told you that I drove from my home in Indianapolis to all of the North American FedEx Championship Series races I attended in 2001, logging more than 32,000 miles on the road in a variety of interesting vehicles?

Most of my friends and acquaintances in the CART paddock thought I was crazy. But after a number of unpleasant commercial air travel experiences during the 2000 season (thank you, United Airlines, from a former customer), I decided that I would drive to as many races as possible in 2001. In the process, I would tour America by Car.

So I did it. From Monterrey, Mexico to Vancouver, British Columbia, if you saw me at a Champ Car race, I got there by car. And 99 times out of 100, I enjoyed the ride.

I planned my drives in advance, often choosing routes that took me off the Interstates and away from traffic. On a typical day, I drove 9-11 hours, usually averaging 600-700 miles before I’d find a hotel and a civilized meal. I was occasionally accompanied by my wife, Katheen, but most of the time it was just me and a big selection of CDs and tapes.

Ride along now as I recall some of the highlights of my year on the road.

MONTERREY, MEXICO:     2,658 miles in the Passat and 630 miles in a rental Hyundai Sonata – Leaving Indianapolis, I followed I-65 to the Gulf Coast in Mobile, Alabama, where I toured the battleship USS Alabama the following morning. Then I took I-10 to San Antonio, where I left my car at the airport and rented a car to drive into Mexico. The terrain in Mexico was pretty bleak until you hit the mountains surrounding Monterrey, which was a pleasant city. The biggest hassle about driving in Mexico was getting the proper registration for the vehicle, and it was worse leaving the country than it was getting in. For that reason, this is a race I will likely fly to in the future.

LONG BEACH:       4,557 miles in a rental Ford Taurus – I don’t like I-70, so all year I tried to find creative ways of avoiding it. This time, I took I-74 to I-72 before deciding on US36 across Missouri. The following morning, I went almost an hour without passing a car on the Kansas turnpike, then I experienced some fabulously secluded open-road motoring on US 54 and 56 through rural Kansas and the Oklahoma panhandle. On the way home, I encountered severe winds in New Mexico, which made a visit to the White Sands Missile Range an adventure. This sandstorm created the worst driving conditions I encountered all year, and I was glad I wasn’t in my own car…

TEXAS:       2,048 miles in a rental Cadillac Sedan de Ville. I thought that was the perfect car to drive to Texas, but I don’t remember much about this race weekend or the drive there and back. It’s as if the race never actually happened.

NAZARETH:          1,477 miles in a rental Toyota Camry – The Toyota Camry was just the ticket – a boring car for a boring trip. I took an alternate route back, dipping into Maryland, which gave me the rare opportunity to enjoy lunch at a Roy Rogers restaurant.

MILWAUKEE:         688 miles in Kathleen’s Honda CR-V – We were joined by author Gordon Kirby, who was our houseguest for the Indianapolis 500 week. The only sensible way to get to Milwaukee is via Chicago, which is my least favorite place to drive. But I avoid it as much as I can and usually take a back-roads approach to the west side of Chicago. The I-294 “Tri-State” generally isn’t too bad around mid-day, and we got through without any problems this time.

DETROIT:     733 miles in the Passat – I thought about renting a car for this one because the streets of Detroit are so rough. When I got to my hotel in Dearborn, the Passat’s thermometer said it was 108 degrees!

PORTLAND:          I didn’t go to Portland this year, but instead covered the progress of three young American drivers in a Formula 3 race in England. By sheer coincidence, David Gilmour of Pink Floyd was playing his first solo concert in 17 years in London and I forced myself to attend. Incidentally, I put 226 miles on a rental (or should I say ‘hire’) Citroen C5 driving from London to the Castle Combe circuit.

CLEVELAND:         805 miles in the Passat – The other advantage of not going to Portland was avoiding the only East-West-East swing of the season. It took me a long time to get to Cleveland; I tried to avoid I-71 and it just took forever to get around on congested Ohio back roads.

TORONTO:            1,230 miles in Kathleen’s Honda CR-V – We took my sister Mary Kate along on this trip and came home via Niagara Falls.

MICHIGAN:            749 miles in the Passat – This one is nice because you leave on Friday and are home on Sunday. Not much in the way of driving excitement, though. About 200 miles of this total entailed driving from the track to my hotel in Ann Arbor and back on Friday and Saturday.

CHICAGO:             465 miles in the Passat – Shortest trip of the year.

MID-OHIO:             669 miles in the Passat – Once again, a bunch of my friends came to the Mid-Ohio race and camped out adjacent to the track at what has come to be known as “Oreopolis.” This year I wimped out and slept in a hotel. On the way home on Sunday night, I had a beautiful moment driving west into the sunset on an Ohio country road while David Gilmour sang “Fat Old Sun” on the CD player.

ELKHART LAKE:    1,062 miles in the Passat – My favorite race track on the schedule. This week’s highlight was a round of golf at Whistling Straits in misty conditions – ideal for links golf. I shot a 40 on the back nine to break 90, which I thought was a hell of an achievement in my fourth round of golf of the season.

VANCOUVER:        5,009 miles in the Passat – Kathleen came with me and we didn’t have a cross word for each other over the course of two weeks. The scenery was just wonderful; we toured the South Dakota badlands and the site of General Custer’s Last Stand; saw Devil’s Tower and Yellowstone National Park; and had a nice spontaneous round of miniature golf high in the Cascades. Oh, and I got a $40 ticket for speeding (69 in a 55) on US34 in Iowa.

HOUSTON, LAGUNA SECA:       5,694 miles in the CR-V, which I took to conserve miles on the Passat. Between Houston and Laguna, I did a 45-mile off-road stretch in the Mojave Desert. Then after the race, I drove from Monterey to Las Vegas and saw George Carlin perform at the MGM Grand. I was gone for 18 straight days on this trip.

FONTANA:            2,302 miles in a rental Toyota Camry and 225 miles in a 2002 Honda CR-V – I rented another Camry and was excited because it was the much-vaunted new version. I had one very full day of living on this trip; I left Grand Junction, Colorado at 7:30 a.m. on Halloween. Over the next 13 hours, I drove 650 miles, toured three National Parks (Arches, Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon) and made it to Las Vegas in time to claim a front row seat to see Tom Jones in concert. When I got to Los Angeles, I turned in the Camry at the Airport and picked up a new-generation CR-V that Honda kindly loaned me. I like our ’99 CR-V a lot, but I was really impressed by this update. It’s faster, quieter, smoother, and has a better driving position.

EPILOGUE:   Believe it or not, I flew home from Fontana – $80 on Southwest Airlines. But not before I racked up a total of 32,293 miles travelling America’s great open roads.

By the end of the year, many of the people who thought I was crazy for doing all this driving changed their tune. In fact, a couple of my colleagues have started doing the same thing.

Where to next?