Hot Rod Magazine's 1999 East Coast Power Tour
by James L. Cypher 

Folks, can I say I didn't have fun despite Hurricane Irene? It was a blast regardless!!! 

To do the Tour properly, I threw on an Edelbrock intake manifold, a Flowmaster muffler and some finned chrome valve covers.  I went to the pre Tour party at the former Ft. Devins near Fitchburg and saw Mass. LT-1 guru Tom Byrne being interviewed for Hot Rod TV on Speedvision which was later edited out.  Lots of cool cars and the feeling that we are all part of something very special, yes, that's it, we are very special people who actually want to drive to Florida in a week.

What the BLANK have I gotten myself into? I slept over at my pal Rob's place in Westford and learned all about Pokemon from his kids. 

Day One

Sick as a dog driving in the darkness at the crack of early trying to find the Tour at the toll plaza at I-90 and I-84, balancing a map and a cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee on my lap. 

"Hey! You on the side of the road with a camera, have you seen about 1,000 hot rods driving past?"
"Yeah, about half an hour ago...."
Half an hour ago?  At the speeds they might be going, they could be... how far away by now?
"Thanx!" I said, accompanied by the sound of squealing tires... fine, I was speeding to catch up with them, and finally did at the scheduled gas stop in Southington CT after I got natural gas at the Texaco station in Hartford CT.  As I pulled up in Southington they were all leaving in a very long line that drove all the truck drivers nuts all the way to Florida!  Being on the CB radio gave me a glimpse into their travails. 

We arrive in Carlisle PA, home of one of the biggest car shows this side of the Mississippi, and one of the best places to buy a used or restored classic car or to sell yours at auction... 

Tried to get compressed natural gas (CNG) at the friendly folks at Rhodes Energy in Harrisburg, turns out there is no one there on Sundays and the fleet refueling card they sent me was pilfered out of the mail at their end!  I got a bill for $60+ of unleaded bought in Lemoyne PA, where I have never been and never will be... they apologized and abated my bill.  There is always next year! 

I first ran into Gray Baskerville at Carlisle... "Old Dad" was wandering around checking out the Zooty rides and 

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he was wearing his trademark flip-flops.  He's Hot Rod Magazine's Senior Editor and has been since the mid-70's.  He has his own lingo they call Gray-bonics, kind of a mix of Tex-Mex and So-Cal beatnik phraseology.  I also got his autograph for the archives.  A very nice guy who suffered from some bad food along the way, more on that later. 

The GM Neo-Nomad concept car was on hand with Mark McPhail and Co. to show it off.

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Day Two

I get up early and abandon the Power Tour to drive through York PA where there is supposed to be some CNG available at a Shell station, which is of course, recently closed!   Did I mention to call ahead kids?  A drive through Gettysburg yields a few photos of Abe Lincoln related statuary and a full tank of CNG at the Mobil station.   Next stop, Frederick Maryland, where I get some more CNG from Washington Gas before arriving at Gaithersburg MD with the Power Tour's car show.  This sharp 9C1 ex-copcar was a big hit with the big car fans.

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The one hour photo place is besieged by wild Power Tour photogs, it turns into a 4 hour photo place before we are done...! Sunny weather lets the locals show up with their rides for display purposes.  On the way out,  gangs of car fanatics line the sides of the streets and all over passes, waving, taking pictures, encouraging smoky burnouts, laughing at the natural gas car...etc... the car show was held at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds... they will sell you a huge-ass can of Foster's Lager in a paper bag, but when you ask for a straw they know you are from out of town!!!

Day Three

I drove the night before to get to Fredericksburg VA so as to avoid the early morning weirdness the Power Tour loves to throw at you.  I have half a memory of the Sportsman's Pub and some talk of Winston Cup racing, a used pick up truck for sale and a missing ladies pocketbook... I also remember a few longneck Budweiser's and pretzels for dinner.  Leaving my Red Sox cap at the motel and wearing my Dale Earnhardt hat made all the difference despite my Yankee accent.  I had a great breakfast and waited for the Power Tour to drive by on our way to Charlotte NC for our next car show stop.  By doing this I got to see what others see.  A very long line of cars approaching and being lead by a black Chevy van with flames painted on the sides. 

The noise, the smell... the... oops!  Maybe if I had remembered to take my camera out of my luggage I would have got a picture of that memorable sight. 

Time to get in the car and join them, by the way, try not to leave cups of coffee just laying around because when you drive off in a big hurry and go to take a sip - the fact the cup is miles behind you gets in the way of enjoying your favorite caffeinated beverage!  Java withdrawal is a sad thing to be sure... especially on the road. 

I stop at the City of Richmond VA's utility yard, the guy there is a little confused, the other guy I spoke with months ago is a "suit" in an office nowhere near the fleet yard.  He asked if I was with a magazine... I told him I was driving with the people from Hot Rod Magazine down to Florida.  He was puzzled then asked, "So you don't work with those guys from Car & Driver who were in here months ago trying to drive their natural gas powered Volvo to California?" 

"No Sir, but I have read their article..."
"Oh yeah? Can you mail me a copy?"
"No problem, give me your address." 

It was James O. Nelson Jr. himself, as seen in the Car & Driver article... 

For those of you who don't know, C&D wrote up a pretty shabby article about how 2 of their staffers tried to drive a bi-fuel CNG Volvo cross country ONLY using CNG, of course they failed, and the deck seemed to be stacked against them on purpose... Oliver Stone where are you? (big oil lobbyists behind the scenes sabotaging CNG compressors?)   They ONLY got to Colorado before not being able to go on.  They got fuel in Richmond, promised the guy a copy of the article then forgot all about him! No wonder he gave me the "skunk eye" when I pulled in. 

One of the photos in the article is of the driver holding a gun to the empty Volvo that is now parked on the side of the road and his hand is over his eyes as if he's going to shoot a lame horse! Hysterical! 

He said it'd be OK if I refueled, the refueling location was not in "downtown", but it wasn't exactly in "Sarajevo" either, as the C&D guys wrote.  A few lost minutes after making the mistake of following an authoritative looking sign directing me away from the highway, but with a full tank of CNG, I am back on the road trying to catch up with the Power Tour.  See a pattern developing?  I finally start passing some hot rods that were on the way, some with engine troubles (surrounded by well-wishers, the very helpful and the very nosey), others just sight-seeing, one poor chap pulled over and being given a lecture by a police officer, I decided it'd be poor form to pull over and take any action photos, but you know the thought certainly came to mind! 

I got more CNG at the Charlotte station of the Piedmont Natural Gas. 

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A bunch of guys come out of the fleet garage when they heard my new Flowmaster muffler and see what I am driving... when pressed they let me leave after I take a group photo, one makes the observation I am a Dale Earnhardt fan, when I try to pay they laugh and refuse my money but let me leave only if I do a tire smoking burnout in the parking lot... I oblige and they applaud as the "suits" upstairs in their offices look out the windows aghast at my "performance"....!  Hey! I'm a damn yankee on vacation, what do they expect? 

I look at the car and it's a mess, lots of road dust on it, so I go to the local self-serve car wash, drop a coupla quarters in the machine and proceed to wash the car, no real printed instructions to speak of, except a large sign warning against operating the machinery while intoxicated, which must be a real problem as the trash can is half full of beer cans and Moonpie wrappers, yum-yum, they are not just for breakfast anymore!   The beer that is... 

Well, too bad I didn't ask for instructions despite the fact that it would have drawn undue attention to myself. "Well lookie here, looks like we got ourselves a READER!"  Because not 3 minutes into the wash the high pressure washing wand gets away from me and blasts about 3 layers of my skin off of my left hand!  It felt like, like... nothing I had ever felt before.  The car is clean, if I can keep the blood off of the interior I will be all set.  Which is a nice new expression I have heard on the road, like when you're done looking at the menu at Waffle House, "Are you all set?".

That means are you ready to order.  Then when you're done eating, "Are you all set?".  That means do you want anything else.  When you walk into a place with blood dripping off of your hand, "Are you all set?".  That means, "we just mopped the floor, do you mind bleeding outside for awhile?".

I arrive at the huge parking lot at Charlotte Knights Stadium sucking on my own blood like some kind of Gothic freak vampire dude.  Just in time for some really good pulled pork barbeque sandwiches, smothered in either "mustard" or "tomato" based BBQ sauces.  The mustard sauce tasted as if it had more vinegar to it, whereas the tomato tasted slightly sweeter overall. 

YES, I got one of each, I was hungry!

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The Knights are the AAA team in the area, which has nothing to do with the Auto Assoc. of America.  The entertainment is the Southern rock band .38 Special.  Who I had not seen since they performed at the Mid-Hudson Civic Center in Poughkeepsie NY warming up for Molly Hatchet, or was it The Outlaws?  To get the crowd riled up they begin throwing SWAG into the crowd, SWAG is an acronym that means "Sealed With A Gift", as in hats and t- shirts that have various sponsors logos on them; Motel 6, Holley, Edelbrock, Hot Rod Magazine, Flowmaster, etc.  By the end of the Tour I had 4 free shirts and 3 free hats.  The local Impala SS club helped park cars and when they saw my 1993 Caprice they let me park with them, sort of off to the side, but not in the parking lot equivalent "Siberia", where the rest of the folks who were not exactly on time had to park. 

I decide to drive to Gastonia NC and get a room, when I ask the lady at the front desk where the local BBQ action is all she hears is "action" and tries to direct me to place called "Leather and Lace", so I ask her if they have ribs.  She looks at me funny.  Was it my New England accent? 

Day Four

In the AM I drive to the Gastonia office of PSNC, Public Service of North Carolina, and find a real laidback scene. "Ya want gas? Sure... take it."  Self serve and no payment needed.  They were thankful someone used the refueling gizmo that month!   Another morning spent in a Waffle House and infusing coffee into my tired self.  I was ALL SET!  I see activity on the interstate, the Power Tour is approaching!!!  Hold onto your wallets folks, this trip is getting expensive and we are not yet in the tourist Mecca of Florida!  The car won't start, so I switch it to gasoline mode and warm it up, then switch it over to natural gas.  Hmmmmmm... was there a reason they gave me the CNG for free?  All was well, then some rain while driving through South Carolina slowed things down. 

All the while I had been watching the many participants drive past me, we all waved at each other and managed to set aside our differences re: Ford vs. Chevy, carbs vs. fuel injection, Goodyears vs. all other tires, etc... 

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I did notice something very cool, which was that folks with plates from the New England area were very friendly and at the designated gas stops would come over and ask where I was from and what natural gas is, is it propane?  No, but I'd like to hook up a gas grill to my car anyway!  Make your own BBQ.  What I realized was that in an event like this, strangers are just friends you haven't met yet!  Like these guys from Massachusetts in the Chromaro waving as they blow my doors off!  Again!

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We drive through Gaffney SC and there to greet us is a large water tower painted like a peach!  Ah shucks!  By this time I have listened to most of my cassette tapes at least once and the radio stations have only got progressively "weirder" as I got further South.  They play BOTH kinds of music, Country AND Western... Oops, forgot Gospel.  I get some more one hour photos done and try to find a compilation tape of soundtracks off of "spaghetti western" movies, but to no avail.  The last Sergio Leone tribute cassette was bought up by a wayward trucker.  I did find the James Bond movie soundtrack compilation for $5 and buy it.  There is something inherently surreal about pulling into a car show blaring the 007 theme.  Or the Darth Vader theme music from Star Wars for that matter.  "Lord Vader, your car is ready!"

More BBQ, less CNG along the way.  I actually forgot to stop at the CNG station in Spartanburg SC as I was trying to keep up with a bunch of folks that call themselves the Over Drive Gang, more about them later... we arrive in style at a rainy Georgia International Horse Park, technically part of the Olympic Village, in Conyers GA. 

I run into a guy with a 1970 Olds Cutlass that blew a tire on the drive to Conyers.   That and he almost lost control and ended up in the weeds off to the side, lucky the Tourers behind him saw what had happened and gave him a hand.... whew!  Good thing nothing bad has happened to me so far!  Knock wood... can't find ANY wood for 5 minutes... worried about tempting fate and find a Woody wagon at the car show, not sure if that is real wood of laminated plastic faux woodgrain... hope for the best, plan for the   worst... 

"Coach" Joe Gibbs and Winston Cup driver Bobby Labonte's Pontiac "Wider is Better" Grand Prix limo pulls in sans Coach and Bobby, mine is the black Caprice with the trunk open in the background... story is that they got tired of renting limos and made their own!

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I run into Gray Baskerville again, he's now sick due to bad dose of "swamp buggy stew", I ask if it wasn't the "cooter chowder". He laughs and shakes his head, knowing what "cooter" is.  In the SouthLand some folks eat "cooter", which is another name for TURTLE.  Same way we call "milk shakes" in Boston "frappes", which really confuses tourists who think they are getting ice cream when they make the rookie error of ordering a milk shake, which is actually more like a NY eggcream.  Just don't order cooter chowder in the South, OK? 

I drive to the motel in Stockbridge GA and proceed to forget to ask for a wake up call.   After a few drinks at the local watering hole, I am very glad my room is next to the guy on the Power Tour who drives a 1948 Jaguar with a high-performance Chevy 350 engine it.  J.T.R. is a company that sells swap kits and manuals, JTR stands for Jaguars That Run

Day Five

When he fires that puppy up I am awake and out the door in a fog (both mental and weather-wise) that would have made an Englishman proud!  I left my hair dryer in their bathroom.  Oh well.  I hear holding your head out the car window at top speed dries hair real quick.  Luckily I am driving into a very hot and humid part of the country. 

I drive up on the "backdoor" of the Over Drive Gang. 

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They are a crew of folks, mostly late-model GMC and Chevy truck guys, who have automatic OverDrive transmissions (good for mileage is the official GM propaganda).   Fact is, they cruise at very high speeds and are armed with radar detectors and CB radios.  They see me and ask if I want to try to become an honorary member. 

"Sure, what do I have to do?" 

Try to keep up with them for 2 gas stops. Oh man! Sounds easy enough at first, the stops are only roughly 100 miles apart, and at the speeds we are driving.... uh, OK, let me put it this way, after about 30 miles I had lost them as they rapidly became small dots on the horizon... ya down with ODG?  Not me... I wasn't fast enough!

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I make my way and again forget to stop at the local CNG outlet, City of Macon.  Oh well.  Fail to plan, plan to fail. Drink too much and get up late and pay the rest of the day, is another fine expression.  When I check my plans I see they were not open until 9AM anyway and I drove past there at 7:30AM, so, it was all for the best after all.  I think maybe Macon Bacon would be a good name for a brand of bacon.  Then I think the successful commercial catch-phrase would ahve to be, "Macon Bacon: Better Than You Know What!"

When I cross the Georgia-Florida border I see some more friends from the road; the couple in their 1953 Studebaker, designed by Art Deco guru Raymond Loewy. 

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I catch up easily to the dudes from Mass. in their 4.6 liter Mustang GT, 3 guys in a Dodge Dart from Illinois on steroids (the Dart, not the guys!), the "Gumout" project car that is a 1966 El Camino that is going to be won by a lucky contestant in their giveaway at the end of October, AND the Florida State Police on the side of the road.  No wonder I was able to catch up with so many of them all at once! 

He sees me, I see him... I slow down and he waves, maybe thinking my old Caprice that was a former taxi is a cop car... whew!  I wave back... he follows and drives past REAL slow, looking at my vanity plate that reads CYPHER, the Flowmaster and "Heavy Chevy" decals in the back window.  He drives past and I am again alone on the highway.  Then it happens... a slow-motion montage of me knocking fake wood floods my mind. 

I smell sweet burning antifreeze coming in my vents.  No cars in front of me, a rest area one mile ahead... as I pull in I can see a little plume of smoke wafting up from my engine.  I stop the car and discover a pin-hole leak of coolant dancing off of the hot exhaust manifold.  Oh man!  What a PITA! 

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An hour and $10 later I got a new hose hooked up and am back on the road, but woefully behind the tour, so I take my time and drive through Jacksonville and remember to get CNG at TECO-People's Energy station, they charge me for the CNG, which is fine with me as I am lucky just to be driving at all! 

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So I get to Daytona International Speedway , which is also the home of the "Action Attraction", Daytona USA... 

DaytonaUSA.jpg (47671 bytes)Again, HOLD ONTO YOUR WALLETS FOLKS!  Objects in display case may be more than you have on you. 

Bill France Sr. was the grandfather of NASCAR and had the Speedway built in 1959, what a visionary!  He found a "goldmine" in Florida, which was a large chunk of land with "quality dirt", of which Florida has precious little, so they dug a huge lake and used the dirt to create the large banked corners. Seeing the pictures from the old days brought a tear to my eye. 

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Those imbeciles!  What were they thinking?  Racing on the sandy beach before the Speedway was built?  Amazing people... crazy people... same as today.  I entered the Power Tour's "Crazy Hat Contest" and as we of festooned headgear stood on the stage we got our photo taken, so while Hot Rod Magazine may be able to ignore the natural gas Caprice, I still may get in on the merits of my large Chevy Bowtie logo hat, which I made using an old hat and a hood ornament off of a 1970 Chevy truck!  A true "bolt-on" if ever there was one. 

I decided to stay at the Grand Prix Motel, which has a racing theme on the outside, but not on the inside. "Welcome Race Fans" proclaims the banner.

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A1A runs along the Atlantic Ocean and is a cruisers paradise, then the locals get into the act, mostly pimply high schoolers with Mustangs, Firebirds and Camaros their folks bought them for not dropping out like their other delinquent friends.  Most of the windows are tinted in Florida, so at the stop lights it can get difficult to see who is your potential street drag racing partner, retirees in a rented convertible Mustang or does that guy have a supercharger and nitrous under the hood?  Regardless, I cruise along A1A, looking at the high-rise hotels and condos while the theme music to the James Bond film "Goldfinger" blares on my stereo.  Maybe having a gas grill hooked up to the car isn't such a crazy idea, or an ejector seat, or a... 

I drive out to Holly Hill to see where the CNG refueling stop is, just so I have plenty of time for a breakfast biscuit without the panic of trying to find an address while confused with a Florida version of "rush hour".  I find the office and park with my parking lights and my red interior light on while I take notes for this chronicle, I almost cause a rear end collision as a hearty brake checker thinks I'm a cop. 

Day ?

I am in a high speed fog and it is Day Six... A fast food breakfast and a more CNG at the Holly Hill TECO Energy office, where they sell lots of propane and little CNG, apparently they also have a noise situation there requiring them to placate their neighbors by not having an actual compressor working, so instead they have a slow-fill set-up that takes just a few more minutes to get filled up.  Oh yeah, I had to pay. 

The shortest of the runs, all of 100 miles or so to Ocala FL, home of the "Big Daddy" Don Garlits Drag Racing Museum

On the way I drive through some forest that had been burned last year in the fires that postponed a car race in Daytona.  I see a guy coming toward me in the other lane who looks like Satan in a Ford pick-up truck who flicks his lit cigarette butt directly at my windshield.  I resist the temptation to revert back to my role as roving ambassador of "goodwill" and instead stick pins in my Rob Zombie doll. 

OK, stop laughing!  Just because a Pat Buchanan for President guy in a Ford pickup truck showed up and paid his $10 to show his truck and hand out hate literature does not mean I was out of my element!  I resisted the temptation to debate him and moved on.   Was it Satan under that mask?  Regrettably, the gift shop did not sell what I most needed, BS repellant or a BS detector. 

The history of drag racing is a confused "history" at best... the Southern guys vs. the California guys... the fact is that after WWII many flyboys felt the need for speed and went so far as to put plane engines into stripped down cars.  Now that's power!!!! Front engine dragsters where the driver sat with his legs on each side of the driveshaft disappeared after Don Garlits' accident in the early 1960's where he lost part of his foot.  After that they became rear engine cars.  I learned a lot and paid homage to the crazy straight line folks who made the old "quarter mile waltz" a national anthem for some of us. 

The weather turned foul again. 

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Rain and more rain, then I decided to listen to the radio.  Turns out Hurricane Irene was coming, that fact combined with the original plan for me to leave the Power Tour and go to visit my fiancee Juliette in Boca Raton where she was visiting her grandmother, made it an easy decision.  Drive towards the hurricane!  Duh!

OK... except by the time I got to Ft. Pierce the 40+ mile per hour winds were having their way with the tractor trailers that were not supposed to be blowing into my lane.   OK, so the Power Tour continued onto Panama City Beach out on the far end of the Florida "panhandle" for 2 days of sun and fun.  So I wasn't going to be part of the LONG HAUL GANG that get their names in the magazine, but, there is always next year.  I futz with the cassette player and blindly grab an old compilation tape I had made, first sone, the Scorpion's "Rock you like a hurricane", so appropriate I figure fate is trying to tell me something important this time. 

It is now getting dark, and darker along the side of I-95 South as the power seems to be out at a few of the exits.  Before I can't see at all, palm fronds, those reflective orange road cones, and some unidentifiable small animals are flying by.  I pull over to another Motel 6 looking for my lost hair dryer... did they not know to send it ahead?  Except the shingles are flying off the roof and as I am checking in the lights flicker off for a few seconds... Oh how I love a Florida vacation (repeat as necessary). 

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The lights go out completely for 3 hours as I stand vigil in my doorway watching the Florida Power & Light crew drive in, take a look around, then head for the local Cracker Barrel restaurant as there is little they can actually do in all that wind and rain.  So I call Boca where there is also a blackout going on.  The next day there were flooded streets and a lot of debris all over the place.  A downed electric line electrocuted a woman and her 2 kids when they walked outside to take a look without shoes on. 

So then what happened?  We went to Ft. Lauderdale and got CNG at an Amoco station!   Woo woo!  Hooray!  God Bless Amerika!

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Rode an airboat in the Everglades and saw gators, spent 2 days on Sanibel Island... then back to Boca for a friendly meeting with a local 9C1 fan!

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Then off to Kennedy Space Center for another rainy and tearful sojourn, we are amazing folks to have gone to the moon, and back to Daytona for another last minute pilgrimage at the start of BiketoberFest... when all the Harley- Davidson riding folks take over the place and have a wild party... the line outside the Hog Heaven BBQ place was TOO long for me to wait in... at the end I had to construct a motto for the top of my windshield by taking a GM Performance Parts decal that read, "More than just power" and cutting the letters up to spell out in Latin, "Nihil Me Pavet", which means... Nothing Stops Me...

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I got that one off of the 1907 Fiat that is on display at the Museum of Transportation in Brookline Mass... You'd be surprised how many people do not read Latin...  I took the Amtrak AutoTrain from Sanford FL, near Orlando at 4:30PM and arrived in Lorton VA, just South of DC at 9AM the next day... there are 2 payphones in Sanford, only one of which would let me make a calling card call. 

Happy Motoring!

Contact: James L. Cypher, One Beacon St., Somerville MA 02143
Tel: 617-576-6923