Welcome to the final chapter of Mustang USA. If you’ve been reading all 13 entries prior to this (get a job), you’ll know that nearly all of the 8,000+ miles chronicled so far have been greatly enhanced by the presence of my passengers/co-drivers. First there was my Dad, who joined me from Chicago to Los Angeles via Route 66. Then my brother hopped in for a short blast up the Pacific Coast Highway from LA to San Francisco. Then my girlfriend flew into San Francisco and helped me get up to Northern Idaho. And finally my Mom, who bravely rode along all the way to South Dakota and gave me lots of gum.
Now, as I pull out of Omaha, Nebraska for the last leg of the trip there isn’t anyone or anything in the Mustang’s passenger seat except a big Nikon camera and an embarrassing amount of trash. This means I have the freedom to become a dirty, car-loving hobo and overdose on as much automobilia as I can find for the next two days.
Get ready. All those pictures in my previous posts of sunsets and trees and cups of warm clam chowder are like carbon offset for what’s going to happen next.
First, I stopped in Iowa to pray to the soulless, creepy eyes of the Rusty Wallace boulder for safe passage down the rest of I-80.
Rusty’s boulder is on the grounds of Iowa Speedway, right off of I-80. Having watched racing here on TV a million times I had to pull off and check it out. You might be wondering why it looks like my car is parked in the fence. That’s because I forget to pull the handbrake. I watched through the camera as it gently rolled right into that fence. I should probably be banned from Iowa Speedway.
Of course hell is real. I’m driving on it. I was immediately nostalgic for the the wide open, traffic-free highways of the West the second I merged onto this rutted hellscape of semi-trucks and left-lane cruisers.
In order to keep to my schedule, I had to just put my head down and beeline to Chicago. Which means the most exciting thing that happened the rest of the day was stopping at the “biggest truck stop in the country.” Yeah, I’m sorry. Believe me, it gets better tomorrow.
The truck stop was massive though. It had approximately five restaurants and at least 37,000 individual pieces of shit for sale that no one will ever need. I bought a coffee.
When I launched out on the trip a month before my first stop was Chicago, but I didn’t get to see my cousins who live there. So we fixed that this time. After the eye-wateringly boring all-day trip down I-80 there was nothing better than to sit down for a couple beers with this handsome crew. On the left, cousin Caroline and her boyfriend Doug, and on the right cousin Jacqueline and her husband David. Thanks for staying up late, you guys.
The next day I headed south towards Indianapolis, and the legendary Indy 500 Hall of Fame. I used to live in Louisville, KY so I should have known/planned this better, but I had forgotten an important detail about the time zones in this part of the country: Indianapolis is on Eastern time, and Chicago is Central. I realized this on the drive as I was mentally congratulating myself for allotting at least an hour to check out the museum. Wrong. I would have just over five minutes, if I was lucky.
After a bit of hurried explanation and begging, they did let me in. For exactly five minutes. At least I didn’t have to pay. It would have to be an extremely quick lap.
Unlike, say, the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles, where their huge labyrinthian building helps create a unique narrative for the cars on display, the Indy Hall of Fame is basically a huge room. A room that is packed wheel-to-wheel with utterly priceless racing artifacts. The majority of cars that have won the Indy 500 are here. There are a couple replicas, but most of these are the real deal. These cars are tiny, and look incredibly delicate. Which is surely not how you could describe the attachments of the men who drove them.
I unfortunately don’t have a lot of history lessons here since I didn’t have much time in the museum. At least I have a sense of what I missed. Definitely worth coming back to learn about each of these machines.
Check out this twin-cam Ford V8 from the mid-sixties, probably putting out around 500 horsepower. Imagine that lump right behind your head. It hurt my ears just looking at it.
Parnelli Jones was one of those guys who could literally drive anything fast. In addition to his Indy 500 accomplishments he drove sports cars, stock cars, and it was cool to see this rare off-road Oly Bronco on display here.
I remember being a kid in Idaho and reading about the Spirit Of America land speed record cars and thinking they were just about the coolest thing ever. The blue one in the back, Sonic 1, ran 600 miles per hour at Bonneville in 1965. Even 50 years later, that’s batshit crazy.
Here was one of the rarest things in the room, the 1967 STP Paxton turbine car. This thing was an all-wheel drive, single speed monster with a airplane engine right next to the driver. That driver was (who else?) Parnelli Jones and he was 8 laps away from winning the Indy 500 with it in 1967 when the transmission let go. I wish I could revisit that era of motorsports when you could show up with such a radical machine and be allowed to compete for the win.
I felt lucky that I got to visit the Indy 500 Hall of Fame, even if it was for five minutes. At least drive to Indianapolis wasn’t for nothing. But I was still feeling a little let down as I walked around near the speedway. Then I saw this: the Dallara Indy Car Factory. I didn’t know this was here. Dallara is the company that builds all the chassis for the current Indy cars racing today. I got excited, and walked up to the door.
I got even more excited when the door opened, and they gladly let me into their brand-new company museum. Amazing. Having just come from the historical tour of the Indy 500, seeing the current world of Indy cars was a huge and welcome surprise.
Here’s a scale model Dallara used for wind tunnel testing. It’s only about 3 feet long and made of carbon fiber. Aero is pretty much everything in open wheel racing, and Dallara spends a lot of time and money on it.
The Dallara facility’s museum is really well done. There is a ton of information about the science behind the cars and cool to see things like these prototype drawings.
Here’s a closed cockpit prototype series Chevy that was driven by Ricky Taylor last year.
Dallara sometimes gives tours of the actual factory, but on this day I was told that there was a “government job” happening back there and no one was allowed to see. Oh well. I’ll just sit here and play iRacing in this Indy chassis until you kick me out, thanks. Oh, and Dallara has a european-style cafe next door where they made me my favorite day-beer: a Guinness with a shot of espresso. To summarize: the Dallara factory rules. Finding it randomly made my Indianapolis trip complete.
Speaking of random finds, this rat rod was right across the street from Dallara. Indy has a lot of interesting car culture, and I felt like I just scratched the surface. I promised myself that I would be back for the Indy 500 in 2015. Reluctantly, I jumped back into the Mustang and set out for dinner in Columbus, Ohio.
I hadn’t been to Columbus in many years, and was pleasantly surprised by the busy downtown nightlife . I had a burger at Barley’s in the German District. Was good. Had just enough energy to lift the camera towards this awesome old newspaper sign before plugging away towards Zanesville. I can’t believe that tomorrow is the last day of the trip. And it would turn out to be a long one.
This is it: the last day. I don’t usually eat at Denny’s, but when I do, it’s in Zanesville, Ohio. This ’50s diner-style Denny’s was right across the street from my hotel. It was a good place to strategize the day while drinking endless coffee. It was Saturday, it was sunny, and I was sure there would be some car shows and/or racing to be found between me and New York City.
I came up with a loose plan. I would get on the interstate and head towards a car show in eastern Pennsylvania for the afternoon, and then towards some good grass roots short track racing in the western part of the state to cap off the night. I immediately failed to adhere to my plan. Out of Zanesville, I found myself on the National Road, which is one of the oldest routes in America. It felt right and I decided to keep exploring.
Ever seen one of these? It’s literally a drive-through convenience store. You can drive your car in there, a guy comes up to the window and you can buy a pack of gum or a Gatorade or 20 cases of beer. Mind blowing.
As I was getting ready to jump back on the interstate to try and find that car show, I had to pee pretty bad. So I went up the road a few miles to find a bathroom in Cambridge, Ohio. Where I found a car show. A really big one. OK, serendipity, you win. I almost drove right past this.
This wasn’t just a cruise-in for guys with 10-footer ’57 Chevys and those god damn midget mannequins hanging out of the trunk. There were judges, awards, and some very nice cars.
Case in point: this 1969 Z/28 Camaro was perhaps the most amazing Camaro I’ve ever seen. A huge money resto-mod build. This thing was stunning.
If you watch a lot of nerdy car shows like I do, you’re used to seeing things like this on TV. But in person, this kind of build (easily a six-figure project) is downright inspirational.
I couldn’t help but be drawn to this ’71 Dodge Dart Swinger, because I used to have one. Except mine was no clean V8 like this; I co-owned it with my friend and it was the ultimate grandma car: three shades of green, “slant 6” engine, three on the tree column shift. I remember the routine for coming to a stop with its tiny drum brakes was something like this: see a red light, push on the rock hard brake pedal, and a whole lot of nothing happens. Push harder, and notice that the car is still traveling exactly the same speed as before. Push as hard as possible on the pedal, shout “stop, god damn it,” then listen to everyone scream as the wheels lock up and the car goes sideways across 8th Avenue. That’s fun. And still nothing cooler than rolling all the windows down in a car with no B pillar and cruising around with your friends.
OK I know I’m not alone here but the 2nd-gen Charger is one of my ultimate dream cars. My obsession, naturally, can be traced back to the Dukes Of Hazzard (check out the original “General Lee” we found in part 13). I love it particularly when you see an orange one that hasn’t been given the Hazzard County treatment. Only thing better to me would be a triple black one.
Stop, god damn it! I might need some alone time with this ’68 Charger. So Bullitt. Laser straight black paint. Agh.
This low riding Impala wagon is just cool. Bonus points for the side exhaust. 10/10 would cruise.
I felt really lucky that I stumbled across this show. Was exactly what I wanted. An all-American car show in the ultimate Main Street USA town. I had to peel myself away though. I need to be in Brooklyn by tonight and I’m still in fucking Ohio.
As I moved east into Pennsylvania, I continued on some awesome back roads through the countryside.
The rolling hills of Pennsylvania are lush and full of fun, empty country highways. I have to remember to come out here next time I need an escape from New York.
It’s hammer down time. My GPS says I will be getting to Susquehanna Speedway Park in Newberrytown, PA at about 9pm. I hope I won’t miss the racing.
I didn’t miss it. Much mud will fly around this little 1/4 mile track before the night is over. For anyone who has never seen dirt racing before, there is really nothing like the first time you see a couple dozen cars go sideways around turn four when they drop the green flag. It’s hilarious.
There were the very quick Sprint cars (a la Tony Stewart, he wasn’t there though, we all survived), as well as all manners of sideways mud slinging Modifieds, Super Stocks, and even…
Some properly moist mud out there. Was helpful to keep the dust down. I, and my cameras, were still a mess though at the end of the night.
Dirt track racing means lots of families. I like all the access to the pits, and the unpretentiousness of the crowds and racers alike.
Not sure what this dude thought of me, though. He looks like might want to mash my face.
There was only one major wreck all night. It was on the other side of the track from where I was shooting and everyone went running. Fortunately, the drivers were OK.
Getting this close was probably not the smartest thing I did all day but it was exciting. Especially when I got hit in the back of the head with a flying clump of mud and thought I had died.
After a few hours of watching the dirt racing, I was fried. I still had a couple hours to go to get back into New York, but I felt pretty good about making the last day of the trip count.
The glow of New York City started to become visible in the sky. Just like when I left a month earlier, New York City traffic will be much easier at night.
A yellow cab led me through the Holland Tunnel and finally, back to New York. I looked down at the trip odometer and it read 9,005 miles as I crossed out of New Jersey. Holy shit.
Getting back to the city after nearly a month, 9,000 miles and having passed through over 1/3 of our nation’s states was actually kind of weird. I parked the car on my block, turned off the ignition, and felt like I hadn’t left at all. It all went by so fast. I also felt disappointed, but not about how the trip went. The trip was better than I ever thought it would be, full of adventure, great driving, and strengthening the relationships that already meant so much to me. No, I was disappointed only because it was over.
If you ever get the chance to do drive coast to coast and back, do it. Even if it’s just half a chance, figure it out, take the time and do it. It was awesome, and I’ll never forget it. I really could have kept going for another 9,000 miles. There’s always next summer! Thanks for reading, everyone.
MUSTANG USA, CONTINUED
This July, I am going to drive from my home in Brooklyn, New York, to Los Angeles and back again. It's just something I've always wanted to do. It's a…
Loved your trip. Currently planning my own. Thanks for taking me along. As a child I once rode in the rumble seat of ??? and as an adult I once had an MG-TC. My upcoming cross-country will be in a Toyota Prius.
Thanks, Ann. Love those MGs.
Wow, such a great series! You’ve definitely motivated me to visit the east coast. The lush plains of PA, and it’s always been my dream to drive on the Brooklyn bridge.
I’ve driven all around the west coast US so I know PCH pretty well. Such a lovely road.
Thanks again for this!
– Don from Calgary, Canada
Thanks for reading. I hope you make it over the Brooklyn Bridge someday!
Thanks for sharing your epic adventure Dave! Offer is still open for a place to crash in Omaha if you decide to do a repeat next year!
Thanks for sharing your trip. As a former naval person and the son of a former naval person I made the cross country trip with family many times. Your trip hit many memories and your Mustang photos are awesome. When I retire from teaching physics I may take the wife and the 2010 Mustang GT convertible and follow your path…Pete