I had a pretty full dance card for the last week of the trip, including another visit to Nissan, a video shoot in Los Angeles, and a bunch of interesting destinations along the way that I wanted to see. My first stop after the Grand Canyon was the crystal-gazing, new-age, energy-vortex, spa resort of Sedona, AZ. I had used all that off-season/mid-week goodness to book a swanky hotel/spa room for less than I’d paid for a Comfort Inn before, with the thought that I’d get a massage or something to offset 37,000 miles of sitting in a 47 year old car seat. The room was great, and the hotel was very nice and very friendly, but I couldn’t quite get into the whole ‘spa’ atmosphere, as that’s never really been my scene. In the end, I just sort of used it as a very comfy home base for a couple of days while I did some hiking and exploring around the area.
The landscape around Sedona is very pretty; lots of big red rock formations and canyons and some pretty good hikes around the outskirts. I spent the first morning taking care of a couple of errands; I got my hair cut and then found a camera shop to replace the polarizing filter that I’d accidentally dropped into the Grand Canyon a few days before (if you absolutely, positively want to lose something for good, drop it into the Grand Canyon.) After that, I did a few hours of hiking in the area just southwest of town, then drove out to the old copper mining town of Jerome (about 30 minutes away) for some lunch and a fun drive over Route 89 to Prescott.
Sedona itself was pretty quiet and deserted in the evening, with most places closing around 8pm. I’m not sure if that’s due to the off-season thing, or if it was just time for yoga and crystals, but the only open spot I found was a little Mexican food spot, where I grabbed a quesadilla and had a nice talk with some fellow New Jersey natives (from Montclair). We traded ‘vacation pictures’ for a bit; they were out there for a yoga retreat, and I was of course a wandering hobo, so it turned into a nice little get together.
The next morning, I got up and got out early, because I had one of the longer days of the trip in front of me. The plan was to make it to Phoenix (actually, just south of Phoenix at Casa Grande) that night, but I had a few stops to make first. Like most of the rest of this trip, I’d be taking the long way there.
The first stop was a bit of a bust—I headed back east toward Meteor Crater, but I got there too early and the place was closed. It’s a privately owned venture, owned by the family of the guy who first bought the land and the crater, Daniel Barringer. Back in 1903, Barringer was the first guy to (correctly) theorize that the crater had been formed by a meteor; prior to that, various people had thought that it was the result of some sort of volcanic or geologic activity. Unfortunately for Barringer, his physics acumen wasn’t as good as his crater-spotting (although to be fair, nobody’s physics acumen was that great at the time.) Based on bits of evidence around the crater, he thought (correctly, again) that the crater was caused by the impact of a large iron meteorite. He calculated (incorrectly this time) that to make a crater that big, the meteorite would have to weigh somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 million tons, and that he could probably find all that iron at the bottom of the crater. Meteoric iron ore is some high quality stuff, so if he was right, mining all that out would be worth more than $1 billion in 1903 dollars. Barringer staked a claim, formed a company, and got to work digging. He spent the next 27 years digging, mining a shaft down over 1,000 feet in search of all that iron, but never found anything more than bits and pieces. The reality of the situation was that due to the impact velocity, that crater could be formed by a much smaller meteor than he had calculated, something less than half of one percent of his estimated size. On top of that, the majority of the meteor would have vaporized on impact, leaving very little of that smaller meteor to recover. The biggest chunk ever recovered was only about 1,400lbs, which is big for an iron meteor, but still a very far cry from 100 million tons.
Sadly, I didn’t get to see the crater, but it’s not that far from home, so maybe I’ll catch it when I swing back to New Mexico to see White Sands. The next stop was to see some more rocks, but these were rocks of a different kind: The ‘trees’ of the Petrified Forest National Park.
The drive to Petrified Forest took me through Holbrook, AZ, one of the more famous stops on old Route 66 (although it didn’t make it into the song; maybe it didn’t rhyme well enough.) There’s quite a bit of the old stores and motels from 66 left there, including the Wigwam Motel (“Sleep in a Wigwam Tonight!”), which was the inspiration for the Cozy Cone Motel in “Cars” (and at Disney California Adventure). If I had planned it out more, I’d have probably stayed in a wigwam myself, but I had some ground to cover today.
Petrified Forest is the result of a specific set of events that occurred over the past 200 million years or so. Giant conifers grew along big rivers during the late Triassic, and due to storms and natural erosion, some of them would be washed into the rivers in one big piece and would eventually travel downstream until they reached the plains below were mud and sediment had built up, where they’d get stuck. The trees would be rapidly covered by more mud and sediment until they were cut off from the oxygen in the air and would remain in good condition for a long time before decay set in. As more layers were deposited over the trees (including silica-rich volcanic ash), groundwater would seep down, carrying silica dissolved in it, and gradually seep into the trees. The silica would form quartz crystals in the cells and structure of the trees, gradually replacing the organic material, and leaving a perfect replica of the tree in solid quartz rock.
I have seen a lot of things on the trip that involve really long periods of time—the lava fields at Lassen and Craters of the Moon, the formations at Yellowstone, the entirety of Carlsbad Caverns, and a variety of dinosaur exhibits and locations. However, Petrified Forest was probably the place where the passage of time was most evident and in your face. The basic story—trees washed down into mud, mud covered them up, they became petrified, then erosion and uplift eventually exposed them—is a pretty easy one to follow, and it makes sense. Then you walk out into the fields of trees, and there they are…trees that fell over 200 million years ago, still looking almost exactly like they looked when they fell, encased in or on top of ground that looks exactly like dried mud. There’s really nothing to interpret or imagine; it’s right there in front of you, spelled out as clearly as just about any geologic story out there. I was constantly amazed at the detail with which the trees were preserved; I had to touch several of them and feel the coldness of the stone to believe that they were actually rock.
After gawking at the trees for a couple of hours and doing a couple of short hikes, I got back in the car and headed south on Route 77 through the Painted Desert toward Tucson, where I was having dinner with another bunch of Datsun guys. Jon, one of the Tucson Datsun gang, had dropped me an email a couple weeks ago asking if I was going through Tucson, and if so, would I like to meet up with him and some other Datsun guys for a meal--yet another bit of generosity of strangers on this trip. This was still about five hours away, so I got going.
The landscape between Petrified Forest and Tucson is really beautiful; big desert vistas and deep canyons, and farther south, forests of big Saguaro cacti. I went through Show Low (named after the results of a card game, according to legend…the main street is named “Deuce of Clubs”; i.e., the low card), through a gorgeous canyon at the Salt River, through the Tonto National Forest, past thousands of gigantic cacti, and eventually down to Tucson where I made a quick pit stop at Saguaro National Park to catch the sunset. The landscape there is amazing, with lots of vegetation beyond just the big cacti, and it was a great place to watch the sun set. With night falling and my dinner with the Datsun club awaiting, I headed out of Saguaro and over Gates Pass (which was interesting with one headlight) and down into Tucson to meet the guys.
They had just arrived at the restaurant when I got there, about 8 people, all big Z-car aficionados. These guys were hardcore Datsun fans, and very big into engine and suspension modifications, track days, and generally just driving the hell out of the cars. Definitely no trailer queens here; all of these guys were very much of the ‘performance before appearance’ school of thought, much like the Ratsun gang. They were great to hang out with, and the food was also excellent—yet another example of the amazing Datsun and sports car community that’s out there.
After dinner, I headed straight up I-10 for about an hour to Casa Grande, a little town just south of Phoenix, but more importantly, close to Nissan’s Arizona Technical Center, where I’d been invited to take a tour and possibly spend a little time on the test track.
My host Dale Herseth met me at the gate at 8:00am sharp. Dale is a big Datsun guy, and he’s got a Roadster (which he drove to the facility that day) as well as a really nice 320 pickup, a 1200, and some newer Nissans including a Frontier pickup. Dale was accompanied by Ray Solomon, the official Nissan photographer for the day. I was not allowed to shoot photos or even to bring a camera in, as there are always a number of new Nissan models being tested at the facility, and Nissan didn’t want any advance photos getting out, even inadvertently. However, I’d be allowed to keep and use any photos that Ray took (or that Dale and I took with a little point-and-shoot) that passed muster as not having any top secret stuff in them. (All photos of this visit courtesy Nissan USA)
We started out with a quick walking tour around the offices and employee areas, and then visited the chassis and engine testing areas, the “corral” where they kept all the camouflaged test cars (that’s a picture of the type of camo they use, not any of the cars that were there), and the four post shaker lab where Dale works (more on that in a bit.) I met several of the guys who set up and execute the testing procedures on all of the various aspects of the cars, then Dale took me for a quick tour of the test track area.
Nissan has one of the largest high speed testing ovals in the country, a 5.7 mile course with 35 degree banking (which is a lot steeper than it sounds, the NASCAR ovals at Talladega and Daytona are 33 and 31 degrees, respectively.) Inside the oval, they’ve got a wide variety of endurance, road surface, obstacle, and hazard courses to basically torture the cars and find out how they perform under real world conditions. There’s the “frame twist” course, which is two rows of alternately oscillating rises that will raise one corner of the car and drop the other at whatever speed you drive over it, which is a particularly nasty test. Other rough tests include the curb and pothole area, where they have curbs of various heights and profiles that they’ll drive the cars into, over, and along, with an especially cruel test where they’ll slide a car or truck sideways into a curb at speed to see what happens to the axle. Some of the potholes were big enough to swallow a Roadster whole; I can only imagine those are intended for the big trucks and Xterra.
One of the more interesting courses was the “Marketability” course. This was basically a road course on the inside of the oval, with the emphasis on “road.” They had gone to great lengths to replicate real-world conditions here, even to the point of going out and scanning/surveying sections of the 110 Freeway in Los Angeles, nasty bits of roadway in Brooklyn, and a number of other real streets with real problems, then exactly duplicating those surfaces here at the test course. In other areas, there were real road hazards from around the country, including a full menu of the different types of manhole covers used in various regions recessed at various depths, concrete utility boxes and covers, a whole range of different types of roadway expansion joints, a few different styles of railroad crossings, and a couple different types of cobblestone surfaces. For good measure, they also replicated a couple of difficult turns from racetracks, including the decreasing radius Turn 9 from Willow Springs and the Carousel from Sears Point. All of this stuff was strung together in one big track, with areas adjacent to each where you could drive around the obstacles and hazards you weren’t testing for. So, for example, if you wanted to spend all day driving over bad railroad crossings at various speeds, you could hit those to your hearts content and then just drive around the stuff you weren’t testing. In addition to all the “real” stuff that was replicated here, they also had some tests that were just pure torture, like big stones embedded in concrete at random intervals that just basically shook the hell out of the vehicle. Test drivers spent their whole day putting various vehicles with sound and vibration instrumentation on them through these courses, which has got to be one of the worst road trips ever. The lengths that Nissan went to in order to get a real-world picture of the kind of abuse the cars could expect to see on the road—and beyond—was pretty amazing. That’s some serious dedication at work there.
After the tour of the various courses, we headed back to the employee area for their monthly meeting, where they recognized employees for promotions and achievements, discussed various bits of news for Nissan and the Test Center, and got some free donuts. During this meeting, Anita MacFadden (Senior Manager of the Test Center) and Dale introduced me as a guest at the ATC, explained my trip and noted that I’d visited the factory and headquarters in Franklin, TN, welcomed me to the Center, and presented me with some Nissan souvenirs. They also asked me to say a few words to the group, which I did, and then we all went outside for a little look at the two Roadsters outside. I also got to meet Tom Matthews, the Director of the facility and the guy who gave permission for me to tour and see the track. It was neat for the guys to see a ’67 and a ’70 (Dale’s car) side by side and note the numerous differences that Nissan had introduced in just a couple of model years. There were also plenty of questions about the giant deer-shaped dent in the car, and everybody was very sympathetic about the damage.
After the meet ‘n greet, it was back to the track. One of the things that they had cleared for me to do was to get a ride in a GT-R around the high speed oval with one of their lead test drivers, Brett Lenger. For those of you unfamiliar with the GT-R, it’s fondly referred to as “Godzilla” in sports car circles, as it’s currently one of the fastest sports cars on the planet. The goal for the design of the car was to make an “accessible” supercar, one that mere mortals could drive very fast and very safely. To get there, Nissan equipped the car with all wheel drive, a twin turbo, 545HP 3.8 liter V-6, massive full-floating rotor brakes, a twin clutch, Formula One style paddle-shift gearbox, and an electronically adjustable suspension system. All this is coupled with a huge suite of driver aids and stability control software, which essentially provides a “get out of jail free” card to more ham-fisted drivers who might do things to upset the car under braking, cornering, or acceleration—the car will more or less take care of itself if things start getting a little too hairy. All of this translates into a zero to sixty time of less than three seconds, a zero to 100 time around 8.5 seconds, and a top speed of about 195MPH. The GT-R that I was in was a 2012 model and not a 2014, so its performance was slightly less than all that, but it was more or less impossible to tell from the passenger seat.
After asking if I was OK with going fast, they prepped the oval for a few high speed laps. That meant shutting down the oval to other test traffic, putting on helmets, and equipping the car with a strobe up front so other people could see us coming at Warp 5 if necessary. After we got geared up, Brett pulled out onto the oval and we wound it up to about 140 with about the same effort it takes for a normal car to pull out of the driveway. The “neutral steer” speed for the banking (i.e., the speed at which you need to be going in order not to need any steering input to turn the car around the course) is 135MPH, so the trip around the oval was entirely drama-free. The car wasn’t even breathing hard.
After a lap, Brett pulled over into one of the braking test areas where there was a long, straight run, told me to hang on, and then accelerated as hard as we could from zero back up to 140, which took about as long as it takes to read this sentence. I raced motorcycles for a long time (and still do, on occasion), including the bigger 1000cc bikes, so I’m accustomed to ridiculous rates of acceleration, but this was the first time I’d been in a car that could accelerate as hard as a big bike. And again, the whole exercise was completely free of drama—no wheelspin, no instability, just “I’d like to go 140 now Mr. GT-R, thank you very much”, and boom, there you were. The GT-R seemed almost bored.
As we approached our starting point, Brett asked me if I’d like to drive, and of course I said “yes, please and thank you.” He asked that I not take it over 100mph for safety reasons, but otherwise I could do whatever I wanted. We switched seats, and I rolled out onto the oval and eased it up to 100. Again, zero drama. For a sports car, it’s a big, heavy beast, weighing almost twice as much as the Roadster, but at speed that weight and size lent a sense of stability. We pulled over to the brake test area again to do a zero to 100 acceleration run, and yeah, that felt like about nine seconds. Basically, all you had to do was get off the brakes and stand on it, and the car took care of the rest.
Since we were having so much fun, Brett decided that we should hit the Marketability Course to check out the handling and braking. Naturally, I had no argument with that, so I drove over there, we swapped seats again, and Brett punched it for a couple of hot laps. The oval was pretty neat, but it was here that the car really showed its stuff. Hard acceleration, hard braking, high cornering speeds, and a variety of road conditions proved that all that electronic magic really worked. I could feel the stability control on the car kicking in at various locations on the track; if we got into a corner too hot, the braking controls and magic all wheel drive differentials would just figure out what was going on and make it better. You would have to work really, really hard to screw up in this car. It’s definitely a supercar for the masses.
The next adventure was to take the Roadster out on the oval. Dale came along with me, as I needed to have an ATC representative in the car to make sure I didn’t do anything dumb, but otherwise we were just out for a fast drive. I was asked to keep it to around 70 or 80 (and since the car will only do about 100, tops, that still feels pretty fast), and we made a couple of circuits around the track, way up in the high groove on the banking. On the next swing around, we stopped up on the banking in Turn 2 so that Ray could take some photos, and that was one of the weirdest feelings I’ve ever had in a car. Logically, I knew that the car was low enough not to roll over, but sitting there parked on the track at a 35 degree angle it sure felt like I could just lean over and the car would tumble down to the infield. Ray got some cool photos, and then we finally wrapped up our day on the test track.
We grabbed a quick bite to eat at the commissary, met Dale’s boss from Japan, then took the car over to the corrosion testing lab to check out the gear there. They’ve got a couple of test bays there: One that’s a heated saltwater spray booth, and one that’s a big array of heat lamps. The corrosion test is a certain amount of time in the salt spray, then a drive around the track to get some oxygen on those corroding areas, then some time in the heat booth, then repeat. Twenty six of these cycles is equivalent to 13 years of weathering, so they can quickly pinpoint areas where corrosion starts and make changes to the car’s design before it goes into production. It’s pretty amazing. The Roadster is so prone to corrosion that it probably rusted a little just driving past the booth. I got to pull it into the heat booth for some pictures, and then we proceeded over to Dale’s workplace, the shaker lab.
This lab is where they test the vehicle suspension and related systems, and it’s got an amazing test platform from MTS. There are four servo valve controlled hydraulic cylinders with pads on top for the car’s wheels, and those cylinders have extremely fast response and cycle times. I saw a 60Hz test, which is remarkably quick for a hydraulic system. One of the cooler parts of the setup is that they can go out in a car that’s instrumented with accelerometers and displacement sensors on each wheel, drive over any road surface they want, record all that data, and then exactly reproduce that road on the shaker rig. We tried getting the Roadster on it, but it was too low to get over some of the support fixtures without hitting the frame. They also had a two-post system next to the four poster, and lateral pads and cylinders for shaking the car sideways for other tests. The whole thing lets them test different suspension settings and components under repeatable conditions, record all kinds of data during that test, then re-test their changes to reach the optimal suspension setup for any given vehicle. Pretty cool.
We wrapped up the day by visiting Anita and Tom again to thank them for the visit (and sign a couple of photos that Ray had already printed out), then headed out. I'm still really humbled and amazed by the level of hospitality and generosity extended by Nissan for me on this trip, both for this visit to the Test Center and the factory and headquarters back in Tennesee. I really can't imagine another giant worldwide car company rolling out the red carpet like this for some guy on a crazy trip in a car they last made over 45 years ago, and it really says something about Nissan as a company. Truly remarkable.
Unfortunately, in my early morning stupor I’d left a couple of things at the hotel, so I headed back there to pick those up, and Dale headed home, where I’d meet him after retrieving my stuff. We had dinner scheduled that night with Randy Lewis, another Datsun fanatic who I’d corresponded with earlier in my trip. Randy had recently completed a cross-country trip in a Datsun 510 to get it from Pennsylvania back to Arizona, and we’d traded some road trip tips before he got started. It was great to finally meet in person, and we had a really tasty dinner along with some fun stories from the road. After stuffing ourselves silly, we all went our separate ways, with the promise of getting together the next morning with a bunch of other Datsun guys at Z-Café for breakfast.
A while back, one of the guys in the Desert Datsuns club stumbled across the Z-Café, and being Z-guys, figured it would make a fine spot for a regular Sunday morning gathering of Datsun dudes. This being Sunday and we being Datsun dudes, that’s just what we did. I got to meet a large chunk of the Desert Datsuns membership, as well as check out some pretty neat cars. There was a highly modified 280Z with an insane turbocharged V8 engine in it (among a number of normal Z cars), Randy’s 510, a 720 pickup, and an older right hand drive Skyline from Japan. Everybody was very friendly and outgoing, and it was a great way to sign off from Arizona. After breakfast and the usual car talk, I thanked Dale again for the opportunity to visit the Test Center and then headed off toward California.
My original “plan” from way back when was to finish up the trip with the Grand Canyon and then head home from there. However, back when I was in Florida, the Petrolicious folks asked if I’d like to stop by their place in Los Angeles to shoot a video before I got home (to go with the original interview), which sounded like fun to me. In the week or so prior to Arizona I also found out about a car get-together in Woodland Hills called “Supercar Sunday”, to be followed by an impromptu Roadster rally up Mulholland Highway by a bunch of the guys and gals from 311s.org, so I had ample reason to head back to LA for a couple of days. I made a pretty boring cross-desert blast to LA, stopped in real quick for some southern California cuisine (In ‘N Out Burger, naturally), then crashed at a Holiday Inn on Ventura Boulevard for the evening.
First stop the next morning was the Supercar Sunday event. This takes place every Sunday in the Macy’s parking lot in Woodland Hills, where lots of people from all over the LA area come out and park their cars and generally have a pleasant automotive morning. They’ll feature different marques on various weekends, and that will draw guys with those particular brands out, but most Sundays seem to just be bring whatcha’ got days. Jay Leno is apparently a regular attendee; he was there that Sunday, but I didn’t see him. Probably the coolest car there was a really clean Lamborghini Miura, which is probably one of the most iconic supercars ever. These cars will go at auction at anywhere from about $750K to $1.4 million, so it was a little odd to see one parked at Macy’s. Cooler for me though was the thirteen Roadsters that showed up. That’s a pretty good showing of cars, and it was made up of some guys I already knew from previous shows, some guys I only knew from the internet, and a few people I’d never met. Most of them had been following the blog, so we had some fun chats about whacking into wildlife and the general reliability of the Nissan R16 engine and whatnot, and then the majority of the cars headed out on a trip up Mulholland.
I picked up a shotgun passenger for the ride, the unusually Roadster-less Ted Heaton, who I’d met up at the Shasta show earlier in the trip and who was in town on business for the week. Mulholland is a famously twisty road, so I spent a little time alternately plastering Ted to the inside of the door panel and the center console, and then everybody stopped at the top of “the Snake” for a little breather. After that, about half the group headed home, and the rest of us continued on to Neptune’s Net, a biker hangout with a lot of fried seafood, and had some lunch. Once we’d sufficiently stuff ourselves, we all parted ways until the next Roadster get-together at Solvang in April. A little Roadster gathering definitely seemed like a good way to finish off the trip.
I drove down the PCH along the coast to Harbor City to meet up with Mike, a friend of mine from work. Mike was generous enough to let me crash at his house for a couple of days, with a nice driveway to park the car in and a nice bedroom to sleep in. Mike is of Japanese descent (raised in LA), and his wife is also Japanese (from Japan), and that area of LA is the center of the local Japanese community. Naturally, this meant really good Japanese food, and since I’m a fan, they took me out for some really great yakitori and other izakaya-type foods. It had been a while since I’d had such great Japanese food, and we stuffed ourselves silly on a huge variety of stuff. I was a nice change of pace to get some oden that didn’t come out of a tub at Lawson, too.
I had an appointment with the Petrolicious guys the next day for lunch, so I headed over there and met up with them in Culver City. Appropriately, the Petrolicious HQ is located in a garage that’s full of vintage Alfa Romeos, and everybody there was extremely nice and gracious. We checked out the car and chatted for a little while, then headed off to a really good Italian lunch, after which we went back to the garage/office and did a basic on-camera interview. By the time we were done with the interview it was getting to be pretty late in the afternoon, so they opted to take advantage of the light and we headed over toward LAX to get some car-to-car footage along the roads that ring the runways, since those are generally pretty clear and have very few traffic lights. We got a little more footage near the beach as the sun went down, then made plans to meet up on the Angeles Crest Highway at 6am the next morning to do the bulk of the video shooting.
I went back to Mike’s place, and we continued the Japanese food-fest with a ridiculous amount of really fantastic sushi at Sushi-ken in Torrance, then headed back to his place since I’d be getting up a little after 4am to pack up and get up to the foothills in time for the shoot. Mike was his usual awesome self the next morning, getting up and making me coffee at that ungodly hour, after which we said our goodbyes and I drove the hour or so up to the Crest.
The idea was to use the nice light at sunrise, and the weather was cooperative. There was a bit of fog in the morning down low (which we also used from some more car-to-car shots), but as we got up on the Crest we got above all that and were treated with a brilliant sunrise. We shot for a couple hours up there, doing a combination of drive-bys, in-car/on-car footage, and stills, and I’m pretty sure we got some pretty nice stuff, deer dent notwithstanding. I’m looking forward to seeing what they edit together, and I’ll link it here as soon as it goes up.
We got some breakfast after the shoot, then headed back to the Petrolicious offices for a wrap-up and a quick “unpack everything in the car” time-lapse and photo op. I was actually a little surprised at how much stuff was actually in the car once I got it all unpacked…it was sort of like a magic trick that it all came out of that little trunk. It made for a pretty cool photo, though. The Petrolicious guys were great, very friendly and very professional, and I do hope that we cross paths again.
Ironically, after 8+ months of staying off of the interstates and traveling to places I’d never been, the last 300 miles of the trip were on a section of interstate that I’ve got probably got 40,000 miles on by itself; I-15 between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. After months of having everything around every corner be completely new to me, it was very odd to be driving an incredibly boring stretch of highway that I could likely do blindfolded. I suppose it eased me into the concept of being home after so much time and so many miles, and once I saw the bright lights of Las Vegas appear on the horizon, I knew that sadly, this epic adventure had come to an end.
As I crossed the Vegas city limits, I picked up the map and started looking for the next journey…