The Longest Drive

by Steve McCarthy

My buddy Bill and I were in our twenties. For a couple of years, we’d made the trek from Pasadena to Laguna Seca for the Annual Bruce and Denny Show, aka, the CanAm races. Screaming, ground-pounding, unlimited prototype “sports cars.” You remember those? If not, ask your father. Or grandfather.


Anyway, Bill and I had an idea that resonated with our youthful, idiot minds. We thought we’d organize a rallye. (Oh yes, we True Aficionados spelled it that way. Why? We can’t remember.) With the entry fees we’d surely get, the profits would essentially get us free tickets to the upcoming CanAm race.


We needed a route. Road & Track magazine had done an article on California’s best back roads, and we’d gone exploring them, figuring to use them on the Rallye. Roads like Foxen Canyon, Stagecoach Road, Painted Cave, and of course, Hwy 1. We could easily string them all together and, Bob’s your uncle, a route.


We’d also decided this would be no wimpy Poker Run or Gimmick Rally. Not even a Navigational Rally. We were going whole hog. From what little we knew, we were going to do a Monte Carlo. So, no “turn right first op after the third telephone pole,” no “maintain an average speed of 22.47 mph for 16.8 miles.” No chance. This was to be: Set a minimum time from Checkpoint A to Checkpoint B, penalties only for late arrival. OK, yeah, it was borderline street racing, encouraging driving as fast as possible over twisty back roads. What can I say? It was a different time.



All we needed to do was set the actual route instructions. I think we started things at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena and, armed with a note pad, map, and stopwatch, off we went in Bill’s trusty Spitfire since his car was running and my TR3 was not.


Up over Big Tujunga Canyon, across Hwy 126 (back then it was a two lane agricultural road), up to Ojai on 150, across the top of Santa Barbara on 192, up over the San Marcos Pass, lunch at Cold Springs Tavern (back then it had burgers, chili, and beer, not the yuppie biker food it now serves), back to 154, Foxen Canyon, and a few other roads to Atascadero, then over the ridge on 46 (which was also only 2 lanes then), down Santa Rosa Creek and then up Highway One to Monterey.


Now, you have to remember, back in the early 70s, there were no wineries, no foodies, and the cops didn’t patrol most of this. Heck, after dark, the CHP abandoned Highway One. We dutifully took notes, writing down mileages and times using the car’s questionable odometer and a fold out AAA map of California.


We determined where each checkpoint would be and spray painted a line on the road. (Some ten years later, my new bride and I were driving Foxen Canyon road on our honeymoon, and damn if the line for the check point wasn’t still there!) Finally, 525 miles later, tired and worn out, we got to Monterey.


Our plan, poor struggling college students—trying to keep our 2S draft deferments—that we were, was to toss our sleeping bags on the ground at the side of the road somewhere. Again, a different era. Trouble was, it was dark, foggy and cold.


After considering a couple spots, we decided to drive home. This is where the foolish indestructibility of youth comes to the fore. In Spades.


We weren’t completely stupid, we headed over to Highway 101, more or less a freeway for the drive back. Heck, we even put the top up. We’d change drivers every couple of hours. Near Gaviota, as we raced along the coast, it started to get foggy. Really foggy. So, we backtracked to the 126, taking the inland route. We were being Smart. Sorta.


We rolled through Fillmore at 4 AM, minding our own business, Bill behind the wheel, and we spotted a cop. Probably (and thankfully) the only one we’d seen all day. No, we weren’t doing the speed limit through town, and Bill guiltily slowed down. A lot. I couldn’t see if the cop spotted us or cared, but Bill decided that taking Hwy 23, up and over to Simi Valley would be smart, thinking that if the cop was interested, he’d figure we were staying on the main road. Now here’s where it gets a bit crazy.


The fog had drifted up the Santa Clara River from the coast. To cross it, there was this long steel girder bridge. We hit the bridge and in our sleep-deprived brains, between the fog and the dwindling perspective and the headlights, it looked like a green wall, something along the lines of Fenway Park. And we were driving THROUGH it! Bill stopped about halfway across. We looked at each other, shook our heads and laughed. Just too weird.


Past the bridge, the road gets twisty and as we headed up the hill, I spotted a set of headlights behind us coming on fast. So did Bill. By the spacing, we knew it was some kind of American car. Bill, ever the competitor and disdainer of US Iron, dropped it down a gear and took off. We began to pull out some and the guy behind us turned it up a notch. Bill said, “Watch this,” floored it, and that’s when the red lights went on. Of course, it was the cop. We pulled over. The cop gave us a dressing down and a “damn, that little car really goes!” Whew. Well, sorta. Yasee, the Spitfire had a dodgy return spring on the starter. Bill turned the key and all it did was whirr.


If you’ve had an English car, you know the fix: a sharp rap with the knockoff hammer to the starter. That meant, with the cops still parked behind us, Bill got out of the car with a hammer in his hand. No, he didn’t get shot. Different times. Car fixed, we headed home. He dropped me off as the sun was coming up. But that didn’t end the story. Next day, Bill didn’t show for work. I called his place and his mom answered. “Bill is in the hospital, an emergency appendectomy.”


After all that, the rallye did indeed happen. Best of all, we had enough entries to pay for our race tickets. We did spend the night in Bill’s mom’s ’68 Buick (needed to haul check point signs and traffic cones) because motel rooms were still too expensive. The bad part? We had every weather imaginable, from fog in Pasadena at the start to beautiful blue skies before we got to Santa Barbara. Then, north of Gaviota, things got ugly. It poured rain. Hardest any of us could remember, followed by hail. At the top of the hill, crossing over from Atascadero to Cambria, snow fell! It made Santa Rosa Creek road a nightmare. At the last checkpoint, every team had one question. “Where did you find that road?”

'The Longest Drive' has 1 comment

  1. November 1, 2016 @ 6:36 pm Tom

    Well, that was most of the story. Steve and Bill realized, shortly before the rally(e) that they could not be at the start and finish while still having a good time in between. Since we were in the same situation, young, stupid, avoiding the draft, and in search of adventure, they enlisted me to work the final checkpoint. As the rallye started another Bill and I headed north in a VW Beetle. Prior to our departure Steve and Bill repeatedly emphasized the importance of accurately recording the arrival time of each contestant. After telling us this about fifteen times they then entrusted us with “The Clock”. This was a very special clock, which I believe they rented, that was synchronized with the rental clock they were using at the start. There were more very specific instructions on how to wind the clock and monitor it’s health to ensure accurate records.

    After a leisurely drive to Monterey we located the final checkpoint of the rallye, the gray stripe on the south side of Highway 68 a few miles west of Salinas. We parked the car and set out the Checkpoint sign. There was a small store nearby so we wandered down and bought some snacks and a couple of bottles of wine. Steve and Bill had given us no idea when the cars would start arriving so we just hung out and ate the snacks. It seems that we drank the wine, too. A few hours later we were both startled awake by some guy wanting to check in. After a brief conversation we agreed to put in whatever time he told us because we had no idea how long they had been banging on the window of the VW.

    After we checked in all of the surviving participants we headed off to find a motel for the evening. Even back then it was difficult to find a room on a race weekend. We ended up at the “Motel Moderne” in Salinas, a travel court with a bunch of little duplex units with front porches. The manager’s description of the motel being old but clean was only half right. It was that weekend that I learned that chicken coops in a motel parking lot were not an indication of a classy place.

    To this day I still blame Steve and Bill for my draft status changing to 1A shortly after this adventure.


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