KC to LA, part 2: Colorado Meltdown
October 10, 2013—The water, pretzels and M&Ms had been purchased, the road atlas had not. And since I’d decided to charge my GoPro rather than iPhone we’d be relying on Ben’s phone for guidance. This made me uncomfortable even though I knew our route. We’d head west on I-70 until mid-Utah where we’d switch to the I-15 south and onto I-210 for the brief run to Supercar Sunday.
It was still dark outside when the alarm buzzed. We got ready, ate a light breakfast and headed to the car. I don’t consider the 911 a beautiful car, not in the same way as a Ferrari 250 SWB anyhow. But all 911s appear to be lowered. I’m not sure how this is possible, but in all honesty, every 911 ever built has a wonderful stance. The tires just tuck under the fender and the cars look ready to spring.
We approached the 911 sitting next to a massive SUV that just underscored the already diminutive German’s size and the lighting in the garage, a garish yellow-orange, punctuated the Neunelfer’s Bahama Yellow paint. It just looked like a happy little, underdog 911 eager to run. I immediately noticed a Viennese club plaque on the engine cover and a window sticker from some racetrack in the ‘70s. You’ll notice that the car isn’t perfect; if you look closely enough you’ll spot respray areas and rust on the edge of the bonnet.
But these imperfections tell the story of a car that’s been driven, raced and most importantly, enjoyed. And now it was time to add to its story. Ben attempted to insert the assymetrical key into the ignition cylinder but had it upside down. He flipped it over, turned it to engage the electrical systems and pumped the gas a couple of times. He then held the gas pedal about a quarter of the way down and turned the key all the way. The flat-six engine gradually sputtered and coughed into a loud continuous barking.
The engine warmed a bit while I finished packing our gear into the trunk and back seats. I jumped into the dummy seat and was greeted by a three-point seat belt that wasn’t self-tensioning. In other words, it was similar to the seat belts on the plane that brought us to Kansas City—you click it in, tighten it yourself and hope you (or the pilot) don’t hit anything.
Ben backed out of the spot and I checked my watch: 7:40AM local time. We exited the garage and headed for the highway after briefly stopping to shoot some video and becoming lost (smart phone, ahem). Ben asked if we were taking I-70 east or west, I responded by rolling my eyes and he answered his own question. Patience is a virtue I lack, my apologies.
The road remained wet in places but thankfully the rain that was falling when I landed had cleared. Traffic was light that Saturday morning but we saw the parking lots outside Kansas Speedway filling up for NASCAR qualifying and practice. It hadn’t been too cold in the garage but slicing across the autumn morning Kansas prairie I realized that I hadn’t dressed properly. I also realized that the Porsche’s heater wasn’t working. “I don’t see any HVAC controls, do you know how to turn the heat on?”
“What?” Ben yelled back.
“HEAT! What’s the deal?!”
“Well, there is this turning switch, but I don’t know what it controls. Also, the vents are part of the frame rails, just slide it open with your foot,” Ben replied. “And there is a heater, but I think it runs off gasoline, independently of the engine. I’d rather not risk a fire…” he added. It was cold but not intolerable and I decided that staying warm was less important than using our fuel to make speed and burn miles.
It was also extremely noisy in the cabin. The engine was loud but the real issue was a very loud, high-pitched whistling that emanated from the cracked window seals on the driver’s side door. We had the radio cranked but it was hard to hear over the whistling. Ben asked for some earplugs that were in a hoodie in the back seat.
The green and gold rolled out like a carpet endlessly around us. Once in a while, we’d glimpse a roostertail thrown up by a tractor or combine working the land or a pro-life or quilting billboard. We sped through Lawrence, Topeka, Salina and even smaller towns whose name only residents know, trying to escape a crushing grey canopy. Even at this early stage I was keenly aware of our progress and the ever decreasing daylight that remained. Unfortunately, the odometer didn’t work in the 911 and neither did the speedo (it vacillated in thirty mile-per-hour increments) so I couldn’t even calculate progress roughly. We’d have to measure progress based on fuel stops and mile markers: two miles per minute equals 120 miles per hour.
As the miles and silos rolled by, the clouds began to break and we could see that the sky ahead was an unbroken light blue screen. We passed a small cemetery that was right along the side of the highway but not very close to any towns. It must have been a remnant from the days before the interstates. A few miles further we made our first fuel stop at a gas station that was like a rowboat in the green ocean. The little hamlet of Wilson lay less than two miles to the south, but we didn’t see it.
As I opened the Porsche’s door a gust of wind grabbed it and flung it open. The clearing skies should have alerted me to windy conditions as a high pressure front was settling in. It was good because it meant we wouldn’t have to deal with wet weather, but we would have strong crosswinds for the foreseeable future and it was biting cold, at least for this California boy. I ran inside to use the restroom and bought thick, ugly gloves that had been there since dinosaurs lived alongside people in Kansas. If they sold knitted caps, I’d have bought one as well. Ben and I agreed that we’d switch seats every time we refueled and so it was now my turn at the wheel.
I had trouble starting the 911 as I misunderstood Ben’s instructions and hadn’t held the throttle open while cranking the ignition. Also, I now discovered that the shift pattern was (for me) upside down—first gear was all the way left, but towards you; second gear was in the middle but away from you, etc… To make matters worse, the shift action was rather sloppy and vague. It was tough to tell if whether the tranny was in first or third and second or fourth. By the end of the drive I’d be used to it, but jumping in cold it was a bit of an unhappy surprise.
The car shuddered as we made the left out of the gas station because I was in third gear and I nearly buried the throttle just to keep the car from stalling. I downshifted to second and the Porsche recovered, then rowed through the rest of the gears as I accelerated, full-tilt, back onto the highway. The symphony of the engine sucking fuel down the carburetors and spitting out horsepower was wonderful.
One fortunate consequence of the fuel stop was that the high-pitch whistling didn’t resume when we did and we speculated that Ben hadn’t closed the driver’s door completely earlier. There was still wind noise and it was loud, but it was minimal compared to what we’d been subjected to. We’d crossed half of Kansas and now I set my sights on making Colorado as quickly as possible.
Kansas melted into Colorado as the plains rolled on as endlessly as the sky. We crossed the state border but didn’t see a line across the countryside. When we stopped for fuel again, the only way I could tell that I had just driven 230 miles in a bit under two and a half hours was because my hands were cramping. I was also beginning to question the wisdom behind driving a forty-six year old sports car for twenty-some hours straight. You see, ergonomics in the 1960’s weren’t what they are today and the old Porsche’s steering wheel is awfully hard and extremely thin. It’s just a bad combination for comfort. Fighting strong crosswinds didn’t help either.
But now the sun was out and the day was warming up nicely. We had also made decent time through Kansas and were on track to make it to Supercar Sunday more than an hour early. Perhaps we’d get to park and sleep for an hour or two tonight? Ben pointed the 911 west again and we were off, our spirits buoyed by the fact that we’d driven almost one-third of the distance in under six hours.
Throughout the drive, the cliché “to finish first, first you have to finish” kept popping up in my mind as we constantly balanced maximizing speed and attempting to not break the Porsche. And although we had initially planned to stop for lunch in Limon, Co I argued against it because I wanted to use as much daylight as possible to drive. I knew that after the sun set, and hours behind the wheel, the drive would become much more difficult.
On the horizon, the Rockies materialized out of the thin white sliver between earth and sky. Finally, a change; as they grew out of the ground, traffic around us increased. It never really slowed us down but now we had to contend with large SUVs obscuring our sight lines and people texting around us. Have I mentioned that the Neunelfer’s brakes were less than effective?
I managed to convince Ben that we should forego lunch in Denver to devour more miles before the sun disappeared. As the Porsche climbed the Rockies it began to struggle a bit in the thinning air. Now we had to downshift to fourth each time we were on an uphill. But heading west out of Denver’s suburbs, traffic thinned once more and we knew that we wouldn’t hit traffic again until Los Angeles’ foothills.
The Rockies were covered in snow even though the leaves had only begun to change. The section of highway between Denver and Colorado’s western border is one of the best stretches of interstate that I’ve ever driven on. Even though it’s wide and fast, it’s also very twisty for an arterial freeway. Braking is necessary and I wondered whether a sudden lift off the throttle would cause the rear-engined Porsche to bite us. The ’67 911S is only a two-liter, but it’s still a 911.
It didn’t spin and Ben was able to toss it into curves easily and apply heavy gas to power out and maintain speed. The fact that the car is light allowed it to remain entertaining even though the altitude decreased the Porsche’s output. We darted through passes, up and down and eventually summited over 10,800 ft., atop the continental divide.
We refueled in Vail, CO and I resumed my driver’s duties. As the day stretched, more than eight hundred miles behind us (and over halfway to Supercar Sunday), the shadows grew and the mountains began to block the waning sun. At some point just before sunset, Ben had had enough of my clock management. He needed time off the road and out of the car. He wanted to sit down for a proper dinner and make sure that we both ate well. I just wanted to keep mashing the gas to get as far as possible before we were both too tired to continue and we had to give up our pseudo-Cannonball. In the interest of democracy, I conceded and asked him to choose a restaurant so long as it was close to the highway. He found a diner and told me to get off the highway right as we tore by the exit. “Dude.” I asked him to find something at the next exit.
It was six miles further. I began to get annoyed. He couldn’t find another ‘suitable’ place near this exit and was unwilling to eat fast food. So we had to backtrack through Grand Junction’s small streets to the first place he’d wanted to go to. Pulling in to the parking lot, he read the sign, “Lois’ Place” and on the next line, “Breakfast and Lunch.” That’s right—no dinner, it was closed. My head nearly exploded. After all of our talk of Cannonballs and running the Porsche to the coast as quickly as possible, here we were scampering about Grand Junction like a couple of Guy Fieri’s looking for a fun, hip diner.
I wanted to get out, rent a car and drive the remainder of the route on my own. I floored the Porsche’s gas pedal executing an angry donut in the dark, empty lot, flew into traffic without signaling and informed him that we’d be eating whatever was right next to the goddamn highway. This logistical failure was my proverbial last straw... [kiWO]