Updated: Dec 18, 2019
Prologue - Dallas, Texas
Driving past my office en route to the drivers’ meeting, I’m reminded that somewhere in the annals of the last 3 hours, I’m an accountant from suburban Dallas. It’ll be the last passing thought toward that part of my life for the next 4 days. My dog, my boss, trying to hammer down an electric bill in the 110 degree heat, and spreadsheets ad nauseam. For 51 weeks a year, I drive a quiet car to and from work, do laundry, load the dishwasher, and try to get to sleep at a reasonable hour. But this is that 52nd week. The rally, for all intents and purposes, starts tonight. At 7:30PM on August 3rd, the drivers’ meeting for the 2015 Dustball Rally 2000 begins.
It’s a travelling circus of noise and shapes carved in composite and aluminum. We’re barnstormers, parading an anti-subtlety and anti-austerity campaign through the backroads and backwoods across the nation. It’s a reminder that you can just pull up the damn stakes, pick a direction, and blast off in machinery that doesn’t list “practicality” in the sales brochure. This thing we call the Dustball Rally is the renewal of vows between horsepower and our American roads and we’re all lucky enough to be in attendance for the 2,000 mile ceremony and a nightly reception that dances from Dallas to New York City.
Quiet suburban life is a relic. Let’s light this damn fire.
Andy needs to stop calling this a “Drivers’ Meeting”. It’s difficult to imagine an FIA-sanctioned drivers’ meeting with this much tequila. In reality, this is a reunion. Old friends rekindling, no rallier a stranger. And this time around, we’ve got some young blood.
I sit and revel in watching the new rally entrants try to gauge what they’ve stumbled upon. Andy will do his best to ease them into the storm that’s brewing. I’m roughly 100% certain that this rally, and the folks that go on it, aren’t something that can be introduced through a microphone at a college bar just north of downtown Dallas, despite his best efforts. This event, one that has spawned multiple variants over multiple distances in various forms and fashions, has been put on for the last ten years. Seems like as good a reason as any to celebrate.
I keep mentioning Andy. I suppose I should step up to the microphone and give him some background. He’s one of the lead organizers of this Dustball Rally 2000, and he will be quick and persistent to give credit to the other organizers for their hard work as they’ve corralled this group of wayward adventurers and fellow enthusiasts from one coast to another. Without failure, he will give credit to Leandra (his wonderful wife), Sal, Jesse, Lorenzo, Tommy, and Andres for their individual contributions. He promises us in the next 4 days we’ll see just what they’ve come up with.
The night gives way to the familiar message for the veteran drivers and navigators - how the rally works, what we are, what we do, and the hard and fast rules of spirited driving. I imagine most car people - or at least the distinguished and varied audience on this site - might have some idea, but for the uninitiated, it boils down to the following in no particular order:
Don’t drive beyond your limits based on the conditions of the roads or your abilities - full stop, Q.E.D.
Whereas in your previous life you may have believed that a double yellow line was merely two strips of heavy-duty yellow paint with some metal flake to assist in twilight and nighttime reflectivity, for the next four days it is a rebar-reinforced concrete wall - passing simply does not occur within the boundary of the double yellow line. It is sacred. It is holy.
Truckers of all shapes and sizes do in fact rule the road. They communicate, organize, and will not hesitate to assist in the apprehension of jackasses who violate traffic laws with reckless abandon.
The speed limits in densely populated areas (including, but not limited to, towns, villages, cities, burghs, boroughs, and encampments) are set by people who have a vested interest in those particular municipalities. You don’t want your mug shot to grace the local Sheriff’s re-election yard signs. This is not the Gumball 3000. Act accordingly.
Anyway, after a couple beers, it’s time to hit the hay. Rookie move staying out late so early.
There’s a guy from Jalopnik coming with us. He introduces himself as Freddy, which will cause me some confusion as for the next 4 days I will want to call him Tavarish. I have a thousand questions for him, ranging from “Is Jack Baruth as soft-spoken and gentile mannered in person as he is in his writing?” to “What car best represents the adolescent struggle of Kurdish Peshmerga forces fighting for independence on eBay for under $25k?” I narrowly avoid nerding out, and there will be close calls along the route. Better get some rest to build my resistance for being internet-car-guy-”What’s Mr. Regular really like?”-star-struck.
Act 1 - Memphis, Tennessee
1 CB Radio 3 FRS Radio, with backup batteries and DC converter 2 iPads 2 USB battery chargers (for the phones, we learned from last time) 2 Valentine 1 (in case one stops working) 3 quarts Mobil 1 1 half quart of Motul 660 1 half quart of power steering fluid 2 bottles of octane booster 1 2007 Chevrolet Corvette, 108,000 miles, mild and tasteful modifications, silver 1 experienced co-driver 6 days worth of clothes, from one step below black-tie to “the car overheated in Texas” 1 GoPro 6 days of PTO
You know, I gave up years ago trying to tell folks exactly what the Dustball is. I just tell my coworkers I’m going either on a road trip or vacation with my girlfriend. Just makes things easier for everyone involved. But while I’ve got you here, and before I get to the part of the story where not knowing what it is would get confusing, the basic premise is as follows:
This is a 2,000 mile drive to be undertaken by 35 teams of at least two people - a driver and a co-driver/navigator. You know the starting city. You will know that in 4 days, you will arrive at the ending city. This represents the sum of the knowledge that you have regarding the rally.
Each morning, you are handed a sheet of paper with clues to the route. They are thoroughly researched, planned, and pre-driven on more than on occasion. The route clues given are to be interpreted by your co-driver and, over the course of your trip, you will uncover your stop for the night. Routes in the past have ranged anywhere from 300 to 900 miles in the course of the day, although the Dustball crew has tried to keep it to between 500 and 600 to make sure you’ve still got some gas left in the tank for a few beers and some exploration of wherever you end up.
The hotels are taken care of, the valets know you’re coming, and they’ve got some parties planned along the way. For those who enjoy some semblance of controlled chaos, welcome to Dustball. Glad to have you.
And at the Dallas Hilton Anatole, here’s the sheet.
We make it out to the first waypoint cutting through Dallas traffic with some fine navigation and a little bit of bravado on behalf of myself and some comrades. Local Texas roads are straight - but fast if you know your way around. There’s a lot of farmland punctuated by brief right angle turns, and the occasional sinew provided by some strange haggling over property lines back in the 19th century, right around the time they perfected the suspension design in this Corvette. And rightfully so, it seems to be handling the load and heat just fine.
Oh, you’ll notice the gimmicks on the sheet. Those are there to make sure that you’re wide awake passing through towns when you run out of sinews and right angles. They’re riddles that are answered by clues along the route. They’ll be accumulated, totaled, and the basis for which prizes are awarded at the end of the rally. Some ralliers do them. Some don’t. That’s your call, frequently dictated by a co-driver’s hangover and weather conditions.
Anyway, the first lunch stop is a shockingly good pizza joint just outside the part of Oklahoma where the roads stop being dictated by farmers that have been long deceased and start being dictated by topography. That’s how you know you’re close to Arkansas.
Arkansas, for all the hillbilly reputation it gets, is a magnificent driving state. The territory up north wanders back and forth between rolling hills just littered with forests and some more serious elevation changes near Mena. Between the Boston Mountains, the Talimena Scenic Drive and a department of transportation that can write the hell out of a bond proposal to improve road conditions in rural areas, any car enthusiast in North Texas should keep this option open for a day trip.
Be warned, once you hit I-30 coming into and out of Little Rock, you’re a quick blast from Memphis. A couple of flexes of the right foot and you’re planted on Beale Street. We wind up at the Peabody, which inexplicably has a fascination with ducks. Makes almost as much sense as a cross-country road rally, I suppose.
Turns out we were running up front. A green 4th generation Viper has beaten us to the hotel by a wide margin, as well as one of the G35 sedans running with us. I’ll take the blame for that one, and that’s a story in and of itself.
I know the driver of the G35 quite well. He’s a former oil guy from the bustling cultural nexus of Ray, North Dakota. He called a week before the rally to tell me the supercharged F150 he was building won’t be ready in time and that he will be flying into town a bit early.
With $10,000 in cash. To buy a car. Sight-unseen. Something reliable and quick enough to savor the east coast.
So the world’s cleanest 87,000 mile G35 in stealth silver arrives thanks to some sleuthing and test driving on behalf of myself and a fellow rallier, who also happens to be driving a twilight blue G35 sedan.
Anyway, my fault for helping find him something responsible. Lesson learned. Welcome to the Rally.
As your God-given right as an American citizen to drink in public, listen to Van Halen and not Van Hagar, and purchase an El Camino without sound justification - you will be tempted by Beale Street. Take great care, however. The driving roads out east tell wonderful tales. And there’s gold in them there hills.
Act 2 - Cincinnati, Ohio
Leaving Memphis means a trek northeast. There is great speculation as to where we’re headed in the months leading up to the rally, and a first stop in Memphis leaves many stones unturned. It’s a fantastic staging area to uncover the best roads right along the Mason-Dixon line. Shades of green with Marianas’ Trench depth are hidden well beyond interstates. The prerunning team has done their homework.
It is here we uncover a great nemesis.
By lunchtime, the Corvette has lived up to its’ namesake, and we wade into Jimmy John’s on the outskirts of Western Kentucky University’s campus. Wait, WKU is in Bowling Green. That could only mean...
The C6 has completed the Hajj to Bowling Green. Home field advantage. Immediately, B-52s fly overhead. Someone gets into a fist fight over the designated hitter rule. Tom Brokaw will launches into a soliloquy about octogenarians. And miraculously, somehow, we find a little slice of driving Valhalla.
Just beyond the town of Bowling Green is Mammoth Cave State Park. The roads in the park are wet, but the vista out the windows is intoxicating. The area that’s fairly commonly known for sinkholes - no, really, go ask some geologists or something, GM, you’ve got like a billion freaking dollars - has generated some terrain that will make you understand the motivation for producing a sports car in America. Whereas the Clarksons of the world may believe the country has all the elevation and curves of a cinder block, Kentucky has been blessed with roads that could turn the Black Forest green with envy.
I have to pause for a minute here as my enthusiasm for waxing poetic about the scenery has thrown us off course. Be it known - having a navigator worth his or her salt is an absolute must in this event. I try to offer sparing relationship advice - being in my late 20’s has exposed me to multiple tours of duty in unsolicited wisdom - but falling in love with someone who can not only read a map but decipher cryptic clues that would make National Treasure last 17 and a half minutes is probably your best bet in the long run. I’ve got the best codriver in this event. And I’m not just saying that because I love her, it’s simply a matter of fact.
We find ourselves navigating out of an error on my part about an hour outside the birthplace of the modern American sports car on the closest resemblance to a rally special stage I’ve ever encountered. Sudden drops followed by blind uphill sweepers into decreasing radius downhill kinks on a one and a half lane wide public driveway through the most spectacular sun and drizzle drenched corner of nowhere. Magical.
Getting into Cincinnati through Louisville leaves the splendor of the American countryside behind and allows us a bit of a recharge. I might take this moment to mention - approaching Cincinnati from the south will obliterate your feelings about the city. I’ll admit that I’ve got a geographical preconception for most places, but Cincinnati is a beautiful modern city with a fairly vibrant downtown with some bars that I’d love to explore a bit more. If you ever had to come up with a polar opposite to Cleveland, you wouldn’t even have to leave the same state. How convenient.
I take a minute to wander down to the lobby of the Hilton Netherland in downtown Cincinnati to check in with the other ralliers as they come rolling in to the hotel. The other ralliers in this event are such titanic, affable, and occasionally enigmatic personalities that writing even just a couple days without mentioning the joy that their presence brings to the rally is a mere impossibility.
We meet up that night down the street with the rest of the rally - a pair in a MP4-12C, a delightful couple from Dallas in a 997.1 who have hit nearly every road West of the Mississippi, two New Mexicans-cum-Germans-cum-Italians-cum-Germans in a 997 Turbo S, and a wildly entertaining “ride-or-die” costumed pair in a fifth-gen Camaro. Then there’s the lovely husband and wife team in an orange G8, a pair of Austinites gracing the road with a V8 Vantage convertible, a couple of recently graduated kids in an E92 M3, and their friends (including the guy who initally introduced me to the rally) driving a vivaciously wrapped 458, a father and his two sons in a World Rally Blue STI, and a doctor and his compatriot in a Bentley Continental Supersports.
There’s a pair out of San Antonio in a chrome camouflage wrapped GT-R with frankly more party between the two of them than the entire University of Wisconsin and all their satellite schools, a car-adoring couple in a Maserati Coupe GT, a pair of under-the-radar ralliers in a new Civic Si, a duo from Houston in the world’s angriest 2nd gen Viper, and a pair of El Paso residents in a CL63 AMG with the most contagiously energetic personality I’ve come across in my nearly 3 decades of existence. There’s a couple in a 1977 911 with no air conditioning rallying their guts out in a way that qualifies as character-building and makes Hunter S. Thompson madly grin from beyond the grave.
This bar has some good beer. I’ve taken to just taking recommendations from the northerners on this trip - particularly the gentlemen in the Cayman GTS and twilight blue G35. But once again, I, along with my codriver, find the early way home. Word has come down from the grapevine: tomorrow is a driver’s day.
Act 3 - Washington, District of Columbia
The United States of America is large. 3.806 million square miles spread out and sprinkled with some amber waves of grain and purple mountain’s majesty. Back in 1958, President Eisenhower left us with a concrete and asphalt testament to the great public infrastructure works of The Great Depression, giving one big wet kiss to interstate commerce all the while. The Interstate Highways built from the 1950’s and petering out of construction in the 1980’s has enabled quick and uneventful road trips to places where they have Walmarts and Chili’s and a set of suburbs that reminds you casually of every other set of suburbs you’ve ever been to, except here they call soda “pop”.
US Route 50 is not a part of the Interstate Highway system. In the days before HOV lanes and Waze, Route 50 stretched from Ocean City, Maryland, to Stockton, California. This Dustball Rally has selected several hundred miles of this historic footnote from just south of Cincinnati to a left turn onto Highway 29 in West Virginia. The route instructions are simple.
“Do not divert.”
The rain has followed for some time, but the roads through southern Ohio absolutely shine in hues of green and gray that immediately spring forth a live action Norman Rockwell painting. Pockets of forests, soaking wet, punctuated by hills and Amish buggies I can only assume are doing cross-county gimmick rallies of their own, are stirring in their own right.
There are a lot of things wrong with this country, and a lot of really angry people. But after some time spent out here with just a bunch of horsepower, good friends, and a beautiful codriver lead me to assume that, despite our differences, conflicts, and whatever the hell is happening in the GOP 2016 presidential nominee race, we might just be okay after all.
This is the sort of escapism that makes this rally just so addicting. A reminder of what’s good and what’s right.
Moments after we cross into West Virginia, Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road” comes out over the exhaust drone and fills the cabin with exaggerated coincidence. Up until this point - and immediately past Clarksburg - the roads have been breathtaking, if a bit tranquil. Unbeknownst to us at the fuel stop at the Racetrack on the west side of town, that big block Dodge, Mr. Earle sings about? We’re about to see where his dad wrecked it.
West Virginia’s driving roads are sublime, through the Appalachian mountains and winding into the foothills, for several hours, we see the “Curves Ahead - 5 Miles” signs growing like dandelions. Fast sweepers, first gear banked hairpins into blind elevation changes in the middle of frankly nowhere in particular, all with speed limits set by the legislative equivalent of the “cool” parents. I lost count of how many times I’m verbally thanking the organizers to nobody in particular, and my codriver has taken the opportunity to get some magnificent photos herself.
As the twists and turns run out of the West Virginia foothills, we’ve come to the comfortable realization that we are in the lead heading into Washington D.C. A bit enthusiastic getting through the turns means we’ll get to savor the capital a bit before the king size bed at the Fairmont becomes a welcome gift to weary and sated travelers.
A good night to all, and to all, a good night.
Act 4 - New York City, New York
Today, after the marathon of endorphins and g-forces yesterday, is a reprieve. Get to New York City however Waze indicates. Take your time. Drive the coast if you’d like. Have lunch in Philadelphia. Putting us into D.C. means we can get to New York by midday.
With the gift of local knowledge bestowed to us by the gentlemen in the SS, we take the quick but scenic route, through bits of Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and finally, sparkling above the dreary sun-drenched New Jersey Turnpike, sits America’s City on the Hill - New York. On the drive in, I’m more or less overwhelmed, which, for a city of nearly eight-and-a-half million individuals, I do hope you can forgive me.
I’ll do my best, but here’s what runs through my head in the first ten minutes across the George Washington Bridge:
Having driven, with previous Dustballs, no less, through the simply unimaginable oblivion in West Texas oil country, the fact that I’m only a handful of gas stops away from this writhing metropolis through the great cardiovascular system of roads is this hyperbolic juxtaposition of just how vastly varied the chasm in life and lifestyles in this country actually is. Having driven through that very same Texan void, how it is humanly possible that I can get to the forgotten corner of existence in rural almost-Mexico and still find 93 octane while the best they’ve got up here is 91 is an even greater hyperbolic juxtaposition of just how vastly varied the chasm in life and lifestyles in this country actually is.Any semblance of car and motorcycle culture that exists on Manhattan is through sheer exertion of will and determination. The quality of machinery here - from BMW bobbers in Brooklyn to VIP sleds in Midtown - is nothing short of miraculous. Roads that seem violently opposed to travel by automobile, a set of traffic laws that makes Thunderdome look like Babylon, and a winter from the sound stage where they filmed “The Thing” means that car guys here are some of the best in the breed.
I’m alternating between nightmare and delight at the thought of owning a car on this island. Whereas the expense and toll on the machinery seems enough to merit a commercial montage of cracked wheels, destroyed bodywork, and frames twisted around light poles on sheer ice while Sarah McLachlan’s “In the Arms of an Angel” sings sweetly in the background. At the same time, that feeling of unadulterated narcissism bestowed upon you when leaving the crowd at your local Cars & Coffee with your exhaust sounding just right cannot begin to hold a candle to the attention drawn by the pops coming back down the rev range off-throttle among the buses of tourists and finance bros out getting lunch through the concrete canyons. It’s intoxicating in ways an introvert like me can’t really put into words.
And so, at around 3PM Eastern Standard Time, we find ourselves on the corner of 54th and 6th, and the finish line of the Warwick Hotel in Midtown. Hugs to the other ralliers, a first New York beer, and a bit of freshening up put all of us 34 stories above ground at The Sky Room. Looking around, I’m reminded at how close a bunch of kindred spirits can become over just 96 hours. These guys use the word “family” a lot, and I’m beginning to think it isn’t just an El Paso thing. Car guys can become a close group, but the adventuring kind takes the practice up a level, or, in our case, 34.
Frankly, I don’t know what a lot of these guys do for a living. Maybe it’s just me, but there seems to be some sort of an unwritten rule that you just don’t ask unless someone brings it up. I’m not sure if that’s just for the suspension of the lives that we all will return to, or just something that doesn’t really matter for the time we’re all here together. Somehow, doing tequila shots with my wonderful dressed-to-the-nines codriver while drinking in the man-made magnificence and atmosphere New York City has to offer, my life as the accountant from Dallas seems wholly irrelevant anyway. Coworkers, car insurance, trying to keep my sodium intake in check to bring my high-for-a-29-year-old-working-in-finance’s blood pressure down - all meaningless. The rally bestows upon us an adventure in a time when it can be tough to come by, and I’m tremendously thankful for it.
Epilogue - Dallas, Texas
I’m sitting at a desk now - back in the 51 weeks out of the year - with the registration forms for 2016 signed and ready next to me. There’s an electric buzz that lasts for months after the rally. I’ll track my car, ride my mountain bike just a little bit harder down the trail, and drink a few too many beers on a weeknight. There’s something to be said about what an adventure can do to your outlook on the work week.
But, where does that leave you in all this? The good news is that there are spots open next year - at least 20 as of last count. Well, 19 as soon as I mail this in. We’re going from Las Vegas to Vancouver in 2016. And the Dustball 777 and Dustball 1000 are coming up soon.