Thursday, January 8, 2009

A short story …. Winston-Salem to Cedar Rapids, Iowa in the McBEAREN

Last October, my desire to take a cross-country trip in the McBearen grew too strong to ignore it any longer. After one full year of being on the road the bright McLaren orange vehicle that I had nursed to life from a stack of square steel tubes and a few 4 x 8 sheets of aluminum was ready for the ultimate test. It had previously proven itself at VIR and on roads in and around Winston-Salem but I had to find out if it was ready for the final exam … 800-miles to Cedar Rapids, Iowa and 800 miles back home.

In the beginning extended day trips had been very important in the McB’s development. Nearly every trip exposed something and although most issues were of a minor nature they had all helped to make the McBearen become a reliable little machine and I was confident that things would go well if I’d just pack-up and went. The soggy, rain drenched Atlanta jaunt proved that both the car and the driver could survive 7-hours of nearly constant down pour and except for one inconvenience (being completely soaked) on that outing we kept “splashing” along I-85 until blue skies and sunshine caused the highway to steam for the last 20 miles into that great city. That trip taught me more about what was needed to accommodate the driver than anything about the car. Although my legs stayed dry my upper body and backside were really, really wet. Subsequent trips to Knoxville, Charleston, WV and Blacksburg, VA had all served to boost my confidence, so now it was time for the ultimate test in reliability.

Beyond the normal concerns relating to reliability on the road, I also wondered how the different law enforcement groups would react to having the McBearen suddenly appear in their domain. If, as was the case in Atlanta, I was stopped out of curiosity, I could live with that. The Georgia trooper turned his blue lights on me because he wanted to know more about the vehicle. It turned out that he was an inquisitive motor head and he was satisfied with my answers to a few technical questions he posed before turning me lose. Our impromptu conversation ended in a brief photo session on the shoulder of I-85. Making friends of complete strangers has become an integral part of the McBearen experience.  A part I enjoy.

If, on the other hand, I were stopped repeatedly and forced into a legal defense mode by local constables that could become irritating. Worst yet would be an encounter with someone having no appreciation for things out-of-the-ordinary. I knew everything was in-order based on North Carolina law but I was equally confident that there were areas in which I didn’t conform to another states’ law. Nothing serious … but not conforming completely might be cause for an over zealous protector to retard progress, or cause me to terminate my plans all together. I didn’t have unlimited time to dedicate to this excursion so I had decided that if I ran into such a person I would rent a U-Haul and return home without making a scene.

Except for the years I spent in the Army and university I had lived in Iowa for 48-years and was keenly aware of the ever changing weather patterns associated with mid-October. One day you’d swear it was summer only to wake the next morning confronted with a 30-40 or more degree drop in temperature. I knew I had to be prepared for the possibility of cold weather although “prepared” in this case is a relative term because there is no way a 2-seat, open cockpit vehicle could ever be “prepared” for the worst conditions I had seen living in that state. Having already experienced the McB in 30-degree weather in North Carolina I knew that my feet were the first to be affected by the cold so a couple of days prior to leaving I devised a system to capture a portion of the heat from the radiator and direct it toward my feet. It is nothing too sophisticated … no fan, no on/off switch and no thermo-control dial.  Nothing that involved.  I simply folded up a 3-sided pan of aluminum and attached it to the backside of the radiator. Using a scrap piece of flex-hose I connected the pan to the driver’s side leg cavity and whalla … some heat!

The last preparatory item I addressed was to increase the headlight illumination factor without detracting from the McLaren/esque) appearance of the McBearen when the lights aren’t needed. To do this I attached a pair of hi-beam fixtures to a rack I mounted behind the front/center body panel. The lamps are swung into position manually and are locked up or down using a simple thumbscrew. They are wired to the high beam switch and nest out of sight beneath the radiator housing when not in use.

To keep my clothes dry I purchased three plastic waterproof “baggies”… the type favored by kayak enthusiasts. These are great containers for keeping things dry. The only downside is that the cloths packed in them become hyper-wrinkled from being stuffed into the bags so tightly. It is amazing how much you can jam into one of these 2-gallon “baggies” especially if you roll each item and mash them down! Through no genius or pre-planning on my part these cylindrical plastic containers fit perfectly into the side-pods of the McBearen and having them safely stowed I knew that regardless of how soaked I got while driving, there would be dry cloths available to me at the end of the day. Dry … but very wrinkled!

The big day finally arrived and as I buckled in I announce (to myself) ready or not, the McBearen was heading out far beyond the relative safety of friends and available rollback transport vehicles. The travel route for the first day consisted of highway 52 North to Fancy Gap, I-77 North to Charleston, WV, I-64 West to Louisville, KY, and then North on I-65 to Indianapolis. It was cool, but not cold. The weather prediction for the two-day dash to Cedar Rapids called for moderate temperatures with clear skies although it was raining heavily just east of Winston all the way to the coast.

The leaves were in full color and the bright sunlight flickering through the trees made the climb up the first mountain ridge toward Fancy Gap particularly beautiful. As we passed under the Blue Ridge Parkway’s stone arch I realized that the long anticipated journey had really begun. Just writing about it now makes me want to jump into the McB again to feel the wind in my face, the sound of the engine and the thrill experienced when my orange creation accelerates confidently through curves in the road. Unfortunately it’s just too cold today, but it won’t be cold for long!

I had decided early on to travel west via the interstate system leaving any secondary highway travel for the return leg. Since this was an endurance test for the vehicle I guessed that if anything failed it would probably fail within the first 400-miles and that any need to be rescued would be made easier from an interstate location than from some back road.

I had driven the McB to Charleston, WV earlier in the year so it wasn’t until I passed there that I reached territory unfamiliar to the car. Driving along the West Virginia Turnpike is beautiful in any car but sitting low in the open-air perch of the McB heightened the experiences. For some reason I found myself visualizing what the car looked like from far above the roadway. As the car curved and climbed, slowed and sped forward an accentuated rhythm developed and I thought to myself, “this is really neat!”  An understatement for sure!

As I passed through Charleston I was reminded that Iowa’s capital building in Des Moines is an exact replica of West Virginia’s beautiful golden dome building.  As I watched it pass quickly on my left I was reminded of that fact but this time it had more importance because of the destination set for the McBearen.

From Charleston westward to Louisville the mountain terrain slowly gives way to the rolling hills associated with the Ohio River valley.  The rolling hills are beautiful but in my opinion nothing matches the vistas of the Appalachians and no state defines that range better than West Virginia. Eastern Kentucky’s abundance of stately farms with palatial homes (not at all reminiscent of Steven Foster’s My Old Kentucky Home) most surrounded by thoroughbred horse pastures outlined with brown wooden fences form undulating boarders across the rolling landscape.  From Lexington to Frankford these beautiful homes and pastures line the road providing evidence of the wealth associated with the horse racing industry in that state. These pastures are nothing like the crammed feedlots of farms further west where the goal is to occupy every available square foot with fattened beasts destined for backyard grills or franchised hamburger shops around the world.  Here it seems that there is an attempt to limit the number of animals to no more than two per 1,000 acres.

I planned to make it to Indianapolis on the first day and everything was going according to plan.  Due to the space limitation on board the McB I had to hand fabricate the twin gas tanks for the car and neither of them had a fuel level gage built in.  So my odometer doubled as my fuel gage.  Throughout the months leading up to this trip I had established the range and knew I could safely go 200-miles on full tanks.  Every time I filled-up I made a mental note of the mileage and upon reaching that mileage limit I’d stop to fill up.   This system worked well except for the few times I wasn’t able to drive for an extended period of time causing me to forget the target mileage for the next fill up.  On this trip I was confident that I could remember each of the mileage segments.  At least I thought so!

Reaching Louisville in late afternoon I exited I-64 and headed north crossing the Ohio River over the unique steel bridge into Indiana on I-65.

I had traveled approximately 150-miles north of Winston and since it was October I knew darkness would come sooner here than at home.  Shortly after entering Indiana the sun began to fade from the sky so I stopped to adjust the new driving lights for the evening.

It was completely dark by the time I reached the motel.  The new lights worked well and I was happy I had taken the time to mount them before leaving.  It was much better driving with that added light and I found myself squinting a bit when those large green overhead signs were lighted so brightly from the new fixtures.  I’m confident that the other drivers on the road appreciated being able to see the McB better, as well.

It didn’t take much time to unpack the car and get it bedded down for the night.  The cockpit cover worked well and although it does little to protect the car from someone messing around it does present an obvious barrier suggesting that this is off limits.  And it protects the interior from rain and other weather.  Getting wet while driving isn’t pleasant but having to sit down and buckle myself into an already wet seat would be doubly miserable!  With the cockpit cover that prospect isn’t a factor unless it happens to be pouring while I’m getting ready to go.  In that case I’d be making the choice whether to leave right then or not. 

With the McBearen safely parked in front of my room and an entire evening with nothing to do but watch TV, an activity I despise and have no problem refraining from while at home, I sat with the notepad I had packed specifically for making notes about issues that may have come up during the day.  Interestingly, there was nothing to write about!  The car had performed during  9-hours of constant motion at speed limit speeds without a single hitch and it appeared that with a simple turn of the key it was ready to do the same tomorrow.  Fact is, as I stood wasting some time on the balcony I seriously considered re-packing and driving off without spending the night.  I had promised Jani that I would stop for the night so although I had the thought of leaving I knew I wouldn’t.

My body wasn’t fatigued in any way. It may be hard for some to believe but the seat and smoothness of the ride is better than many productions cars I have ridden in.  Consequently my stay in Indianapolis was not for recuperation purposes but rather a function of scheduling because both the car and the driver were ready and able to continue on indefinitely.

Indianapolis was the first legs’ goal because from there I could decide how the second days’ travel would develop.  Over the last 8-9 years a cyber friendship had developed with one of my equipment suppliers who lives in Chicago.  Although we had never met he had taken a special interest in the building process of the McBearen and I thought once I got to Indianapolis I’d contact him to see if it would be convenient for me stop by.  From Indianapolis it would be an easy jog further north on I-65 into Chicago.  After meeting with Jim I could take I-80 west toward the Quad Cities and the short 80-miles or so further to CR. 

When I awoke I was pleased to find that the weather forecasters had predicted correctly …. There were blue skies as far as I could see and better than that, no one had bothered the McB during the night.  I packed everything into the car and headed-out to find someplace to eat.  During breakfast I called Jim in Chicago but for reasons beyond our control meeting him was not going to be possible.  That was disappointing but there were still many miles to go.

The Speedway was only 2-miles from where I had breakfast.  I decided it would be nice to get a picture of the McBearen at the front gate. When I got there I could hear someone testing inside but beyond the sound of the car nothing could be seen.  There is nothing as magical as visiting large sports facilities across the country … especially when they aren’t hosting an event.  I don’t know the reason why but baseball and football stadiums, large (and even small) racetracks are especially interesting to me when there is no one around.  Perhaps it is the fact that I can imagine the crowds and hear the sounds that surround the steel, brick and concrete that make-up the otherwise cold complexes.  Perhaps I’m impressed by huge, cold and hard structures that for a relatively few hours each year are able to become so alive.  Whatever it is, I’ve always enjoyed being around them, especially when they are empty.

Following the fan photo at the gate I headed west out of Indianapolis on I-74.  If you have traveled the highways of the Midwest you’ll recognize the lack of visual intrigue associated with the landscape.  Except for a few hills near river channels the topography is flat and that flatness stretches for miles and miles  … and miles!  I’ve often wondered why Montana is called the big sky state when every state in the Midwest can claim as much sky as any other.  Standing in one spot the horizon appears to be a mere 36-inches above your feet in all directions!  Land value there isn’t measured in picturesque views but rather in production yields per acre.   Driving from Indianapolis to the Mississippi River I suggest that if you’ve seen 10-miles of roadway you’ve seen everything you’ll see in the next 200 miles and from the Mississippi on it’s the same for the next 500-miles.  I admit it does have it’s own beauty but my point is that that beauty can be easily experience within the first 10-miles.  After that, the big sky has a tendency to become boring except for the rest areas, all of which are carved from perhaps the one interesting topographical feature in each 40- 60 mile stretch of highway.  That may not be completely fair however the photo shown is typical; you be the judge. 

On this day out, I was destined to become very familiar with the rest areas and as things turned-out later that was good!  Without going into detail, I have a chronic disruptive sleep disorder and depending on the day its’ effect can be frustrating at best and down right frightening at its’ worst.  Unfortunately this was one of those potentially frightening days.  To keep from falling asleep I stopped at nearly every rest area in Indiana and Illinois to take a walk or do anything to stay awake.  I began to wander if I’d ever make it to Cedar Rapids by nightfall but in spite of the schedule I had no choice but to stop.  At each of these stops I experienced the same interest in the car, as has always been the case from the first day I began driving it. 

People want to see it.  They have questions or they want to have their pictures taken next to it.   If not that, at least a picture of it by itself.  Kids like to sit in it and I’ve most often accommodated these wishes if at all possible.  I enjoy these opportunities to talk with those who stop to see the car.  Truck drivers are always interested.  There were times at which the “gathering” around the McBearen looked like a group of visitors to a manufacturing plant bunched around a new piece of equipment on an assembly line with everyone sharing stories, asking questions and taking pictures. 

It was so strange to see it happening in rest areas parking lots and interesting to see it happen repeatedly throughout the day.  It was as though the travelers were taking a break to visit an auto show but there was only one car at the show and the show place was happening literally in the middle of nowhere. 

Then an even stranger thing became apparent. As I mentioned I was stopping at the rest areas to word-off my sleepiness but I found that there were others, more than I would have ever imagined, doing the same thing.  I really don’t know why but I’d see individuals and whole families from earlier stops. The numbers of these rest stop repeaters numbered far beyond what could be explained away as a coincidence.  It got so repetitious that we’d actually greet each other like old friends each time our paths crossed.  There seems to be an underworld of rest area traveling groupies that I had no previous knowledge of and I’ve traveled a lot. I’m still confused about that situation.

I-74 makes a long turn to the north swinging around the southwest side of Galesburg, IL and I was traveling with a group of cars that had been together for several miles.  We had all been driving the same speed which was admittedly pushing the limit but not by much.  As the highway settled into its’ final northern direction I looked in my mirrors and saw a dark colored car with blue lights flashing behind me.  All my “traveling partners” had mysteriously disappeared and the McLaren orange of the McBearen suddenly stood out in the crowd.  There was no doubt that those lights were directed toward me! 

I thought to myself, “5-mph over the posted limit, surely not?” , as I slowed, pulled onto the shoulder and stopped.

I’ve been stopped one or two times before in my life but I’ve never been asked to provide the items this officer asked me to produce.  In fact had I been driving any of my other vehicles I wouldn’t have been able to produce all of the documents he wanted to see then either.  He asked to see my driver’s license, my registration and my vehicle’s INSURANCE VERIFICATION card.  As I got out of my belts to searched for the papers I keep packed in a waterproof pouch deep in the driver’s side pod I thought damn, “I’m going to jail for sure”!  I knew I didn’t have an insurance card with me. I had insurance but the card he wanted was, I was sure, part of a “collection” of cards on my desk at home.  Surprise, surprise, surprise … tucked in with the registration was an insurance card albeit an outdated one. 

How and why it was there I haven’t a clue but thank goodness it was.

When the officer returned to my car he explained that I had been speeding… going 70 in a 60 mph zone.  That turned out to be the bad news.  The good news was he was giving me a warning rather than a ticket.

Being a normal law abiding citizen and being pulled over by a trooper for speeding did cause me some anxiety even without being obligated for the cost of a ticket. But, I shook it off pretty quickly and forgot about it. I also forgot that at the time he stopped me I had been on the lookout for a place to stop for gas.  It wasn’t until I felt the engine miss a beat that I remembered. 

When I felt the missed beat of the engine I was in the left lane passing a tractor-trailer. I slowed to pull behind the truck where, to my surprise, I found an entrance to (you guest it)… a rest area. By the time I reached the off-ramp the engine had stopped completely so I coasted in and parked as though nothing was out of order.

That was lucky! 

But getting some gas was, it appeared, going to be a problem.  I never travel with extra gas and it seems no one else does either.  After about 20-minutes of asking each group that walked passed by if they had any gas I turned to recognize a face from an earlier rest stop.  After greeted each other as respectable rest stop groupies do he asked, what’s up? And I explained my predicament.  His response was to produce 2.5 gallons of gas in a red plastic container from the back of his truck!  We talked while I poured about half of the gas into my tank.  I thanked him, gave him $10.00 and was on my way.  That sequence of events proved conclusively to me that good things happen in threes: the warning ticket, the rest area entrance, and my rest area groupie, the truck driver. 

By this time it was getting late and although the sun was still in my eyes I knew it would be getting dark before long.  I had solved my sleepiness issue to some extent by removing my helmet to let the full impact of the wind hit my face so I settled in for the last 130 miles of the day.  Once I crossed the Mississippi into Iowa things became interesting to me once again.  The names of familiar towns, familiar highway signs and some long established truck stops on I-80 brought back memories of traveling in the past. 

There remained only a few miles to go on I-80 before I would exit the interstate to drive north into Tipton.  Half way through that quaint little town I’d make a left onto a county road that passed the fairgrounds where my older brother and I spent Saturday nights working racing events for a local promoter.  Then left on US highway 30 west at Mechanicsville and right again at state highway 13 for about 4-miles before making the last left onto Mt. Vernon Road taking me into Cedar Rapids!

What a great trip! Not a single mechanical issue with the McBearen and I’m pleased that the McB build resulted in a vehicle that interested so many along the way. 

I say again, “This is really neat!”

Final note: After a great couple of days visiting with Dr. Bob Caldwell, staying in his unbelievable home, meeting his beautiful and kind partner Sharon and taking a tour of the damage caused by last springs’ devastating flooding in that city the McBearen and I returned home without incident. It was a great experience. Hopefully I can talk Jani into going along the next time the McBearen wants to prove something!



  1. Hello Dick, enjoyed "riding along with you to Iowa". Glad you had a good trip in a fine looking ride. I have enjoyed following the McBearen build on and at and seeing your progress from nearly start to finish. It's nice to see you enjoy the fruits of your labor and sharing it with everyone.

    Jerry D. Kennedy (KustomsRus)
    Evansville, IN.

  2. Dick,

    Thanks, I really enjoyed your story.

  3. great effort,as New Zealander and therefore a totally biased McLaren Fan I applaud your tribute to one of Motorings greats. I am sure Bruce himself would have been most impressed as he was going to market a road going version of his own racers when he was tragically killed. Be careful of deer at night! those flaining legs are lethal!. Cheers and happy motoring for the future!

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