Getting There – Part 3 (Racing Road Trips)

Scenery is just one factor in how much boredom a driver experiences during cross-country travel. Other factors are the number and type of passengers you have with you, what else you have on your mind, the time of day (or night), and how long it’s been since you last ate a chocolate chip cookie or drank a Pepsi.

I’ve driven some long solo trips where I had better conversations with myself than when I had certain passengers with me. Well, I thought they were better conversations; I’m not sure what the other me thought of the dialogue, but based on the responses…let’s just say the exchanges were a little one-sided, much like what Tom Hanks experienced in the movie Cast Away.

You know, the movie where Hanks survives a plane crash and spends years on a deserted island? A FedEx package from the crash washes up on shore, and it has a volleyball in it. Hanks’s character, Larry, ends up “painting” a face on it with his blood, arranging some palm fronds to make it look like it has hair, calling it “Wilson,” and having conversations with it. That reminds me of some of the conversations I’ve had with myself on long trips. Except for the blood part.

One person great to travel with through the years has been my brother, Gord. But there’s a problem with traveling with a sibling: Asking things like “Tell me about your childhood. Where did you grow up? What do your parents do?” is a bit meaningless. So, let’s just say that long trips with Gord did not fill the vehicle with nonstop conversation!

I’ve made trips with passengers who reminded me of another movie—Vacation, with Chevy Chase. Do you recall the scene where he leaves the dog tied to the rear bumper of the car? Or the other scene where he straps the deceased aunt to the Family Truckster’s roof? Both of those would have been appropriate actions for a couple of passengers who will remain nameless.

Notice I keep referring to these people sharing the trip with me as passengers. I rarely call them co-drivers for a reason. See, I prefer to drive. Okay, when Gord has been with me, he’s done nearly as much driving as I have, but he’s the exception to the rule.

It’s not that I don’t trust others to drive. Well, in some cases that is the case. And there are some people whom I don’t trust to drive, depending on what we’re driving.

In 1980, a friend and I drove my van towing a double-decker trailer that held both my and another driver’s race cars from Vancouver to Mosport (just east of Toronto), then into Montreal the following weekend, and finally all the way back again. My friend Ron had been helping me with my racing since I started three years earlier. We became close friends for may reasons including our common passion for cars, driving and racing; he’d given up personal time and even helped pay for some things along the way during our racing escapades. He and I were definitely a team, even sharing an apartment for a few years. But a minor problem was that he tended to nod off to sleep every now and then on a long trip. He is a great driver who I trusted with my life, but I still liked to know he was going to stay awake while driving.

So even when I was trying to rest in the passenger seat, I really couldn’t sleep. I’d constantly keep an eye open to make sure Ron wasn’t nodding off himself (that may have been more my problem than his). That was why, when going from Toronto to Vancouver the previous year towing my trailer, I drove more than my share of the forty-seven hours that the journey took—a nonstop, cross-country-in-two-days drive.

Coming home from Montreal in 1980, we took on a couple more passengers—friends who had been at the race in Montreal and wanted to save airfare by riding along with us. Ron and I thought this was great: More people would keep us awake and possibly even give us a little break from the monotonous 3,000-mile drive ahead.

This seemed like a good idea until around midnight, when we’d just crossed from Manitoba into Saskatchewan, a little over halfway home. I was driving but struggling to stay awake. Ron was sound asleep in the passenger seat, but I desperately needed a break, so I woke him up and he got behind the wheel.

To demonstrate just how tired I was, I agreed to get in the back of the van and try to sleep while this other friend—we’ll call him Mick—would sit in the front passenger seat and keep an eye on Ron. In less than an hour, Ron was pulling over to the side of the road, with both he and Mick agreeing that Ron couldn’t keep his eyes open.

Now, a little background on this particular van and trailer combination. Some trailers are so travel-friendly that you don’t even feel their presence when pulling them. They track straight, and they’re light enough that they don’t bog the tow vehicle down. This was decidedly not one of those combinations. The weight of this trailer wasn’t much of a problem, but the moment we hit fifty miles per hour, the trailer wanted to sway back and forth like a slithering snake.

After a few hundred miles of countersteering every single time the trailer swayed from one side to another, I got so I could predict the movement. Therefore, I made constant subtle but well-timed steering adjustments, although the van-trailer combination did continue to move around a little. I didn’t overreact to it; I was always a little ahead of its movement and on guard for it swaying too much.

The last thing in the world that I’d do if things did begin to sway more than normal was take my foot off the gas pedal. That was sure death! If I lifted my foot off the gas and tried to slow down, the trailer would begin to oscillate pretty violently. Experience is a great teacher. So the key was to keep my foot down and drive through these moments with precise, well-timed, controlled movements of the steering wheel. Ron caught on, too. We both could control this swaying mass (or mess) at speeds well above the legal limit.

A funny thing happened the first time we stopped for a break, about twelve hours into the trip. We were at a gas station, and I went in to use the bathroom. I came out, took over pumping gas, and then Ron went to do the same thing. When he came back, he had this funny smile on his face. He looked at me and asked, “Was the toilet in there swaying back and forth?” After twelve hours of this constant motion, our bodies had gotten used to it, and now it seemed that everything was moving accordingly. I suspect that people on boats have experienced the same thing.

As I lay in the back of my van that night with Mick behind the wheel and Ron coaching from the front passenger seat, I felt us pull away from the side of the highway where we’d stopped for the switching-of-the-drivers. I sat up and gave Mick one last piece of advice: “Whatever you do, when the trailer starts to sway a little, DO NOT take your foot off the gas pedal. Just look way up the highway and be gentle with the steering corrections.” I then lay back down to sleep.

Some twenty minutes later, I felt the trailer beginning to move more than normal. Mick got it under control. It swayed a little more. Mick got it mostly calmed down again. It swayed again even more. But he still had it somewhat under control. Then, just as I sat up and yelled, “Stay on the gas,” he lifted his foot off the pedal. The next second I glanced out the right-side window and saw the right side of the trailer. I then turned and looked out the driver’s window just in time to see the trailer’s left side coming toward us. Then back to the right and there it was out that side window again. And finally, just as I glanced out the left side again, the trailer came swinging all the way around, taking the van with it and completely spinning us sideways in the middle of the highway.

It was a good thing that it was around 1 AM and that we were in the middle of nowhere, for there was no one to hit us. And another “good” thing that Mick managed to do was perform all of this in the absolute middle of the highway, therefore avoiding having the trailer drop off the side of the road and the whole mess rolling over. Instead, we stopped with the van at a 90-degree angle to the highway and the trailer 45 degrees to the van. How the trailer hitch didn’t rip off the back of the van, how the trailer didn’t hit the van, how the trailer didn’t tip over, and how the two race cars inside the trailer survived without a scratch, I’ll never know. What I do know is that I no longer felt sleepy.

This is a prime example of why I prefer to do the driving. It has something to do with trust.

And sorry, Mick, if you’re reading this—I don’t trust your driving.

Check back next week for more.

1 Comment

  1. This is tricky stuff. Opening discussions with students often include me saying to some degree they can and should trust their own judgement since they’re the ones at the controls but only until such time they need to forget that and trust me COMPLETELY. So far has worked well with folks “sensibly” cautious and willing to learn. Helps too that most students are like you, they “start” with trust, which I am too. Too bad ole “Mick” didn’t trust you when you said stay on the gas. You and Ron sound like drivers that can more or less accept and figure out how to deal with what you’ve got…like a swaying trailer for instance. And please forgive me I just can’t help say I’m sure you’re aware now there are a number of measures one can take to help with that, maybe you knew it then but had no recourse, ok. Back to your swaying toilet, years ago a few of us sailed a 36 footer from England to the US, taking several months altogether. The galley sink on our boat had a great little foot pump for dispensing water from the faucet….it was at least a week after we got to shore for my right foot to stop trying to pump water every time I walked up to a sink….just a tad embarrassing….and yeah the toilets were swaying too, in fact everything was! But those were the easy effects to overcome, incredibly it took nearly 20 years not to feel a little seasick every time the sky’s darkened with a coming storm….so yeah once the trust is lost it can take awhile to be regained.

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