The West Virginia road trip was five years in the making, five days in the doing. The blurred photo captures the spirit—often the most memorable things are those that aren’t entirely planned. In the end, everyone wanted to do it all again next year—with one notable exception. We’ll get to that.
First, the beginning. Back in the spring of 2005 I chanced across a lightly used Honda S2000 with a thought-provoking mod: a cut-off switch for the passenger airbag, with a URL on it. Perhaps I could reconcile owning such a car with having three children after all. In the end, I almost bought a Mazda RX-8, finding it at least as fun to drive as any of the other cars I considered, and much more practical. Add an airbag cutoff switch, and I could carry all the kids!
Almost, because my father entered the equation. He had bought a 2003 350Z on impulse when they first came out, then hated how the car beat him up so much that he rarely drove it. After a year and a half he sold it with just a few thousand miles for almost as much as he paid for it—the hot new Z was still in short supply.
My thinking about a sports car got him thinking about a sports car again. He also test drove the S2000 and RX-8, and similarly enjoyed the RX-8 more. It didn’t hurt that the Mazda is far less expensive to insure. I wasn’t quite ready to put my money where my mouth was, and we both figured that he would tire of this car as well within a year or two. So we started looking for an RX-8 for him to buy.
The old man found a steal. A woman a few hours away in northern Virginia had won a silver 2005 RX-8 Sport (all the stuff you need, none of the stuff you don’t) in a contest. She wanted to sell the car so she could buy her minister a Harley. For religious reasons (just repeating what I was told, I could not make this stuff up), the minister was unable to drive a car, but a Harley was okay. He’d been getting by with renting a motorcycle when he needed one. She wanted to save him the trouble.
The Harley would cost $20,500, so that’s how much she wanted for the car, which had just a few thousand miles on it. This was two to three grand below market at the time, so I advised my father to jump on it. And so he did.
A few months later I drove my kids to Virginia so they could spend two weeks with my parents, and returned to Michigan in the RX-8 via the most challenging roads I could find, most notably WV 16 and OH 26. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, recounted here. The RX-8 might lack low-end grunt, but on curvy mountain roads the chassis is the limiting factor. And the Mazda has a spectacular chassis: agile, perfectly balanced, and yet also forgiving. I’ve driven over 600 different cars in the past decade, but can think of no other car I’d rather drive on a challenging, unfamiliar road.
I told my father he had to take a similar drive, since the straight, flat roads of Virginia Beach were not the optimal habitat for the Mazda. But he never got around to it.
A year or two after my father bought his car, my best friend (since we were both five back in 1973) went through the same sequence. We drove the S2000. We drove my father’s car. Trey’s father, a state judge, had owned a classic Z back in the late 1970s, and had been thinking about buying a sports car again. So the judge ended up buying a loaded red 2004 RX-8, which he and Trey (mostly Trey) then also drove exclusively in the Virginia flatlands.
Something had to be done about this intolerable situation. So in the fall of 2007 I suggested meeting up in DC. I would catch a cheap flight, they would drive the two cars up to meet me. The four of us would then take a drive through the mountains so I could demonstrate how and where RX-8s are supposed to be driven. Trey and I were both turning 40 in early November, and this seemed a great way to celebrate the milestone. Everyone signed on.
Well, not everyone. My wife threw a fit. I was going to go off and have fun, leaving her to deal with three kids alone? There were other circumstances I cannot recall at the moment, except that they were all in her favor. So I called off the trip.
A few months later, with TrueDelta.com taking up more and more of my time, we got an au pair to help with the children. So a major impediment to the trip went away. But discussions didn’t get very far in 2008 and 2009. I was busy, and it seemed like something we could just do “next year.”
More fun to drive and much more livable, the RX-8 sustained my father’s interest far longer than the Z had. But this past fall he called to say he was, at long last, tiring of it. Would I like it? Absolutely, but not until the following spring. There’s no point in owning such a car in Detroit in the winter.
With the RX-8 coming my way, this would be our last chance to take that drive together. Time to make it happen. I got in touch with Trey, and both he and his father signed on. We settled on the weekend of October 23rd.
Time for the details. I wanted to do as much driving as possible, and made extensive use of google maps to select the twistiest roads. The others, having never taken such a trip, weren’t sure they wouldn’t get bored after a few hours. So I scaled back a fantasy of making it all the way down to Tail of the Dragon. Then scaled it down again, settling on a 500-mile loop through the mountains and hills of West Virginia.
One way for me to get more driving in: travel there by car rather than by plane. The car had to be well-suited to challenging roads. After a fair amount of back and forth I persuaded Nissan to provide a six-speed Infiniti G37 coupe, with the condition that I keep the total miles near 800.
Consequently, I wouldn’t be able to drive the G37 all the way to the Blue Ridge Parkway, where I had initially planned to meet the others. Instead, my father and I would start a day earlier, on Friday morning. We’d meet up in Bridgeport, WV, selected because it’s about 400 miles from Detroit. Early Saturday morning we’d drive his RX-8 back down US 250 to the Blue Ridge Parkway, meeting up with the others. We’d then travel in the two cars down the BRP to Lexington, get lunch there, then head west, stopping at Summersville for the night. Sunday we’d head a little farther west to pick up WV 16, drive north on it for a bit, then head east to spend the night in Staunton, VA. Monday Trey and the judge would return home, while my father and I returned to Bridgeport. Tuesday I’d return to Detroit in the G37, taking a slightly longer route to include OH 26.
Plans like this have a way of falling apart. Things come up. To prevent this, and to save a few dollars, I got everyone’s okay to prepay the hotel rooms (most of them through Hotwire), and did so. Five years in the making, the trip was happening.
Follow Michael’s journey in part two of this piece here.