By on March 9, 2011

So, where were we?

I’d planned a road trip through West Virginia with my best friend, both of our fathers, and two Mazda RX-8s. A little over an hour in, on the way to meet the others, my father had sideswiped a tree, totaling his car. After exploring various options, I’d decided that we could and should continue on in the wrecked car. Around 2 PM Trey and his father, the judge, arrived at the revised rendezvous point in their car. The “real trip” could finally begin.

Unfortunately, it can no longer be the trip I had planned. I had designed the route to include WV 16, one of the most insanely convoluted roads anywhere. Given the hour, the judge doesn’t think we can cover so many mountainous miles before sundown. He doesn’t want us to feel an actual need for speed, warning that his counterparts on this side of the state line might well lock us up for the night. On his map WV 55 (also US 219 initially and WV 39 later on—many of the roads serve double and even triple duty) is marked as a “scenic route.” The judge likes scenic. Reluctantly I agree to take WV 55 nearly all the way to Summersville if it proves sufficiently entertaining.

I’ll be driving our RX-8 (which means fewer pictures, even though the old man has two cameras to my one). My father remains sheepish following his misstep, and readily takes shotgun. With the badly damaged right-side doors jammed shut this necessitates a hop over the coupe’s tall center console. He manages this with alacrity, no mean feat for a 73-year-old. I’m impressed.

WV 55 proves to be just what the judge ordered. Pretty little farms flank the road, and the trees are covered with fall foliage. I take it easy through the first few curves, just in case the right front wheel secedes from the rest of the car. It doesn’t, so I’m ready to step it up. But WV 55 won’t let me. The small river that carved the valley did its job too well. The valley is broad, so the curves aren’t tight, and they’re too few and far between. So when we arrive at the junction with WV 15, I suggest over the two-way radio Trey supplied that we take the road less traveled.

With roads, less is more, or at least more entertaining. WV 15 is much twistier than WV 55 as it snakes up and down through the mountains. At the higher elevations the trees have already lost their leaves, so the drive isn’t as pretty, but I don’t mind. The RX-8, with its excellent balance and communicative steering, was made for roads like this one. Pushed hard into a turn it just hunkers down, with the feel of a slight rearward weight bias. Apply a touch of gas to further rotate the tail.

With its oft-criticized lack of low-end torque, the RX-8’s rotary engine might be ill-suited for stoplight grands prix. But on mountain roads you don’t spend any time between zero and twenty, so this isn’t an issue. Once on the move along a curvy road, plenty of power with a thrilling (if not sweet) soundtrack is never more than a downshift away. This engine loves to run to its 9,000 rpm redline.

And yet I don’t push the car as hard as I have in the past. As hard as it is to lose control of an RX-8, my father successfully demonstrated that it’s nevertheless possible. It’s bad enough to have left the road once. I cannot imagine having to explain how we managed to wreck an already wrecked car. On top of this, our “shields are down” all along the right side. With the side airbags spent, the windshield crunched up, and the doors caved it, the car’s right side probably wouldn’t absorb a second hit terribly well. Take a hit on the left side, and we’d no longer be able to get out of the car. So I drive the car well within its limits. Still great fun.

In Webster Springs I miss the turn for WV 20 South, so leaving the small town we switchback up a hill on WV 15/20 North. We turn around, switchback back down the hill, and return to the town. This time I find the correct turn—the road sign is at least 100 feet from the intersection. West Virginia’s signage isn’t the best. After a couple of hairpins this road is overly tame. We reconnect with WV 55 in Craigsville, and the road becomes downright crowded by local standards. Still just a few other cars, but enough to impede our progress.

We arrive in Summersville around 4 PM, with well over an hour of daylight remaining. Could we have taken the planned route? I still think so. But this group was unsure of its appetite for driving, was sure of its appetite for staying out of a West Virginia jail, and we have a full day tomorrow.

I open the trunk and discover that my computer isn’t in there. Suddenly I realize that I took it into the restaurant earlier because the car sans right side windows was no longer secure…and never brought it back out. My heart pounding, I fish out my receipt and call the restaurant. This being small town West Virginia and not New York, they have the computer. Seems I’ll be returning to Bob’s Mini Mart after all.

The car needs to be sealed up for the night using the plastic sheeting and clear packaging tape we bought at Dollar General. But it has been a long day, so I rest for a moment in the room. Trey takes the opportunity to make a beer run, returning with a twelve pack. Now he and his father won’t risk getting thirsty while watching me seal up the windows.

Attaching the plastic sheeting takes just a few minutes, not even enough time for the spectators to kill a single beer. We then stand around chatting while my father calls his insurance company to report the accident. He wonders what to tell them. I advise him to simply tell them what happened—an unmarked downhill hairpin turn that he’d entered going below the speed limit but, in retrospect, still too fast. The insurance company is, as I expected, happy that there were no injuries—cars are relatively cheap.

Time for dinner. When making the hotel reservations I’d been told that Cultured Catering operates the only best restaurant in the area. So we all piled into the judge’s car—unlike other sports cars, the RX-8 comfortably carries four medium-sized men—and head off. The restaurant proves hard to locate, but after a few wrong turns, including one stop at the catering rather than the restaurant location, we’re there. It’s inside an old bank building, complete with a vault. The foot-thick vault door, open, has a window that displays the intricate clockwork within. A waiter claims they were offered half a million for this door, but turned it down—“it makes the place.” I order a prime rib. The other three get “smothered chicken,” one of the specials. It’s all very good.

After dinner we head back to the hotel and, after some good wine and better conversation, go to sleep happy.

Michael Karesh owns and operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive and reliability data

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19 Comments on “A Road Trip Five Years In The Making: Part 6...”

  • avatar

    Michael, this series was brilliant.  Thanks for sharing.

  • avatar

    The RX-8, with its excellent balance and communicative steering, was made for roads like this one…
    Once I tried to run down a RX8 in East Tennessee.  The darn road never straightened out and I got my ass handed to me. Badly.
    At least I know I was working harder (and being a bigger idiot) than the Mazda guy.

  • avatar

    Hey Michael,    (they say “hey” down south)

    I really enjoyed this series.  A little father-son bonding, cars, driving, and band-aid Lemons style solutions. (Murilee would agree)

    Tell your father he may not need to fix the car, it already looks like Mazda’s future design language. 

  • avatar

    it was an enjoyable anecdote but I wasn’t totally comfortable with the concept of debating how hard to push it (“not as hard as I have in the past” for sure) in a car that was already wrecked by driving too fast on an unfamiliar, poorly marked public road. I have had my hide saved by other drivers, and saved theirs, so I don’t want to be too critical, but it’s good to think things through before rather than after the second wreck. Was the chassis bent?

    • 0 avatar

      The chassis was bent a little around the right side of the firewall. But, as described in the previous segment, I had a local mechanic examine the suspension before continuing. Also, there were no further changes in how the car handled.

  • avatar
    M 1

    A road trip through West Virginia? I guess if you really tried, a few states are smaller. Honestly a trip along most of the California coastline has better scenery and twisties that are at least equivalent, and the drive will last for a week.
    I live in the southeast, most of my family is in the northeast and I’ve spent plenty of time on the Blue Ridge et al, and sorry, but quite frankly, WV isn’t “trip of a lifetime” country. I mean, there are fun drives, but… my commute to the office lasts longer.

    • 0 avatar

      They’re very different. I actually haven’t driven into W VA except to the edge of the state around Summit Point, but I’ve done Skyline several times between Rt 66 and Charlottesville, which is spectacular in a very different way from the California coast. It’s definitely one o fthose places that’s as good as driving gets, especially in the off season. I would like to do some substantial driving in Appalachia.

      Michael, what has become of the Rx-8? I hope that somehow you’re still having fun with it.

    • 0 avatar

      M 1,
      For comparable roads on the west coast you want the relatively small ones that go over the coastal range, not along the coast. Not that the PCH isn’t a great road, but you’re never far from civilization and other cars.

      But the trip really isn’t about the location. It’s about finally getting these people on ANY entertaining roads. Clearly I should have made this element clearer. Some readers have really picked up on it, but possibly because they’ve had (or wanted to have) a similar experience with a parent or good friend. In my case both. Trey and I have been close friends for 38 years. To have him and both of our dads together for even a couple days on these roads is beyond words, at least words I’m capable of. They weren’t sure they wanted to do it at all. Now they want to do it again. Flying to California and renting some cars for a week wasn’t happening, and honestly wouldn’t have added much to the experience. We pegged the meter.
      I knew the car was totaled the instant I saw the damage around the A-pillar and firewall. These were bound to be its final miles.

    • 0 avatar

      Seems like if you get the roof or pillars involved, thats it for the car. Worth more in pieces than repaired. The pillars are now high strength steel and I’d guess that such steel doesn’t take rework very well. I know I wouldn’t want a repair sans a TSB detailing how to do it from the steel supplier or at least the car manufacturer. Doubt you’d find one in our litigious society.
      Hope your Dad gets another one and enjoys it, and enjoys driving again with his son and friends.

  • avatar

    Thank you for bringing back memories of my McLean driving days. Route 60 from Richmond to Charleston was quite a challenge in a GMC tractor with 35000 lbs. in the trailer. We pulled off often to let the following cars by, so it was a long drive.
    Should I try this in the AMG, or my daughter’s S 2000?

    • 0 avatar

      I’d go with the S2000. Like the RX-8 it’s a car meant for curves rather than straights. Just go easy on the gas in corners–S2000s have a mean tendency to snap oversteer and aren’t nearly as forgiving as the RX-8. Especially the older ones. For 2004 they tweaked the suspension, and in 2007 they finally fitted stability control.

  • avatar

    The RX-8 is a largely undiscovered Jewel in an automotive parking lot full of boring gravel. It’s not the cheapest way to get from A to B, but if you want to remember what’s between A and B, there are few better ways to travel. As far as the location is concerned – some of the best driving roads in the USA. Come on down to the Deal’s Gap Rotary Rally at the end of April for a gathering of the clan:

    • 0 avatar

      The rally is the end of April? I didn’t realize it was so early in the year. Time to find him a new car!

    • 0 avatar

      HiFlite999:  See you in April.  I think we were the furthest drivers last year (the blue RX8 from Nova Scotia) and we are heading down again this year.  What do you have and where are you coming from?  Would be nice to say hello in person.
      An event not to be missed.  We are also planning on heading down to Road Atlanta on the Sunday for The Mitty since Mazda is the featured marque.
      Michael:  It’s actually a few weeks later this year.  I honestly hope you source him another car.  Always a good selection on the RX8 club.  If you and your father are going, drop me a line.  Accommodations are filling up, and I currently have a few open beds in a really nice cabin. A friend of mine and his father who are coming with us decided they wanted their own cabin.

    • 0 avatar

      Have some checking to do. In case I can make it work, can you send me an email so I have your contact info?

    • 0 avatar

      Hi Michael.  Sent.

  • avatar

    This brought back memories, not all of them good.  I grew up in “West By God Virginia” in the pre-Interstate era so roads like these were the only ones if you had to travel anywhere.  We used to visit my grandmother twice a year.  It was 90 miles but it took 4-5 hours to get there.  My sister and I were stuck in the back of Dad’s 1953 Chrysler as it rolled and pitched through a thousand hairpin curves.  This was accompanied by my Dad’s curses every time we got stuck behind some farmer in a dilapidated pickup truck or on a tractor.  Then my Mom would light up a Pall Mall and my sister would start hurling.  Miserable way to travel. 

    That said, they are great roads for a brisk drive in an early era Porsche!

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