So the Halloween Hooptiefest 24 Hours of LeMons at New Hampshire Motors Speedway went well, with the Rust In The Wind Saab-powered Nissan 300ZX taking a very improbable overall win, and we of the LeMons HQ crew were packing up the gear on Sunday afternoon and getting ready to head home… when we heard that all of our flights out of Logan— in fact, all flights out of the northeastern United States— were canceled due to ZOMG THE END OF THE WORLD IS COMING PANIC YALL!!!1! The plan had been to drive our rental Kia Sorento 70 miles or so to an airport hotel, spend the night there, and grab our flights early Monday morning. We got to the hotel in Burlington, Massachusetts, where we convened an emergency meeting of the very exhausted LeMons brain trust.
The four of us— me, Nick Pon, Jeff Glenn, and Jay Lamm— figured we could hunker down in the hotel for what was shaping up to be at least three days of hurricane hell, probably without electricity and most likely fighting with roaming bands of storm-maddened locals for D batteries and maybe rat carcasses to roast over burning tires… or we could leap into the Sorento and drive west or south in order to get to an airport both out of reach of Sandy’s path and featuring flights to San Francisco (for them) and Denver (for me). If we were going to go for the latter choice, we’d have to start quickly; it was already 8:30 PM and the edge of the fast-approaching storm would soon be closing roads and probably gas stations along any route we might take. We’d all been running on a few hours’ sleep per night for the previous few days— running a LeMons race with 100+ entries takes a lot out of you even when you are catching eight hours of Zs each night— but each of us had plenty of wild-eyed road trip experience and we figured we could split the driving four ways, crank the Melt-Banana to stay awake, and arrive alive. After a flurry of calls to airlines and frenzied study of weather maps— all four guys on laptops and phones— we narrowed our choices to Cincinatti and Charlotte. The storm looked likely to head east, but it had already been south, so we opted for Charlotte, North Carolina, close to 900 miles to the southwest. OK, let’s do it!
LeMons Chief Perp Jay Lamm, however, decided that he just wasn’t crazy enough to do the drive; he’d tried to dodge Hurricane Irene when in New York the year before and just ended up dealing with more hassle than if he’d just stayed put. So, he handed us the keys to the Kia and all the cash he could spare and sent us on our way. It was 8:50 on Sunday night and we had reservations for flights out of Charlotte for early Tuesday morning. No sweat, as long as we didn’t get trapped by closed roads and/or panic-stricken crowds clogging the roads in an escape frenzy.
Because we had visions of getting trapped on a dead-stalled highway in Maryland or Pennsylvania (I was getting sweated by visions from Cortázar’s endless-traffic-jam story La Autopista del Sur), we blew into the nearby Trader Joe’s to get provisions to last us a few days. I had several bottles of quality bribe booze from racers in my luggage, so I figured we’d be able to barter that for a few tin cups of mulligan stew from friendly hobos camped next to the miles of abandoned cars. Our shopping expedition was a whirlwind affair, since we showed up four minutes before closing time; three race organizers grabbing random stuff off the shelves as the apocalypse bears down results in a strange menu indeed. Two weeks later, I’m still eating leftover Plutonium Joe’s Isotopes-n-Capers Trail Mix™ and Hukbalahap Joe’s Balut Sticks™.
Assuming that the power was about to go out everywhere, we filled up the Sorento at the first gas station we found. While Jeff pumped, I went in to the station to buy Nitrute-Enhanced™ meat-stick snacks and caffeinated beverages. “Stocking up for the storm?” asked the clerk. “Hell no!” I replied, “We’re driving straight to North Carolina!” Everyone in the place turned and gazed upon me with respect. Or something.
The cargo area of the Sorento was just about completely filled with our luggage; we bring all the transponders and a bunch of other bulky race gear with us as checked baggage when we travel to races, so we had a lot of crap. It was a good thing that Jay had decided to stay behind, because we needed the unoccupied rear passenger seats for our food, phone chargers, and other stuff we’d need to be able to reach while the Sorento was in motion. So, if you’re traveling heavy, the Sorento barely has room for three adults and their equipment.
Even though Jeff had just spent a long day as Race Manager in the NHMS tower— that is, the guy who coordinates all the flaggers, emergency crews, pit-in/out staffers, sends me the penalty information, everything, a job akin to being an air-traffic controller combined with a police dispatcher— he swore he felt alert and ready to go and he insisted on driving the first leg of our journey.
We decided that we’d need to give New York City a wide berth, due to the increasingly scary reports of evacuations from the city, and so we planned a route that took us west to Scranton, Pennsylvania, and then southwest to Charlotte. Since Sandy at this time was just off the Virginia coast and moving due north, our route would be taking us down into the storm— or at least its western edge— but we figured we’d be far enough inland to avoid the worst effects.
The wind was getting wilder, the rain was starting to pelt down pretty hard, and I-84 was crowded with erratic-driving hurricane escapees, but Jeff kept saying “I feel great!” and kept the hammer down. The unibody, car-chassis-based Sorento proved to be surprisingly agile for a tall-looking CUV packed to the rafters with passengers and cargo.
One of my jobs as Chief Justice of the LeMons Supreme Court is to write the post-race summaries for the race sponsor, preferably on race day, so I tethered my laptop to my PDANet-equipped smartphone, fired up Photoshop to prep my shots of the winners, and got to work. The Sorento’s back seats aren’t up to, say, Crown Victoria levels of roominess (starting out, we felt that the Crown Vic/Grand Marquis would have been the ideal rental vehicle for this situation) and the ride got fairly bouncy, but I was able to get the job done before the laptop’s battery died. Meanwhile, the final game of the World Series was going on, and lifelong Giants fan Nick was doing his best to pick up the ballgame broadcast on the Kia’s radio.
We managed to pick up the final pitch of the game while we were somewhere in New York, and Nick wanted this shot to immortalize the moment (I’m an Oakland A’s fan, but— unlike most A’s fans— I don’t wish ill upon the Giants). Outside the car, the weather just kept getting uglier, but Jeff rebuffed all suggestions that someone else might take the wheel: “No, no, I feel good.”
At this point, the wind levels were getting worrisome. 18-wheeler drivers were pulling off at rest areas and hunkering down while many of the car drivers were getting increasingly erratic; some were creeping along at 35 while others pulled off head-clutching thread-the-needle passes on the road shoulder. Our Sorento was the quickest thing on the road, hauling distinctly un-CUV-ish levels of ass under dangerous conditions, and yet Nick and I weren’t the slightest bit nervous. Here is the place in this tale where I need to discuss the differences between good drivers and professional racers, because Jeff Glenn is a member of the latter group.
Jeff came from a racing family and was autocrossing an MGB and a Mini years before he was old enough to get a street license. As he got older, he graduated to faster and faster cars, until eventually he was piloting open-wheelers for a living. A few years older than the competition— because he’d opted to get a college degree and “wasted” four years— he realized that the reality of being a pro racer hadn’t turned out to be as much fun as he’d imagined as a kid, and so he became an automotive journalist and, when his editor started putting on goofy races, a race promoter.
Most of the time, Jeff is just the well-organized LeMons HQ staffer who talks to corner-workers on the radio, answers confused questions from racers who can’t figure out how to choose a car number, and makes sure all the gear gets shipped to the correct tracks. It’s when he gets behind the wheel of a vehicle— any vehicle— and the situation turns weird that you realize that you’re dealing with a heavy-duty, alien-DNA driving mutant here. Running late for your flight and need to do a 60-MPH bootlegger turn in an Aveo on a crowded airport road in order to get to the rental-car dropoff in time? No problem, Jeff makes it happen. Or, say you’re in Jamaica on the LeMons corporate retreat, you’ve got a diesel Toyota HiAce with 13 passengers and right-hand drive, and you need to navigate Jamaican roads teeming with stray dogs, overloaded buses, and “drug dons” in Escalades. Again, this is the guy you want driving.
Jeff gets an unnerving sense of focus when a driving situation becomes serious; his responses to communication go all robotic and he lasers holes in the windshield, looking several turns ahead at all times. In Jamaica, he had a way of knowing that there’d be a Montero with a busted axle blocking the road just around the next blind curve and he’d have the HiAce ready for it. In the Sorento, he got faster as the worsening weather conditions chased the other drivers off the highways and we knew that we had to outrace Sandy before she trapped us for three days at the Northern Maryland Chlamydic Lot Lizard Rest Area.
By the time we reached I-81, the southbound direction was empty save for a few hell-bent-for-leather diesel demons determined to get their 18-wheelers out of Sandy’s reach and barreling their wind-tossed trucks along at 85 MPH. The Smokeys were all tied up dealing with storm-related problems, and so Jeff really got on the Kia’s throttle at that point. I can’t say that the Sorento is quiet at speed in a hurricane, nor can I say that its ride is smooth. In fact, all that marketing talk about SUVs coddling you in a cocoon of isolation from the scary world outside— be it full of Uzi-packin’ carjackers or cataclysmic weather extremes— had nothing whatsoever to do with the reality of our Sorento experience. At one point I thought to fret about storm-addled cervidae hurling themselves into our windshield. “Don’t worry,” said Jeff, passing a careening Freightliner uphill as various tree parts bounced along the tarmac, “I’ll see them.” The storm got worse and worse as we blew through Maryland and the corner of West Virginia where we hold the Capitol Offense LeMons races, and we resorted to blasting Blood Sugar Sex Magick, repeatedly, to drown out the road noise. The sound system in our Sorento— I’m assuming the fleet version gets the El Cheapo stereo— was adequate, with a handy USB jack for our iPods, though the rear speakers deliver tinny sound reminiscent of the Flavoradio and the interface is on the maddening side.
We were in too much of a frenzy to keep track of fuel economy, but we had to make several fuel stops to refill its 18-gallon tank. Our all-wheel-drive, squarish pseudo-truck probably didn’t crack the 20 MPG barrier, given our not-so-efficient pace.
We encountered snow and sleet in the hills of Virgina, but the winds began to calm as Sandy and the Sorento headed in opposite directions. Nick and I gave up asking Jeff if he wanted to take a driving break, even as he began talking up the idea of roaring straight through to Atlanta, where we’d be able to catch Monday-morning flights.
Somewhere near the Virginia-North Carolina line, the skies cleared and the sun began to rise. We woke up the LeMons Travel Boss and official moonshine taster and had her start looking to move our flights out of Charlotte from Tuesday to Monday. Success!
Just before 9:00 AM Monday, exactly 12 hours after beginning our journey (that’s an average speed of just over 74 MPH, including fuel stops and the traffic-slowed leg to Scranton), we arrived at Charlotte Airport. We had a few hours to kill before our flight, so we blew some of Jay’s cash on an airport hotel suite to shower and catch a few hours of sleep. Then we dropped off the Kia at the rental-car lot (it turns out that the rental companies waived the drop-off-at-different-airport fees for customers traveling from Sandy-affected areas) and settled down to wait for our flights.
By 3:00 PM Monday, I was on a Denver-bound plane, just six hours later than I’d have been if my Logan-DIA flight had taken place.
As for Jay’s idea to ride out the storm in Massachusetts… well, he tells his story in the official LeMons wrapup video (all the 2012 season’s wrapup videos may be viewed here).
Here’s my (probably) NSFW personal wrapup video of the drive.
As I contemplated rummaging through my troubled fellow passenger’s carry-on bag— yeah, it was very difficult in my sleepless, giddy state to avoid provoking an entertaining incident with Mr. DO NOT Touch— I thought about the 2012 Kia Sorento as high-performance hurricane-fleeing machine. Was its impressive high-speed performance all driver/no car (as was the case when we stuck Randy Pobst behind the wheel of a worse-than-stock MGB-GT at Charlotte Motor Speedway)? If we had it to do over again with a different vehicle, would we have taken the Crown Victoria or— shudder— the Mitsubishi Galant from the rental-car lot? The choice of the Sorento makes more sense when you consider the “what if” scenarios. Say, the nightmare 48 hours stuck in the vehicle when the highway floods and you need to sleep in the thing, or the highway gets covered in a foot of mud and only four-wheel-drive can get you unstuck; in those cases, the Sorento provides the right mix of decent speed and versatility that your discerning race organizer prefers. The Kia Sorento: It’s Reasonably Competent™!