Bark's Bites: Saving the Stuck Salty Swissman

Mark "Bark M." Baruth
by Mark "Bark M." Baruth

Please welcome the return of former guest columnist and industry insider Bark M. His piece on buying his Boss 302 turned out to be awfully popular, so I’ve asked him to return with a regular column. His first “Bark’s Bites” is a tale of a fairly bizarre trip to the Bonneville Salt Flats in which your humble Editor-In-Chief pro-tem makes an appearance or two — JB.

Salt Lake City is the most unique major metropolis in America. As somebody who travels for a living, who has visited nearly every state in the union, and who has just spent 72 hours in the capital of Utah this week, I feel qualified to make this statement.

It’s home to the spectacular Miller Motorsports Park, which is easily the most versatile motorsports facility in America. Every single person in the city is friendly-even the homeless man who helped me parallel park my 15-mile-on-the-odometer rental Chevy Captiva downtown. It’s virtually impossible to get drunk here-due to the seemingly 100% Mormon population, it’s illegal to sell a double, and the beer can’t be any more than 4% alcohol by volume. Upon my ascent to the highest lookout in the city, Ensign Trail, I was greeted by dozens of happy young college students who were debating the specific intent of biblical passages.

Clearly, I needed to get the f*** out of there.

Solution: head to the Bonneville Salt Flats Speedway, a hundred miles away and very close to the Nevada border.

The Flats are legendary in the racing world. Over 44,000 acres of flat ground, covered in salt. The area’s open to anybody and everybody who wants to find out just how fast his car can go in a straight line (or, based on the marks left there by prior visitors, how many donuts he can do). There’s a ten mile straightaway and an oval track. Best of all, it’s all absolutely free.

Bonneville is the place where official land speed records are traditionally set, but my plan was to set a decidedly unofficial land speed record for Rental Saturn Vues. Er, Chevy Captivas. Who better to take along to witness this record-breaking run than the douchebag man, the myth, the legend, TTAC’s own Jack Baruth? We set out from Miller Motorsports Park at roughly 11:45 AM Mountain Time and cranked across the desert at a nearly-legal eighty-five miles per hour.

After exiting I-80 west, we took the three and a half mile, two-lane road out to its end, where the Speedway officially begins. However, upon arrival at the desolate, Moon-like site, we were disappointed to find that the entire runway was covered in water. This, despite the fact that it hadn’t rained in over a week and the surface temperature was north of 105 degrees. Pulling up directly behind us and sharing a cluck of disappointment was another adventurer with a different, and considerably cooler, rent-a-ride.

Markus was a twenty-seven year old Swiss national, slender and trendy in the way that only the Euros are, traveling solo across the western United States in a 2013 Ford Mustang V6 convertible. Feeling slightly envious of his ride despite the fact that I’d just finished driving a Boss 302 around Miller the previous day, I walked over to him and introduced myself. Markus was, like us, saddened to find the runway covered in water. We chatted briefly before turning around on the asphalt and preparing to head back.

After some discussion that made up in enthusiasm what it lacked in salt-flat-related education, Jack and I decided that perhaps we could drive around the standing water and perhaps find the rest of the speedway in usable condition. The salt that was on both sides of the access road looked fairly drivable. We drove about a hundred yards back toward the highway and looked for a safe place to descend onto the bright-white surface that was mottled with dark wet patches. I piloted the Captiva carefully down the side embankment of the road and found the salt surface to be slippery but negotiable. Feathering the throttle to avoid wheelspin, we took the Captiva several hundred yards across the flats.

To our surprise, we saw the Mustang making its own way down the embankment onto the sand behind us. The driver seemed to be happily doing donuts with the exuberance of a novice and getting dangerously close to the wet salt of the speedway. We hopped out to take a few pictures of the Captiva with a 250mm zoom lens and noticed through said lens that the Mustang appeared to be spinning its wheels hopelessly in the sand-it had clearly gotten stuck.

Jack and I have a few years’ worth of experience recovering stuck drivers from ditches in the Ohio winters, so the decision to go help the guy was pretty easy to make. We parked the Captiva on the access road and walked gingerly out to where Markus was still furiously revving its engine. It looked like he’d had managed to get the car so significantly stuck that the traction control was refusing to let the rear wheels spin at all.

We offered our help, which Markus gladly accepted. I replaced him behind the wheel, feeling confident in my own Mustang driving abilities. Markus and Jack tried to push as hard as they could on the back of the car, but the dark-grey surface of the car had been baked for too long by the nearly nuclear heat of the Utah sun. We searched in vain for tools that might be of assistance in the trunk of the Mustang and came up empty. Clearly, the three of us were not going to be able to get the car out by ourselves-we needed help.

We offered Markus a ride back to the Salt Flats Cafe, which was a combination gas station/Mexican restaurant/memorabilia store right by the highway. The weathered old lady behind the counter handed us a business card for “Mr. Tow,” and informed us that it would probably cost between four and eight hundred bucks for a tow back to the road.

Time for Plan B. We gathered up some wood from some broken-down pallets behind the dumpster of the cafe, hoping to be able to make a ramp for the Ford to use, and headed back out to the marooned vehicle. On the way, we passed an Impreza wagon parked on the service road’s shoulder. A man and a woman were photographing each other against the background of the flats, wearing costumes straight out of Fantasy Fest, rollerblading around and blaring Beastie Boys tunes.

Our attempts at digging the car out with the wood and then making ramps with it were well planned but fruitless-the Mustang was too heavy for the wood and snapped it in half. Never being much of a shrinking violet, Jack decided to walk back to the photo-taking fetishists to see if they had any, er, tools that could be used to dig the Mustang out. He returned with a bronzed, half naked man, clad only in an Afro wig and some sort of rainbow flag tied around his waist, and an equally nearly-nude tanned woman in a Nicki Minaj wig, yellow sunglasses, strapless bikini top, and an orange skirt. They introduced themselves as Patrick and Lisa. Eager to jump in and help us, Lisa positioned herself so that she was seated on the convertible top like the 1993 Homecoming Queen that she was, adding weight over the rears and (possibly) accidentally filling the rearview mirror with her crotch. Patrick added his significant muscle to ours, pushing on the hot surface of the car for as long as he could tolerate.

No dice.

As we were discussing ways to get Markus to Salt Lake, a Toyota FJ cruiser came rolling down the access road. Big tires, shovel and hi-lift strapped to an expedition rack on the roof. These were the people we needed. Jack and I had pulled fifty people out of the snow with less. We waved furiously at the occupants, and they stopped. Jack and Patrick walked up to the truck as Markus and I continued to try to dig out around the ‘Stang. After some considerable coaxing, the FJ’s driver agreed to drive out on the salt, lend us his shovel, and consider the prospect of recovering the ‘Stang. We were confused by the guy’s can’t-do attitude, but a bit of questioning revealed that they’d never done this sort of thing before and were not much interested in learning about it.

An hour’s work with the shovel gave Jack some blisters but didn’t uncover any usable tow points. Jack affixed the tow strap to the only place we could reach that seemed suitable-the left rear rim. The FJ driver, who never did give us his name, made a couple of entirely feeble efforts to pull the Mustang free. He refused to even consider the prospect of a ballistic recovery and he wouldn’t let either of us try to do it. He declared our situation hopeless then took his ball and went home. Our motley crew decided that, despite our most valiant efforts, it was not to be. Patrick and Lisa bid us farewell and good luck, and asked us to meet them at the strip club later.

We returned to the Salt Flats Cafe and sat at the bar while Markus contacted his rental car company. Markus was, fortunately, the only man to purchase full insurance and roadside assistance coverage from a rental car company in the history of mankind. “It was recommended,” he told us in his German-accented English. Naturally, he did the recommended thing, because he was Swiss. Just as naturally, the rental company was doing its damnedest to prevent him from getting his money’s worth.

Markus’ English, while excellent, was beginning to fail him in the negotiation process with the agent on the phone. Time for Jack to step in:

“Yeah, hello? Yeah, I’m going to translate this for you. Here’s what happened-we were following the guy down the road when some crazy drunk bitches in, like, a Kia Spectra or something like that came flying down the road at us. Markus made an amazing driving maneuver to avoid them but he ended up going off the road, as did we. That’s when we tried to help him get out but we couldn’t.”

The agent on the phone agreed to send a tow truck to retrieve the vehicle, and told Markus it would be about forty minutes before the truck arrived. Markus thanked us for helping him and told us that he would probably be okay from that point forward, and that we didn’t need to stick around to help him any further. Poor Markus didn’t understand how things really work in the United States. It took about ninety minutes for the truck to show up. Of course, when said truck did show up, he only had about one hundred fifty feet of cable-not nearly enough to get out to the car. Markus and his car were going to be stranded overnight, it seemed. He called the rental company back and informed them what had happened. The agent on the phone contacted a “specialist” in Salt Lake City to come get the car, but warned it would be several hours until the truck would arrive.

That’s when we decided we’d had enough of the Utah heat. We left the keys in the car and headed to the border town of West Wendover, Nevada. It was a scant four miles away, but in comparison to Salt Lake it may as well have been Amsterdam. We settled on the Nugget Casino, which is just like an upscale Vegas casino only exactly the opposite. Markus and Jack joined me at the five dollar blackjack table, where the only thing worse than the level of play was the attitude of the dealer. Markus was playing by Swiss blackjack rules, which apparently meant that you hit a fifteen when a dealer is showing six. It did not go well for any of us.

We did the only logical thing one could do at this point: Markus and I drank heavily while the man with the highest Goose tolerance in the Western Hemisphere got stuck with the job of designated driver. We went to the closest bar and waited for the tow truck driver to call Markus’ phone with the glorious news that the car had been rescued. And waited. And waited. Six Coronas in, I was tipping the DJ to play all the greatest hip hop hits of the Eighties, including NWA, Too Short, 2 Live Crew, and basically any other vulgarity one could have thought of. We were singing along merrily, toasting each other with each new round, when it happened-the phone rang! The Stang had been saved.

We paid our stunningly large bar tab and walked out to the parking lot. Sheathed in salt to its fetlocks but still noble and true, the V6 Mustang was ready to continue on. We bid farewell to a considerably relieved Markus, having experienced more together in ten hours than many friends have in a lifetime. “I’m playing some gigs in Europe next month,” I told him. “So now you owe me some bailing out.” He nodded agreement.

As Jack and I traversed Utah’s moonlit moonscape on the way back to our hotel in Salt Lake, cranking Kenny Garrett, Joe Lovano, and James Carter through the Captiva’s worse-than-indifferent sound system, we laughed about the idea that we’d gone all the way to the Salt Flats and never really driven the salt. Would it have been cool to have wrung-out a rental CUV on the fastest Speedway in the world? Of course. Would it have compared to what we did that day? Not even close.

Mark "Bark M." Baruth
Mark "Bark M." Baruth

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3 of 51 comments
  • Mike C. Mike C. on Jul 23, 2013

    Acronyms do not memorable names make. It really wasn't an important detail, I mean it was a V8 powered luxury coupe. Cadillac whatever...

    • Corey Lewis Corey Lewis on Jul 23, 2013

      The following vehicles fall under the CTS nomenclature: Sedan V-Sedan Coupe V-Coupe Wagon V-Wagon Most of these options have a RWD/AWD option as well. So I disagree with your "wasn't an important detail" statement.

  • LeeK LeeK on Jul 23, 2013

    "Markus was, fortunately, the only man to purchase full insurance and roadside assistance coverage from a rental car company in the history of mankind." BWAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!! Still chuckling about this twelve hours later. Brilliant writing and wonderful story. Life IS stranger than fiction

  • 28-Cars-Later Seville - LS400Bhp 295 250Ft-tq 280 260Reliable No Yes
  • 28-Cars-Later No, and none of you should be either.
  • Arthur Dailey No.
  • Arthur Dailey My father had multiple Northstar equipped vehicles. He got one of the first Northstar equipped STS's in Canada and continually drove STS's on one year leases for nearly a decade. One of them did 'crap out' on him. It went into 'limp' mode and he drove it to the nearest GM dealer. The vehicle was about half way through its lease, and he was in cottage country (Muskoka). GM arranged to have it flatbedded back to Toronto. He rented a vehicle, drove it home and then took delivery of a new STS within about 4 days. There were no negotiations regarding repairs, etc. The vehicle was simply replaced. Overall he was pleased with the performance of these vehicles and their engines. We also found them a pleasant environment to be in, with more than enough power.
  • Bd2 If they let me and the boyz roll around naked in their dealership I'll buy a Chinese car.