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Route 66: Driving the ‘Mother Road,’ in three parts

Norris McDonald
Written by Norris McDonald

Of all the hundreds of columns and stories I’ve written for Toronto Star Wheels over the years, few have triggered as much response from readers as the ones I’ve written about U.S. Route 66. “I want your job,” is a typical email header. Others have included, “Can I carry your bags?” “Do you need an assistant?” and “Please take me with you.”

The Chicago-to-the-Pacific road trip, sponsored by Nissan Canada, had to have been one of the highlights of my automotive journalism career. Seven days on the road with a bunch of like-minded individuals and if you asked any of us if we’d do it again, there would be about 20 voices in unison answering: “Bring it on.”

On the last night, unfortunately (for me), just after we’d finished enjoying our last dinner together, I was heading for my room in Santa Monica to pack my bags when I stumbled on a stair, fell and broke my wrist. Naturally, I wrote a column about that.

Last week in Wheels, I published Part I

BEHAVING OURSELVES: This was the cover of Toronto Star Wheels published on March 21 and, as you can see, my co-driver, Mark Richardson, and I were trying our best to look serious. The photo at the top of this feature is more representative of the way things really went for the seven days we were on the road together.

of my two-part report on the road trip. Yesterday (Sat., March 28), Wheels carried Part II. So I wrote three separate stories about this, more than I usually write for just about any assignment. I am posting this here on my personal website for the simple reason that I took many photographs and newspapers can only publish so many. I wanted to publish a few more.  Plus, I am supplying you with all three links, in case you missed one or more of the stories I wrote previously.

Now, I have a habit of “writing long.” In other words, I send the Wheels editors more than they can possibly publish in the paper. One of the bits that hit the cutting room floor was a section I wrote about a motel in Flagstaff, Ariz. And a section on how auto racing once ruled at Soldier Field in Chicago. Here they are, plus three links and an album of photos that didn’t make it into the paper.

Precede: The drive of a lifetime ends in the emergency room of a California hospital

Part I: Getting our kicks (in a Kicks) on Route 66 and a big bang in a motel in Missouri

Part II: Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and standing on a corner in Flagstaff (?) Arizona

Speaking of Flagstaff, it played a huge part in my life in 1989 when my friend Jack Darch and I flew out to Phoenix to tow back to Toronto Gary Morton’s supermodified racing car after he drove it in the Copper Classic. It was a wonderful trip; Darch is great company. He told me all about his uncle, “Ragtime Bob” Darch; we had a car phone (no cells in those days) and had great fun trying to enter the contests on the local radio stations we drove past (“we’ll take the fourth caller for a trip to Topeka”} and stayed in towns – Tucumcari, N.M., for instance – that I’d previously thought only came from the imaginations of songwriters.

Best of all was when he told me about being a child actor in commercials.

IT’S A GIRL, MY LORD: Alicia Mancuso of MCI Group Canada was taking a picture of me (I think) as I was taking a picture of her. Alicia plus MCI colleagues Melissa Dotey and Zora Kriz plus Nissan Canada’s Didier Marsaud and Jenn McCarthy kept our big wheels rolling from Chicago to L.A.

“Ford had a commercial where they jammed six kids and all their hockey equipment into the back of a station wagon to show that the car could carry a whole team. I was one of those child actors. It’s a good thing they didn’t use the sound from when they filmed the commercial because by the time they pushed everybody in, plus all the equipment bags, all the kids were screaming. Everybody had little bodies and big heads and they made us all inhale to make it look like there was lots of room and then we had to hold our breath and smile at the camera. The director would yell “cut” and the fights would start. Guys were elbowing each other in the face. It was wonderful.”

Darch and I left the desert, and Phoenix International Raceway, at 4 p.m. on Sun., Feb. 5, 1989. It was 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Five hours later, we were in Flagstaff, 2,106 metres above sea level. It was 20F and what was described as the worst winter storm in 50 years was raging. We fought our way up the mountains to the intersection of Interstate 17 and Interstate 40 and turned east on 40. Off on the north side of the highway was an electric sign, barely visible in the darkness and the snow. It said Little America Hotel. We got one of the last rooms, as every trucker west of Denver had found the same hotel.

Here we were, 30 years later, in Flagstaff, Ariz., and where had Nissan reserved rooms for us? Yup. The Little America Hotel. Small world.

STANDING ON THE CORNER: Winslow, Arizona, became famous because of a song. Here I am with a statue of Glenn Frey of the Eagles, who co-write the song Take It Easy with Jackson Browne.

As we were leaving Chicago, driving along an interstate, our genial guide, Dave Clark, casually mentioned that we were passing Soldier Field, “where the Chicago Bears play.” This is true, but they only started to play there in 1971. In the Glory Days of Route 66, though, Soldier Field was the site of college football games and – ta-da – auto races.

The races were promoted by Andy Granatelli and his brothers, Vince and Joe. Granatelli was a dreamer and a hustler his entire life. Born just before the Great Depression (the first one; not the one we’re heading for now . . .) the three brothers would do anything legal for a buck. And if something didn’t present itself, they would invent something.

They could do anything with cars and became addicted to the Indianapolis 500. Andy started out as a driver but gave that up after several serious accidents. He ran Studebaker and then became famous for promoting STP. He took a turbine car to Indy in 1967 (the power plant came from a Montreal-based aircraft company) and finally won the race with Mario Andretti driving in 1969.

WE GOT US A CONVOY: Automotive journalists from Ontario and Quebec drove the full length of Route 66 in late November and early December. Here we are driving Nissan Canada cars through Southern Missouri.

But the times he remembered best were when he and his brothers were promoting midget-car racing, hot rods and stock cars at Soldier Field in the late 1940s. They would jam 90,000 into the place and their stunts became as famous as some of the drivers, many of whom went on to race at Indianapolis. And why were they racing in Chicago? Because the Granatellis were so successful at the gate that they could afford to pay purses higher than anywhere else in the United States. If you were a race driver at the time, you couldn’t afford not to be at Soldier Field.

But the stunts. Ah yes, the stunts.

Let me tell you about the most famous one the brothers ever pulled off. This is from Andy’s autobiography, “They Call Me Mr. 500.”

“The race started and I gave my Booger artist (the guy paid to start the stunts) the signal and he purposely spun his car in front of the field. The wreck was on. It was a hellish, grinding, slamming pileup. The cars were bouncing and skidding all over the place. And then, out roared the ambulance with red lights flashing and the siren wailing.

SUPPORT STAFF: None of us could have done what we did by ourselves. Motel reservations, meal planning and co-ordination in general was handled by Jenn McCarthy of Nissan Canada and others.

“Inside the ambulance, they had this dummy on a stretcher. It was dressed in a driving uniform and I’d taken a bottle of Heinz ketchup and dumped it all over the dummy. And we strapped the dummy to the stretcher so it wouldn’t bounce off.

“The ambulance screamed up to the worst wrecked car. The attendants jumped out and pulled the driver (who wasn’t hurt but in on the gag) out of the wreck and put him on a stretcher. They shoved the stretcher into the ambulance, right beside the dummy stretcher. Everybody jumped back in and they went screaming off, red lights flashing and siren wailing.

“Said the driver, over his shoulder: “Now.”

“And the other attendants kicked open the back doors and shoved out the dummy stretcher. The thing hit the track and bounced a few times, finally coming to a stop in the middle of the speedway. The ambulance kept going, back doors swinging wide open, and 90,000 people in the grandstands were screaming at the ambulance to stop.

“The driver finally stopped, put the ambulance in reverse and backed up toward the injured “driver” on the stretcher – and ran right over it! By this time the people in the grandstands were in a frenzy.

“The dummy was in pretty poor shape, as was the stretcher. The attendants gathered everything up and put it all in the ambulance and then, as the ambulance started to leave the track, WE RESTARTED THE RACE!  The race cars came screaming around and engulfed the ambulance and it took the driver three or four laps to make its escape and head for the “hospital.”

“Joe said eight people in the grandstands had fainted and needed medical attention. I thought we could do better than that but we never tried it again. Once was enough.”

They just don’t make ‘em like they used to, do they?

And so, farewell to Route 66 – till the next time.

WIGWAM MOTEL: One of the most famous Route 66 images is the Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, Arizona. The 1950s motif is for the tourists driving past. If you want to book a room, drive around to the other side.

LITHOGRAPH CALLED ‘ALBUQUERQUE:’ Years ago, I bought this artwork and was fascinated by the cars, the roads, the gas stations, the motels and the fast food places. I loved everything about it.

THE REAL THING: Mark Richardson and I drove into Albuquerque, N.M., from the east while my lithograph was from the west. But it was really everything I’d imagined it woud be.

ROLLING THUNDER: Most goods are moved by trains in the United States. In the Mojave Desert of California, you see train-after-train and the tracks frequently run right beside Route 66.

SOUVENIRS: Everywhere we went during our seven-day Nissan Canada Route 66 Road Trip, we picked up pamphlets, postcards, calendars and what-have-you. Here is a sample.

GETTING THERE: This photo is self-explanatory. Adrian, Tex., is midway between Chicago and Los Angeles along Route 66. Mark Richardson and I just had to have a photo taken.

GEMINI GIANT: This roadside attraction, named after the U.S. space program, was erected outside a restaurant on Route 66 in Illinois nearly a half century ago.

PHLASH PHELPS: “Phlash” is the morning DJ on Sirius XM’s “60s on 6.” His show is heard all over North America and his schtick, besides playing 60s hits, is to show off his encyclopedic knowledge of the geography and roadside attractions found throughout the U.S. He gave us a daily shoutout on his show as we made our way across the country.

THE OLD AND THE NEW: Tulsa, Okla., has a park saluting the ‘Mother Road.’ At right, sculptures illustrate how the pioneers and settlers who fled west from Tulsa did it; the old 66 is seen crossing the Arkansas River in front of the park. At left is the bridge motorists use today. Our guide, Dave Clark, is seen waiting to conduct a seminar.

SALUTE TO SODA: A restaurant near Arcadia, Okla., is decorated with thousands of soda pop bottles and offers hundreds of flavours to enjoy with your meal. Two of my colleagues, Lorraine Sommerfeld (left) and Lesley Wimbush, both former Toronto Star Wheels writers, by the way, sample a couple of the soft drinks.

GHOST TOWN: These abandoned townsites can be found all along the old Route 66.

TIGHT FIT: The Interstate Highway System killed the towns and villages that existed primarily because of old Route 66. Much of the original ‘Mother Road’ still exists and other  roads are connectors. Sometimes, the roads and the Interstates run pretty close together.

RUMMAGE SALE? There are many “museums” along Route 66 and many of them are full of junk. Here is a snapshot of one of these places.

ONE MAN BAND: This is the Post Office in Amboy, Calif. It is a ghost town but the postmaster lives there, making the population of Amboy, Calif., 1.

MAKING TRACKS: The only time we drove on the Interstate Highway system was when we got to Los Angeles and, rather than follow the original route of 66 (which would have taken us another couple of days), we opted to scoot through to Santa Monica.

END OF THE ROAD: Although not the official end of 66, Mel’s Drive-In Restaurant in Santa Monica says it is and here is where we concluded our road trip.

THE END, PERIOD: This is the desert I consumed at the conclusion of our final dinner held together as a group in Santa Monica following the conclusion of our road trip. Moments later, I stumbled on a step and fell, breaking my wrist. But that’s where we came in . . .