In this great big country of ours, long-distance travel is a crapshoot. Flying is subject to interference from weather, airport backups, mechanical problems, overbooking, and a million other factors. If you drive, you subject yourself to traffic jams, speeding tickets, and possibly deep vein thrombosis, depending on the duration of your trip. While getting yourself from point A to point B is dicey and frustrating, do you ever doubt that a FedEx package will reach its destination on time? When FedEx, with its ruthlessly efficient fleet of trucks and aircraft, tells you that your package will arrive by noon the next day, you not only expect them to make good, you expect it there early. FedEx's guaranteed timeliness is a triumph of organization over chaos. It also makes them a perfect adversary for a good old-fashioned cross-country race.
Is it possible, I wondered, to overnight a FedEx package in New York and beat it to Miami? FedEx guarantees delivery by noon. MapQuest says the trip should take about twenty hours, assuming you can average 65 mph. That doesn't sound very fast, but in order to show up in Miami before noon, you need to run the gauntlet of Baltimore / Washington, D.C. rush-hour traffic on your way down I-95. Also, we'll be leaving on a Friday, the worst travel day of the week. Depending on traffic and barring unforeseen accidents, flat tires, or constabulary-related slowdowns, even a 65-mph average could be a challenge. In other words, this ought to be a good race.
But what kind of car would I want for this mission? To beat FedEx, it should have major power underhood. To slay a 1300-mile nonstop trip, it would need luxury of the sort that invites hours behind the wheel with cosseting seats, a supple ride, and a hushed interior. And ideally, when you go from a northern clime to a place where the local NBA franchise is named the Heat, you want to celebrate that occasion with a convertible. The perfect car for the job, then, is the new Bentley Continental GTC.
Packing the same 552-hp, twin-turbo W-12 as the Continental GT coupe and the Flying Spur sedan, the GTC will do 190 mph with the top down, according to its maker. There are four seats, a proper trunk (the elongated lid of which makes the convertible, in my eyes, even better looking than the coupe), and an interior that is a sumptuous amalgamation of contrasting leather, wood, and brushed aluminum. Sure, the GTC costs almost $200,000, but that's the price of admission for a car that fell out of the awesome tree and hit every branch on the way down.
The GTC may be the ideal car for a nonstop banzai run down the East Coast, but to have any chance of beating FedEx, I'd also need the ideal co-driver. Enter Alex Roy.
If anyone is an expert on illicit, high-speed, long-distance driving, it's Alex. Not only a perennial front-of-the-pack finisher in the Gumball and Bullrun rallies, Alex is a student of the history of cross-country blitzes. He's also a producer of the upcoming documentary32 Hours, 7 Minutes, so named for the fastest recognized trip from New York to Los Angeles, set in 1983 during the underground U.S. Express race. And, perhaps most important when you're going to spend 1300 miles in the car with someone, Alex has a good sense of humor. For the 2004 Gumball rally, he wore a Canadian Mountie uniform, but for this job, we agree on a sartorial theme consistent with our role as high-end deliverymen: tuxedos.
Here's one other thing about Alex Roy: He's a little bit fanatical about preparation. In rsum-speak, he's what you call detail-oriented. He plots the fastest route on Mapsource software. He identifies all the construction zones, as well as the known radar traps and the criminal speeding thresholds for each state. He prints out the latest weather report for the entire East Coast. He programs his police scanner with state and local frequencies for the nine states we'll pass through. He loads waypoints and ETAs along the route into dual Garmin GPS units, so we'll know if we're hitting our target speed or if we need to pick up the pace.
And then there are the countermeasures.
In my normal, non-cross-country-racing life, I don't even own a radar detector. I rely on my eyes. Therefore, I hate speeding at night. "One of the biggest misconceptions about driving fast over long distances is that you should maximize daylight driving," Alex says. "You actually need to maximize nighttime driving to avoid traffic, particularly somewhere like I-95." To go fast at night, you need electronic help, so we ship the GTC to AI Design in Tuckahoe, New York.
The next morning, I feel very James Bond as AI Design's Kenneth Karasinski walks me through the added equipment. Here I am, wearing a tuxedo while I receive instructions on how to work the laser jammers on my Bentley. Very good, Q.
The laser jammers--Blinder M-20s, if you're curious--are mounted just under the front bumper, and they're supposedly legal (although I'm not asking too many tough questions on that front). If they're actively jamming police radar, an LED on the dash will turn from green to red. We also have a Valentine One radar detector with a remote display, the aforementioned police scanner, and a CB radio. The CB's magnetic whip antenna is mounted to the fuel door, because that's the only nonaluminum piece of metal AI can find on the Bentley's bodywork.
In addition to all this, Alex brings powered, 22,000-rpm, gyro-stabilized Kenyon Spotter binoculars for the daylight segment and a pair of NATO-spec low-light binoculars for the night. He also stashes a second Valentine One in the GTC's door pocket. "Radar detectors are illegal in Virginia, so this is just in case the other one gets confiscated," he explains. Did I mention that Alex is thorough?
"I've never used this much equipment before," I say. "Aren't you worried about becoming overreliant on technology?"
"I consider this the bare minimum of equipment necessary to do this job," Alex replies. (Keep in mind that this is coming from a guy who has dual Raytheon thermal-imaging displays installed in his own last-generation BMW M5.) "But, to answer your question, yes, you can get too comfortable relying on your electronics. I got a ticket that way once."
I ask him how fast he was going.
"158 miles per hour."
At 10:43 a.m. on a Friday morning, I hand a box to the clerk at a FedEx Kinko's in Greenwich Village, then sprint to the Bentley waiting outside. Alex, the native New Yorker, will drive the first leg. In the back seat lies our own competing package, destined for the same address: The Nikki Beach Club, One Ocean Drive. On the plain brown envelope I've scrawled the name and slogan of our delivery firm, Total Brilliant Shipping--"Total BS: Let us grab your package!"
FedEx can tell you that your package will arrive by noon; what they can't tell you is how early it might show up. Eight a.m.? Nine? They can't say. So we don't know, exactly, what time we need to beat. What we do know is that we have a lot of miles between us and Miami Beach. But we've got a Bentley convertible, we're wearing tuxes, it's November, and we've got the top down. Hit it.
Exiting the Holland Tunnel into New Jersey, there's really not a lot for me to do as co-driver. The gyroscope is powered up and emitting a high-pitched hum, but traffic is so thick that the binoculars are useless. I'd play with the GPS units mounted to the dash, but neither of them can get a signal through the GTC's windshield, which apparently has some sort of coating that thwarts both satellite reception and our tollbooth EZ-Pass. "This is why I always test equipment and do a recon run," Alex says. "There's always something that doesn't work."
At 12:26 p.m., we receive a text message from Alex's friend J. F. Musial, who's agreed to monitor the tracking of our FedEx box. "Package picked up, on way to sorting facility." Already? Uh-oh.
I'd say we should speed up, but traffic still renders that an impossibility, and besides, the truckers are chattering on the CB about lots of cops in the area--both marked and unmarked.
Unfortunately, at 3:00 p.m., about four hours into our trip, we're going nowhere. We've hit an hour-long D.C. traffic jam, and we're crawling. Our average speed thus far: 54 mph. According to Alex's calculations, we're forty-five minutes behind schedule.
As night falls and the road opens up, I slide behind the wheel for my first shift. It requires a remapping of my mental ECU to drive faster than 80 mph in the dark. Every set of taillights, every overpass and on-ramp is suspicious. Alex eggs me on while surveying the road ahead with the low-light binoculars. "Ramp clear . . . median clear . . . How fast are you going, ninety-five? Step it up a little." After Alex successfully uses the binoculars to root out two different cops hiding beneath overpasses, I become emboldened enough in our method to set the cruise control on 90 mph and run at least that fast at all times. Meanwhile, at 8:57 p.m., J. F. checks in. "Package at Newark Airport." The FedEx machine continues to grind away.
Somewhere near Waverly, Virginia, we see our first sign for Miami. According to the Bentley's nav system, we're still 922 miles away. While I feel taunted and discouraged by this sign, Alex makes a salient point. "Imagine if you lived around here and you had to see that sign every day on your way to work all winter. One day, you'd be like, 'Screw it, today I'm just gonna keep driving.' "
We keep driving, clicking off the miles at a rate far above the threshold of legality. At one point, the conversation turns to hangovers, and Alex reveals that hangovers carry an extra deterrent for him. "I associate a bad hangover with a time I got my heart broken," he says. A pregnant pause fills the car. Deep into a trip that requires absolute cooperation, where each of us counts on the other to maintain vigilance and evaluate threats, Alex is letting his guard down and offering a glimpse of the human being behind the devil-may-care persona and the aviator shades. I respond to this gesture of vulnerability as any friend would: I make fun of him. "What was his name?" I yell, cackling maniacally at my cleverness. "See, because you thought I'd say 'her'--whoa!"
"Ha ha. She--" Alex begins. He's barely raised the binoculars back to his face when he blurts, "Sheriff! Sheriff! Sheriff!" I squint ahead at the middle lane, where I'm closing fast on an Impala. I glance down at the speedometer: 95 mph. I squeeze on the brakes, pray the cop wasn't watching his rearview mirror, and let myself settle into traffic a few cars back. Disaster averted. "Umm, thanks," I say. "Sorry about that."
I finish my shift in North Carolina, having covered 334 miles at an average speed of only 77 mph. And here I thought I was driving fast. Maintaining a high average speed is harder than it seems--throw in a few cops and the two red traffic lights en route to the highway, and your time is shot. "Average speed is a rubber band," Alex says. "We stretched it out in that traffic jam, and now we've got to snap it back."
This puts a lot of stress on me as a co-driver, since it's my responsibility to ferret out cops while Alex makes up time. If he gets busted, it's my fault, and if he gets clocked,he's definitely going to jail. I can't see the speedometer from the passenger seat, but the Bentley has a valve in the exhaust system that unleashes a furious growl when the engine is getting worked, and right now the cabin is constantly reverberating with turbocharged, twelve-cylinder anger. We're hauling.
The police scanner, which has been dormant, suddenly erupts with a crackle of static and a few unintelligible exchanges. But, for an instant, the static subsides and I make out one chilling word from the dispatcher: "Bentley." Alex didn't catch it and thinks I'm havingauditory hallucinations. "That would mean someone called us in, but nobody knows what this car is." I point out that plenty of truckers seem to know what it is, and truckers don't generally appreciate it when you pass them at 120 mph. Alex maintains his pace.
Although the GTC's highway ride is impeccable, trying to watch the road through the binoculars is making me mildly carsick. I'm taking a break from the binoculars and relying on my naked eyes when I notice, far down the road, a pair of taillights that don't seem to be moving. I pick up the binoculars and confirm my suspicion: It's a state trooper lurking on the median. "Cop!" I yell, and Alex hits the brakes immediately. As we get close enough for the Crown Vic to loom into our headlights, the Valentine One suddenly goes bonkers--he's hitting us with instant-on radar. But he's about fifteen seconds too late. "Seventy-five miles per hour!" Alex says triumphantly as we roll past. We're still ticketless, a fact that becomes all the more amazing when Alex pulls into a gas station in Georgia and we see that he averaged 89 mph over the last 224 miles. I take this as a challenge to step up my game.
Alex fuels up while I run into McDonald's. I order two cheeseburgers for myself and a Happy Meal for Alex. "Is that Happy Meal for a boy or a girl?" the cashier asks.
"It's for a girl."
Back in the car and flying toward Florida, I've grown bolder than ever. I feel like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix when he realizes he can dodge bullets--maybe it's the four Red Bulls I've consumed, maybe it's the adrenaline rush of speeding on such a cop-intensive road, but I feel like I have 360-degree vision and I'm unstoppable. Almost immediately upon pulling back onto the highway, I'm accelerating through 90 mph when I glance at the rearview and see the outline of Crown Vic headlights, closing fast. I back off the gas, avoiding the brakes, and move into the center lane before he has a chance to pace me. He goes by without incident, yet another ticket denied.
At 12:46 a.m., we enter Florida, and for the first time it becomes clear that, barring disaster, we're going to beat FedEx. We could just chill out now and drive the speed limit, and the co-driver could take a nap. We do no such thing. This isn't about FedEx anymore. It's about driving hard all the way to the end, running it up the gut on a police-infested interstate in one of the most conspicuous cars possible. It's about proving that this can be done, safely and without tickets, speed limits be damned. My shift takes us through Jacksonville, with its construction zones and 45-mph speed limit, yet as I exit the highway 259 miles after taking the wheel, I've averaged 85 mph for this tank of gas.
Passing Fort Lauderdale, the speed limit drops to 55 mph and the highway is suddenly bright with streetlights. "Are you getting tired?" Alex asks. "You're slowing down."I check the speedometer, and I'm doing 80 mph. This is how twisted your reality becomes during a drive like this: when you're only doing 25 mph over the speed limit, you're slacking.
We come into Miami Beach over the Causeway, passing a police roadblock on the way. At this hour, they're looking for drunks, and a Bentley that's speeding but not weaving doesn't pique their interest.
We pull into the Nikki Beach Club parking lot at 5:32 a.m., eighteen hours and forty-nine minutes after leaving Manhattan. After nearly nineteen hours of constant stress, we can relax and reward ourselves. I open our package from Total Brilliant Shipping, which contains one bottle of Mot & Chandon champagne. Unfortunately, the crushing nature of our win presents a small problem: We won't be able to toast our victory for another four hours, when the FedEx man finally arrives with our glasses.