Monday: Indianapolis, Indiana to Nashville, Tennessee
340 milesAfter a fitful night’s sleep, a few of us head over to the Speedway in the Audi RS7 and the BMW 435i to watch the sun rise over the Pagoda. Come Memorial Day weekend, Honda- and Chevrolet-powered Indy cars will be shrieking around the track, but on this clear winter morning, the largest sporting venue in the world is eerily silent—“save for the ghosts of the last 105 years,” says copy editor Rusty Blackwell. Patches of leftover snow and a watchful security guard ensure that we won’t blast out of the pits and plaster ourselves against the wall.
We get an idea of what it takes to run for real here by touring the newest racing shop in town, that of Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, a 40,000-square-foot facility complete with a CNC machine, a fully equipped gym, and a gleaming garage. Fisher, who has made the transition from driver to owner, says it costs some half a million dollars to field a car at the Indy 500. And this is a relatively small operation—Fisher says she’s still looking for a second driver.
None of us will ever qualify for that seat, but we’re happy with the ten we have. Like a jazz band coming into tune, we start our engines. The urgent flat-four thrum from the Scion FR-S’s TRD exhaust mingles with the relaxed rumble of the Jaguar’s supercharged V-8. Nelson hands everyone a two-way radio, presumably so we can share with each other what’s playing on our stereos, and we head onto the interstate. Our colorful convoy stands out like a school of clown fish swimming through a salmon farm.
This being the part of America that actually builds cars, we get a keen sense of what’s popular—semitrucks ferry brand-new Chevrolet Cruzes out of Ohio, Toyota Camrys from Kentucky, and Hyundai Sonatas out of Alabama. We don’t see too many Porsches, Jaguars, or, for that matter, Mazdas. In some cases, that’s understandable. Relatively few people have $89,000 to spend on any car, let alone one with two seats, like the Porsche Cayman S I’m driving. In some cases, though, the sales charts are difficult to comprehend. Like, why do more people buy Ford F-150s and Chevrolet Silverados every year than Ram 1500s? Jordan, perched up high behind the wheel of a V-6-powered Big Horn Crew Cab, is practically indignant.
“Chrysler doesn’t get the credit it deserves for what it has done in the truck segment,” he says. “First, it reinvented the way trucks look with its big-rig grille. Then it was the first to offer a cabin that held more people and more stuff. Later they made a chassis that would both steer and stop, and now they’ve delivered a great ride with coil—and even optional air—springs.”
The external temperatures steadily climb as we drive south through Indiana. First I turn off the Porsche’s seat heater, and then I dial back the climate control. By the time we get to Louisville, I have the windows down and can feel genuine warmth radiating off the Ohio River. While others grab food and photos, Blackwell and I explore the city, mad-dash-style, in the Audi RS7, which has the most horsepower (560) and, more pertinent, the best navigation system of the group. Did you know that a slightly defective Louisville Slugger bat costs just $20? Or that the Muhammad Ali museum has the champ’s Rolls-Royce parked in the lobby? Or that you can buy a gas mask from an old army-surplus store located on Main Street? Now you do.
And just like that, we’re on the road again. Instead of slogging through rush-hour traffic on southbound I-65, we take rural roads through cave country. Salt, who’s been asking us to slow down so he can take photos along our route, now encourages us to drive our normal pace. “Whatever that is,” he adds, unnecessarily. I pounce ahead in the Cayman, taking sweeping curves at 70 mph. The accelerator pedal is as smooth and progressive as the volume knob on a McIntosh amplifier. Even on performance winter tires—like most of the cars here—the steering is so precise that you feel as if you’re turning the car with your eyes. If you were to pick one car to demonstrate to someone what “driving dynamics” are, the Cayman would be it. Of course, in this group, there are several good options for that lesson—the Cadillac CTS and the Ford Fiesta ST stay glued to my tail the entire way. Up ahead, senior editor Joe Lorio is similarly delighted to be driving the BMW. “The six-speed manual is perfection, and BMW understands the importance of a proper driving position in a way that no other carmaker does. The latest 3-, ahem, 4-series has become a very convincing luxury car, but in the right spec and on the right road, it’s still the best driver’s car in its class.”
With the light failing, we arrive in Bowling Green, Kentucky, to pay our respects to our 2014 Automobile of the Year, the Chevrolet Corvette. (If you were wondering why the Vette isn’t with us, it’s because the reigning Automobile of the Year is not eligible to be an All-Star. It sits above all of them.) A woman in a Jeep Patriot is deeply interested in my Porsche’s red interior. At least, that is, until Blackwell pulls up in the Jag. She practically squeals. One downside of traveling with a bunch of All-Stars is that you have to share the spotlight. Other locals are less welcoming. “Do you want to get run over?” asks a crane operator as Salt crouches low in front of the Cayman with his camera. We are clearly intruders, and not just because we’re driving foreign sports cars through Corvette country. “Must we partake in their comestibles in order to use their lavatory?” Salt asks as we pull up to a Hardee’s.
We push on for another hour and reach Nashville, where none of us will have to sleep on the floor. Having flown across the ocean the day before, I’m desperate for some shut-eye.
“Nope, I bought tickets to a concert. Let’s go,” says Nelson, flagging down a cab. The Irish teenage blues rockers the Strypes are one of the loudest and most entertaining bands I’ve ever gone to see, and the beer—Miller High Life tall boys—is cheap. If the days on road trips are long, the nights are even longer.
Trip Notes: Louisville
EatGarage Bar: Located in an old mechanics’ garage, with a wrecked Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird out front for good measure. Get a flight (yes, a flight) of ham before downing a flight of Kentucky-batch bourbon.
Stay21C: A little bit of Brooklyn in downtown Louisville, the 21C is an art-themed hotel whose offbeat decor isn’t there to distract you from subpar comfort or service. The bar, Proof, and restaurant are excellent.
PlayLouisville Slugger Museum & Factory: There are a number of worthwhile museums downtown, but this one’s obligatory. Don’t leave without taking a picture next to the world’s largest bat and buying a smaller one to take home; you can say it’s for the kids.
Muhammad Ali Center: The main museum space chronicles Muhammad Ali’s life and career, while temporary exhibits focus on social issues like women’s equality. A must-see if you’re a fan of the Greatest of All Time but worth a visit even if you’re not.
Trip Notes: Nashville
EatThe Row Kitchen & Pub: An open-air bar, live music, and more french fries than you can eat.
Noshville: A deli in Nashville sounds like a terrible idea, but Noshville pulls it off. The bagels come straight from New York.
StayHutton Hotel: Located fairly close to all the downtown attractions, the quiet, modern facility provides a welcome respite from Nashville’s kitsch.
PlayBroadway: Steel guitars and drunks of all ages abound in this district. If you don’t like the live music in one bar, walk on to the next.
Lane Motor Museum: An eclectic collection of motorcycles and small European cars crowd an old bread factory. It is, with little doubt, the only place in Nashville that you’ll find a Tatra (or twelve).