I harbor no ill will towards snow, but as someone born and raised in Michigan, even I find it a little ironic that I’m flying out to California, of all places, for a rally that touts snow-capped scenery. It’s also funny that I’m heading to an event called the Snowball Rally on the eve of a cold front and 30-degree weather in Michigan. California, on the other hand, promises temperatures in the 60s and 70s.
Still, there’s a great chance we’ll see snow. The Snowball Rally, which follows in the footsteps of the former Alpine 500 rally, routes vintage cars from Sacramento, California, into the mountains towards Lake Tahoe, and then back home again. With elevations approaching 8000 feet at times, there’s a great chance we’ll see snow – regardless of just how nice it may be in Los Angeles.
Though I can’t quite pack a vintage car into my overhead bin, nor check one for Delta’s oh-so-fabulous $25 fee, I had things covered. After months of idle talk, prodding, and the occasional demand, I managed to chide Rory Jurnecka, Motor Trend’s associate editor and resident Fiat masochist, into fielding his 1979 Fiat 124 Spider. Built up as a fine visual homage to the Group 4 124 Spiders built by Carlo Abarth’s tuning firm, the car looks nice, but isn’t too nice to preclude us from actively driving it. Even so, this could be interesting, seeing as Rory hasn’t logged more than 2000 miles on the odometer since he purchased the car nearly three years ago. Consider this a baptism by fire of sorts.
Day 1 – Long Beach- Sacramento, CA
Technically, Snowball doesn’t formally start until the very next day – but as both of us arrive back in the greater Los Angeles area Thursday night, we spend all day Friday schlepping the 124 north towards the state capital. Well, almost all day. We do make a brief stop in Upland -- 50 miles in the opposite direction – to have a flaky headlamp switch investigated by Rory’s 124 guru of choice.
From there, it’s a long trek up the I-5 towards Sacramento. I have few notes from this leg of the trip, though I do seem to have scribbled the word “BORING” in large, bold letters on my notepad. Not surprising, I suppose: if you bother to inspect a map of California and trace the I-5 between our start and endpoint. If it appears there’s virtually nothing between Northern and Southern California, that’s no exaggeration. There’s nothing in between, lest you count farmlands, sandy arid lands that may have once been farmland, and a large (and rather fragrant) cattle stockyard. Exits on the freeways appear to give access to small cities, but it quickly becomes apparent these villages are merely glorified truck stops, oases for interlopers desperate for food or fuel, but little else.
Murphy’s Law suggests this stretch is an opportune time for a 40-year-old Italian coupe to break down, but that never happened. The Fiat pulls strong; its coolant temperature remains smack dab in the middle of the gauge, and generally behaves itself, even in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the outskirts of Stockton. Perhaps the fact we never have to turn a wrench in anger is due in part to the fact we managed to pack almost every conceivable spare part and tool into the 124’s shallow rear trunk, forcing our luggage, cameras, and other accessories to ride on the parcel shelf aft of the front bucket seats.
DAY 2 – Sacramento, CA – Lake Tahoe, NV
We arrive in Fremont Park bright and early Saturday, but we’re far from the first to arrive. Though technically limited to 50 cars, we suspected some growth when our rally pack and plate is labeled #51. Sure enough, 65 vehicles have been accepted this year, and there are several others placed on a wait list, hounding organizer Jeff Guzaltis this morning in case an entrant falls through.
Those entrants are a wonderfully eclectic and entertaining group of cars. While skewed a bit towards European sheet metal (a ’76 Trans Am and Cobra 427 replica were the only true bits of Americana on the roster), the group was incredibly diverse. E-type Jag? Check. Early Alfa Giuliettas? Check – and three of them, to boot. Citroens? How’s a 2CV6 Special and a late-model DS21 – painted in an absinthe-inspired Pernod livery – suit you? Exotics? No Lamborghinis or Ferraris to be seen here, but an immaculate 1970 Nissan Skyline GT coupe drops jaws, as does a flawless 1972 BMW 3.0CS, and a 1969 Dinalpin – a licensed, Mexican-built clone of an Alpine-Renault A110. There’s plenty to geek out over, but indulge too much, and you’ll likely miss the start of the rally itself.
The driver’s meeting is straightforward: this isn’t a timed rally, so we’re merely told to “be cool, and don’t crash.” We’re also unabashedly told that not everyone will make it to the end of the stage, let alone the end of the rally – but we didn’t know how quickly this would prove true. A beautiful Jaguar XK120 is sidelined with some sort of an oil leak, while the aforementioned Dinalpin wound up on the side of the road nearly 25 miles later in Rancho Murieta.
Driving from Sacramento to Lake Tahoe can be accomplished in as little as 100 miles and 2 hours – but where’s the fun in that? Our route takes us the long way, winding us west of Sacramento towards a lunch stop in Markleeville – and it’s certainly scenic. We wind our way through hilly vineyards and into the El Dorado National Forest, where we wind our way up towards an elevation of 8000 feet – and, ultimately, some snow. None of the white powder crosses the roads or looks all that fresh, but it’s still a novelty to some – and perhaps even the Fiat: this 124 has been a SoCal car for all of its life.
I take the wheel shortly after lunch, but the rally’s one and only dirt section – three miles just outside the Alpine County Airport – makes me wish I hadn’t. This was less dirt and more Le Petit Dakar. We were both expecting bumpy, washboarded gravel roads, but this was more akin to driving over a washed-out creek bed. Large boulders were embedded as far as the eye can see, and coupled with potholes, threaten to smash wheels, ruin bodywork, or rip off oil pans. I delicately limp through the section at about six mph, feeling guilty for every jolt and bump along the way. Things could have been worse – after we once again reach tarmac, we find the Trans Am at the side of the road with a baseball-sized hole punched in a tire. I imagine the DS team found this a breeze: simply raise the ride height, and let the hydropneumatic suspension soften all the blows. Magnifique!
We continue north, crossing the Nevada border and rolling into Carson City. Our route then sends us northwest into the age-old mining town of Virginia City. Main Street looks like a scene from Fear and Loathing, sans the mescaline: we’re crossing through on the eve of a desert motorcycle race, and the city is overwhelmed with hooligans showboating on dual-sports, dirt-bikes, and other two-wheeled machines. It doesn’t make for the best driving, nor does being stuck behind a full-size pickup as it slowly winds its way up through the Donner Pass.
We arrive in Lake Tahoe right around 5 pm, but quickly have a situation on our hands. Our 124 runs fine, but another Spider faltered about 15 miles outside of town after an ignition rotor shredded itself to bits. We cautiously loan out our only rotor to let them limp into town, fearing it too will disintegrate on the return trip and leave us stranded. Fortunately, the second Spider arrives about a half-hour later, and we restore our car to running condition once more.
DAY 2 – Lake Tahoe, NV – Folsom, CA
Our route book calls the second day “the limp home,” but it’s no more direct than our first leg (it is, thankfully, devoid of dirt sections). We set off at 9 in the morning, but proceed north towards Truckee, before winding towards the city of Carson for a lunch break. Good thing we stopped, as a number of car nuts brought their machines out for good measure, including a pretty but well-worn Mercedes-Benz 300 SL. Think about it: when’s the last time you saw one of these being used first and foremost as a driver, and not as an over-restored concours star?
I wasn’t expecting to find driving Nirvana on this trip, but I do just after lunch. We head north again out of Quincy so we can head west on CA-70 through the Feather River Canyon. I still have trouble describing how magnificent this road is: it’s 61 miles of winding two-lane tarmac that snakes its way along the banks of the Feather River. The surface is well maintained, speed limits are posted at a comfortable 55 mph, and the road itself is enveloped in amazing scenery. Dams, white-water rapids, waterfalls, bridges, and – if you’re lucky – a long freight train lugging its way uphill all scream for your attention. I think we would have pulled over more to marvel in this visual glory if it weren’t for the fact I had little traffic to contend with, and was having a blast threading the little Fiat through the canyon.
The fun has to end sometime, and sure enough, as we merge with CA-149 and approach the outskirts of Oroville, it does. We were warned earlier in the morning that our route book’s mileage readings might be off, but we weren’t warned that two major streets would be missing, or that a left turn really was supposed to be a right turn. After 20 minutes of circling through the hills of Marysville, we stumbled across a convenience store, swallowed our pride, and asked for directions.
The remainder of the trip went without a hitch, as we ultimately jumped onto CA-49, crossed under I-80 and into Folsom, and arrived at the finish line at an Italian restaurant. We emerged sweaty, sunburned, and exhausted, and though we both enjoyed every mile of our voyage, each of us took away something a bit different. I emerged with a newfound appreciation and appetite for California’s roads – or, at the very least, those far, far north of Los Angeles’ perpetual gridlock. Rory emerged with a newfound trust in his chariot, and an amplified drive to drive it. Might I suggest next year’s Snowball? I’ll clear my calendar just in case.