Running the Copperstate 1000 Road Rally

Martyn Goddard

Throughout history, people have ventured great distances for the simple pleasure of hearing appealing noises up close. From the sounds of babbling brooks and roaring waterfalls to whale songs and the twittering of rare birds, from the esteemed opera companies of cosmopolitan cities to Madonna's I'm Fifty-Two Years Old Yet I Still Don't Wear Enough Clothes Tour: we go not only to see, we go to listen. And, with that in mind, there's nothing like the sound I recently traveled thousands of miles -- all the way to Arizona -- to experience firsthand: the mellifluous strains of a vintage 427-cubic-inch engine hard at work in a Chevrolet Corvette.

Mind you, when the invitation to attend the twenty-first annual running of the Bell Lexus Copperstate 1000 popped up in our in-box, we were already intrigued. The prospect of 1000-plus miles on a four-day/five-night, high-speed driving tour of one of America's most beautiful states -- running with a police motorcycle escort and eighty other classics, any one of which you'd be proud to own and several of which you'd even be proud to own after having sold your children for the privilege -- well, it sounded better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.

But what sealed our attendance was the offer -- as well as the performance promise and auditory possibility -- of a big-block 1967 Corvette Sting Ray, provided for our personal use on the tour by author, racer, restorer, dealer, and Copperstate 1000 veteran Colin Comer. A no-excuses marina blue roadster with a rare triple-carbureted, 427-cubic-inch RPO L71 V-8, four-speed manual transmission, and the requisite loud and proud side pipes, this mega-spec car is pretty much the full monty for mid-year Vettes and, for those of a vulgar cast, worth about $175,000. Actually, Comer's generous invitation to us would evolve into three days in his Corvette and another day spent, if we liked, driving an incredibly original, low-mileage 1964 Shelby Cobra, which delectable roadster's imminent resale he (author of the authoritative The Complete Book of Shelby Automobiles) expected to broker in the $650,000 range. Figuring its 289-cubic-inch Ford V-8 wasn't going to sound too shabby, either, and making certain our insurance was paid up, we booked flights.

As part of this deluxe gearheads' holiday, I'd also be able to select a co-pilot. (If you must ask, $5550 is the price of admission, including a double-occupancy hotel room and meals for you and a guest, but not the price of gas or the cost of getting your team and equipment to the starting ceremonies in the Phoenix suburb of Tempe.)

Being an opinionated New Yorker, I felt it wouldn't be right if I didn't somehow fly in the face of Arizona's controversial new immigration policy -- currently in court and strongly dividing opinion here in the Grand Canyon State. What better way than by bringing an alien along with me as my guest? Of course, being a wimp, I didn't invite a Latino immigrant of the sort the contested law is plainly aimed at, but rather an Englishman, old friend and long-standing Ameriphile Fred Ingrams of Great Ellingham, Norfolk, with whom I toured California in another blue Corvette, a 1995 ZR-1, many years ago [Automobile Magazine, June 1995]. A legal alien, Ingrams would not help make my political point (for that there was a lapel button, "I Could Be Illegal," which one unexpectedly liberal Arizona-based tour-goer offered up, and which could connote several meanings when one is driving a car with three twin-barrel Holleys and 435 hp under the hood). Indeed, Ingrams speaks English as his first and only language. But hailing from a nation of legendary freeloaders, he was entirely comfortable with accepting a gratis American tour. "You people owe us so much," he was not above reminding other Copperstaters over evening drinks.

Skip the whirring microprocessors and servo motors. To describe the sound of a 427 Vette in action you are inevitably forced to rely on the language of the last century and the fading industrial age. Think jackhammers, stamping machines, pile drivers, log splitters, Tommy guns, and Marshall amplifiers, all cranked to eleven. Imagined together, they begin to describe the riotous cacophony that filled our driving days, emanating from a spot about thirty-two inches beneath my left ear, with another screaming pipe similarly adjacent to Ingrams' right lobe adding stereophonic depth.

An opening ceremony saw members of the general public come to admire the automotive bounty, which included all manner of classics, from the extraordinary on up: Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Maserati, Jaguar, Cisitalia, Lancia, Aston Martin, Porsche, Mercedes-Benz, American muscle, and even a Hudson Hornet. Slotting the shifter of the Vette's rock-crusher four-speed into first, I gingerly released its clutch and rumbled out of Tempe's Diablo Stadium. I later learned that the crowd was roaring as we departed, and I might have joined in myself if only I'd known -- assuming I wasn't preparing to nail it and then hold on for dear life.

Not that I'd need to. Accessing the interstate for the long ride out of Phoenix's epic sprawl, headed for the delightful state highways that would comprise our route over the next four days, the Corvette roadster's deportment was far more civilized than I'd feared. Ahead of me, setting a brisk pace, was a pair of '65 Shelby Mustangs -- one containing Comer and his wife, Cana, another a New York City plastic surgeon who'd arrived in his private jet. While old Vettes often rattle like crates of empty milk bottles, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I was driving a tight one. Ride quality on a fresh set of Michelin radials was composed, steering was decent (if resolutely manual), and the four-wheel disc brakes were reasonably potent when shoved hard. If my right foot wasn't planted, the Corvette cockpit, as an added bonus, was serene enough for coherent conversation. Except every time I'd switch the loud pedal back on, the symphonic tribute to Internal Combustion was struck up, a violent development (in the best sense) whose effect was heightened by the simultaneous sensation that one was hurtling forward at an enormous rate of speed.

The varied topography, desert flora, and spectacular geologic formations of the Arizona landscape couldn't help but impress flatlanders like Ingrams and me, and a series of fantastic roads, sparsely trafficked, made every day a treat. Covering between 200 and 350 daylight-only miles, with stops for lunch and occasional sightseeing, we motored enough to scratch the old-car itch but never enough to pick off the old-car scab. No one was overtaxed as we sailed through national forests of unspeakable beauty, experiencing high desert and low desert and everything in between.

Those whose cars failed to go the distance -- including a handsome 1954 Alfa Romeo 1900C SS coupe that threw a rod and a '54 Jaguar XK120 SE roadster (recently returned to service after a long layup) that blew a head gasket -- were less despondent than they might have been, because mechanics and flatbed trucks were patrolling the route. More than a few roadside repairs were effected, with Lexus loaners available to smooth logistics and help unfortunates complete their journeys. Trip maps were easy to follow, accommodations were comfortable, and our hosts each night were always gracious and cheerful, although it must be said that the dining at the otherwise pleasant Greer Lodge Resort & Cabins, where we spent two nights, was Guinness Book execrable. Not that one wished the establishment's main lodge and restaurant to burn to the ground, but it did a month after our visit; authorities have alleged arson. Speaking of fire, the glorious Apache National Forest we passed through has been burning -- unrelatedly -- for more than two weeks as I write, in what has become Arizona's biggest wildfire ever, forcing the evacuation of Eagar and Springerville, small towns not far from the site of the lodge. One wishes the friendly folk we met all the best.

In anticipation of long, high-speed drives, Comer had thoughtfully swapped out the Vette's drag-strip-biased rear end, substituting a 4.11:1 diff with a more highway-friendly 3.36:1 ratio. One can only imagine what it would have been like to launch ourselves even more brutally, all the while going deaf in a machine that used to spin 3800 rpm at 70 mph in top gear. As it was, with enough torque on hand to pull a loaded oil barge, gear shifting was mostly optional. It was, however, an option frequently selected, if only for another chance to hear the manic bellow of the L71. The only thing better than flooring a big-block is flooring it in a tunnel or next to exposed rock along a mountain pass. The reflected noise opens ear-ringing new vistas in auro-mechanical commotion.

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