"Vernon hasn't changed at all since that movie was made," says Mr. Harlan. "But you better have a good look. Disneyland bought land twenty miles down the road, all the way to the beach. Now they're gonna put in a four-lane. I thought I made a fortune when I sold that restaurant across the street. I think I might have lost money." His granddaughter, Kayla, snaps the last cell-phone photo as we roll out of town, south on Highway 79 to Panama City Beach.
The second we hit the Gulf of Mexico, it's bare breasts and beer bottles waving around on the balconies. Happy Hour comes early and with a vengeance. I make a quick right turn while the walkie-talkie chatter steps up dramatically between my chaperone and my technical editor. Our hotel is far enough off the beach to have rooms available. I park the Veyron directly in front. A car full of kids pulls up and a boy in the back shrieks: "Please give me a ride! Please!! Bring it to my house! I guarantee you'll get laid!" They peel out.
I guarantee you won't.
The elevator opens on two students; one has his shirt bunched up around his neck, and he's smelling his armpit. The other moves over to let me in. "Here for spring break?" he inquires politely. "Just kidding." I raise a brow.
"Did you used to come down here for spring break when you were a young'un? Not that you're old."
There is something about putting more than 300 miles on a million-dollar supercar-or is it spring break?-that makes one very thirsty.
A windy rain greets us in the morning. Panama City, its revelers still abed, is empty as we head out. We refuel at a Shell, where pumps sport fuel-saving tips such as: "Warning: Rapid acceleration will reduce fuel economy by 5%."
Stop me before I rapidly accelerate again.
By now, Sherman has abandoned testing. "No power source in the cockpit," he mutters. I can tell you this: The Veyron is so easy to drive, it's hardly exotic, although the leather and polished-aluminum interior looks very, very special. The view from the cockpit is gorgeous. Creased fenders bulge in the periphery of your vision. The left side mirror, unfortunately, is in exactly the wrong spot, obscuring left-hand turns, and you'll become quite attached to the rear-view camera screen. Other than that, there are no supercar anomalies or temper tantrums. The Veyron roars to life with a push of a big, fat button, the ($30,000) radio is startlingly pure, and the windshield wipers work like squeegees. It's a real car, although a bit short on space for cabin essentials, including my ass. There's a flip-out door pocket that can hold a long wallet, a notebook, and a cell phone. The center hump has a depression that will cradle a twenty-ounce drink bottle on its side. That's it.
Our big, scenic payoff is the stretch of U.S. 98 east of Panama City running around the handgrip of the Panhandle (known as the Redneck Riviera) from Panama City to Apalachicola. There are long stretches of white-sand beach and clusters of pastel beach cottages in Mexico Beach, followed by the steamy town of Port St. Joe and its State Buffer Preserves that give this stretch a wilder coastline. Just out of Port St. Joe, we find Highway 30A, a narrow two-lane too ragged for huge speed, lined by marsh, tall pines, and palmettos. There are no gawkers out here. There is no one out here but a few commercial fishermen and shrimpers like Mark Moore, Rick Gomillion, and Debra Wood, who are parked on the porch of the St. Joe Shrimp Company, a ramshackle, two-story wooden building. We've stopped for a photo, because it looks quaint as hell if you turn a blind eye to the old refrigerator lying on its side in the yard.