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Running the Copperstate 1000 Road Rally

Jamie KitmanwriterMartyn Goddardphotographer

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.

Dropping into New Mexico briefly, we returned to Arizona and toured the old downtown of Clifton before heading to nearby Morenci. One sight that will always remain with us was the gargantuan open-pit Phelps Dodge copper mine in Morenci (Home of the World's Largest Leaching Facility, a sign boasted), which we passed as we began heading up US-191 and the Coronado Trail. Said to be one of the best driving roads in the world, its more than 435 corners awaited us. But nothing prepared us for the shock of the gaping hole that had been excavated, or the colorful sight of the toxic tailings of rock and soil from which copper had already been extracted by the chemical-pressure process known as leaching, piled high alongside the pit, in mosaic mountains of southwestern pastels.

Dump trucks and dozers the size of ocean liners with tires two stories high dwarfed men and their cars; no one photo could capture the depth or breadth of the mine, which ran for miles. And everywhere there was fine, choking dust that, mixed with gasoline fumes rising from the porous fuel systems of the old cars in the hot sun, caused eyes and throats to sting. Earlier, outside the Morenci Club, where we'd stopped for lunch, an unsteady middle-aged miner and his toothless, overweight girlfriend (scary? you betcha) engaged us in conversation in a parking lot filled with exotica. The couple was drunk by noon on the miner's day off, and the nihilistic bent of their line of banter as they described events in the mine left us to reflect on what a hard life really might look like.

Although a bad coil wire caused us to temporarily lose our spark on the first day out, the Vette, following Comer's lightning-fast diagnosis and repair, otherwise ran like a train. It Hoovered fuel like a train, too, with a single 14-mpg tank marking our apex of efficiency, making fill-ups a more-than-once-daily occurrence. Although the Vette proved less hairy than big-block Cobras I've driven, don't for a moment think that driving one is anything less than what they used to call man's work. Ignoring the issue of temporary hearing loss, I pinched my fingers releasing the industrial-strength shifter's reverse lockout three times. And the manual steering of this champion understeerer was heavy and low-geared, with so much cranking required that by the end of day two -- as the steering inputs became more frenetic -- my hands had blistered, while the upper-body workout I received would leave me primed to try out for the Lithuanian Olympic shot-put team.
Ingrams, futilely holding onto a grab handle as we navigated hundreds of sheer cliff corners at ever-faster speeds, built great strength in his right forearm.

That was because, with experience, I had begun to heed the truism that if one wants to change direction in a big-block Vette, he needs to use the power to steer. And, on this afternoon of extreme mountain twisties, the corners never stopped coming, which entertained me but which to my friend started seeming cruel and unusual. "I keep thinking we're coming down, but then we go up again," Ingrams moaned. "Like a bad acid trip," I barked over the clamor.

Which suddenly had me flashing back to a blue 427 roadster I'd admired as a teenager. It belonged to the guy who flipped pies at the local pizzeria. An off-the-boat Italian, he always reminded us of an extra-stoned-looking version of Chico Marx. Exiting a parking spot in front of Benny's Pizzeria one day, he got on his Vette so hard the next thing we knew he'd done a screeching, accidental 180. Startled and desperately attempting to maintain his cool in a cloud of settling tire smoke, he pottered off in the opposite direction, as if that was what he'd intended to do all along. The memory of his shame haunted me as I tried to keep up with the hard-charging Comer and a well-driven Ferrari while watching Ingrams nervously eye the sheer cliffs we might slither over at any moment.

Happily, sobriety, modern tires, and greater sensitivity than that displayed by the Pizza Man helped us keep it on the black stuff. Not that we weren't grateful when the winding road finally straightened itself out. And then this amazing road turned into God's Own Highway, with cool air, gentle bends, and lovely scenery encouraging us to turn up the wick. Passed by a state trooper on a sport touring bike while going 100 mph, we watched in amazement as he signaled other cars following us to pass. It was safe, he indicated. How beautiful is this? I thought.

I loved this cop and I loved this Corvette, but I'd decided by then that, if it were my money and I could have only one mid-year Corvette, I'd prefer a small-block. While it wouldn't be right to say that the 427's extra 100 pounds of bigger engine don't do it any favors, they are outweighed by the negatives of having so much weight up front, making driving more of an aerobic exercise than I'd like. I feel the same way about Shelby Cobras. Give me a 289 over a 427 every time, especially if it's the honey of a right-size Cobra (and one-time Shelby PR car) owned by New Yorker Ron Krolick. After stopping at La Posada hotel in Winslow, Arizona, for lunch on day three, we drove this one out of town and it felt just right.

Burbling into Sedona late one afternoon, we caught up with the poles of Arizona's bifurcated socioeconomic structure. Not far from people living in corrugated metal shacks, we were almost blinded by the reflection of the sun off the platinum blonde hair belonging to a lady of means as she left her gated community in an open Maserati GranSport. The juxtaposition was as weird as the beauty of the Arizona desert is when compared to the strip-mall anonymity that characterizes its big cities. What a land of contrasts.

By now it had dawned on us that despite our best efforts -- baseball caps, sunglasses, and thrice daily applications of sunscreen -- pasty me and fair-skinned Ingrams had been burnt to a crackly crisp. It hurt to smile or chew, and we had begun looking like creatures from the purple lagoon. When I returned home two days later, my cracked and hardened face made me look about 130 years old. Within a few days, layers of skin would peel off completely and I was once again a new man.

But that was mostly because I had gone and heard the Sound of Music, all 427 cubic inches of it.

Leave it to the guys
The Copperstate 1000 kicked off twenty-one years ago, the brainchild of Phoenix's Men's Arts Council
(www.mensartscouncil.com/cs/), as an unusual way to raise money for the Phoenix Art Museum. A happy association with the Arizona Department of Public Safety Highway Patrol Division (the staties) sees the event raising funds for both the Museum and the officers' benevolent 10-90 Copperstate Foundation; attending the event is the highlight of the year for many of the troopers. The 2011 chair, Keith McLaine, introduced us to several council members, sweethearts all, on this year's run, and I asked them over cocktails one night about the unusual situation where a museum has a men's support group running one of the most awesome car events I'd ever attended.

"Is this some kind of gay thing?"

"Yes," "No, it's a great way to get away from our wives," and "Who wants to know?" were the three main strains of reply. Quite.