Raunchero Arizona Death Trip

Sinking into the threadbare bench seat as we rumbled onto the floor of the Grand Canyon, toes numb from the cold, eyes burning from sleep deprivation, and haggard looks on our faces after dodging thousands of miles of roadkill, we didn’t feel like failures. True, this was not Plan A or even Plan B, but we were more than OK with finishing Plan C. The dead end of a dirt trail cut by Native Americans through the sheer rock walls of one of the most interesting American geological anomalies was chosen as a last-ditch endpoint of a road trip that nearly killed our spirits, emptied our wallets, and destroyed our sanity. We were supposed to be ice racing in Alaska, not bombing through the desert in Arizona. But GPS coordinates were irrelevant at this point. We were ecstatic to see the Colorado River, feel the wind on our faces, and finally take a break from applying auto Band-Aids to the ’68 Ranchero we were living in. After six days on the road, it felt like we’d gone 12 rounds with Tyson and were still standing defiantly in the ring. Was this trip a failure? Not by our measure. Let’s start from the beginning, and you can decide for yourself.

We’ve survived many gearhead road trips on the flimsy footing of “just because.” It turns out the videos of those adventures have been pretty good, and when our company struck a deal with YouTube to become one of the new channel partners for unique, TV-quality programming, folks more important than us decided that a Finnegan and Freiburger show would make some fine motorhead entertainment. It’s called Roadkill, a 22-minute show that will air monthly at YouTube.com/MotorTrend. Yep, it’s on the Motor Trend channel. (Reference, “folks more important than us.”) It’s a cool deal. But there was a catch. By the time all the flimflam was sorted out, we had two weeks to shoot the first episode and do something heroic.

Alaska didn’t seem that far away from California when we decided to buy a car, build it up, and hit the oval-track races on a frozen lake a couple of hours past Anchorage. It’s 3,400 miles from El Segundo, California, to Big Lake, Alaska. It takes a normal person driving a newer car in warm conditions approximately 72 hours to make the trip. That’s three days of driving nonstop. We gave ourselves six.

That left us a spare week to buy and build a car. We had a magazine to produce at the same time, yet pride and budget constraints meant we’d have to do the wrenching ourselves in our spare time and then drive like hell to make the race. That’s not ideal, practical, or sane–none of which slowed us down. The alternative was to sit on the couch and not attempt a once-in-a-lifetime journey.

We’ve always wanted an off-road muscle car, and this excursion gave us an excuse to build one we’ve dreamed of for years: a clone of the original HOT ROD Spl. ’68 Ranchero GT that Ak Miller and Ray Brock drove to a class win at the inaugural Mexican 1,000 (now Baja 1,000). By December 3, we owned a $1,300 ’68 Ranchero.

Our victim was a factory 390 car, but we bought it with a running, mid-’80s 302 and a half-disconnected power-assist steering system. One trip out the driveway convinced us that it wouldn’t make it down the block, let alone the highway. You’ll read the full story next month, but suflce it to say we ended up fixing or replacing every part on the car other than the body, the taillight wiring, and the rear axlehousing and leaf springs. “We” is the entire HRM staT, including ourselves and Jerry Pitt, Jesse Kiser, Brandan Gillogly, Grant Peterson, and Kimson Ekman, plus outside help from Car Craf’s John McGann, Super Chevy’s Calin Head, HRM reader Blaze O’Brien, pinstriper JeT Styles, and Tim and Mike McLaughlin of T&M Performance. As usual, 5.0 Mustang’s KJ Jones just stood and laughed, which he calls motivation.

Compounding our dilemma were some modifications outside of our norm, all to survive the subzero temps we’d encounter. We had Stitchcraf Interiors (StitchcrafInteriors.com) restuT the bench seat with electric warmers while we patched every single hole in the ffoor and firewall and insulated every inch of the cab with Dynamat products and new carpet. The car didn’t have a working heater, so we installed a Summit Racing universal people heater under the dash. The car was further fortified with a battery heater, an oil pan heater, a block heater, and a trans-pan heater and cooler. We installed Continental Tire’s ExtremeWinterContact ice tires and loaded a spare set of Grabber AT all-terrains with snow studs. We also ordered snow gear from Carhartt (Carhartt.com) and went on a shopping spree at our local REI store to find whatever giblet-warming gear we didn’t already own. If we became stuck in subzero temperatures, we’d be ready for it.

The team thrashed almost 20 hours every day, and we spent about $4,000 at Summit Racing–and overnighted the order. Once we realized our FMX trans was junk, Gearstar Performance (GearStar.net) built and dyno’d a C4 in one day and then air-freighted it to us days before our deadline and at a staggering cost. Freiburger assembled and had Westech Performance dyno-tune a Dart-based, 363ci small-block (that you can read about later in this issue). Hedman hand-delivered the headers. It wasn’t enough. We were supposed to hit the road the morning of Sunday, December 11. By the time that came and went, four of us had slept just two hours out of 48. We locked ourselves in the shop and kept at it while sending our video crew ahead to Utah where we told them we’d catch up. We flnally hit the road late on December 12 afier another all-nighter, 30 hours behind schedule and with oil leaking out the back of the pan. At this point, we’d named the car RAUNCHero, because it made us laugh. Sleep deprivation will do that.

The Alaska Death Trip was designed to take us north through Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Montana, and flnally to Canada where we’d hook up with the famed Alaskan-Canadian Highway (ALCAN), which was built during WWII in 1942 by the U.S. Army to strategically connect the two countries. The RAUNCHero ran great even without tuning or a shakedown run. With 2.80 gears in our 8-inch rear, the 363 hummed along at 3,000 rpm at 80 mph, and the Gearstar C4 worked like a champ. It got better than 10 mpg climbing the grades from Los Angeles to Vegas. The rebuilt suspension was smooth, the air shocks were leaking but still carried the weight of our gear, and we were making decent time.

We never made it to Canada. Our flrst snowstorm hit at 2 a.m. on Tuesday just before Salt Lake City. Good-size furries had already stuck to the highway and built up a slick base, reducing our speed to 30 mph. We weren’t bummed about it because the rear-wheel-drive RAUNCHero worked surprisingly well in the snow, and we could see, thanks to the IPF driving lights we mounted up front. We actually passed a few fourwheel- drives on the fat sections.

By the time we reached Utah, though, the decision had already been made to push the video crew ahead to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, because we were even further behind schedule, and oh by the way, our freshly installed block heater was leaking coolant from a water jacket. We’d already driven 12 hours straight and needed another 12 to have any hope of making it to the ice races. flings were not looking good. It got worse when we stopped at a gas station in Arimo, Idaho, to add oil to the engine and fix the block heater. With the outside temp nose-diving to 1 degree F, we yanked the block heater out, hucked it across the parking lot, and replaced it with a rubber expansion plug. When we went to leave, the frozen passenger side window exploded when we slammed the door shut.

We finally had to face reality. It was 2,840 miles to Big Lake. We’d have to cover 800 miles every day to make it on time, which meant any blizzards or breakage would end it all, and we were already asleep at the switch. Dejected, we drowned our sorrows in hot chocolate, enjoying the warmth of a convenience store lunch area and staring at our broken Ford in the parking lot. flat’s when Freiburger hatched Plan B, which in hindsight was just as nuts as Plan A: We’d drive to Colorado and pick up a ’55 Chevy that our company had recently purchased, sight unseen. What’s more, we’d Tat-tow it home behind the RAUNCHero because that would make for good entertainment. fle RAUNCHero had a trailer hitch. flis could work. We had a new goal–not a reasonable goal, but a goal nonetheless. So the video crew hopped a Tight from Canada back to Utah, and we fixed the window with cardboard and duct tape and then drove to meet them in Salt Lake City. Déjà vu.

The 602-mile drive from Salt Lake City to Colorado Springs, Colorado, wasn’t particularly outstanding until we reached the top of Vail Summit, 10,600 feet above sea level. Of course it was snowing, and of course we were feeling cocky because our carbureted 363 was running quite well. flat’s when disaster struck. On the downslope of the mountain, we lost the alternator belt, so not only was the charging system dead, but the water pump was no longer spinning. fle cold air Towing from the heater was a dead giveaway that something was up. We did what any insane person would do and coasted down the mountain with engine of and the lights on, killing the power brakes and only firing the engine to climb small hills. When the engine was running, the Gearstar trans had a neat engine-braking feature that really helped control the Ford on hills, without smoking the brakes. We survived that roller coaster and stayed the night at a motel in the foothills and replaced the belt the next morning.

Our caravan of videographers and overtired magazine editors reached Colorado Springs late the next affernoon, eager to see what was supposed to be a new project car. fle ’55 was a pile, a veritable yard sale, a block of Swiss cheese that needed one of everything and a tetanus shot to be whole again. Under normal circumstances we would have taken a Sawzall to the car à la Caddy Hack because it was useless as anything other than a Tyweight drag car unless a six-digit restoration budget were involved, which wasn’t the case. fle radiused wheelwells, gray primer, and overall stance were great, but we were sick to our stomachs over the missing Toorboard, trunk, transmission, and hacked small-block installation. But, if we didn’t tow it home then we didn’t have a video, and if we didn’t have a video then this trip was, again, a waste.

Our lives were saved by Colorado Speed Co. (ColoradoSpeedCompany.com), where the guys graciously opened their doors and toolbox to us so we could prep the car for the trip home. Together we fixed the obvious stuf like the mismatched lug nuts and missing cotter pins from the front hubs, and welded a tow bar to the front framehorns.

It only took a quarter-mile or so to realize we were in deep trouble. We expected to tow slowly on the way home, but we didn’t expect the gutted Chevy to drive the heavier Ford. The train of old iron lumbered down the highway, swaying left and right faster than we could correct the wheel. It was ugly. It was slow. It was dangerous. That’s when the text came from our video crew: “We had an accident.” Damn. They got sideswiped by a Mack truck. We took it as a sign, and used the delay as an opportunity to drag the ’55 back to the seller, who gave us our money back. Cool. But we were again without a mission. We caught up with the video crew at a repair facility, assuming they were ready to hop a Tight home and leave us for dead. The trip was a Top, and their SUV–borrowed from Four Wheeler magazine–had two broken wheels, blown tires, and $10,000 worth of bashed sheetmetal to show for our eforts. Remarkably, they were in good spirits. We regrouped and took a lunch break to figure out our next move.

We’d driven 1,500 miles and badly needed a win. Sure, we’d rolled a 44-year-old muscle car across the western half of the country in the snow afler totally rebuilding it in a week, which by itself is pretty cool, but without a target to hit it felt more like a comedy of errors than an epic winter road trip. That’s when we got the bright idea to trek to the Grand Canyon. It was 700-plus miles in the general direction of home and with two days lefl on our schedule we could check out the canyon from the new Grand Canyon Skywalk. The Skywalk is a 70-foot-long, 65-footwide, transparent structure that jets out from the side of the canyon, 500 feet above the Toor. The view is breathtaking. Going there would be an ending worthy of the journey thus far. Our iPhone gave us directions to Peach Springs, Arizona, the Hualapai Indian tribal grounds, so we headed there, stopping to rest in Flagstaf, Arizona, at 2 a.m. Flagstaf ofered more snow, but the highway was clear, so we made good time > The donkey on the roof didn’t spook the donkey in the bushes (arrow) nearly as much as the exhaust note of the Flowmaster mufflers.

heading to Peach Springs the next day. We stopped at the Roadkill Café in Seligman and ate food named afler dead animals. We bought a metal donkey, which we named Donkey and strapped to the roof of the RAUNCHero for good luck. We played in the snow and spun donuts just because. It lightened the mood, and we arrived in Peach Springs smiling.

Strangely, we saw no signs along Route 66 for the Skywalk. We knew something was amiss. The local tourism center confirmed our suspicions: The Internet shafled us. We were in the wrong spot, some 200 miles away, and losing daylight fast. However, we did learn of a trail leading to the Colorado River, which cut a path right through the Earth at the base of the Grand Canyon. The trail was a rough, 19-mile stretch of rock and dirt inhabited by wild boars, coyotes, rattlesnakes, and donkeys. The woman behind the counter at the visitor center doubted our resolve to negotiate the trail in the RAUNCHero, but she took our money anyway.

After the pitfalls, shortcomings, cruel twists of fate, and self-inflicted physical and emotional wounds, we were bound to see this through to the end. We were meant to meander until finding the real goal of this trip: to see the bottom of the Grand Canyon in person and to get there by our own mechanical means. We tore of into the desert, driving with purpose and throwing caution to the wind. We sped alongside wildlife, crossed streams, busted boulders and had the time of our lives. Raunchy would not let us down. We reached the shore at dusk, knowing the gate to the trail would soon close. We spent maybe half an hour staring at the river, high-fiving each other and basking in the glow of our accomplishment. It wasn’t Alaska and we weren’t racing, but that wasn’t the point and we knew it. We had our video, and the 400-mile drive home would be a cakewalk.

Some have said that we aren’t hot rodders, that we are irresponsible and generate predictable failure whenever we hatch a harebrained scheme and embark on one of these trips. It’s tough to argue. However, we are having fun, and isn’t that the point? Ours may not be their brand of whiskey, but it tastes good to us, and we’ll drink it heartily and not hesitate to laugh during those rare occasions when opportunity meets chance, no matter what the outcome. We just logged 3,000-plus miles in a ’68 Ranchero in the dead of winter. Beats riding the couch.

Something to Say?

One thought on “Raunchero Arizona Death Trip

  1. I think what you guys are doing is what hot rodding is supposed to be about. Buying an old car or truck, building a strong, powerful drive train for it, installing it in the car and driving it around having fun, even if you have to adapt your plans to have the fun!

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Roadkill Fall 2016 Cover