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Automotive Traveler Magazine: Vol 1 Iss 3 Page 114

Our new issue features a Moab adventure in a Volkswagen Touareg, an African road trip to Malawi, a northern California microbrew tour, NASCAR's North Carolina, and driving the great roads of northwest Scotland.

Automotive Traveler Magazine

July 2007, Volume 1 Issue 3


The Rear View Mirror

By Richard Truesdell

As you will see from my Scotland adventure elsewhere in this issue, I've been on the road a lot lately. And my travels have pointed out that (cheap flights across the Atlantic not withstanding) it will be expensive on the ground in Europe this summer. The reason why? Our devalued dollar.

Over the last 10 years that I've been traveling overseas extensively, I've learned to be, how can I say this...frugal. If there's a way to beat the system, especially given the arcane rules put in place to lighten my wallet, I've almost invariably found it. When silly and illogical rules are put in place, I work doubly hard to beat them. And this goes way beyond the old split ticket/Saturday night stayover gambit.

But this dollar thing...that's a different story. When a liter of petrol costs a Pound Sterling per liter, there's no way to minimize the fact that--after factoring in the exchange rate--a gallon of gas costs eight dollars when you look at your credit card statement 30 days later. Now that's pain at the pump.

And what can you do to ease this pain when planning a trip to Europe this summer? Plan. Plan every aspect of your trip in advance, leave nothing to chance. This includes the car you rent (there are some interesting cars available that get in excess of 35 miles per gallon) to where you eat, as well as where you sleep.

While we did great in containing our lodging costs for our week in Scotland, I wish that I had read and edited our resident Road Warrior column this month from Cindy-Lou Dale on home swapping, inspired by the recent movie "Holiday." If there's one sure way to extend your travel budget this summer, it's swapping out your home for one in a vacation destination in Europe. This has to be the no-brainer of all time, especially for families on the go.

While you won't take quite the beating from the exchange rate on the continent where the Euro reigns (except in Switzerland who still maintains its own currency, the Swiss Franc), still be prepared for exchange rate sticker shock. As I write this, a Big Mac--where you can find it --will hit your wallet for six dollars.

My suggestions if driving? Rent an economical car, and I don't mean a smart car for a family of four. When looking over the rental car choices online before you leave, check out cars not available here in the U.S. and keep your eyes open for special deals. In France, this means some interesting choices from Peugeot, Renault, and Citroen. In Germany there's the VW Polo if you're on a really serious budget and a Mercedes A-Class if you're not. In Italy, Fiat is making a rebound and has some great choices like the Panda 100 HP and there's some really interesting Alfa Romeos to whet your driving appetite. The cost of these guilty pleasures is a bit easier to justify if you can't drive them at home.

Another solution to stretch your travel budget? Head further east for your European fix and consider some of the nations that formerly resided behind the Iron Curtain. These include the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary, and Romania to name a few. All are incredibly cheap (compared to the UK, France, Spain, and Germany) and all are very friendly towards Americans.

They all offer a sense of adventure, if that appeals to you. I know this first hand. Last spring I visited Bucharest with a girlfriend from high school and met an editor with whom I had worked via E-mail for more than a year. We got a guided tour of Bucharest (which, if given a good power washing, could easily be the Paris of Eastern Europe). It was a wonderful and unforgettable trip, especially our visit to the colossal Palace of Parliament, built by former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, which is the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon.

Another suggestion? Visit the three Baltic Republics; Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. All are a bit less wild and a bit more Westernized, if that's a good way to put it, than their neighbors to the south mentioned previously. And a tour of all three by car can provide a stellar vacation experience.

As a former history teacher who remembers the fall of Communism less than a generation ago, it was simply fascinating to experience the change that these three countries have experienced over the last 15 years and their integration into the wider European community. It remains for me, as someone whose passport is filled with immigration stamps and visas, one of my all-time favorite road trips and travel experiences. I was so impressed that I can't wait to return, possibly this fall, now as a member of the Automotive Traveler team.

See you next month,
Richard Truesdell
Editorial Director, Automotive Traveler


Some members of the team that brought you this issue of Automotive Traveler.

Bob Ecker is a Napa based writer/photographer providing various magazines and newspapers worldwide with wine, food, travel, business, feature, and--of course--automotive stories. Former President of the Bay Area Travel Writers, Ecker is constantly on the go, traveling throughout the world discovering emerging regions, bursting down out of the way roads, and generally looking at what other journalist pass by. He has published stories from Italy, France, Spain, Hungary, Switzerland, Germany, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina, and Ecuador among other countries. He lives in Napa with his wife Colleen, and fellow creatures Harpo, Bosco, and Felix (the cat).

Robyn McCarthy is the editorial director of The Armarium Press (thearmariumpress.com), an independent publisher of business books and, coming this fall, the first travel title authored by Chaucer the Dog, Tube-Sock Tricks, and 101 Other Tips for RVing Success. A former editor for both consumer and trade publications (including Mobile Electronics magazine) she has written on business and current affairs forThe Wall Street Journal, the Journal of Commerce, USA Today, and other publications.

Mark Elias has been a car guy since his grandmother gave him his first Matchbox car in 1961. Mark served 11 years with the Associated Press as a photographer, after which he worked as photo editor at AMI Auto World, and now is now a full-time automotive photojournalist, living his life's dream. This month, our new car editor also contributed the Porsche Driving Experience and Bentley in the Florida Keys stories. He lives with his family in West Palm Beach, Florida and is working hard acquiring Delta Sky Miles. Thanks to recent travels to Sweden, Mark has added two new Saab diecast cars to his growing toy collection. Look for his coverage of the full-size models in future issues of Automotive Traveler.

Sheila Scarborough is an enthusiastic traveler who is as comfortable dancing at a Louisiana fais dodo, riding on Hong Kong's Star Ferry, or dog-sledding in Norway. Sheila writes for National Geographic Traveler, Texas Highways, Transitions Abroad, CHOW, and the San Antonio Express-News. Her blogs.bootsnall.com/Seafarer/ Family travel blog was a "Best of the net" (Best Practical Blog) in the UK's Guardian newspaper in March, 2007. "Opportunity met preparation" for Sheila when a local Gatornationals drag race developed into her other specialty: motorsports blogging. Married with two children and retired from active duty after almost 23 years in the seagoing Navy, she thinks everyone ought to have a passport and experience jet lag.

Carl Fors has some 20 years experience in developing and evaluating highway safety products. He also teaches NHTSA standard radar and laser certification classes at law enforcement agencies across the nation. Learn more about Carl's involvement with speed measurement devices at speedzones.com.

Brenda Priddy is sometimes referred to as the queen of automotive spy photographers, Brenda Priddy has the reputation for being in the right place at the right time. Brenda, for her column I Spy Auto, describes the evolution of Ford's latest concept crossover, the Flex. Her photos have appeared in such publications as Motor Trend, Forbes, Fortune, and USA Today. Brenda calls the Phoenix area home with her husband John and two kids.

Uncommon Lodgings

By Dusty Dave

Down Home Goodness: If you want to actually see what a real working family farm is like, you'd better jump on your horse (or cow) and get to one licketysplit. Fact is, it won't be too long before the only family farms you see are the ones in old photographs.

Ah, food, I love it. In fact I eat it every day. What did I have last night? Can't remember, but I'm sure it was good. You eat, don't you? Unless you're a supermodel, you probably eat at least three meals a day. Do you ever wonder where the heck all that food actually comes from? I mean it's a lot of food. Just think about it: Imagine walking down the chip aisle of a major food store. There must be a billion chips in that aisle alone. Then, multiply that by every store in every state. Now that's a lot of chips, not to mention the salsa needed for half of it.

I can tell you one thing: they don't grow all that stuff in the supermarket. Most of the food you buy still comes from local farms. You know: The guys with the overalls and the pitchforks. Back in the day, there were family farms everywhere. They were the backbone of America. Now, big corporate farms are taking over and pushing the little guy out. I'm not saying that's a bad thing or a good thing, just a fact of life. What does that mean to you? Probably nothing, but if you want to actually see what a real working family farm is like, you'd better jump on your horse (or cow) and get to one licketysplit. Fact is, it won't be too long before the only family farms you see are the ones in old photographs.

Lucky for you though, there still are a few farms and some of them offer accommodations and a chance to see how it all goes down. I have done all the legwork for you and compiled a short list of some of the country's best farms to stay at. All you have to do is call them up and say, "I want to milk a cow!"

Weatherbury Farm
Avella, Pennsylvania

It's time to get up and do the chores! Yeah right, I'm on vacation, no thanks! Well, it may not be for everybody, but it might be for you. Of course you don't have to do the chores, but things like that can actually be fun when you don't have to do them every day. Weatherbury is a real working farm full of goats, rabbits, chickens, geese, sheep, and cattle. If chores are not your cup of tea, then sleep in 'til noon and then spend the rest of the day relaxing on the porch or lounging around the pool. Accommodation-wise, the farm offers five nicely appointed rooms, all with antique furnishings, claw-foot tubs, and chilly cool air conditioning.Just 45 minutes southwest of Pittsburgh, you can watch the Pirates and still make it to the farm on time. Rates range from $100 to $150 per room per night and include breakfast.

Liberty Hill Farm
Rochester, Vermont

Located in the Heart of Vermont's lush Green Mountains, Liberty Hill is just a short three-hour drive from Boston, Hartford, Albany, and Montreal. This working dairy farm is as picturesque as they come. With a big ol' bright red barn, an early morning mist, and plenty of classic black-and-white cows posing, you're guaranteed a cover shot for Farmers Magazine. (You subscribe don't you?) When you're finished talking to the cows, slip on those comfy walking shoes you brought along and see where all the dirt roads lead. If that still doesn't satisfy your desire for adventure, you can take a flying leap into the river; maybe the fish will talk to you. Anytime of year is great, but the autumn leaves are spectacular. Accommodations are in the 1825-era farmhouse and include seven cozy rooms. Rates are around $100 per person per night and include breakfast and dinner.

Justin Trails
Sparta, Wisconsin

If you're looking for a country getaway without skimping on the amenities, Justin Trails might be the bed that's juuust right. They have more of a resort-style feel and offer a nice variety of accommodations: quaint rooms and country cabins with Ralph Lauren linens. Activity wise, you can always relax in a rocking chair on the porch or by the gardens, but how many farms do you know that also offer an 18-basket disc golf course? If you've never tried disc golf, this is your big chance. All I can say is fun, fun, and more fun. They also offer trails for hiking and mountain biking. But before that big game of disc golf, you're going to need a hearty farm-style breakfast. Believe me, nobody does breakfast like Justin Trails. Healthy and fresh is an understatement. If their handmade-from-scratch muffins aren't enough to start your day off right, their custom-blended granola will do the trick. In addition, they also offer hot entrées and even old-school cranapple sauce. Rates range from $100 to $150 per night and include breakfast. Pets are allowed..

Open Page, Open Road

By R. Todd Felton

To the Brink: Chase Thelma and Louise across some of this country's most iconic scenery in this cliffhanger of a tour.

The Open Page:
Thelma & Louise

The Open Road:
Southeastern Utah around Moab

The Car:
A green 1966 Thunderbird Convertible (preferably with parachutes or wings)

In 1991, millions of moviegoers watched in fascination as Thelma and Louise, played by Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, shot off the lip of a cliff thousands of feet above the Colorado River at the end of a road trip gone awry.

In this classic road-trip movie, two women planned to get away for a quiet weekend of fun and fishing, but a rape and murder sets them on the run towards Mexico and their fate at teh edge of a limestone cliff. The film has been referenced in everything including the memorable shot from a Tori Amos song to a Simpsons episode, and a large part of its status as a cult favorite is the amazing scenery which reflects the unfolding drama.

Although Thelma and Louise's trek begins in suburban Arkansas and covers mostly back roads en route to their final end (supposedly near the Grand Canyon), much of the scenery was actually shot in the area around Moab, Utah. This Open Page, Open Road tour makes a loop through the area, highlighting some of the most important scenes (and scenery).

Road Warrior

By Cindy-Lou Dale

With the emergence of low-cost airlines and local airports mushrooming up across the continent, inexpensive European vacations are now more accessible. What upsets the apple cart though, is the holiday accommodations budget, especially for those tied to specific dates around school holidays, when prices are especially inflated. So before you jadedly lug your beach towel to the back yard, permit me to present you with a free European holiday.

I pity the foreign tourist being herded about in conventional tourist groups; ushered in and out of buses, steered around museums, and rounded up in the reception area of their crummy impersonal hotels for a dawn start to more of the same. This thwarts the principle of the authentic travel experience. The only way to experience a culture is to parachute into its community. Wander into the village bakery to source breakfast croissants and establish which days the fishmonger receives fresh trout. The only way to do this is by living locally, in someone else's house, while they're experiencing similar circumstances in yours. It's called house swapping and it's big, really big.

Overpriced accommodations--a scourge of the past

The principle of house swapping is just that--swapping homes with someone who wants to visit your town as much as you want to visit theirs. The people who mostly do swapping are professionals. In general they are of the upper income bracket, educated, and seasoned travelers. Predominantly they're proud homeowners, pleased to let others enjoy their dwellings while they're away doing the same.

The most obvious advantage of this kind of holiday is financial, meaning you can afford to do more things. Okay, so you'll have to spend a week clearing out junk, gouging ingrained food off the kitchen table and making your home look like it's people that actually live there, but all it will cost you is the return flight (next month's column will give you insight into no-frills airlines).

While you're sitting on the patio of your new digs, sipping French champagne and quietly praising yourself for scoring an entire holiday for just the price of a plane ticket, back home your own place is under siege with someone else's brat running an indelible marker around your kitchen, while chasing your cat with the crowbar his parents took to your car after pawning your DVD player. Fortunately this scenario only lives in the mind's eye of the "Prophet of Doom" (and my husband), and was what initially held people back from experiencing the true pleasures of a frugal yet authentic vacation. Now, it's spreading like wildfire.

For swap's sake

For sure, you'll need to be an independent and somewhat adventurous spirit to make this work, but the rules are simple:

  1. Draw up a pre-swap agreement to explain details of what to do if something gets broken, clarify who pays what in terms of telephone, electric bills, gas consumption, insurance excesses in case of accidents, and staple foods such as flour, sugar, oil, etc. and if there are any pets to take care of.
  2. Leave your home clean. No need for a repainting, just a general spring clean including windows, refrigerator, stove, and bathrooms; lock away your most valuable items and clear away most of your clothing and personals, leaving space on shelves, in drawers and cupboards so your guests can empty their suitcases, arrange their things, and feel at home.
  3. Agree to book your transportation to the destination on the same day, then exchange details with your swapee. This will appease both parties that fiscal responsibilities were made and that neither plans to abandon the process.
  4. Before departing, leave your keys with the neighbor who could welcome your house-swap guest. Put together a welcome pack about your house and the area, detailing information like where the fuse box is, security features and how to use them, emergency contact numbers, best local restaurants, pet and plant care details, trash collection and local tourist information. Arrange for friends and family to pop over and welcome your swapee when they arrive.
  5. Be sure to leave a little welcome gift--a bottle of wine or a local specialty, and leave the makings of a first meal; nothing too fancy as your swappee could be tired and hungry and would be grateful not to have to go out for dinner or the store.
  6. Contact your insurance company and let them know of your plans. They'll more than likely be pleased to hear that your home will be occupied whilst you're on vacation. Take out any extra insurance necessary. If your house-swap includes your motor vehicle, be sure your insurance permits you to add a named driver, and doesn't specifically exclude foreign drivers. Discuss who pays for minor or major damage with your swapper. Don't forget to notify your local police about your house-swapping guests.
  7. Right from the start, be sure you're signed up with an established home-exchange agency like homelink.org.uk or homeexchange.com. If you live in a city that attracts foreign visitors you'll be inundated with home-swapping requests. Draw up a shortlist and don't be shy about asking for past references from anyone you're uncertain of. Then commit to a property and exchange further information with its owners by e-mail and telephone.

So if you're still feeling glum at the knowledge that the only glow you'll get this summer is from your laptop's toxic rays, you may want to read this article again. It's not just a house swap, it's a car swap, a friend swap--in fact, it's a life-swap. So take every sensible precaution and get swapping.

In fact, if you live in Hollywood and are looking to visit Brussels....

Travels With Chaucey: Finding Dog-Friendly Tourist Attractions During Road Trips

What do a UFO museum, a dinosaur park, and a national cemetery have in common? They are all dog friendly... if your canine road-trip companion is well behaved.

By Robyn Larson McCarthy

"Fox-terriers are born with about four times as much original sin in them as other dogs." So wrote Jerome K. Jerome, one of my favorite authors for road-trip reading, in his charmingly hilarious book Three Men in a Boat. With such a spirited personality, how could one not consider the terrier an ideal companion for seeking adventure on America's highways and bi-ways? Indeed, I met one of my dearest friends thanks to the ice-breaking antics of my four-legged friend.

I suppose there was a time when I didn't travel almost everywhere with Chaucer. For the last decade or so, however, hardly a trip has gone by in which the little guy didn't at least bum a ride to the doggy hotel closest to my own destination. I ran into an acquaintance whose employer covers the cost of her dog joining her at a posh Beverly Hills hotel during extended business trips. We're not all so lucky! Yet with a little research and planning, there's no reason your own four-legged family members can't come along for the fun--whether the trip is business, personal, or a little of both.

Tracking down pet-friendly lodging and dining options isn't too hard--although I'll have some road-tested tips for doing so in future columns. But what about recreational activities? Whether on a three-month cross-country RV trek or a winter weekend at a bed and breakfast in Maine, Chaucer always manages to find tourist attractions where he is a welcome guest. Here are three of his favorites.

International UFO Museum and Research Center

Roswell, New Mexico


Back in July 1947, far out in the New Mexico desert where you'd expect nothing but tumbleweeds and a few dusty jackrabbits, an inquisitive farmer discovered something that definitely should not have been there. It looked like a giant-size roll of tin foil shredded by a dozen frolicking dogs. Officials claimed the mess was a downed experimental weather balloon. Others believed the farmer had discovered the remains of a spaceship dashed against the desert floor --and that at least one extraterrestrial was found alive among the wreckage and hidden by the government.

Today you can view exhibits presenting both sides of the story at the International UFO Museum and Research Center (free admission, open seven days a week). Friendly, knowledgeable docents answer questions as visitors try to make up their own minds about the "Roswell Incident." No conspiracy theorist myself, I was rushing through the museum in search of Chaucer photos ops when the well-balanced exhibits caught my attention, and I stopped for a closer look.

Kids will enjoy posing with the alien models and examining the crop circles display, before visiting the world's only alien-themed McDonald's up the street. Need a few gifts to take home? You'll have no problem finding something for your quirkier friends in the gift shop. (Alien salt-and-pepper shakers, anyone?) Chaucer so charmed the staff that they gave him a plush green alien before we left.

Southern New Mexico is home to another dog-friendly attraction whose desolate and mysterious beauty is in keeping with the otherworldly atmosphere at Roswell: White Sands National Monument, almost 300 square miles of glistening sand dunes that tower as high as buildings.

Dinosaur World

Cave City, Kentucky


Talk about a jurassic park. With more than 150 life-size dinosaur models creeping about and cavorting among the lush setting, a posted "Friendly pets on leashes are always welcome!" policy, and a picnic area that you can even have local pizza delivered to, Dinosaur World is a dog and kid's dream come true.

At the authentic fossil dig, kids can play paleontologist. A museum displays everything from dinosaur eggs to raptor claws, and the gift shop sells plenty of educational toys and books for your budding scientists to continue their adventures at home. The child-size triceratops hat will even fit a smaller dog, but don't ask how I know that.

Dinosaur World Kentucky is open every day of the year except Thanksgiving and Christmas. The company also has a Florida location about an hour from Orlando and a Texas park scheduled to open in 2008--all dog friendly.

Arlington National Cemetery

Arlington, Virginia


As at the UFO museum, I decided to ask about the Arlington National Cemetery's pet policy on an impulse, when passing through the D.C. area. While not advertised, well-behaved dogs on leashes are allowed inside the grounds.

With only an hour to go until closing, we made our way to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and to the Space Shuttle Challenger Memorial. If traveling with kids, consider having them plan your visit at the cemetery website. In addition to detailed listings of the numerous memorials, the site groups individuals by various categories: explorers, literary figures, and so forth.

# # #

Robyn McCarthy is the editorial director of The Armarium Press, an independent publisher of business books and, coming this fall, the first travel title authored by Chaucer the Dog, Tube-Sock Tricks, and 101 Other Tips for RVing Success. A former editor for both consumer and trade publications (including Mobile Electronics magazine) she has written on business and current affairs for The Wall Street Journal, the Journal of Commerce, USA Today, and other publications.

Cars and Cameras

By David Newhardt

Are you ready for your close-up? Sometimes just part of the picture says it all.

Don't settle for a straight-on badge shot... A car as special as this Dodge Demon Concept deserves detail photos that really pop!

Automobiles are a collection of ideas, mechanical and visual. Lots of parts go into making the whole. When people first look at a car, they tend to see the big picture, that is to say they see the entire vehicle. But in time, some elements tend to draw the eye more strongly than others. Whether it's a grille, a taillight, a fender line, or maybe a door handle, the old saying that "God lives in the details" has never been proven more true than in vehicle design.

In past two months we've discussed photographing your vehicle, touching on background and distance. This month we're really shaving the distance part, as in getting close, really close. Now's the time for you to dust off that macro lens you've let languish at the bottom of your camera bag. Used with imagination, the close-up lens can transform your automotive photography from a staid documentary to an arresting visual statement. By focusing on a part, it can illuminate the whole.

Shooting close-up photography doesn't mean that you must go out and buy a macro lens, though having one does make things easier. Many telephoto lenses can focus on a subject from as close as 4 feet, allowing you to frame your shot tightly on the stylistic element. But there comes a time when you'll want to try for a "different" look, or the item you're photographing is so small as to lose visual impact in a telephoto shot. Enter the macro lens.

Using a macro lens can be frustrating in the beginning, as focus is really, really critical. In past articles I've touched upon how valuable a tripod is for good photography, and when you enter macro photography, it's safe to say that for a high-quality close-up, the tripod is virtually mandatory. Tiny changes in framing, focus, and f-stop can have large impacts on the finished image, and the last thing you want to be worrying about is your pulse and breathing ruining your efforts. In the same vein, break out the remote shutter release cord. Most quality digital SLR cameras have a port to plug in the cord, and it can be a make-or-break device. Some cameras even allow the photographer to lock-up the reflex mirror, virtually eliminating the vibration of the mirror flipping out of the light path. My Nikons allow me to program the camera so that the first time I push the shutter button the mirror raises, then I push the button a second time to fire the shutter. The lack of vibration ensures a sharp, crisp image.

Add character to your detail photography by using a macro lens set to a shallow depth of field. This will allow you to have part of the badge tack sharp, while the background acts as a frame to the target.

Close-up of mirror badge using telephoto lens.

Top: Demon badge with deep depth of field.

Bottom: Demon badge with shallow depth of field.

When framing a macro shot, the key to a stunning shot is to keep it simple. Have a single point of interest, with a minimum of extraneous elements in the shot to vie for attention. This brings up an advantage of using a macro lens: its depth of field. If you target a hood badge, a macro lens set to a shallow depth of field (f4 for instance) will allow you to have part of the badge tack sharp, while the background fuzzes into obscurity. The eye is drawn to the elements that are sharply in focus, while the background acts as a frame to the target.

While a shallow depth of field is ideal for visually separating a target from the background, a deep depth of field will bring all of the elements within the frame into sharp focus. This can work to a photographer's advantage when shooting, say, a wide hood badge. The edge-toedge sharpness allows the viewer to take in the badge in its entirety. This forces the viewer to really see that single element, rather than the whole.

I'll wrap up this month's column by touching on a subject that I'll delve more deeply into in the future, filtering. The vast majority of my automotive photography is shot with a polarizing filter screwed onto the end of the lens. Its ability to control reflections, darken skies, and richen colors makes it an indispensable tool. If I could only use one filter, I would grab the polarizer without a moment's hesitation. Attaching a polarizing filter to the front of your macro lens gives the photographer an easy-tocontrol component that can add drama to your macro shot. Don't be afraid to get up close and personal with your subject. And remember, megabytes are the cheapest thing in our business, so shoot away.

Shooting for Coffee Table Books

During the last 10 years, I've supplied principle photography for around 25 books, and have written seven. I've shot for scores of magazines as well, and there is a different style for each of the print media: Books tend to use a more formal type of photography than magazines. What this means to book photographers is that they need to generate images that can stand considerable enlargements. Coffee table books are printed at 300 dpi (dots per inch), usually on heavy, coated stock. While the color and sharpness reproduction can be impressive, the photographer needs to ensure that the images submitted to a publisher are of the highest quality. A small mistake or soft focus will appear large and glaring in a two-page spread measuring 21 inches across. My latest book, "Chevy SS," written by Robert Genat and shot by me, shows how a digital SLR can generate images that will satisfy demanding publishers. By the way, almost every shot in that book was taken with the camera on a tripod. The results are worth the effort..

I Spy Auto

By Brenda Priddy

Econoline Excursion Escape Expedition Explorer

The Evolution of the 2009 Ford Flex: Econoline. Edge. Escape. Excursion. Expedition. Explorer... A funny thing happened when Ford ran out of the "E" names: they had to start using "F" words --and that's where our story begins. In January of 2005, at the North American International Auto Show in the Motor-City, J Mays, group vice president of Design and chief creative officer introduced Ford's newest peoplemover concept: The Ford Fairlane.

The Fairlane's name originally came from the Henry Ford's estate, known as Fair Lane, and has been used many times from 1955 through 1971 on sedans and sport coupes, as well as my favorite--the 1957 Fairlane 500 Skyliner with retractable hardtop.

But in 2005, Ford chose to resurrect the name once more. This time, the name was put on a modern-looking boxy family vehicle with an interior that could only be described as 'flexible' (a term which becomes very obvious later).

It quickly became clear that the Fairlane was more than merely a "concept"--that it was being developed as a production model and could very well change the way the world looked at minivans in the future.

While Ford was busy developing the production version, engineering test mules were running around Dearborn, Michigan, as well as the southwest desert regions. We photographed them several times, but the casual observer may easily have missed them. These "Fairlines" were disguised as Ford Freestyles! The engine and other critical components were all there, but they were conveniently covered by the bodyshell of the Freestyle. A modified Freestyle, of course, with a few extra seams here and there, and doors that didn't quite fit right--but this cobbled-up Freestyle was in fact a well-designed test mule for their new Fairlane ... Far left: Now a National Historic Landmark, the grand Fair Lane Estate in Dearborn, Michigan, was the inspiration for the Fairlane name used on various Fords. Photo courtesy of Ford Archives. Bottom left and upper right: Early "test mules" in Freestyle guise for what would eventually become the Ford Flex.

Photos: Brenda Priddy. Bottom right: The author's favorite Fairlane --the 500 Skyline--working its way down the assembly line. Photo courtesy of Ford Archives.

... Or so we thought! Right vehicle. Wrong name. Two years after the Fairlane Concept was first shown, Ford introduced the 2009 Flex at the 2007 New York Auto Show. The Flex is closely based on the Fairlane Concept, and offers seating for six or seven--depending on the interior configuration selected. Ford calls this new entry a "crossover"--but we call it the beginning of a new breed of "minivans" for Generation Xers and the Gen Y buyers.

Still boxy and with a white (or silver) Mini Cooper-like-colored roof, the allnew Flex will offer stability control with rollover protection, and an intelligent all-wheel-drive system. It will be powered by a 3.5-liter V-6 engine promising 260-horsepower.

Special touches will include a small refrigerator in the six-passenger version, ambient lighting, and an optional hound's-tooth fabric interior. Other options will include a multi-panel "Vista Roof" with a total of four moonroofs, an 8-inch screen for videos, a Bluetooth communication system that converts incoming text messages into voice messages, and a MP3 player that passengers can control by simply talking!

Unfortunately, even though the pre-production photos of the Flex (shot by Brian Williams) look like it's about ready to roll off the assembly line, we won't see it at dealerships until sometime next summer, so be patient!

Production photos of the 2009 Ford Flex highlighting its huge Vista Roof, friendly and functional gauges and controls, and contemporary exterior styling. Photos courtesy of Ford Motor Company.

Design on the Road

By Gary Witzenburg

When the futuristic Mazda Nagare concept sports car was unveiled at last November's Los Angeles Auto Show, Laurens van den Acker, Mazda's newly appointed global design director, said it summed up the future of Mazda design in one simple word: flow. "Nagare is a celebration of proportions and surface language," he said, "[that] examines light and shadow and begins to reveal the global design cues for the next generation of Mazda vehicles."

Mazda Nagare Concept

Perhaps surprisingly, Nagare was designed not in Japan, but by a team in Mazda's Irvine, California, studio headed by Franz von Holzhausen, director of design for Mazda's North American Operations. "Inspired by the movement of nature's elements, our designers have captured motion, energy, and lightness and translated it into a beautiful language of lines and forms that are powerful yet effortless, provocative yet strikingly seductive," he said at the time.

Von Holzhausen grew up near Hartford, Connecticut; he studied design at Syracuse University, Art Center College in Pasadena, California, and an Art Center sister school in Switzerland before joining Volkswagen/Audi in Germany in 1992. He returned to his native U.S. in 2000 as a studio chief at General Motors' newly established Advanced Design Center in North Hollywood, California, where he was responsible for--among other things--the highly acclaimed Pontiac Solstice roadster. He left GM in 2005 to take his current job. We caught up with him for a chat between meetings.

"... our designers have captured motion, energy, and lightness and translated it into a beautiful language of lines and forms that are powerful yet effortless, provocative yet strikingly seductive."

Mazda Nagare Concept transforms from sketch to reality

AT: Nagare was followed by Ryuga at Detroit in January and Hakaze at Geneva in March. We're guessing we'll see a fourth one this October at the Tokyo show.

FvH: Yes, it was the first of a series of four based on the theme of Nagare, which is a Japanese word meaning flow. We wanted to kick off this Nagare design movement with a very advanced car, then start dialing it back toward reality with the others.

AT: Are we seeing the future of Mazda design in these concepts?

FvH: Yes, definitely! We've got a great portfolio now, but we need to stay fresh and ahead of the game. We looked at last year's three concepts and pulled the best elements from them to start a new vision, a new design language, for Mazda.

AT: Please describe that direction.

FvH: It's about the character and dynamic gesture of a car. We're striving to visually communicate "Zoom-Zoom," which is an expressive way to communicate a feeling and a great tag line...but what does it look like? For starters, it has a very expressive, powerful, characterful face. It could only be a Mazda. Also, it has very dynamic surfacing, with taut lines and fluid surfaces between them. Its back is powerful, with a great stance and a lot of energy; very concise, with no excess fat, like it should be a rear-drive car. We want Mazdas to be known as athletic cars, and athletes are shrink-wrapped, with no fat.

Mazda Hakaze Concept
Mazda Ryuga Concept
Mazda Nagare Concept

AT: Explain the lines on the sides.

FvH: The idea is an exploration of texture and nature, with flow coming from air moving across the desert sand, or water moving across the ocean floor. Or imagine a rake going through the sand of a Japanese zen garden.

AT: The roof is one low arc from nose to tail. Is that realistic?

FvH: It is a little deceiving, because the character of that line makes the car look much lower than it really is. The packaging is realistic. I fit in it quite comfortably.

AT: But the beltline is so high that once you're in, you're looking out through a gun slot.

FvH: The beltline is high, but the car is a little bigger than it looks. That gun slot is not as small as on the Audi TT, for example.

AT: The grille has evolved. On early versions, it was almost a mouth with lips.

FvH: A big mouth is a key element of a sports car...a big air intake for power and performance. We're continuing to evolve the five-point grille as a key element of the Mazda face and exploring ways of doing it other than a big empty hole. In this case, it is a chrome piece that reflects the environment back into that mouth.

Mazda Nagare Concept

AT: You've put the driver's seat in the center, like in the McLaren F1?

FvH: We wanted to amplify its sports car character, and the ultimate sports car driving position is in the center of the car. We wanted to show that it's possible to create a four-passenger car with that ultimate driving position.

The rear-seat arrangement is an arc, or a diamond pattern...the outside rear passengers' legroom is beside the driver, and the rear center passenger is further back. And it's a loungy, youthful hangout space when the car is parked. That tall line at the rear, the "shooting brake" feel, gives you space for headroom.

AT: On what kinds of roads do you visualize this car?

FvH: It's a glimpse at future proportions for our sports cars, and inspired by textures found in the desert floor, so the long, open roads out by Mojave are where this car thrives.

AT: What elements of this car are not realistic?

FvH: The butterfly doors that open up the whole body side may be a little extreme... but Nagare is targeted for 15 years down the road. We're exploring where future technology opportunities may lie and, as we have demonstrated, our concepts are not pure flights of fancy. Nagare is a serious design movement that we will continue to explore.

Mazda Nagare Concept

AT: If you could drive it to any destination in the world, where would that be?

FvH: We just drove it through the streets of Soho in New York City, and the juxtaposition of its form and textures against that rugged but hip urban environment was an exciting adventure. But the soul of this car lies in its replication of Nature, so I would love to drive it to the Grand Canyon and explore the vast opportunities Nature has created there. .

Mazda Hakaze Concept and Mazda Nagare Concept in Soho

Travel Toys

By Brandy Schaffels

Gear to make your travel life easier.

We know that when you're on the road, you need simplicity. Your Automotive Traveler editors are constantly on the go, and have always got an eye out for products that take the stress out of our time on the road. As one who tries to travel with as few bags as possible, and often with the company of children, I've traded my purse and computer bag for a backpack that will allow me to carry my wallet, iPod, and laptop on my back instead of over my shoulder, all in an effort to keep my hands free whenever possible. Here's an assortment of travel toys that have helped make our lives easier as we get from point a to point b, especially when our hands are full and time is short.


Have you passed through an airport recently? To speed through the mandatory ID checkpoints required at several stops before boarding the plane, I use a neck pouch with a clear pocket to hold my ID. That way, all my 'stuff' stays secure in my backpack, while the documents I need to get through the airport hang securely around my neck. With a backpack on my back, a rolling suitcase in one hand, and sometimes a small child's hand in the other, a pouch like this eliminates any fumbling or dropping of essential documents.

You can find oodles of them on the 'net just by doing a Google search on "travel neck pouch" but here are a couple to get you started:

Magellan's Passport/Ticket Holder is a convenient way to keep travel documents secure and easily accessible. Your boarding pass, passport, and driver's license stay neatly organized in their own front compartments, and a back pocket is ideal for receipts, itinerary, or other documents. The adjustable neck strap keeps them all within easy reach for security inspections. Made of nylon and priced under $10.

Travelon's small, flat neck wallet (shown) provides quick access to your license, boarding pass, and passport. Hang it around your neck, adjust the strap as desired, and speed your way through security. Less than $10 from Amazon.com.


As many states move to require hands-free cell phone use, the popularity of Bluetooth headsets will increase. We've sampled (and returned) enough of these products to know no other Bluetooth headset we've tried works as easily or sounds as good as this one by Jawbone.

Ambient noise is an issue with many headsets and can make conversations difficult in noisier environments. (Have you been in a car with arguing kids in the back seat?) Jawbone with Noise Shield Technology uses a militarygrade noise-canceling system that identifies and isolates your speech to determine precisely when you are speaking; it then filters your speech from sounds nearby to deliver unparalleled audio quality. It also automatically enhances your incoming audio so you can better hear your caller.

Even though Jawbone is available exclusively at Cingular/ATT Wireless stores for $120, it is compatible with all Bluetooth-enabled handsets.


Cellphones are quickly becoming do-it-all devices, so check out this one offered by Verizon Wireless.

Besides its fun, funky orange color, the LG VX9900 enV Orange offers all the features we want in a handheld device, including GPS positioning to tell you where you are, what's near you, and to give you directions quickly and easily; as well as a 2.0 megapixel camera that provides crisp, clear photos and videos. Bluetooth headset capability allows handsfree access to phone functions and voicemail with simple voiceoperated commands. Messaging and email are simple thanks to a full QWERTY keypad, while an evolved internet browser will help keep its user constantly informed on its internal LCD display capable of supporting a resolution of up to 240 x 320 pixels. If you want to use it as a portable mp3 player, pair it with ultra-compact, lightweight stereo speakers by LG to easily share your favorite summer tunes. The phone holds 50 MB of internal memory; a microSD card slot is capable of supporting up to 2 gigs of additional memory.

The LG VX9900 enV Orange is available for $149.99 after a $50 mail-in rebate; the LG portable speakers are available for $49.99. Find them both at verizonwireless. com and Verizon Wireless Communications retail stores.


With the PowerShot TX1, Canon takes a futuristic wish list and makes it a reality in a pocketsized camera that not only captures 7.1 megapixel images, but high-definition movies, too! Its stylish vertical design houses plenty of premium advancements including a whopping 10x optical zoom, Optical Image Stabilizer Technology, DIGIC III Image Processor, Face Detection Technology, and red-eye correction, all in a durable stainless steel case.

Video captures 1280 x 720 highdef movies at 30 fps with stereo sound and 1080i component video playback. Framing the subject is simple thanks to its 1.8-inch Vari- Angle, wide-view LCD screen with scratch-resistant / anti-reflection/ anti-fingerprint coating for easy on-camera viewing. Its sensitivity range is expanded to ISO 1600 for sharper photos in low light, with ISO Auto Shift for the right sensitivity in any situation. And because you'll want to take this compact wonder everywhere, it's equipped with a built-in lens cover and tough scratch-resistant, antireflective coating on the LCD screen.

The memory card slot supports SD, SDHC, MMC, and MMCplus formats, so you can use your choice of flash drives. The PowerShot TX1 is powered by a proprietary rechargeable Lithium Ion battery that is said to offer more than 150 shots on a charge. Street price for Canon's latest PowerShot camera is about $500.


It seems so logical, given that portable GPS navigation units have high-resolution LCD screens, to offer iPod-like video playback capability. The Harman Kardon GPS-500 Guide + Play is a complete GPS, audio/video playback solution. Where Would You Like To Go? The unit's "Where Would You Like to Go" screen gives you multiple ways to plan your trip: by address, place, city center, intersection, postal code, home, recent places, and saved places in addition to a POI database of millions of entries.

The GPS-500's 4-inch touchscreen provides complete visual and voice navigation functionality, But it doesn't end there. The 480 x 272 screen provides MPEG4 and WMV9 video payback capabilities from media stored on an SD media card (not included). The unit will support SD memory cards up to 4GB, capable of storing several feature-length movies on one card. In addition to its navigation and video playback abilities, the GPS-500 offers full MP3 audio playback capabilities, making this a multifunction device that represents an excellent value at a current street price of $400.
harmankardon.com/gps500/ main.aspx.

The Automotive Traveler Bookshelf

Noteworth reading when planning your next road trip.

In each issue of Automotive Traveler, our editors and contributors suggest noteworthy books and DVD programs that would be invaluable additions to your personal libraries, especially when it comes time for planning your next road trip.

Culture Smart! A Quick Guide To Customs & Etiquette

(Kuperard; $9.95 US/ $12.95 CAN) by various authors for various regions

Visiting a country, any country, has its pleasures and possible disasters. One country's traditions can be another's taboos. So, while not a travel guidebook that tempts you to this museum or tells you how to get from place to place, the pocket-sized 168- page Quick Guide series offers lifestyle hints so you feel less like a tourist.

The France book divulges the secrets of Paris cafés and reminds you that the French love their dogs and you'll find dogs underfoot in almost any restaurant. The China book lets you know that the teahouses of China, so popular years ago, are making a comeback. It also tells you that smoking in restaurants in China is prevalent, particularly for men. The French disdain elbows on dining tables; while they're almost required in Spain.

Each book includes a country map and some basic facts on common courtesies and sensitive issues.

Notes on history and government will also help those who feel such background is part of the traveling experience. You can learn about the customs and traditions, how to meet expats and locals, what home life is like, and business practices.

There are 40 books in the series so far, covering countries from the Caribbean to South America, the Far East, Europe, and elsewhere.

Rating: Five VW Microbuses
--Judy Colbert

The Pontiac Solstice Book

(Lamm-Morada Publishing; $34.95) by Gary Witzenburg

More than 20 years ago our own Gary Witzenburg chronicled the story of the development of the Pontiac Fiero, a car GM discontinued in 1988 after finally getting it "right." Now our master of design has turned his pen to the development of its spiritual successor, the Pontiac Solstice with his latest work The Pontiac Solstice Book. If you ever wanted an inside look into the development and evolution of a production vehicle, look no further, your search has ended.

Writer Witzenburg had unprecedented access into all stages of the design and preparation for production of the Solstice (and its Saturn and Opel cousins), including its primary designers Franz von Holzhausen (exterior/overall concept), Vicky Vlachakis (interior), as well as its patron saint, GM's product czar Bob Lutz. The result is a compelling read, especially if you are a fan of GM's tidy two-seater.

The photographs of the design and engineering process are first rate, as is author Witzenburg's narrative of all of the various processes involved in shepherding the Solstice from von Hotzhausen's sketch pad to your local Pontiac showroom. Now that von Holzhausen has moved on to Mazda, it remains to seen whether GM will follow through and thet rauvteolmero btiovoekshelf continually refine the Solstice, keeping it both fresh and competitive, or will it become this generation's Fiero?

Rating: Five Pontiac Solstice GXPs
--D. H. Lechter

Recipes From Historical America: Cooking & Traveling With America's Finest Hotels

(Bright Sky Press; $29.95) by Linda & Steve Bauer

Chances are that any memorable trip you've taken was made special by the food you ate along the way and then prepared again once you got home. Linda and Steve Bauer have created a wonderfully practical tabletop book that will have you salivating before you put the first tank of gas in your car. There are more than 100 recipes from 45 hotels and restaurants with 125 photographs (too few of the prepared dishes, though) in their 208-page hardcover book. There are notes about the restaurant's or resort's history and tips on how to prepare the recipes. The directions are simple and geared toward serving four to ten people.

Maybe you wondered why New York's Waldorf- Astoria's signature salad tasted better than yours? Perhaps it's because they include fennel and creme fraiche and a teaspoon of black winter truffle. Okay, so now that you know, you'll rush out to find some truffles or be content to have your salad minus that luxury.

An equally exotic but not as expensive recipe is the iced watermelon and Bing cherry soup from the White Barn Inn, Kennebunkport, Maine. Made with the simplest ingredients--watermelon, Bing cherries, Muscat (or other white dessert wine or champagne), this is one yummy soup that can easily bring your special memories home with you.

Rating: Five BMW M5s
--Judy Colbert

Weird Maryland--Your Travel Guide To Maryland's Local Legends And Best-Kept Secrets

(Sterling; $19.95 US) by Matt Lake

As the author of Maryland and Delaware: Off the Beaten Path and Virginia: Off the Beaten Path, I love hearing someone say, "I've lived here all my life and I never knew that" about something I've included in my books.

I know when to admit defeat though, and the Weird Maryland (along with the Weird Virginia book and others in the series including Weird USA) and do it. There are roadside oddities, curious collections, bizarre beasts, roads less traveled, ancient and unsolved mysteries, local legends, fabled people and places, personalized properties and visionary environments, cemetery safaris, and other categories. The Weird series books are a hoot to read, even if you never want to chase a ghost or find the people and places included in them. These items are great conversation starters, if nothing else.

Many items are submitted by people like you, so if you have a weird story about your state, log onto weirdusa. com and submit it. If accepted, you'll receive credit.

Mark Moran and Mark Sceurman are the powers behind these books, with Matt Lake given credit for the Maryland book.

Rating: Five Ford Edges
--Judy Colbert

Event Coverage: Ford GT Forum Rally

Santa Monica Mountains
Malibu, California
June 16, 2007

While most Ford GTs stay safely tucked away in their lucky owner's garages, more thantwo dozen Southern California Ford GT owners can think of better things to do with their 550-horsepower supercars and that's to drive them. Automotive Traveler was there, this time in the passenger seat helping to navigate Dennis Keck's 2005 Ford GT (see "your cars," page 116) along the three-hour course through the Santa Monica Mountains overlooking Malibu and the Pacific Ocean.

The gathering was noteworthy, as two of the very first Ford GTX-1 roadsters were on hand with both owners taking part in the day's run. The GTX-1, the creation of Mark Gerisch of Genaddi Designs (gtx1.com), is just now getting into hands of owners as it takes up to three months to chop the top of Ford's modern-day supercar.

The start of the rally was at Duke's Restaurant in Malibu and after a briefing by rally organizer Eric Johnson, the 25-car caravan headed up into the mountains. Unfortunately construction played havoc with the route as we were treated to the sight of several million dollars' worth of Ford GTs trying to turn around on the tight roads, navigating between bewildered Hummer owners as they headed down to the coast to grab a latte at Starbucks.

The first planned stop was at Rock Store on Mulholland Highway, a biker bar that is legendary in these parts. The collection of 25 Ford GTs vied for attention with the multitude of bikes and their owners. After returning to the coast, the GTs headed up Pacific Coast Highway to the Point Mugu Naval Air Station and Missile Park. To complete the run, the caravan headed south to Point Dume for a catered lunch hosted by Bruce Wisnicki, a Ford GT owner himself and participant in the day's activities. His home is in a rather exclusive neighborhood that calls Barbra Streisand as one of its residents.

The June 16th run was a precursor of sorts to a much larger planned gathering of Ford GTs in Southern California from August 1 to 4. With more than 100 Ford GTs expected, it will be the largest gathering of Ford GTs and owners in one place since production ended last year. Most of the participants are also expected to attend the weekly Cars and Coffee show at the Ford Headquarters in Irvine, this presents an excellent opportunity for Ford GT enthusiasts to see and hear the dozens of GTs in full song. For more details visit the Ford GT Forum (fordgtforum.com) for a full schedule of the planned events..

A Beer Tour Through Wine Country

By Bob Ecker

Beer and wine connoisseur Bob Ecker takes a BMW Z4 Roadster on a drive through Northern California wine country, sampling an assortment of twisty roads and tasty breweries along the way.

"It takes a lot of great beer to make a good wine," states virtually ever winemaker I've ever met, from Chile to France, New Zealand to Spain, and that mantra is certainly the case here in Northern California, America's premier wine region. It makes perfect sense if you think about it. Winemakers, vineyard workers, cellar masters, and even salesmen deal with wine and grapes all day long--and at the end of their day want a cold, refreshing brew like anybody else. While many drink copious amounts of wine, they also respect and enjoy the art of beer making.

The craft beer movement is alive and well throughout Northern California, with many breweries, brew pubs, and fine beer spots scattered across this wide area. Toss in excellent roads, gorgeous scenery, a new BMW Z4 Roadster, and my lovely wife Colleen, and we had the ingredients for a splendid mission: discover the best beer spots in wine country.

My quest was not to be the definitive test, but merely an attempt to test out a shiny Montego Blue BMW Z4 Roadster 3.0 si while driving around the state sampling brews--in moderation, of course. We began in Napa, then headed north into Mendocino County and the amazing, windy, redwood rich Highway 128. Stopping at the Pacific, I then pointed further north into Humboldt County, also called the "Humboldt Nation" by northern locals, then back down into Sonoma County to sample the beer scene, and back east into Napa. All told, I hit a dozen breweries, brew pubs, and also a couple of a wine/ beer havens. We drove some 750 miles in about five days, and loved every minute of the trip.

I am well aware that one should not drink and drive, and as always utilized certain common sense rules on this trip. First, I only tasted the beers, which were usually offered to me in small glasses. Next, I drank copious amounts of water during tastings, and before getting back on the road. Lastly, we made sure to eat plenty of food during, or after beer samplings. Actually pub food --burgers, fries, onion rings, soups and salads--may be not be an exemplary diet, but it does soak up alcohol quite well.

First, we put the top down (it raised smoothly, and tucked away below the back deck in about 20 seconds) and headed out into a glorious Napa afternoon. The Silverado Brewing Company was our initial destination in the charming Napa Valley town of St. Helena. Colleen wore her favorite hat, and I decided to drive glabrous and unadorned; the sun felt wonderful and there would be plenty of time for hats later on.

The Z4's Bridgestone Potenza 225/40R18's in the front 255/35R18's in the rear effortlessly hugged the windy curves approaching Napa Valley. The 3.0-liter DOHC 24-valve inline-six seemed a bit sluggish at first (I was driving the automatic version), but soon the BMW found its rhythm, and together we made a precise, fast, road handling team. We arrived at the Silverado Brewing Company and grabbed a table outside. This brewery sits inside the site of the old Freemark Abbey Winery, constructed in 1895 (Freemark Abbey is now in the modern facility next door). The building's massive hand-hewn wood beams and large stone walls impressed me. Still, the outside tables, right on Highway 29, are an ideal place to meet friends and sample beers on a sunny day. Colleen tried the Pale Ale while I tasted the full six-beer sampler. She was spot on, since the extremely hoppy Pale Ale turned out to be my favorite, with nods to an appealing Oatmeal Stout (it could pass for a meal) and the Maibock, a Munich-styled amber lager.

This brewery, with its copper kettles visible inside, is frequently recommended by many wineries as a place to find tasty beers and good, reasonably priced food. In fact, as if on cue, brewery manager, Colin Wright stopped by bearing delectable calamari.

"This is a valley of small towns," said Wright, "We want the locals as well as visitors to be happy." A Sonoma resident, Steve Whan came over to chat. "All the 'hop heads' come here for the Pale Ale," he said, as another round was poured. By now, I had switched to the Pale Ale myself. Just then, Napa winemaker Ken Fortner dropped by. Fortner is the owner/winemaker of Green Truck Vineyards, one of the few Napa winemakers making a superb Pinot Noir. Fortner admitted he is quite unlike his family still living in Kansas --most of whom are teetotalers.

We continued to discuss the relationship between wine & beer: "Not only does it take a lot of beer to make great wine, but you can tell a lot about a winemaker by the beer in his hands during harvest," said Fortner. He explained, "For example, if you see a Sierra Nevada--he's likely a fruit-forward, California-centric kind of guy. Pilsner Urquel: probably crafts his wines with a little bit of Euro-funk. Belgian Lambic: probably makes varietals of wine you've never heard of." Sounded right to me.

Far left: My trip began in warm and gorgeous Napa Valley with the Z4's top down. Left: Mountains, blue skies, and vineyards can be seen all over Northern California, as in this shot of Sonoma's Alexander Valley. Bottom: Napa winemaker Ken Fortner dropped by in his beautifully restored, namesake 1966 mint green Ford truck.

The next designated brewery pit stop was a mere 7 miles north at the Calistoga Inn. With a charming beer garden/restaurant patio outside, and an old fashioned, dark American pub inside, the Calistoga Inn fulfills many functions. It's an actual Inn too, with inexpensive rooms and communal bathrooms. (Very unusual, but popular among European travelers) Michael Dunsford, the owner for the last 18 years, met us for a sampling. He explained how the previous owner had made the beer recipes, which are still used today. The dark red ale is a serious, heavy, malty red. I preferred the zesty Wheat Ale, with its crisp body and fruity characteristics. The Calistoga Inn is not only known for its beer and food (fresh oysters!), but as one of the few Calistoga spots offering live music both inside and outside. "The music is what separates us from others," said Dunsford. Soon we departed for the incredible Calistoga Ranch--a must visit if you can afford to pay $700 and up per night. I had been to the opening of this Auberge Resort when it opened a few years back, but this was my first actual bedding down experience. Wow! The blue Z4 fit right in and was a hit with the valets. Soon, we were escorted via golf carts to our room. The Calistoga Ranch accommodations are dramatic examples of indoor/outdoor living.

Set in a bucolic pine forest, this is significant "bungalow" pampering for adults. Each and every design detail fits, and works, perfectly. I particularly enjoyed the private outdoor shower. With its wine caves, serene setting, Lakehouse private dining restaurant, and attentive service, Calistoga Ranch is an amazing property with few, if any peers.

In the morning, adventure beckoned, and we were on our way again. On the way north, we passed the Calistoga Mineral Water Company --where they actually bottle the stuff--and then stopped at Bennett Lane Winery. Though Bennett Lane makes Maximus, a fine red blend, I was here to see their 2007 Ford Fusion NASCAR West Series racecar, sponsored by the winery. Bennett Lane is the first winery-sponsored and owned NASCAR team, currently blowing away the competition. The 350-cid 620-hp yellow racecar is a wine country powerhouse.

Above left: Calistoga-based Bennett Lane Winery's 2007 Ford Fusion. This car races in the Nascar Grand National West Series. Top: Another day at the Calistoga Inn. Right: The living room at the Calistoga Ranch. Above: Yes, this is where Calistoga water comes from.

Top down again, with ZZ Top's Greatest Hits playing in honor of the Z4, and we were finally approaching the main artery of the trip, Highway 128. This road takes a diagonal SENW route from Calistoga all the way to the Mendocino Coast and Pacific Ocean. Mostly a two-lane highway, the initial part of 128 winds its way from Calistoga through scenic farm and vineyards lands of Alexander Valley in Sonoma County. My Bimmer did great, zigging this way and that, sure-footed all the way. Next up was Hopland, and the Mendocino Brewing Company.

The town of Hopland and this brewpub in particular, are out of place.

The Mendocino Brewing Company is a big business, and their flagship beer, Red Tail Ale, is shipped across the US. Yet this tasting room is barely more than a hole in the wall, with a bar, dartboard, and little else. The Brewery used to serve food in their beer garden (rumor has it the former space is being turned into a wine bar) so today, the hungry must call across the street to the Bluebird café. When ready, the Bluebird calls the brewpub and patrons run across the street to pick up their order. As for the beers, Blue Heron Pale Ale is popular and the Red Tail Ale was good as ever, but the real winner for me was Eye of the Hawk Select Ale, sensational, full-bodied, highly alcoholic dry ale.

Instead of heading back down 101 to connect with 128, we took a recommended shortcut--Mountain House Road--a serpentine, mountainous path passing stunning green meadows with occasional cows and vineyards on either side. With the top down we enjoyed the sweet strong scents of honeysuckle and pine. Now Colleen had her musical pick--Five for Fighting, its power ballads cranking out of the car's 12 speakers. My arbiter of a fine sound system is one that allows ample, clear tones with the top down when driving at least 60 mph. This system passed my test with honors. About forty minutes later we came down from the hills into the town of Boonville in Anderson Valley wine country; home to many fine wineries, and also the resident home of the Anderson Valley Brewing Company, makers of Boont Amber and other fine beers and ales.

The Anderson Valley Brewing Company's tasting room is unfortunately cavernous without much color or ambience, though the beers are mighty fine. Boont Amber is a classic ale, plus I also sampled Hop Ottin' IPA (Hop Ottin' means hard working). This beer had tons of hoppiness, but still remained smooth. I finished by tasting Brother David's Triple Abbey Style Ale--a creamy Belgian with a whopping 10% alcohol. A few of those and you're done.

Mike Hyland pours beers at the Mendoinco Brewing Company.

Top: Author Bob Ecker poses for the camera inside the Mendocino Brewery Left: Hopland/ Mendocino Brewery entrance and old-fashioned painted sign.

Boonville, the largest town for miles--has its own underground language called Boontling, which goes back some 125 years. Various Boontling signs, names, and words are occasionally noticed. "Tons of people still speak it," said Scott Fraser of nearby Handley Cellars. A few locals nodded their heads silently.

The Highpockety Ox--is a very pleasant bar/ restaurant in Boonville--which, in fact used to house the Anderson Valley Brewing Company in times past. (The name means Hi-falutin' or something in that vein) We ate fresh oysters (again). This bar offers many Anderson Valley beers on tap and serves pub cuisine in a friendly atmosphere. As we were departing, we met Cedric Shackelton, a Berkeley-based Brit, driving his restored red 1957 XK 140 Jaguar --a real beauty, which, like the Z4, was meant to explore Mendocino's back roads. Finally, we were back in the BMW for the drive to the coast. I hit the gas, as a torrent of giant redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) closed around us. We stopped occasionally to gape at these Tolkein-esque behemoths, some taller than 300 feet and more than 2000 years old! As we drove west, the air cooled, but it was still sunny and too beautiful to put the top up --hey, that's why people drive ragtops in California! This is a stunning drive, with few cars and a joy to zip along, especially in a hot number like the Z4. I attacked each curve without the tiniest morsel of a slide.

Above: Bob Sites, the chief "Mothershucker," inside Boonville's Highpockety Ox. Right: Tremendous Redwoods can be seen everywhere along Highway 128.

We stayed the night in The Packard House, a newly refurbished yet modern styled B& B on Bankers Row in Mendocino. Owners Damien Wood and Andrew Hindman have done a marvelous job making this quaint Victorian (built in 1868) into an anti-frou-frou establishment. Their water tower houses smart guest rooms, their stylish apartment, and a contemporary wine cellar. At dinner we ended up (not surprisingly) at Patterson's Pub. Patterson's is the place to go in Mendocino for beer, conversation, pub food, sports on TV, and a great overall vibe. It's very much like a good Irish pub and also serves the excellent, bitter Smithwicks, Ireland's oldest Ale (since 1710) on draft.

The next morning Andrew cooked up a fantastic breakfast for his guests, and then we headed a north to the town of Ft. Bragg. Overcast, we kept the top up for a change. Our next stop was the North Coast Brewing Company, of Red Seal Ale fame. We soon met North Coast's President and General Manager, Mark Ruedrich--a man who really knows his beer. Ruedrich showed us around his brewery, and then we skipped across the street to the brewpub, which serves beer and food to a waiting public. The brewpub was built in 1988, and is one of the main draws in Ft. Bragg, an ordinary town on the Mendocino Coast. This time I tasted everything Ruedrich could throw at me. North Coast brews up an extraordinary array of beers, offering many styles. This brewery has even resurrected the vanished Acme brand--a San Francisco company that was brewing over a million barrels of beer per year in the Forties. Mark Ruedrich, a knowledgeable historian said, "We didn't want that piece of California history to die." (A note of trivia: Alberto Vargas, the artist of Playboy fame designed the many Acme labels) The Acme Pale Ale and IPA are "good session beers," not strong but meant to be amply consumed. North Coast also makes a marvelous Belgian named Le Merle, after Ruedrich's wife. My favorites included: Red Seal Ale, Pranqster, Old Rasputin, the heavy Russian Imperial Stout, and the yeasty Brother Thelonius, a tribute to Thelonius Monk. This is a serious stop for any beer connoisseur. Don't miss it. Above: President & Brewmaster Mark Ruedrick of Ft. Bragg's North Coast Brewing Company. Ruedrich knows his beers.

Right: Ubiquitious wooden watertowers in the village of Mendocino. Inset: Bimmers meet in front of Mendocino's Packard House.

We headed north and inland up toward Humboldt County, this time taking Highway 1. For this stretch, Colleen programmed the onboard computer navigation system. The female voice--who we named Brunhilda--was mostly accurate. Occasionally her pleasant voice popped out, muting the music, at unexpected times. For fun, I deliberately ignored her advice, to see how she'd react. Typically, Brunhilda said, "Not on programmed road," but I could sense her disappointment with a trace of annoyance, as if to say, "Why aren't these people listening to me!" Yet I never heard her lose her cool.

Highway 1 wound along a long stretch of dark road before it straightened out at Leggett, where it joins Highway 101. First though, I had to experience the nearby Chandelier Drive-Through Tree. This is a Northern California tradition, visited by thousands throughout the years, and the diminutive Z4 enjoyed the sensation. The 315-foot-high monster tree is part of a privately owned, 200-acre forest, and includes a gift shop and picnicking area. The $5 entrance fee was well spent. Great fun. Our day ended up in Garberville, home to the famous Tudor styled Benbow Inn, built in 1926. A lovely hotel--frankly the only one for miles--is a civilized antidote to the untamed natural surroundings in every direction. On the National Register of Historic Places, Benbow is a treat. Visitors usually dine here--and the dining room, with its mixed crowd, old-fashioned graciousness and friendly service fits right in. I particularly enjoyed my cheesecake desert. Benbow has a unique and charming quality.

Getting a fresh start, we raced north, easily pushing the car up to 110 mph. The car never shimmied and I hardly revved above 4000 rpm. Colleen was shocked when I informed her about my speed. The Z4 purred smoother than a kitten; fortunately I slowed before the California Highway Patrol started making their rounds. And they did.

Far Left: The Z4 fit snuggly through the "Drive-Through-Tree" Above: Writer Bob Ecker, "on the road again." Left: The Benbow Inn, Garberville's Redwood retreat.

Since the demise of large scale logging, little has replaced the economy of Eureka except for Humboldt State University, various breweries, a clown college for Cirque du Soleil artists, and of course, the covert marijuana trade. Still, the town has some charms including Los Bagels, a local institution. Colorful and welcoming, this is where many locals stop for all day breakfast's downtown. We arrived at The Lost Coast Brewing Company tasting room/restaurant for a sampling. A ditzy waitress came by, spilled beer all over the floor, and didn't even realize it. She eventually came by to clean up the mess, but didn't seem to have a clue. We tried Lost Coast's Great White, Alley Cat Amber (my favorite), Downtown Brown, and others. The Apricot/ Raspberry Ale was one of the best fruit beers I've had in some time. Lost Coast serves up a fine pub atmosphere with live music during the evening. We made an unscheduled but very enjoyable stop at the Six Rivers Brewery in the town of McKinleyville. What a surprise! The interior of this large welcoming brewpub was recently renovated, absolutely clean and spacious, so another sampling was in order. The Trula Pilsner was the finest lager of my excursion, created in Czech style with authentic Budvar yeast. I enjoyed the Framboisestyled Raspberry Lambic, a fine hoppy IPA, and the citrusy Bluff Creek Pale Ale. They also serve one of the craziest beers I've ever tasted--the Chile Pepper Ale! Yes, it's made with supremely hot assorted chili peppers blended into wheat ale. Intriguing yes, and memorable, but not for the faint of heart. Yow! Six Rivers is a fun stop, particularly for the "hemp and aware" crowd. Their slogan is "The Brew With A View," as it offers a view of the Pacific Ocean.

Back in the Bimmer and finally heading back down south. One more stop to go in Humboldt County--the Eel River Brewing Company, in Fortuna. With its pleasant garden in the back, and all-organic ales, this is another worthy brewpub. The Organic I.P.A. stood out. Eel River served up the best pub food of all the spots we visited; I loved my fresh Halibut fish & chips. Finally, it was time to drive. We had exactly 184 miles to go, according to Brunhilda. One item that irked me about the computer system was the way the computer screen popped open, partially obscuring my view across the windshield. I understand that drivers need to read directions or other matters, but I don't need a screen to change tracks on a CD. Besides that quibble, all went very well. The car zipped and the miles melted through Humboldt, Mendocino, and finally into Sonoma County.

Top: The Eel River Brewing Company in Fortuna serves up pretty decent food, plus of course, many fine beers and ales. Top right: My Z4 parked in front of the Lost Coast Brewery in Eureka. Right: Funky Los Bagels in Eureka has been going strong since 1984.

I entered the attractive town of Healdsburg on that hot Saturday afternoon, and stopped the swanky Hotel Healdsburg. Chi chi, now we were back in "Cool, urban California," complete with designer shades, trendiness, and 'tude. The Z4 had company here, but still looked the best amongst its peers. This Sonoma town is full of cute shops, restaurants, and upscale stores.

We dined at the impressive Dry Creek Kitchen, the "in" spot for hospitality industry locals; the outstanding meal was complemented by flawless service.

Their famous, "Big Six" homemade ice cream/sorbet platter also left quite an impression.

Left: Famed restaurateur Charlie Palmer's Dry Creek Kitchen anchors this superlative hotel within Sonoma's coolest town. Inset: Hotel Healdsburg's comfy goose down duvets and massive tubs offer serious relaxation. Photos: Courtesy Hotel Healdsburg.

In the late morning, we strolled over to Bear Republic Brewing Company, my reason for coming to Healdsburg in the first place. Known far and wide as "the" Sonoma brewpub, I sampled beers under the guidance of Celeste, the spitfire bartender. "Many people come here after wine tasting," she said, while running back and forth pouring. We sat down at the copper bar and watched the action. Bear Republic seems fascinated by the old animated TV show, Speed Racer. Their tasty Racer 5 IPA and Racer X English styled ales are named for show characters. Bear Republic brews many varieties including the interesting El Oso (The Bear) Lager, a Mexican styled light ale. This is a pleasant respite for beer, wine, and all Speed Racer fans. The tour was winding down, but not before we drove into downtown Santa Rosa, a few miles to the south. Here we encountered the Russian River Brewing Company, a company committed to Belgian-styled beers. Their Russian River IPA is quite good, but the creamy Belgian styles are where they excel. "Our brewmaster has a gift for Belgians," said Christmas Noel, the friendly bartender. Russian River's famous Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger are highly alcoholic Belgian delights, with legions of fans far and wide. Many of their beers come with unusual names such as: the Temptation, Little White Lie, Perdition, Supplication, and Damnation. (Sense a theme?) This is a serious place for beer aficionados.

Our last actual brewery was a mere two blocks away at the Third Street Ale Works. Known more for its food than beer, I tried their Bodega Head IPA, (a winner) along with a decent Vienna lager. However, Third Street's brats, potatoes, and sauerkraut hit the spot, and it's a wonder that we never saw this German dish on other brewpub menus.

Heading home, we had just one more place to visit. Driving diagonally down Highway 12 slicing through the gorgeous, be-graped Sonoma Valley, we had to end at the Sonoma Wine Exchange, in the town of Sonoma. It's one of those hidden spots where the local wine and beer cognoscenti hang out. It isn't a bar, and is only open until 6:00 p.m. On tap, beer man Dan Noreen was pouring Moonlight amber and Pliny the Elder--from Russian River. "More Pliny please," said Bill Holley, a winemaker from Random Ridge Winery. "You need to think about beer in terms of context," said Noreen. "In the winter I want Old Rasputin, in the middle of the summer a good pilsner." Other winemakers strolled in and out, and finally last call was rung at 5:45. It was time to head home.

Back in the Z4, top down one last time, we glided back into Napa. Now, listening to local radio, I was already missing driving this car, meeting people and sampling beers all over the countryside. We cruised into our driveway about a half hour later, contented yet bittersweet, knowing this great ride had ended too soon. I know I missed a number of NorCal breweries because alas, there are so many beers, and so little time. Every wine person I met on the road confirmed the old saying "it really does take a lot of great beer to make a good wine." And as my buddy Kent Fortner said way back at the beginning of the trip, "You know, beer is basically wine stripped of all opportunity for pretension." I concur.

The Sonoma Wine Exchange in downtown Sonoma. A great place to sample craft beers and local wines.


Silverado Brewing Company
(707) 967-9876

Calistoga Inn
(707) 942-4101

Mendocino Brewing Company
(707) 744-1361

Anderson Valley Brewing Company
(707) 895-BEER

North Coast Brewing Company
(707) 964-2739

Lost Coast Brewing Company
(707) 445-4480

Eel River Brewing Company
(707) 725-BREW

Six Rivers Brewery
(707) 839-7580

Bear Republic Brewing Company
(707) 433-2337

Russian River Brewing Company
(707) 545-BEER

Third Street Ale Works
(707) 523-3060

The Wine Exchange of Sonoma
(707) 938-1794


Calistoga Ranch
(707) 254-2800

Packard House

Benbow Inn
(707) 923-2124

Hotel Healdsburg
(707) 431-2800.

Before You Leave

My quest was not to be a definitive review, but merely an attempt to sample an assortment of boutique beers between Napa, Mendocino, Humboldt, and Sonoma Counties. In an area best known for its wineries, we hit more than a dozen excellent breweries and sampled a broad selection of home-brewed beers. Here's everything you need to know to plan your own trip.

Readers can fly their choice of airline from around the country into San Francisco, Sacramento, or Oakland. Also, Horizon Airlines has instituted a new service this year that offers nonstop flights from Santa Rosa (Sonoma County) to Seattle and Los Angeles. Rental cars are available at each of the airport locations so you can take your pick of vehicles from most any fleet..

Southern Comfort

By Sheila Scarborough

Travel author Sheila Scarborough spent 10 days in May cruising through North Carolina. The visit was book-ended by NASCAR races, with a Blue Ridge Parkway road trip thrown into the middle. By the time it was over, her silver 2008 Dodge Avenger racked up almost a thousand miles marinating in the Carolina culture.

The Country Crock Campground, near Turn Three at Lowe's Motor Speedway, has plenty of examples of why you should listen to your Mama when she says, "Don't judge a stock car by how it's wrapped."

This is today's NASCAR in microcosm; humble pop-up trailers proudly parked next to half-milliondollar land yachts. The occupants of both wear Tony Stewart (or another favorite driver's) pajama bottoms and cordially wave to each other in the morning on the way to the PortaJohns and showers. Yep, we're in "tall cotton" at the Speedway these days; you can even legally buy Junior Johnson's moonshine. Travel in western North Carolina is often a splitscreen experience.

" Don't judge a stock car by how it's wrapped ."

Right: Coca-Cola 600 NEXTEL Cup race at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, North Carolina. (Photo/Harold Hinson, courtesy Charlotte CRVA). Cutout: Courtesy DaimlerChrysler

Far right: Avenger at Kasey Kahne's merchandise hauler. Right: Buildings contrast new and old architecture in downtown Charlotte.

Shiny, sophisticated Charlotte is the number two financial center in the United States, home to Bank of America, Wachovia, and a branch of the Federal Reserve banking system. Before visitors see the glass skyscrapers and imaginative downtown public art, however, they will exit the airport on Billy Graham Parkway, passing RV dealer billboards, and signs advertising NASCAR memorabilia for sale at a local Waffle House. Sure, there's already a Neiman Marcus in town, full of St. John knits for all of those wizards of finance, but the real shopping news here is the sprawling Concord Mills outlet mall. Conveniently located at the same exit as the Speedway, it includes a faux-rough-hewn Bass Pro Shop Outdoor World offering workshops like the "Crappie Seminar" for fishing enthusiasts.

Cultural schizophrenia continues further west in the state, where the spectacular Blue Ridge Parkway winds past artist colonies in Brevard and high-end golf courses in Banner Elk. In between the painters, potters, and big money are charmingly hokey attractions like the Emerald Village ("See Authentic Equipment in a real mine!") and the Woolly Worm Festival, sort of a wiggly equivalent to Punxsutawney Phil.

The region's best-known asset, of course, is NASCAR. You can talk banking and swank department stores all day long, but the fundamental draw in North Carolina are 3400-pound stock cars turning left at almost 200 mph for, well, hours and hours if there are enough wrecks, debris, and caution flags. I spent 10 glorious days in May cruising this part of the Carolina Piedmont. The visit was bookended by the million-dollar All-Star event the first weekend and the marathon Coca-Cola 600 race the next, with a Blue Ridge Parkway road trip thrown into the middle. My silver 2008 Dodge Avenger racked up almost a thousand miles by the end of this heavy marinating in NASCAR and Carolina culture.

As one of the template vehicles for the new NASCAR Car of Tomorrow (COT) the Avenger will replace the Dodge Charger and run full time starting with the 2007-2008 season. Unlike the redesigned race car, the aggressively-styled Avenger on the dealer lot is really just a souped-up sedan; great for those who have to haul things and people but don't want to look or feel wimpy while doing it.

After switching between the old race car and the new one this season (and usually complaining about the clunkier COT) the Dodge drivers including Kasey Kahne are relieved that automotive pogo-ing between two different sets of wheels is almost over.

"It's good for me and it's great for the team [to run the COT full-time.]" said Kahne outside his hauler at the Speedway. "We can only really run one car, unless you want us to hire 300 more people...you just have to have so many people in all different areas to make sure that every one of your cars is fast."

Before diving into the delights of NASCAR's All-Star and Coca-Cola 600 races, I cranked up the local jazz station and drove out to see whether Charlotte offered anything besides sheet metal and screaming tires.

Left: After adjusting his hat, Kasey Kahne is ready for media blitz. Top: Courtesy DaimlerChrysler

The first stop was the twice-monthly Friday night art gallery crawl in hip NoDa (North Davidson Street) two miles from Uptown. This former mill town now showcases art galleries, funky eateries, and enthusiastic buskers performing in front of The Salvador Deli. I paused for a personal concert outside of NoDa's Neighborhood Theatre, listening to riffs from blues/rocker headliner Johnny Winter that spilled out onto the sidewalk.

An evening's revelry is easily burned off the next day at Charlotte's U.S. National Whitewater Training Center. Here, anyone can play in 12 million gallons of water running through the world's largest and only manmade recirculating multichannel whitewater river.

This is a world-class outdoor recreation facility essentially carved from nothing, but it's not too out of synch with the locals--the car next to my Avenger in the parking lot had NASCAR and "8" stickers all over it. For history buffs, the evolution of Charlotte and surrounding counties is superbly presented at the Levine Museum of the New South. In 1882, a mere three years after inventing the light bulb, Thomas Edison rigged a water-powered dynamo to make electricity for the McAden Mills, 15 miles west of Charlotte. The North Carolina textile industry was born, mechanizing the economy and bringing in the commerce for a nascent banking industry. Mill workers like future bluegrass star Earl Scruggs earned a new insult: "linthead." Blacks didn't have to hear the epithet as much, since factories would not hire them until the early 1960s.

The museum pulls no punches about the regional strife inherent in this post-Civil War shift from farm to factory. Visitors can step inside a one-room tenant shack, see an unfortunately well-used KKK headdress still impregnated with sweat stains, and imagine the heat and dust while listening to recordings of clacking mill looms and spinners.

The last part of the exhibit features "voices of the New South," with quotes and audio recordings from recent Piedmont residents. One person described the "shedding of a history," which from a NASCAR point of view is exactly what's right with or what's wrong with the current state of the South and of motorsport. Some think the old ways need to go away, and some see a lot of value in them. It depends on which "old ways" you're talking about.

Left: Rafters and their guide face the man-made rapids at the U.S. National Whitewater Center (courtesy USNWC). Above: Artist Tony Java! at the NoDa ("North Davidson Street") Friday night art gallery crawl, Charlotte.

There is a schism between those who boast that they "liked NASCAR before it was cool" and a new audience who may live in (horrors!) California or even Mexico, and have no problem with clean-cut, rather bland stars like Jeff Gordon. Bill France, Jr., who just died of cancer in June at age 74, brought his sport out of the Carolina backwoods and Daytona sands and turned it into today's corporate and entertainment behemoth. His vision attracts millions of business dollars and worldwide interest, to the discomfiture of those who dislike everything from a foreign manufacturer on the track (Toyota) to foreign drivers (Columbia's Juan Pablo Montoya, or really anyone who does not hail from the Southeast).

During a visit to a marquee Speedway event like the All- Star race or Coke 600, you'll see plenty of what you'd expect and some that you wouldn't. Yes, there's a high percentage of shirtless, smoking, sunburnt fans dragging beer coolers with all the "boogity, boogity, let's go racin' " enthusiasm that turns up noses in some quarters. A quick trip through the garages and Pit Road on race day, however, shows the other side of NASCAR. Dockers-clad corporate groups trail along like herds of Japanese tourists, listening to mic'd tourguides carrying company signs for everything from Office Depot to the U.S. Army.

In magnificent air-conditioned comfort high above the frontstretch and far from the yee-haw hoi polloi, the private Speedway Club offers padded seating, huge windows, and gourmet dining for $2,450-$7,500 plus annual fees. You can even buy a plush condo and live at the track right over Turn One.

Even the race teams are way beyond taking just any random Jethro Bodine who shows up with a wrench. Pay a visit to Pit Crew U in nearby Mooresville, an eight-week "experiential education" for over-the-wall pit crew members. If aspirants finish the initial course, they can move on to intensive "5 Off 5 On" training, named for the sequence of removing and replacing lug nuts during a tire change.

Senior Director of Development Breon Klopp notes that "in 2000, nobody was training crews, there was no training league or developmental program, and about 18 and a half seconds was the norm for a pit stop. Now, you'll see a sub-12 on the Kenseth team. We have a 20- percent drop rate, but of those who make it through, about 50 percent will get a team job at some level."

Klopp is an engineer who comfortably throws around terms like "process analysis," "flow constraints," and "continuous improvement" as he shows off the facility, which includes a quarter- mile track, 12 company cars to simulate race noise and distractions, customizable lighting to simulate different racetracks at night, and suspended digital cameras over the pits so that stops are taped and analyzed.

That's right, NASCAR pit crews watching tape, just like any athlete. The Dodge teams excelled during the Pit Crew Challenge held in Charlotte's Bobcat Arena, one of several extra events held in the days around the All-Star race. Ryan Newman's No. 12 team took home the $70,300 first prize and Bobby Labonte's No. 43 team took second, avoiding penalties like dropped lug nuts and spilled gas.

The All-Star Challenge is fun for fans, especially new ones, because it offers no-holds-barred racing for a big cash jackpot, but without as many miles of tedium as the Coca-Cola 600. Drivers and teams like it because there's no impact on Nextel Cup points, and they get 80 laps of seat time on the same track where they'll run the 600 the following weekend. In addition to the Pit Crew Challenge, crew chiefs have their own short race in specially-decaled Thunder Roadsters (which some chiefs don't drive too well, despite pre-race smack talk in the garage). Kevin Harvick won this year, holding off a surging Jimmie Johnson in the closest finish in All-Star history.

Garage/Race Shop Tours

There is a list of race team shops, with contact information, on the Cabarrus County CVB Web site at: cabarruscvb. com/listings/index.cfm?action=showS ub&catid=217&subcatid=513&notify =1 Adventures in Motorsports is a company offering "Garage Pass" guided race shop tours at adventuresinmotorsports.com/_wsn/ page5.html, or phone (704) 738- 7390. Email motorsports@ctc. net. Cost is $69/person for a tour of seven different garages. Check at the Cabarrus County Visitor's Center or your hotel for a coupon for $5 off per person for Garage Pass groups of four or more.

Dodge Avenger Race Shops

Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates (drivers Juan Pablo Montoya, David Stremme, Reed Sorenson) is in Concord and is closest shop to Lowe's Motor Speedway (and the garage most closely resembling an operating room). There are detailed explanatory signs on the visitor viewing platform. The Web site is chipganassiracing.com or phone (704) 662-9642.

Evernham Motorsports (drivers Kasey Kahne, Scott Riggs, Elliott Sadler) is farthest away from the Speedway, a little more than an hour north in Statesville. The Web site is evernhammotorsports.com or phone (704) 924-9404.

Penske Racing South (drivers Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch) is wellmarked for visitors once you find it in Mooresville, about half-hour north of Concord. There is a large guest parking lot and clearly marked guest entrance. The catwalk overlook allows a good view and accommodates crowds. The Web site is penskeracing.com or phone (704) 664-2300.

The Mooresville CVB at racecityusa.org has a good map of all Mooresville area race shops and attractions, including Pit Crew U mentioned in the article. Both the Ganassi and Evernham shops sponsor a Fan Day the Friday before the Coca-Cola 600, with shop tours, driver autograph sessions, show car viewings, pit crew demos, and activities for kids.

All three shops have extensive gift shops with team merchandise, which helps enthusiasts avoid standing in long, hot lines on race weekend at the Speedway merchandise haulers to buy those T-shirts, key chains, signs, pens, hats, etc. The gift shops also sell race car parts and pieces of sheet metal. I passed up buying part of the side of Montoya's car that had his #42 and a big scrape; couldn't figure out how to get it on the plane to take back with me.

At this point I was eager to take a break from my speedy pace and explore the slower delights of the Blue Ridge, so I pointed the Avenger to a spot just below Asheville, appropriately named Balsam.

About halfway there I stopped in tiny Flat Rock to see Connemara, home of Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Lincoln biographer, and poet Carl Sandburg. The National Historic Site looks as it did when he moved here to find that "creative hush," down to vintage boxes of Kleenex, 10,000 carefullypreserved books, period magazines stacked in the hallway, and a sepiatoned photograph of Sandburg and his wife Lillian taken by her brother, Edward Steichen.

From Hendersonville, just north of Flat Rock, I took US 64 and 276 north and passed through a stone entrance gate into the Pisgah National Forest. This is the Forest Heritage Scenic Byway, a dream to drive in late spring when the absurdly green and lush new growth on oaks, poplars, balsam firs, and birches forms dappled tunnels over the curvy road, and the little Davidson River burbles alongside. The car jumped up the hills, happy to leave behind highways full of truckers and other maniacs who think they're in Talladega. Left: The home of author Carl Sandburg, in Flat Rock, North Carolina. Above: A tour brings visitors right into Carl Sandburg's writing nook.

After leaving Cold Mountain to my left (the inspiration for the Civil War novel and movie) I arrived at 3,500 feet and the Balsam Mountain Inn, just in time to admire sunset in a cane-backed rocker on the wide front porch, holding a glass of Merlot, and "lifting mine eyes up into the hills" to enjoy the birdsongs and rustling leaves. Dinner in the Inn's restaurant was fried green tomatoes and a dip made with local trout, washed down with Honey Blonde Ale from the local Heinzelmännchen Brewery.

That night I did something unique--absolutely nothing. Owners Sharon and Kim Shailer (who live above the dining room) keep telephones and televisions out of the 1908 grande dame, so I was forced to sleep like a baby with windows wide open and the wooden Inn softly creaking around me.

"Couples say that by the second day, they're actually talking to each other," said Kim the next morning after a French toast breakfast in the sunny porch dining room. "It's mostly because there's no TV to sit and stare at. If folks want a cookie-cutter, soundproof bunker place to stay, this isn't it." Each of the 50 rooms is cozily individual and some of the clawfoot tubs are original issue, not recently shoehorned in to look authentic.

Far left: Front porch at sunset, Balsam Mountain Inn (1908) in Balsam, North Carolina. Left: Front porch rocker at sunset, Balsam Mountain Inn. Bottom: Bent-twig headboard in one of the guest rooms of the Balsam Mountain Inn.

It's easy to jump right on the Blue Ridge Parkway from Balsam, but I saved some time by taking Interstate 40 back over to Asheville and accessing the Parkway around Milepost 380, just in time to visit the Folk Art Center run by the Southern Highlands Craft Guild. The modern building is full of a stunning array of both contemporary and traditional Appalachian artwork including fabric art/weaving, pottery, brooms, glassware, basketry, quilts, woodwork, jewelry, and furniture. Continuing north on the Parkway from Asheville, I punched the Avenger's accelerator to start the climb up Mount Mitchell; at 6,684 feet it's the highest elevation in the eastern U.S. Even the most caffeinated, hyper-pressurized heart slows to a more relaxed tha-thump in such beautiful country. The Parkway's 45-mph speed limit is far from an annoyance; it's a blessing to be forced to slow down and savor the surrounding mountains.

Carl Sandburg's fog began rolling in "on little cat feet" the higher I climbed, and while I admired the tall evergreens jutting out of craggy rock formations, I also noticed that I'd failed to pay enough attention to both the gas gauge and my stomach. On the other side of the mountain, desperate for fuel, food, an ATM, a cell phone signal, and contact lens solution, in approximately that order, I briefly returned to the crass modern world for an emergency stop at the Wal-Mart in Spruce Pine.

Fully fortified, I left the Parkway briefly about 25 miles later for a jaunt to Grandfather Mountain. Local legend has Daniel Boone wandering this biologically diverse area in 1766-67, but he would be shocked today to see what air pollution has done to the spruce-fir trees. Exhibits in the preserve's Nature Center feature highlights of the mountain's 16 distinct ecological communities and more than 60 rare and endangered species, but the most disconcerting were the photographs of trees on Richland Balsam and Waterrock Knob from about 20 years ago, and then how they look today. The devastation is striking. Grandfather gets about 100 pounds of acid rain sulfates per acre per year; the problem is that the maximum amount that trees can tolerate is 18 pounds per acre per year.

Right: Handmade potscrubbers from the Southern Highland Craft Guild, Folk Art Center, Blue Ridge Parkway. Far right: Licklog Ridge Overlook, Blue Ridge Parkway. Bottom: Southern Highlands Craft Guild Folk Art Center, Blue Ridge Parkway.

From the mountain's Mile High Swinging Bridge, visitors may not give much thought to conservation issues as they nervously peer down into an 80 foot chasm. Many grip the railings tightly as the span creaks and sways in response to careful footsteps. Trees and bushes are permanently gnarled from winds of up to 200 mph, leaning over as though Aqua-netted into place even on days when the top of the mountain is still and fog-bound. I drove back down Grandfather, noting that one of many hairpin curves is named "Forrest Gump" (a portion of the movie was filmed here, during one of Forrest's running scenes) and headed to my last stop off of the Parkway, the Mast Farm Inn near tiny Valle Crucis.

Innkeeper Sandra Siano gave me a choice between several rooms; I chose the log cabin where ancestor David Mast was born in 1827. It is one of several small restored historic buildings on the property, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places as "one of the most complete and best preserved groups of 19th century farm buildings in western North Carolina."

Surrounded by lush plantings and set back from the busy road, the little two-story cabin has modern amenities but a rustic comfort, enhanced by a small selection of CDs that included piano instrumentals of music related to the Civil War. In the morning, poignant strains of "Ashokan Farewell" wafted through the little front room as I stepped out on the porch to greet the day. Sandra's mother Marie-Henriette made tour de force chocolate and fresh berry pancakes, served in the main house's bright breakfast room decorated with a rooster motif--quite fitting given the family's Gallic roots. Just when this was all getting a little too perfect, I noted a truck parked at the Inn with a pink breast cancer awareness ribbon magnet and a sticker that said, "Save the Ta-Tas." It was time to head out of the mountains and back towards Charlotte, but there were a couple of stops to make. The first was just up the road at the Mast General Store. A mercantile stalwart since 1883, it's the kind of place that still sells bag balm, cast-iron skillets, suspenders, blackstrap molasses, and red union suits with the easy open and close "one button vertical seat flap." Nobody was playing bottle cap checkers by the potbellied wood stove on this warm spring day, but the chatty guy behind the counter came out to help me find their bluegrass CD selection, and to explain that the gift-wrapped RC Cola/Moon Pie and Lance Peanuts/Coke combos at the cash register "were just there for the Yankees to buy."

Left: The Mile High Bridge on Grandfather Mountain, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway. Below: The Mast Farm Inn, Valle Crucis, North Carolina. Right: The 1820s log cabin where I slept at The Mast Farm Inn, Valle Crucis, North Carolina.

My second stop that day came after a descent from the mountains that crumpled and popped my mostlyempty water bottle, on a steep road full of signs continuously promising "Runaway Truck Ramp One Mile." I was returning to NASCAR's roots in Wilkes County, the thickly-wooded area made famous as the home of illustrious moonshine runners (and later stock car drivers) like Junior Johnson.

At the modest but growing Wilkes Heritage Museum, I learned that drivers must never sample product on the job, as it was critical to stay alert unless they wanted the revenuers to snag the goodies. A typical run in these parts was to specially pack a car with about 22 cases, maybe using a '34 or '40 Ford to haul the liquor out of the woods and then a '58 Chrysler or '59 Dodge to get it to the buyers. At over $100 per run, and more than one run a night, "...it was just like a milk route. It was a game, and you'd better be on top of your game," says Johnson in a new "Runnin' to Racin'" video at the museum.

"A good moonshine car is like putting your clothes on; you'd better know everything about it." Gaining any sort of edge was fair. Throw in a 454 Caddy engine, put big tires on the back, bore 'n stroke the block and piston heads, add superchargers, use extra-stiff springs to handle the weight of gallons of liquid... whatever it took to beat the law because if you weren't running 'shine, you might not have any money to eat. Johnson freely admits that he ran booze and raced stock cars at the same time; even made runs just before Darlington. In about 1960, when he won the Daytona 500, he figured out that he was making more money racin' than runnin' so he quit the illegal stuff and focused on the track.

My tour guide was the museum's Marketing Coordinator, Nicole T. Perkins, who told me that in these parts, making moonshine was "a family business, and wasn't thought of in a bad way. Maybe that's wrong, but that's just how it was." In her own deceased grandparent's possessions, there were four photographs of stills stamped "Court Evidence." Nobody knew (or would 'fess up) exactly who had been caught out there in the woods with grain mash, sugar, yeast, and the distinctive copper tubing "worm" in a condensing barrel. Folks in the Appalachians have been avoiding taxation on their hooch since the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion, so they have plenty of practice.

"At over $100 per run, and more than one run a night ... it was just like a milk route" Junior Johnson's first racing car, on display at Wilkes Heritage Museum.

Today, a still from the 1950s, a few stadium seats from the North Wilkesboro Speedway and Johnson's 1939 Ford coupe from his Darlington win are exhibited in the big white former county courthouse, which was almost as bizarre as the day I saw an Altair 8800 in a computer museum in Boston. Who'd a'thunk it? Plain old daily life develops into something of historical value if you just wait long enough. Another lucrative local business is poultry. One of the first mechanical chicken pluckers and the 1928 Lovette Chicken House are displayed with pride; the coop belonged to one of 16 families that merged in 1961 to become Holly Farms, one of Johnson's big racing sponsors.

Today, the company is better known as Tyson Foods. It's still part of the economic engine of Wilkes County, which in 1946 was also the birthplace of Lowe's Home Improvement (the original store is still operating in North Wilkesboro). Just before I turned back onto the Interstate, I noticed that Johnson's big house in Yadkin Valley, set back on a hill on "Junior Johnson Highway," is directly across from a sign for the Windy Gap Vineyards.

Booze production sure isn't hidden these days; Johnson is part owner of Piedmont Distillers, which makes "Catdaddy Carolina Moonshine" and the new hand-crafted, triple distilled "Junior Johnson's Midnight Moon." You can buy liquid history, but about $15/gallon of your nowlegal purchase is bone-tossed to Uncle Sam's alcohol tax hounds. One of my favorite songs, "White Lightning" was written by J.P. Richardson, also known as the Big Bopper.

Before his death (with Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens on "The Day the Music Died") Richardson attended my high school in Beaumont, Texas. I felt only a few degrees of separation from the bull-headed Scots-Irish brewers of "hillbilly pop." Back in Charlotte, the weekend wrapped up with non-stop racing festivities. I spent time downtown mixing with some of the 400,000 people who attend the Food Lion Speed Street festival. Kurt Busch and his Dodge team put on a great show with a mock pit stop, giving whooping fans an up-close view while the car's deafening engine noise bounced between staid office buildings.

The Coca-Cola 600 is a challenge not only because of its length, but also changing track conditions. To stay in the hunt for 400 laps, teams constantly monitor and adjust to wildly varying tire pressures and track temperature changes of up to 45 degrees as the race progresses from the hot afternoon to cooler evening. This year, it was an all- Penske Dodge front row, with Ryan Newman on the pole. Kasey Kahne was also feeling good, since he won the Busch race the night before. When 600 miles of dust finally settled, however, the top three finishers were Casey Mears, J.J. Yeley, and the evening's biggest surprise, third-place Kyle Petty (who deadpanned afterwards, "I don't come to the track to run 35th, although it may appear that way.")

Many in NASCAR admire the ponytailed driver for his charity work and he's long been a fan favorite, which was reinforced when he unexpectedly showed up in the Speedway campgrounds on Saturday and invited a few random people to take a racecar ride with him around the track.

Yes, there are some classy gents who drive in NASCAR (too bad it's just gents; the sport really needs a Shirley Muldowney equivalent to get in its grill.) There is color, ritual, and pageantry on par with the vivid Italian silks and Tuscan bravado of Sienna's centuries-old Palio horse race. There are definite rules of etiquette; just as you don't applaud between movements of "Appalachian Spring," you hush up and take off your hat during the pre-race national anthem. There are generations of automotive royalty with intrigue, drama and tragedy to rival the Romanovs: Earnhardt, Petty, Allison, Labonte.

There are a lot of different reasons to enjoy NASCAR, but it was random fan friendliness that led me to the Country Crock Campground at the beginning of this story. I was taking photographs one evening at the track; a genial couple paused and asked a few questions, then invited me to their campground spot. I almost said no (I thought I'd have nothing in common with anyone there if I accepted). But something told me to quit being silly, and that's how I ended up having a delightful time with Jim, a town councilman from Ohio and Navy veteran, and his wife Donna, an accountant.

One of their buddies showed up when we were deep into our plastic cups of Jack Daniels; a front tire man with Matt Kenseth's team. Inured to goofy fan questions, he even patiently answered my own dumb query of the evening--yes, a pit crew front tire man handles, um, front tires. The evening ended with Jim, Donna and a host of new friends, all of us belting out Lynyrd Skynyrd at the top of our lungs:

"Take your time... Don't live too fast,
Troubles will come and they will pass....
And be a simple kind of man.
Be something you love and understand.
Be a simple kind of man.
Won't you do this for me son,
If you can?"

Before You Leave

Look through the detailed City of Charlotte visitor information at visitcharlotte.com Thanks to Public Relations Coordinator Delilah Counts for showing me the best of her city.

Cabarrus County CVB has an excellent visitor's Web site at cabarruscvb.com with highlights of the "Racing Side of Charlotte." There are also two Visitor's Centers, one in the Concord Mills outlet mall and one on Dale Earnhardt Blvd. in Kannapolis. Thanks to Director of Communications Judy Root for all of her help.

Detailed Blue Ridge Parkway route information is on the Parkway Web site:

For more background on Scots-Irish settlers in the Appalachians, the ancestors of many of the folks in the Blue Ridge including Wilkes County, I recommend James Webb's "Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America."

Lodging In and around Charlotte:

The Embassy Suites Golf Resort and Spa offers an upscale "total package" experience only a half-mile from Lowe's Motor Speedway. Its Rocky River golf course is one of North Carolina's 100 best; anyone can play golf and visit the hotel's Spa Botanica, not just hotel guests. See the Web site at embassysuitesconcord.com or call (704) 455-8200. Race weekend packages are available.

Whenever I travel, I find the Hampton Inn and Suites a safe bet for friendly staff and a comfortable room: there are two in Concord, one at the Speedway exit and one a few exits further north. Call 800-426-7866. Rates will be higher for race weekends.

Blue Ridge Road Trip

The Balsam Mountain Inn is a half-mile from Milepost 443 off of the Blue Ridge Parkway, at balsammountaininn.com or call (800) 224-9498. Rooms start at $139 and include a full hot breakfast. There is a monthly "Songwriters in the Round" dinner/ concert event at the Inn--check the Web site for upcoming performers. The Mast Farm Inn and Restaurant is in Banner Elk; their Web site is mastfarminn. com or call (888) 963-5857. Rooms start at $89 including full breakfast. The "Loom House" 1800s cabin starts at $299 in May. The Inn also features Club Ferdinand, a fleet of various pristine Porsche automobiles (several 911s, Cayman S, Boxster S, Cayennes) that are housed in a restored barn directly across the street from the Inn. Cars can be enjoyed by members of a "Fleet-Sharing Club" or by special arrangement for Mast Farm Inn visitors. The Club is run by family patriarch Henri Deschamps; contact him at info@ clubferdinand.us, call (888) 963-5857 or visit clubferdinand.us.

Members of the family (innkeeper Sandra Siano's uncle and his wife) also run the Taylor House Inn (taylorhouseinn.com) bed and breakfast in Valle Crucis.

Dining In and around Charlotte

I ate at Cabo Fish Taco during the art gallery crawl. It's a popular NoDa dinner spot; try the BBQ mahi taco and fresh salsa. Web site, including menu, is cabofishtaco.com/charlotte or call (704) 332-8868.

There's a mixed crowd of bikers and businesspeople enjoying down-home grub and North Carolina BBQ at Mac's Speed Shop in South Charlotte. Web site with menu is macspeedshop.com or call (704) 522-6227.

There are plenty of chain food places around the Speedway, including that Southern freeway fixture Cracker Barrel, but my best meal was at the Rocky River Grille inside the Embassy Suites Golf Resort and Spa. Anyone can dine at the restaurant; you don't have to stay in the hotel.

Blue Ridge Road Trip

If you're hungry while visiting Carl Sandburg's home, visit the Flat Rock Village Bakery and West First Wood-Fired Pizza (restaurant located inside the Wrinkled Egg gift shop) offering sandwiches, pizza and baked goods. Call (828) 693-1313.

The Balsam Mountain Inn has a very good onsite restaurant, open seven days a week. I also had a number of recommendations for the family-style Southern meals at Jarrett House (jarretthouse.com) in nearby Dillsboro. On the Parkway, there is a restaurant on Mt. Mitchell and a snack bar at Crabtree Meadows. Picnic areas are available at Craggy Gardens and Crabtree Meadows. At Grandfather Mountain, there is a snack bar in the Nature Center.

The night that I stayed at Mast Farm Inn, I had a fresh trout dinner and terrific salad at the Storie Street Grille in Blowing Rock. Sandra Siano also recommends The Gamekeeper in Boone, The Blackboard in Banner Elk and of course her family's own Mast Farm Inn Restaurant. Her father Henri is growing an organic garden on the property that will supply the restaurant.

Things to See and Do In and around Charlotte

Check for happenings in Charlotte's NoDa historic arts district on their Web site, noda.org. Art gallery crawl is every first and third Friday of the month, 6-9:30 pm. The Neighborhood Theatre Web site with upcoming concerts is neighborhoodtheatre.com.

The US National Whitewater Center is 10 minutes from Charlotte at Tuckaseegee Ford Park. Web site with hours, facilities information and directions is usnwc.org. The Levine Museum of the New South Web site is museumofthenewsouth.org or call (704) 333-1887.

PIT Instruction and Training ("Pit Crew U") Web site is 5off5on.com or call (704) 799-3869. The Food Lion Speed Street Festival is held the Thurs/Fri/Sat of Memorial Day weekend, and is organized by the 600 Festival Association at 600festival.com.

Blue Ridge Road Trip

Carl Sandburg's home Connemara is on the Web at nps.gov/carl or call (828) 693-4178. The house is at the top of a well-groomed but uphill trail; use the call boxes in the visitor parking area if you are disabled. A free Folk Music Festival is held each May, featuring tunes from Carl Sandburg's The American Songbag.

The Forest Heritage Scenic Byway (byways.org/explore/byways/12821) is part of the National Scenic Byways Program, with noteworthy roads in 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

Folk Art Center & Allanstand Craft Shop, Milepost 382 on the Parkway, Asheville NC or on the Web at southernhighlandguild.org/shop. php?shop_main=2. Call (828) 298-7928. There are two other smaller Guild craft shops, one in the city of Asheville and another in the Moses Cone Manor in Blowing Rock.

Grandfather Mountain is a privately-owned nature preserve and an Audubon Society Important Bird Area (with over 200 species) located about a mile west of the Parkway. See their Web site at grandfather.com or contact the preserve at (800) 468- 7325.

The Mast General Store is on Hwy. 194 in Valle Crucis. Their Web site is mastgeneralstore.com (with store branches and online shopping) or call (828) 963-6511.

The Wilkes Heritage Museum is in downtown Wilkesboro, 100 East Main Street. Web site is wilkesheritagemuseum.com/aboutus or contact (336) 667-3171. The Wilkes Playmakers will feature a new theater production in October 2007, "Moonshine and Thunder--The Junior Johnson Story." Another famous county resident was "Hang Down Your Head" Tom Dula (Dooley;) you can see the jail cell where he was held after the murder of Laura Foster.

The Web site for Piedmont Distillers, Inc. is piedmontdistillers.com or call (336) 445- 0055. Their moonshine is distributed in eight states, mainly in the Southeast. Catdaddy® will sponsor Kirk Shelmerdine's No. 27 car in the October 2007 Bank of America 500 at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

Music to Drive By

Radio station WNCW 88.7 FM (in Brevard; try 92.9 FM in Boone) at wncw.org plays a wide variety of bluegrass and folk music to enhance your trip on the Parkway.

In the Mast "Loom House" log cabin, I listened to the Songs of the Civil War CD by Atlanta pianist Jim Gibson. "Ashokan Farewell" is the theme music written for the Ken Burns Civil War miniseries.

"White Lightning" is sung by its creator, J.P. Richardson or the Big Bopper, on Hellooo Baby: The Best of the Big Bopper 1954-1959. "Simple Man" is on Lynyrd Skynyrd's 1973 debut album, Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd. The renowned Old Time Fiddler's and Bluegrass Festival at Fiddler's Grove is going into its 84th year featuring traditional American music. It is held over Memorial Day weekend about an hour north of Charlotte. The 2008 event is May 23-25; see the Web site at fiddlersgrove.com. Tickets are limited, so buy early. .

Porsche's 911 GT3: The Next Best Thing To Being There

By Mark Elias

There: The Mulsanne Straight at Le Sartre, The Gurney Bend and the Fangio Chicane at Sebring, the Castrol "S" and the Mercedes Arena at Nurburgring. The "It-Tracks" of the world.

The vehicle: Porsche's 911 GT3. The "It-car" for factory racers and privateers, alike. A homologation special built to qualify Zuffenhausen's latest version of the classic that is a purpose-built racecar. Looking like nearly every other currentgeneration 997-coded 911 body, except that it has flares "out to there," a large flat rear spoiler, and vented body work at all four corners and on the top as well.

Driving position is amazingly comfortable, with everything laid out just as it should be. The "you can have it any way you want, as long as it's a sixspeed manual transmission," goes exactly where it's supposed to with the sound and tactile feel that others have described as a snick-snick placement. The sure feel of the gates instills confidence in the car's ability. The extra grippy feel of Alcantara covers the steering wheel, shift lever, and inserts of the nicely side-bolstered seats that firmly cradle the driver in place, even through the corkscrew turn that leads to a beautifully sweeping uphill righthand turn past the Barber Motorsports Museum.

Our test car was equipped with a lighter, optional, ceramic brake package that displays incredible stopping power, not to mention the ability to leave belt-bruises on your shoulders, to complete the "go to slow" package. Incredible grip makes way through the corners, thanks to the Michelin Pilot Sport Cup tires, which according to Porsche, offer exceptional traction on dry surfaces. They do warn, however to the probability of aquaplaning due to the shallow depth of the tread grooves "on very wet surfaces, and in the rain." (Note to self: get rain tires when I take this home to Florida)

We tear out of the pit lane with a left-hand exit, and immediately make a beeline for the inside of the sweeping right-hander up ahead. Accelerating through the turn thrusts us back into the buckets as the torque-laden boxer makes short shrift of the end of the straightaway, which has arrived way too quickly. Stand on the binders in time to dial in a hard left turn and accelerate past the infield sculptures to tap the brakes again, this time settling the car for the miniature version of Laguna Seca's corkscrew. Trust in yourself as you quickly climb the blind uphill sweeper that puts you on the backside of the track past the museum. Tap the brakes once more through the next "s-turn" to speed up one last time before negotiating a quick left-hander that leads to 90-degree right-hand turn that climbs one more hill before coming home. Move across the track to pit-in and there you are.

Our brief seat time in the Porsche 911 GT3 only causes us to beg for more. It truly is nothing less than spectacular, but with an entry price of $106,000, it should be. This is not a car for the gold chain set to cruise to the local Wednesday night happy hour watering hole. It is a great car to drive, but one that is capable of moves that most drivers can only dream of. In the words of Jeff Purner, manager of operations at the Porsche Sport Driving School, "when behind the wheel of the GT3, this is all you. Just don't screw up!"

Rich Truesdell Defines the Experience of Driving Porsches

Sometimes rank doesn't always have its privileges, as was the case in this particular story. In addition to Road Test Editor Mark Elias, yours truly was invited by Porsche to attend the abbreviated one-day Porsche Driving Experience at Barber Motorsports Park. And while I, too, drove all the same cars as Mark, I concentrated my observations and seat time on the slightly less potent cars in the Porsche roster, especially the 911 Targa--with its unique sliding roof panel and aluminum trim framing the side windows--and the newest Porsche, the Cayman.

Let me say this up front: I am not, and never have been, what one would call a Porsche fanatic. However, over the last five years, now having driven every Porsche model in all sorts of locations, I have come to more than respect the cars from Zuffenhausen; I have come to relish each opportunity to get behind the wheel. When driving the updated Cayenne, I was bowled over by the way a 5,000-pound-plus "truck" could defy several laws of physics simultaneously to deliver a true Porsche-style driving experience.

When asked of the five cars we sampled at Barber which I would most like to have parked in my garage, I chose the 911 Targa over both the 911 Turbo and the GT3. Being the pragmatist I am, I think it is the most beautiful 911 ever built while also offering the best combination of practicality, sport, and (with the roof panel in its open position) driving fun. All this is an extremely difficult combination to balance! But at the end of the experience, the car I enjoyed driving the most was the base Cayman.

The 911 Turbo and GT3 were a bit intimidating. Part of this was because I had just gotten off of a trans-Atlantic flight from London and basically stepped onto a track I had never driven before and into the seat of the 911 Turbo offering more than 450 horsepower. Even with an experienced instructor at my side, I knew that if I disregarded my instincts, I could get myself in trouble, traction control not withstanding.

In the sequence of driving that day in May at Barber, I drove the 911 Turbo, the GT3, the 911 Targa, the Boxster S, and finally the Cayman. And by the time I got behind the wheel of the Cayman I felt much more at home at Barber and unlike the other cars, felt much closer to exploring the outside of its performance envelope. My shifts were better timed, I could feel the car wind out much closer to redline, and was truly comfortable with how my driving had progressed throughout the day. I always feel that it's been a successful day at the track when I leave knowing a little more about my own capabilities and limits as a driver than when I arrived. And in the Cayman, I felt that in spite of being very tired and not at my personal driving best--certainly not in the zone I had hoped I'd be in--that I had made progress, real progress.

The Cayman to me is all about balance and confidence. Balance can be measured in many ways. In this case it's about fine handling characteristics due in part to its mid-engine configuration, which is mated to a stiff body structure that allows the engineers to provide a suspension that is more compliant and perfectly suited to all the power available. It seems to me the Cayman is the purest (as opposed to purist) Porsche, one that best returns the marque to its earliest roots, truly a 356 for today's world.

I'm looking forward to a return to Barber for a full session when I'm less jet-lagged and have the ability to marshal all of the driving skills I've acquired over the last 30-plus years and hone them to a finer edge. When discussing the Porsche Driving Experience with Porsche PR honcho Gary Fong, he explained they will be offering a two-day woman-only program in September, as a way for Porsche's expanding female owner base to give them the opportunity to explore their car's performance capabilities without the added intimidation of having their significant others around. I suspect that (before I get my chance at Barber) it will more likely be our Managing Editor who'll be extended Automotive Traveler's first invitation to a full session of the Porsche Driving Experience. If that's the case, I'll just have to wait my turn. In the meantime, you can find out more about the Porsche Sport Driving School at porschedriving.com.

Around the Keys In Four Days

By Mark Elias

Our resident automotive photographer Mark Elias travels to Marathon, Florida, in a 2007 Bentley Continental Flying Spur, savoring the luxurious ride as well as the exquisite tastes of the Florida Keys

Since Bentley would only let us have the 2007 Continental Flying Spur for four days, we knew this would have to be a quick trip. Our drive from Palm Beach to Marathon in the Florida Keys, was more like a venture from Park Avenue to Park Bench: A trip that took just three and a half hours, each way. On this particular weekend, ours was the only 'Spur in the Florida Keys.

The 2007 Bentley Continental Flying Spur is one of the firm's new specification of motorcar, joining the ranks alongside its siblings, the Continental GT Coupe and the Continental GTC cabriolet. Owing to their starting prices in the range of $169,990, and an as-tested price of $191,545, these handsome vehicles can hardly be considered entry level.

The drive south was a combination of biblical epic back-road meanderings and high-speed maneuvering all in a delightful mishmash of blue skies and moderate temperatures. The weather in deep south-Florida at the end of spring typically stays in the loweighties with dry days and nights, as the rainy season has not arrived to add to the humidity that already exists in the area.

The Biblical component occurs when drivers in front of you check their rear-view mirrors. At that point, we found, they usually move over a lane, like a parting of the seas, without us having to courteously ask that they move over by the flashing of headlights, or in the case of drivers in South Florida, by the judicious use of "universal hand signals." By the way, in case it was missed, Floridians were again honored for the second consecutive year as the "rudest drivers in America," in an unscientific survey by Autovantage.

The Flying Spur displayed typical surefootedness, thanks to its Crewe, Englanddesigned all-wheel-drive system. The ultra-quiet interior kept most extraneous audible noise outside, while at the same time allowing for hints of the exhaust note from the 12-cylinder twin-turbo engine that puts out 552 horsepower and enough torque to tow a battleship. (Well, perhaps a large fishing boat.) In fact, the starter motor alone could probably power a Volkswagen Beetle. (Or maybe it just sounds as if it could.) A combination of old school and high tech, the Bentley features organ pulls that control the HVAC vents as well as the DVD-based navigation system. In a nod to the future, and perhaps as a remedy for global warming, the Spur also comes equipped with cooled seats, which are a necessity to control the flop-sweats one sometimes experiences while piloting a borrowed $200,000 vehicle.

Picture-perfect sunsets (above) are almost a daily occurrence in the Keys. Marathon's Seven Mile bridge (right) has played in numerous movies and is the only way on and off Pigeon Key.

As described earlier, our destination this weekend was the city of Marathon in the Florida Keys. This village spans three islands right at the mid-point of the Keys. Railroad magnate Henry Flagler's Florida East Coast Railways ran through the area in the early 1900's, and spurred construction of the "Overseas Railway" which later became the "Overseas Highway," after train tracks were removed from the area. Today, the longest over-water span is known as the Seven Mile Bridge. The remnants of the original bridge live on at Pigeon Key, which houses a museum that details the engineering feats and hardships endured by the workers who helped Flagler achieve his dream of linking Key West with the mainland. Used in numerous movies, a portion of the old span of bridge was exploded in the action-feature film "True Lies," starring California's Governator and sometime actor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

We holed up at the beach-house resort of Tranquility Bay. Located on the bay side of the highway (the side of road that faces the Gulf of Mexico), it features 1,100 feet of shoreline and a 2.5-acre private beach, complete with tiki-bar, lagoon style swimming pool, and the gourmet restaurant Butterfly Café. The 87 beach house accommodations are typically made up of two-story condos in old Key West style. Featuring balconies galore, guests need not strain their necks too far to see the ocean or the bay. Two- and three-bedroom guest houses are nicely designed and outfitted with fully equipped granite-topped kitchens, washers and dryers, flat-screen plasma televisions, giving visitors the ability to relax into doing as little or as much as they desire.

After check-in, it was time for one of the Key's patented "sunset celebrations." A near-daily occurrence, it revolves around the hotel's beachside tiki-bar, where a United Nation's worth of international guests gather with newly made acquaintances to listen to live island-inspired music and bask in the glow of the receding daylight.

The Florida Keys are not just all about fun and sun. Responsibility lives in Marathon as well, in the place of the Turtle Hospital at Hidden Harbor. Founded in 1986, in a building that previously housed a topless dance bar, it is the only state-certified veterinary hospital in the world meant just for the care and rehabilitation of sea turtles. Tours occur at 10 am, 1 pm, and 4 pm daily, and visitors have a chance to feed and interact with injured or sick Loggerheads, Greens, Hawksbill, and Kemp's Ridley sea turtles. The hospital has a great rehab record, releasing from 20 to 40 turtles a year, for a total of more than a thousand sea turtles since being founded by Richie Moretti nearly 21 years ago.

Dining choices abound throughout the Keys, but Marathon particularly shines with its choice and breadth of culinary offerings.

Keys Fisheries is the acquisition partner for Joe's Stone Crab restaurant in Miami Beach. A decidedly down-scale approach to "stones" awaits diners at this well established waterside stop known to locals, and just a few travelers. Within the stone crab season of October 15th to May 15th, fishing boats laden with crab claws unload at the restaurant's dock where the claws are boiled, then chilled, before being shipped to their final destinations. Arrive early to sample the results of the "first boil" procedure also known as "hots," which yield sweeter tasting meat than the chilled variety that is a more common preparation. A full bar is nearby and wine is available by the bottle at reasonable prices.

To paraphrase the introduction to an old radio show, "who knows the way to contentment in his diner's stomach?" The Shadow knows. Shadow is the nickname of executive chef James Henahan of Tranquility Bay's Butterfly Café. After honing his craft in California, the Northeast, and Europe, Shadow has set up shop in Marathon with a talented crew of colleagues including Chef de Cuisine Charlotte Miller. Local seafood is tops here, with Yellowtail Snapper "Slash and Burn" reigning supreme. The yellowtail is slashed and filled with a paste of pesto, green onion, jalapeno, Key lime, and Togarishi (a Japanese blackening spice), then baked and served with a mango and sour orange mojo.

Finish off the meal with a sampling from the desert cart: a blood orange and bittersweet chocolate parfait, flourless chocolate cake, TDF (To Die For) sticky toffee pudding, and a chocolate-nutcrusted Key Lime pie with white chocolate mousse. All for less than 300 calories!

The village of Marathon offers much in the way of relaxation and the ability to recharge and replenish. Wildlife abounds, whether it's giant iguanas on land or the sea turtles and sting rays in the water. A stay here in the heart of the Keys, however brief, transports travelers to a land of stress relief, with a great sunset to boot.

Behind the Wheel: 2008 Land Rover LR2 SE

By Jim McCraw

With a Volvo engine under its hood and a whole new design direction, Jim McCraw believes the newest Land Rover is the best one built to date.

We remember when Land Rovers were regarded as remarkably agile off-road vehicles with absolutely terrible reliability, a brand owned by a long succession of bad managers. We remember that, when BMW took over the company, it had to hire 50 quality engineers in England to figure out what was going wrong. They never did. Instead, BMW sold the company to Ford, which for several years has had to sell Land Rovers with BMW engines in them.

Now, the company seems to have settled into a new rhythm, partnering with Jaguar and Volvo as suppliers of proven parts and systems. Land Rover competes with four models: the eldest is Range Rover at the top, at $77,000; Range Rover Sport next newest, at $58,000; then the LR3, the replacement for the Discovery model, at $43,000; and the newest of them all, the LR2, replacing the Freelander, starting at $34,700 and brimming with the best technology the company can offer.

The all-new LR2 comes with the same engine used in the Volvo S80, a 3.2-liter inline six making a very useable 230 horsepower and 234 lb-ft of torque, mated to an equally flexible six-speed automatic transmission with Command Shift and three shift modes.

The rest of the drivetrain includes the Swedish Haldex computer-controlled, continuously variable all-wheel-drive system, four-wheel electronic traction control, and a four-mode Terrain Response system that allows the driver to choose the way the system responds.

The chassis includes ABS brakes, dynamic stability control, roll stability control, cornering brake control, emergency brake assist, and hill descent control, which when activated, won't let the truck overspeed on long or steep descents. In short, the LR2 has everything it needs for ultimate traction and maneuvering over all types of surfaces and conditions, in a short-wheelbase, five-passenger package, with more driving-situation arrows in its quiver than any previous entry-level Land Rover.

The list of standard equipment you get for the starting price of $34,700 is staggering, far too long to detail here, highlighted by power assists for everything you can think of, a delicious 320-watt, nine-speaker Alpine sound system with six-CD changer and auxiliary input, a four-year, 50,000-mile warranty and free 24-hour roadside assistance.

Our test truck carried a fat load of options, including a $3500 technology package: Sirius satellite radio, DVD navigation, Bluetooth connectivity, and a stereo upgrade to a 440- watt Dolby Pro Logic 7.1 surround-sound system. A lighting package for $1050 added bi-xenon lamps, adaptive front lighting that sees around corners, approach and puddle lamps and a memory seat and mirror system. A third package, the cold-weather group, adds heated windshield, heated front seats, and heated washer fluid, for $700, bringing the total to $39,950 including D&D fees.

We drove exactly this same truck on the mountain roads around Santa Barbara, California, on the enormous, mile-deep sand dunes of Pismo Beach, and in our own neighborhood in the Detroit suburbs, where potholes are the size of small houses, and we loved every minute of it.

We were so impressed by the capability and comfort of the LR2 that we volunteered to drive it to, from, and in an 1800-mile, 48-hour nonstop rally around the perimeter of Texas. Ultimately, the rally didn't come off, and we're still bummin' about that, because we believe this is the best combination of gutty power, all-season capability, modern amenities, and price that Land Rover has ever built.

The ultimate compliment came from our jaded sweetie, who has experienced everything from Cobalts to Corniches, Lancers to Lamborghinis, Mercurys to Maseratis. She came in on the last day of our test and said, "That's it! We're not giving this one back!".

2008 Land Rover LR2 SE

Length: 177.1 inches
Width: 85.7 inches (with mirrors)
Height: 68.5 inches
Wheelbase: 104.7 inches
Engine type: 24-valve inline six
Displacement: 3.2 liters
Horsepower: 230 horsepower @ 6,300 rpm
Torque: 234 lb-ft @ 3,200 rpm
Transmission type: 6-speed automatic gearbox with Command Shift
EPA rating: 16 city / 23 highway
Base price: $34,700 ($39,950 w/ options)

Behind the Wheel: 2008 Chevrolet Corvette

By Richard Truesdell

With more displacement, nine percent more power, and six percent more torque, Rich Truesdell feels the Fantastic Plastic from Bowling Green just gets better all the time.

Okay, so the C6 Corvette is a couple of years old now, firmly established as America's favorite sports car, and in need of a little excitement. Stand by, America, because there's excitement in spades in the 2008 Chevrolet Corvette.

We were recently treated to an early look at the new 'Vettes, getting quick rides in both a sixspeed manual with the Z51 suspension package and a six-speed paddle-shifted automatic with the F55 suspension package, a setup that includes Delphi's magnetic rheological shock absorbers that adjust continuously--in milliseconds--to the road surface.

Both cars feature a brand-new 6.2-liter LS3 smallblock engine rated at 430 horsepower, up 30 horsepower over the 6.0-liter version in 2007. The new engine, called LS3 because it succeeds the LS2, has a new cylinder block, pistons, pins and rods, new high-flow cylinder heads, new intake and exhaust systems, and it can be had with the same valved muffler system offered on the 500- horsepower Z06 engine, an option that boosts power to 436 horses and torque to 428 lb-ft, and sounds like a race car.

We worked our way up the slope from the automatic to the manual, each of which had a new optional leather package interior, one in Sienna and black, the other in Linen and black. Almost everything you can sit on, see, and touch in this package is made of premium leather with so-called French double-stitching, and it's the most luxurious, upmarket interior ever made available to Corvette lovers (sorry, no prices available for this option yet).

The automatic--which can be left in Drive or shifted down one notch into the manual mode where the shift paddles come into play--is a real revelation to experience. Push forward on the paddle for upshifts, pull backward for downshifts, and the rear-mounted six-speed shifts faster and more positively than previous manumatics because there's new software onboard.

With the automatic, Chevrolet PR says, you can sprint from rest to 60 mph in 4.3 seconds, run the quarter-mile in 12.4 seconds at 117 mph (vs.12.6 seconds at 114 mph in the 2007 car), and top out at, get this, 190 mph, some four mph faster than the old car.

The yellow automatic was a treat to drive on Michigan's country roads, with the Magneride shocks continuously compensating for the potholes, bumps, and body roll, keeping the car flat on the ground. Two different ride algorithms allow the driver to shift between comfort and sport settings with just the touch of a button. The steering gear has been completely redesigned and is even sharper and more responsive than the original C6 Corvette steering.

And then there was the copper metallic T-top coupe with the optional five-spoke wheels, Goodyear F1 Supercar EMT run-flat tires, Z51 sport suspension package, and optional leather interior. With the six-speed manual, Chevrolet PR says, you can get awfully close to four seconds flat on a 0-60 run. For the first time ever, the Corvette will be offered with two different sets of gears in the Tremec six-speed transmission, one for racing and one for the street. The Z51 version comes with the latter, naturally.

The Z51 is a great deal stiffer in ride and quicker in steering response than the F55 suspension, because all the significant parts, springs, shock absorbers, anti-roll bars, and tires are different; they are more suitable for club racing and track days than the F55 package, but not objectionably stiff or clunky.

All 2008 Corvettes will be upgraded to include OnStar and XM satellite radio as standard equipment, along with autodimming outside rearview mirrors, compass, new sill plates, an iPod input socket, a new style of electronic key, and new 10-spoke wheels. Chevrolet says the new standard equipment, the new engine, transmission, and steering box will add about a thousand dollars to the price of the car, up to $45,995 for the coupe and $54,335 for the convertible including D&D. That shouldn't stop the Corvette faithful from signing on the dotted line for a car that will perform like this and still get close to 30 mpg on the highway, while handily avoiding the gasguzzler tax..

2008 Chevrolet Corvette

Length: 174.6 in. (coupe/convertible), 105.7 in. (Z06)
Width: 72.6 in. (coupe/convertible), 75.9 in. (Z06)
Height: 49 inches
Wheelbase: 105.7 inches
Engine type: Cast aluminum block and heads, 2 overhead valves per cylinder, SFI V-8
Displacement: 6.2 liters (LS3); 7.0 liters (Z06)
Horsepower: 430/321 @ 5900 w/ std. exhaust, 436/325 @ 5900 w/ opt. exhaust (LS3); 505/377 @ 6300 (Z06)
Torque: 424/575 @ 4600* w/ std. exhaust, 428/580 @ 4600* w/ opt. exhaust (LS3); 470/637 @ 4800 (Z06)
Transmission type: 6-speed manual (Base and Z06), optional 6-speed manual w/ optional Z51 Performance Package, optional 6-speed paddle-shift automatic
EPA rating: Not yet available
Base price: $45,995 (coupe), $54,335 (convertible)

Behind the Wheel: 2008 Lexus LS 600h L

By Mark Elias

How did they do that? Road Test Editor Mark Elias takes the latest Lexus hybrid for a drive, and discovers a new level of luxury as well as high-performance technology.

When the Lexus division of Toyota introduced the fourth generation of their LS luxo-cruiser in May of 2006, they chose to show off their technological tour de force in Salzburg, Austria; in essence, tweaking the Teutonic automakers in their own back yard. At the time, engineers and product specialists told us other versions were in the pipeline. A recent trip to Los Angeles brought to light just what they were talking about.

Lexus, again using the concept of showing-off in the backyard, albeit, their own, ventured up the road from their US headquarters in Torrance, California to the Rose Bowl hosting town of Pasadena, for the national press preview of the 2008 Lexus LS 600h L. What's in a name, you ask? Well, for starters, since the division's inception, the LS has always designated the fl agship of the line.

The "600" represents the power equivalency of a six-liter 12-cylinder engine. The little "h" represents its hybrid confi guration, and finally, the "L" shows that this is the longwheelbase version of the LS sedan.

That this new LS uses Toyota Hybrid technology is something that won't be lost on so-called "Greenies." Nor will it escape notice in the highperformance camps, or those of so-called "early adopters." Carrying over many of the features and innovations found in the LS 460 L, the LS 600h L moves forward with subtle enhancements that include the introduction of a new highoutput 5.0-liter V-8 engine and an electronically controlled CVT transmission with Torsen all-wheel drive. The gas-burning engine is a derivative of the 4.6-liter version found in the LS 460 L, but with many changes and improvements to accommodate the all-wheeldrive system. The gas engine, by itself, has an output of 389 horsepower, but when combined with the electric hybrid motor, output rises to 438 horsepower and 385 lb-ft of torque. Conversely, the hybrid electric system, which comprises two generating units, has a combined maximum output of 221 horsepower. We're still running the numbers through our vintage UNIVAC computer to fi gure out how the output comes in at 438 ponies, but we guess it's easier to just chalk it up to "the new math," when trying to determine a power output for the LS 600h L's powerplant.

The ride is smooth, the power is responsive, and even the exhaust note is nicely tuned. On our journey through the mountain roads of Angeles Crest Highway, we were impressed with how quiet the LS really is--except when you stand on the go pedal. Everything we remember from the LS 460 debut is here, including the extremely high ride quality. Lexus engineers developed a multi-link front suspension exclusive to the LS 600h L that accompanies the existing multi-link rear setup, and helps keep the all-wheel-drive system firmly planted.

A standard air suspension rounds out the bill for total ride comfort. The system, which restricts roll sensation and vibration from road imperfections, provides a supremely comfortable ride that soaked up cracks, off-camber turns, and grooved highways with aplomb. If the ride becomes too relaxing, the world's fi rst driver monitor keeps an electronic eye on faces that appear too relaxed, alerting them to the possibility of a collision.

It might not be the answer for a driver who seeks the fi rmness that a vehicle from "The Fatherland" delivers, and as much as some of us wish it would, it is clearly aimed at--and hits--the target of previous Lexus owners, as well as those who are willing to spend vast sums of Benjamins, in exchange for sumptuous luxury and Lexus reliability. By the way, "vast," starts in the neighborhood of $104,000.

For those who have made the commitment to "go green," the LS isn't the car that's going to save the world. It will save energy as it coasts, regenerating power to the batteries, and, along the way, drivers will benefi t from the power of its 12-cylinder engine. Heck, under the right conditions, you can even push the new Electric Vehicle Drive mode (EV) button to enable the engine to operate strictly on battery for a short while. This capability, nicknamed the "sneak home mode," requires speeds of 25 mph or less. The upside of all the hybrid technology is that it provides the power of the other vehicles in its competitive set (Mercedes S600, Audi A8L W12, and BMW 760 Li) but is, as claimed by Lexus, "up to 70% cleaner than its cleanest competition." And yes, thanks to Lexus's Advance Parking Guidance System (APGS), the LS 600h L--like its LS 460 sibling--is able to park itself.

The long wheelbase version of the LS can be equipped with an executive seating package in back, which includes reclining rear seats with right-side massage functions, as well as a pull-up ottoman. Add to that a 9-inch video display screen and DVD system, and you'll be rolling like a Rockefeller. Trunk space manages to swallow the requisite four golf bags that have become the Japanese unit of measuring space in trunks of vehicles. Unfortunately, the golf bag used by the late comedian Rodney Dangerfi eld in the movie "Caddyshack," will need an attached trailer because the battery and its associated cooling devices take up a vast area of the trunk that would be available in the non-hybrid LS 460.

In the style and car-conscious surrounds of Los Angeles, a vehicle has fi nally presented itself that accomplishes the task of "keeping up with the Joneses," while at the same time making a statement that says while you may not be saving the environment, at least you are "concerned" enough to drive a hybrid. And fi nally, there is a vehicle worthy of making a red-carpet appearance. Remember how weird it was seeing all those Hollywood A-Listers hopping out of the little Toyota Prius a few years ago?

During our two-hour drive through the mountains north of the San Fernando Valley, it became clear that the LS hybrid is not the car for every driver. It is a world-class long-distance cruiser capable of satisfying the needs and desires of nearly every high-end buyer, and includes almost all the comforts of home. Which reminds us of the old proverb that says you can't drive your house, but you can always sleep in your car!.

2008 Lexus LS 600h

Length: 202.8 inches
Width: 73.8 inches
Height: 58.3 inches
Wheelbase: 121.7 inches
Engine type: 32-valve VVTi V8 with Hybrid Motor/Generators
Displacement: 5.0 liters
Horsepower: 438 horsepower (combined gas/hybrid)
Torque: 385 lb-ft of torque @ 4,000 rpm
Transmission type: 8-speed E-CVT
EPA rating: 20 city / 22 highway
Base price: $124,000 (converted from yen)
Price of options not yet finalized.

Our Cars

By David Newhardt

1970 Ford Cortina with Mazda Miata MX5 Drivetrain
Bret Stierli,Trabuco Canyon,CA

When it comes to creativity, Brett Stierli takes a back seat to no one. Brett, who works as a Technical Specialist at Mazda USA, has concocted one of the most unusual modified cars we've ever encountered, but one that makes such sense we wonder why we hadn't thought about it first.

While rummaging through junkyards looking for parts for a Trans Am project, Brett had his first close encounter with the English Ford Cortina. These cars were imported to North America in the Sixties and into 1970 when they were supplanted by the introduction of the Pinto as Ford's representative into the emerging subcompact class. "They looked so small and neat, I couldn't believe that they were Fords." From that point on he decided he would build a Cortina, one that would be updated to bring it into the 21st century.

In spite of their relative rarity, Brett was able to obtain a virtually rust-free 1970 Cortina with less than 120,000 miles. The next step was to deliver the stripped-down shell to friend Kerry McDonough who would handle the fabrication chores, which included transplanting the heart from a wrecked MX-5 Miata on its way to the crusher. The 1.8-liter four was a straightforward swap, as both the Cortina and Miata are rear-wheeldrive cars.

The main modifications required changing the oil sump and, as Brett puts it, a bit of radiator core support management along with the fabrication of new mounts to properly mount the Miata drivetrain in the Cortina's unitized shell. Thanks to 144 horspower on tap, along with the slick-shifting Mazda six-speed gearbox, the resulting combination drives far better than any stock Cortina can ever dream. When looking under the hood, the installation looks as if it was engineered by the factory, right down to the Ford logo on the engine's cylinder head.

To simplify the installation, Brett used all of the electronics from the Miata donor car, including the ECU, the wiring loom, and all the switchgear and gauges. Brett's Cortina, especially the interior, is a perfect blend of retro cool and modern practicality and functionality.

Overall, Brett has maintained a vintage rally theme throughout his Cortina. Instead of the slammeddown look so popular; Brett's Cortina benefits from a, off-road rally racer look with meaty, high-profile tires mounted on 13-inch rims, thick rally stripes, and Seventies-era Cibie rally lights. The result is a car that looks right from any angle.

On the road, the car is exceptionally refined, the result of two and a half years of building and enhancing the package. Brett says it runs like a Miata while it retains much of the overall handling feel of the 37-year old Cortina, calling it "an intoxicating mix."

Its unlikely mix of the vintage Ford Cortina body, a modern Japanese drivetrain, and a healthy dose of good old American ingenuity has resulted in a very special car. While the nocost donation of the Mazda engine, transmission, and electronics has kept the overall costs within reason, it's the overall planning that make this Cortina such a success. Even in a sea of exotics at the weekly "Cars and Coffee" show (see issue two of Automotive Traveler), true car aficionados recognize its cool factor, as it always draws a crowd. We're already trying to convince Brett to take the Cortina out on a road trip, maybe to Las Vegas for a weekend of gambling downtown with a Seventies theme.

Next month you'll see Brett's first feature contribution to Automotive Traveler, a 3,000-mile round trip from Southern California to Tulsa, Oklahoma, in a Mazda CX-9 with a group of friends to witness the unveiling of the 50-year-old buried Plymouth Belvedere. The car turned out to be a rusted shell of its former self, but we can't wait to present his travelogue to you..

Your Cars

By David Newhardt

2005 Ford GT
Reader, Dennis Keck,Orange County,CA

Like most Automotive Traveler readers, Dennis Keck can be characterized as a car guy. His first recollection of being in control of a motor vehicle was when he was not yet 10 and his grandfather let him drive a farm tractor. By the time he was in junior high --still too young to legally drive a car--the passion truly arrived when he got the sports car bug. "I can't really put my finger on what pushed me towards sports cars and sports car racing," says Dennis. "But I was much more interested in sports cars than the typical American hot rods of the era and their drag races or roundy-round circle track racing."

Over the years Dennis can recall several instances that helped to mold his automotive passions, but one in particular sticks in his mind. "I would ride my bicycle to the other side of town to our town's only sports car garage just to hang out hoping to see or hear something new and or exotic. One day the garage owner saw me arrive and he said that I should take a look at what they had in the back. I headed to the shop and there sat a Ferrari 340 America. Suddenly the car that I had only read and lusted over was sitting there in front of me. The owner had to take the Ferrari for a test drive and asked if I wanted to ride along. I was in the car before he could reconsider. The first time that V-12 hit 7000 rpm I was hooked and destined to a life of being car crazy."

Fast forward some 40 years to when the now legendary weekly Crystal Cove Car Show was in full swing. I had the west coast Ford GT press car on loan for the week and brought it down to the show when they were still a rare sight in Southern California and even at Crystal Cove it attracted a lot of attention. Dennis came up to me and asked if he could sit in it; I said "Sure, why not?" and he related that he was trying to buy a Ford GT but the dealers didn't want to even let him get near one.

Later that morning I saw Dennis again and asked if he'd like a spin up the PCH and, like a teenager he said sure. As we were cruising around, he told me a bit about his background and his previous racing experience so I offered to let him drive it back to the show. On the way back he explained that he was looking for a particular GT, one with no stripes and without the premium McIntosh audio upgrade.

A week later I was back at Crystal Cove--with a Viper Coupe--and saw an unattended yellow Ford GT with no stripes. I said to myself, no way, Dennis didn't go out and buy a Ford GT? A couple minutes later he caught up with me and said "Richard, I want to show you something." As we walked towards the yellow GT I said "You didn't." And he replied, "First thing Monday morning, found this car up near LAX. The drive last Saturday was what pushed me over the edge." I simply smiled.

Over the last two years Dennis and I have become good friends and he's given me much advice as my plans for Automotive Traveler were formulated. He explained that he's owned a number of what he calls 'special cars,' a list that includes a Triumph TR-3, a Sunbeam Tiger, two Lotus Super 7s, a Porsche 928, a 1965 Shelby GT350, a 1969 Mustang Mach 1, a Showroom Stock BMW 2002, a short nose Ferrari 275 GTB, a Ferrari 330 GTC that he owned for 21 years, and a Honda S-2000. That's a pretty eclectic collection of cars, to say the least.

When asked where the Ford GT fits into this pantheon of cars, Dennis had this to say. "It was a magical time back in the mid to late 60's when Ford Motor Company did battle with the racing elite, Ferrari especially, on the European tracks and beat them at their own game. I remember seeing my first GT40 at Road America and it had that same effect on me as when I saw my first Ferrari - only the GT40 was American. Once I saw Ford's recreation of the GT40 in the 2005 GT, I knew that I had to have it. It is, without a doubt, the finest driver's car that I have ever had the pleasure to drive. Ford is to be congratulated in having produced a milestone car that can compete with the world's finest and at a price that puts the rest of the 'supercars' to shame."

It should be noted that Dennis' yellow/no-stripe combination is only one of five GTs produced in that particular combination, making it among the rarest of the 4,038 GTs built. And recently, Dennis was able to add a special signature to his car, that of the car's primary designer, Camillo Pardo, adding even more rarity to a very special car..

Cars On the Internet

Automotive Traveler--recommended automotive--related websites for a rainy day

Automotive Insider websites are sprouting up everywhere, it seems. They are a good source for all sorts of information from new model reviews, concept car unveilings, spy photos of upcoming models, to answers for that nagging question of "How much is that going to cost me?" The following are six of our favorites:

Autoblog--A free-association sort of website, Autoblog specializes in a daily compilation of original content including new car reviews, exhaustive (and exhausting) auto show coverage from around the world, and links to daily newspaper articles. They also feature civilian espionage (spy photos) and video.

Jalopnik--A pure blog site, Jalopnik looks at the quirkier side of the automotive world, pointing out the goofy, ironic, humorous, disgusting, and so forth. Take your pick, it's all here! Check out the encapsulated summary for a roundup of the latest blogs of the day, complete with thumbnail teaser photos to whet your reading appetite.

AutoWeek--AutoWeek caters to enthusiasts and those in the know. With features ranging from new car, auto show, and concept cars, and coupled with classic car reviews and events, AutoWeek follows the auto world with an eye to the enthusiast.

AskPatty--Women spend billions of dollars on new car purchases each year. Yet, shopping for, and buying a car can be challenging for first-time buyers or those who've had a bad experience in the past. The AskPatty web site is a safe place for women to get advice on new and used car purchases, maintenance, and other automotive related topics.

The Car Connection--An all-encompassing website, offering the latest in new car debuts, road tests, buyer's guides, and links to dealerships around the country. The Car Connection features articles such as "ask a mechanic," and site links for Motorsports enthusiasts, classic car collectors, and gadget aficionados as well. Price out your next car purchase by consulting TCC's buyer's section.

Auto Observer--An insider's view of the twists and turns as seen from Detroit, veteran automotive journalist Michelle Krebs offers opinion and insight into the latest from the Motor City, or at least its suburbs. Linked with the ubiquitous Edmunds.com website, it's as close as you'll get to the executive suites of the U.S. automotive industry.

Arm Out the Window

By Steve Statham

Here's some useful advice as you hit the highways of America this summer: Never drive across the path of a tornado!

I speak from experience--the experience of a very close encounter in Tornado Alley, that swath of Middle America most prone to cyclonic disasters. It was the mid-'90s, and I had just completed my last stop on a work-related road trip. It was late afternoon, I was 3-1/2 hours from home, and very eager to apply head to pillow.

As I was packing up my camera gear, preparing to leave that final town on my tour, signs of an impending storm crowded the horizon to the north. It didn't look like the typical Midwestern storm front, with a distinct front line of dark clouds, marshaled together like Roman legions in formation. Rather, this storm was just an indistinct haze producing the occasional lightning strike in the distance, bringing with it a cool breeze and a hint of ozone in the air.

I scrambled to get on the road. I was heading due east, and this storm, still to the north, was advancing southeast. If I was lucky, I could get out in front of it before it crossed the eastbound highway. If I was lucky, in another 30 minutes I'd be watching the storm in my rearview mirror.

So I rang down to the engine room for best speed, but within minutes realized I had lost the race. I was barely 10 miles out of town when I came face-to-face with a wall of black clouds and brown dirt blowing low across the highway. It was the ugliest storm I had ever seen.

My choice was simple: Drive through, or wait it out?

The fact that I'm relating this tale to you now is proof that I made the right choice, although, being no Einstein, it was a close call. The beer-loving half-wit who lives inside my head prodded me on, reminding me that, "You've been caught in plenty of thunderstorms before. Don't be a wuss." The small, sensible side of me, easily pushed around, was going along with this argument, until the hail started.

Oh, sure, it sounds far-fetched now, but you'd be surprised how often you may be faced with that scenario in certain corners of the country.

Mind you, I was in a soft-top Jeep Wrangler, so chunks of ice falling from the sky was a deal-breaker. I turned around and headed back the way I came. I remembered there was a gas station a couple miles back with covered pumps, so I pulled under one, went inside the store, and asked the clerk if he minded if I waited it all out at the store. He had no objections, so I got a bottle of water, hit the magazine rack, and prepared to kill a half-hour or so.

Within minutes, a highway patrolman flew by, heading east, lights and sirens ablaze.

Followed by an ambulance.

And then a sheriff's car. And a constable's. And city police. Until it seemed every official vehicle in the county was headed east, the direction from which I had just retreated.

The mystery was cleared up soon enough. Police started pulling into the convenience store parking lot (it was the only building of any sort for miles) and began unloading wet, shaken, dazed-looking people. The story came out quickly--that storm had indeed contained a tornado, and it swept across the highway right where I had been heading. Several cars had been flung in random directions.

One of the unfortunate drivers, a young man wrapped in a blanket and still shaky, told us, "I was driving my Cadillac down the road, and the next thing I know I'm sitting in the middle of a field." Between the hail and the wind, all the windows had been blown out of his car. Many more survivors were brought in, some agitated, some calm, and by great good luck no one was killed.

There was plenty of time to get everyone's story, as the twister had downed several power lines, which were strewn across the highway and would take hours to clean up. Plus we had a later funnel cloud sighting near the store, so we moved women and children to the building's cooler area, which seemed to be the safest place. That night, anyway, emergency situations really did bring out the best in people.

Faced with a sudden, severe storm I had blundered into the right decision, but I had nothing to guide me beyond my eyes and my wits. These days we don't have to travel quite so blind to nature's dangers. You can research the national weather service's coverage area before leaving on a trip by visiting weather.gov/nwr/usframes.html.

Peak tornado season varies by region, but in general it is May and June in the Southern Plains, and June in July in more Northern reaches. For a tornado refresher, you can find answers to your questions at this online Tornado FAQ: spc.noaa.gov/faq/tornado/

Doppler and NEXRAD radar has improved tornado tracking in recent years, and there are many portable weather radio options these days, most of which receive all NOAA tornado advisories. Companies such as Oregon Scientific, Sima, and Midland make household and portable devices. You can find these for sale from the manufacturers, or at outlets like smithgear.com.

If you have satellite radio--which would have been a huge blessing the day of my encounter on the barren plains--XM 247 is the Emergency Alert station. Over at Sirius, the Weather and Emergency channel is 184.

I still remember my close encounter like it was yesterday. The wrong decision could have meant my life. I turned and ran the other way, and that's one retreat I have never regretted for a moment..

My Wrangler was a trusty companion in remote locations, but no match for a tornado. At the first hint of hail I ran that 4.0-liter six in the opposite direction.

Tornado photographs courtesy of NOAA Photo Library, NOAA Central Library; OAR/ERL/National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL)