EAST BOUND AND DOWN: GRIDLIFE SOUTH RECAP

Gridlife South has now come and gone, but boy oh boy, will the stories of this trip live on.

Once again, I found myself roped into going along to another one of these Gridlife events, but after the fun time at Gridlife Midwest at Gingerman Raceway earlier this year, this trip took a little less conviction and arm twisting. With that said, the recipe for the Gridlife South festival was the same as Gridlife Midwest - a weekend full of HPDE, time attack, drifting, a car show, and live music. Why wouldn't you want to go?

There was one very apparent difference though between the two events, and that is obviously the venue. Gridlife South was held at Road Atlanta, in Braselton, Georgia, which is about an hour northeast of downtown Atlanta, and roughly a 12 hour drive from Chicago. Road Atlanta is one of the country's premier race tracks, and also recognized as one throughout the world as well. Hosting events like Petite Le Mans, SCCA and NASA events, as well as other big drift events and even a few events for the two wheel type, it almost feels like Gridlife as an event has ascended into the big leagues. This is a major league track, and it surprised me that a smaller grass roots event like Gridlife was hosted here.

Eric "Dewey" DeWitt and Graham Gaylord both set out to chase wins for their championships in their respective classes, and with a long drive down to Atlanta, Dewey needed a co-pilot, and that's where I fit it. Helping your friend keep his sanity and making sure we made it down there in one piece was an easy sell, and it was a great way for me to take a small vacation and see Road Atlanta in person, which I was already told was an experience to be had. He also needed a way to trailer his car down to the event, and that is where Michael Norman came in. Norm lent us his van (which we aptly named "Van Wilder" while driving down there), loaded it up with tools, spare parts and supplies, and sent us on our way. As for the trailer, we literally pulled one out of a field that another friend of Dewey's had laying around behind his shop, and as the motto of the weekend was, we "sent it". We hooked up with Andrew "Warranty" Michalski and Graham for the drive down there, and pulled into Nashville around 4am and got a few hours of sleep before hitting the road again and completing the final leg of the journey to Braselton. The "hills" of Tennessee and northern Georgia are no joke, and are borderline small mountains. We saw a semi truck or two cooking their brakes trying to traverse the steep grade (6%!). We had a few brushes with death of our own, and after having our brakes catch fire only once, we pulled into the Road Atlanta paddock, unloaded the van, and prepared for the long weekend ahead.

Arriving at Road Atlanta was like seeing a roller coaster coaster for the first time. It is by far and away the most insane track I've ever been on, and while I was taking pictures of this event, I tried my best to capture the crazy elevation changes and turns to give you a perspective of just how massive and wild this track is. I've raced here in video games and have seen videos of cars on the track before, but neither show this track in its true form. You really have to be there in person to get a full understanding of how terrifying some of these turns are, especially at the speeds that you can take them at, and if you have the stones to hit some of these blind turns at speed, you can turn a quick lap. I was lucky enough to get a ride along in a 2013 BRZ, and suffice to say, between the great handling characteristics of the car and the layout of the track, I lost my lunch at the end of our 20 minute session. Not a single regret though, because I smiling the entire time.

Road Atlanta is also not a track for a beginner driver in any way. If you've never done a track day before, or have no concept of car control, you will be humbled, and it will probably be expensive and painful. At almost two and a half miles long, you'll see a wide variety of turns and straights that most tracks simply can't offer. The blind hill on turn 12 is outright terrifying to drive down when you're close to 80mph. You have to hope you're aiming the car just right as you crest, ride out the bumps on the way down the hill, and make sure that car sticks to the road instead of on the wall as you come through the front straight. Turn 10A is butt-puckering as some cars were hitting close to 160mph on the back straight and then hitting the brakes hard enough to get the entire car to wiggle under braking. Be sure to high-five Jesus when you see him in the braking zone, and hope you didn't over shoot your braking marker and end up in the pea gravel.

Because of this complexity on the track, there we a lot of cars that didn't make it through the event, and even some drivers who took an ambulance ride and had their weekend cut short too. It was a stark reminder that racing, while fun and competitive, is still dangerous. It didn't seem to matter what skill level you are at either, as even some of the top time attack drivers were tested and had a few offs too. It was a testament to the difficulty of this track, and while Gridlife gives anyone the opportunity to race at Road Atlanta, one wrong move could spell disaster. There is definitely a smaller margin for error here than there is at Gingerman, and for an event that tries to cater to every kind of driver with every kind of vehicle, I wonder if Road Atlanta is the best course for this kind of event. Thankfully, Graham and Dewey both came back to the pits unscathed every time, but if you asked me for my opinion as to which track is better to be on, I would say Gingerman for approach-ability and ease of travel (provided you're coming from the Chicagoland area). With that said, for a taste of what a pro-level driver would see, Road Atlanta will surely satisfy your appetite.

As for the rest of the event, the drift cars were out in force again just like the Midwest festival, as Ryan Tuerck, Vaughn Gittin Jr., and the entire Falken drift team were out doing what they do best again alongside of a few other pro drivers. Seeing these guys dive into turn 10A at breakneck speeds and initiating their drifts close to 300 feet away from the apex of the turn was insane, and really fun to photograph. They are truly on a playing field of their own, and while the amateur drivers were good for a show in their own right, the pros just did it with such profound finesse that it just shadowed everything else on the track. No matter where you were at, when the announcement for the drift cars came on over the loud speaker, everyone took to the track to catch a view of these guys at work. Full-track drifting was one of the most amazing things I've seen in a long time, especially when the stage is set on such a track like Road Atlanta that is anything but flat.

 Of course, it wouldn't be a good Gridlife trip if we didn't talk about the cars that were there too, both in the competition and in the car show. As expected, the dirty south knows what's hot in car culture, and the paddock was filled with wild rides. An LS-swapped Porsche 944 looked pretty normal when it was placed next to a Radical RXC 600R race car or a prototype time attack car. There were many exo-cars in attendance as well, which are essentially a Miata or a Honda that have had their body stripped off and a tube frame put in its place. Think poor man's Aerial Atom here.

There was also a skid pad that was being utilized heavily by the RTR crew to "test" the performance of a modified Mustang's rear tires, as well as an autocross course, which was a show in it's own right. While some of the competition that was on the actual race track made their way over to the autocross course for a run or two, the autocross course was home to more every day vehicles than it was properly prepared racing cars. It was almost like all of the cars that were in the parking lot outside of the track were having their own little competition away from everyone else. As the saying goes, run whatcha brung!

When the sun went down, we were treated to a musical performance by the one and only Ludacris, who absolutely crushed it. If there was ever a musical guest that symbolized car culture and Atlanta all in one package, it was him, and he played into the crowd perfectly. The Mayweather-McGregor fight was also being shown in the pits for anyone who was interested, but otherwise, the track became a small party town for the night, just like Midwest. Georgia's finest were also sure to make their presence known on more than one occasion.

I think it's also worth mentioning that because of the sheer size of the track, getting around to any part of it almost mandated some form of personal transportation. Scooters, bikes, and golf carts were essential for getting from one end of the track to the other in a hurry, and with the hills found even in the infield, you'd be silly to actually try and walk anywhere. To some that may be a turn off, as Gingerman offered everything within walking distance and was laid out better I think, but other people might not be bothered by that. After all, there's much more to see of this track, and that's also what makes Road Atlanta so unique.

Dewey and Graham both represented Chitown Subarus well with podium finishes in their respective classes. Graham took home his 4th consecutive 1st-place finish of the season for Time Attack AWD Street Mod, and Dewey scored 2nd place in HPDE+ AWD Street class. With one event left in the season (at Gingerman again in October), Graham is in position to go for the sweep with the championship essentially locked up, and Dewey is still in the fight for 1st overall in his class as well.

Now that I've done both festivals, it's hard to say which one is better, if there even is a better one. I think the appeal of Gridlife is to just bring your car out and have a good time, and even if you're not racing like myself, there was still plenty to see and do. As Gridlife continues to grow, I expect it to expand again to another territory and introduce more people to what I've experienced this year. At the very least, I think this event helps get people excited about cars in any fashion, and at any age. In the time of autonomous cars becoming popular news and humans being removed from any sort of personal transportation, it's refreshing to see that car culture is still alive and well. Gridlife really is, for one weekend at least, the peak of car culture, and I'm certainly excited to see what they're cooking up for next year.


BONUS PICTURES:

THIS WASN'T SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN...

This article was supposed to be about my first track day. It was supposed to be about how for the first time, I was able to finally turn laps in my Subaru on a legit race track, instead of pretending to do so playing Forza on my Xbox. It was supposed to be about how I was excited and scared all at the same time, and yet despite the emotions, I survived to tell the tale and encourage everyone else to do it too. It was supposed to be about how I felt like a little kid racing around out there, overcoming the fears and the “what ifs” of racing your pride and joy, and how I’m so excited to be on track again sometime soon.

It was supposed to have a buildup of how my stock motor died two years ago after more than 140,000 miles of fun trips and hard pulls, and how I spent most of my summer last year putting in a brand new 2.1L stroker motor in it that I’ve had sitting around for years. It was supposed to show you pictures of me doing it myself (and with the help and supervision of knowledgeable friends) for the first time, and how proud I was to essentially tackle the most grueling and labor intensive automotive task on any gear head’s list. This motor was my crown jewel that was going to be the car’s headlining item on a list of other tasteful modifications, and I was so happy to finally have a running car after waiting 8 treacherous months for machining, assembly, and waiting for parts to arrive so that I can finally have what, in my mind, was the ultimate WRX. It was a good come-back story.

But that article will have to wait.

Instead what you’re about to read is a sob story, because I never was able to take my car to that track day. Less than 3 weeks before race day, I dropped the car off at a shop for some routine maintenance and to make sure that anything that needed attention was fixed. Oil leaks, brake fluid, and shifter bushings were all on my list of things that needed to be addressed before the car made its way onto the grid, because the last thing that I wanted was to cook my brakes and crash, or have a car fire while trying to set a good lap time. Death and destruction is usually not high on my priority list.

And that’s when it all went wrong.

After the car was serviced, I drove about 3 miles away from the shop before I heard a POP. The entire motor gasped for air and fuel for a few fleeting moments before coming to a complete stop. I tried hard to restart it on the side of the road to no avail. I couldn’t even get it to crank over. I had a million thoughts running through my mind as to what it could possibly be, but all along, I feared for the worst. As I played roadside doctor trying to resuscitate my car, nothing I was doing was making a difference. I felt hopeless, and without any tools, I was pretty much was. I had another guy in a Subaru pull up behind me and ask me for help while I was under the hood. I wish I remembered his name, but he was doing his best to troubleshoot with me. We were both left dumbfounded, but when I checked the cars vitals by pulling out the dipstick, I knew there was no point in trying to save it anymore. It was full of metal and various bits of glitter that could only mean one thing. The one thing that I feared the most.

I remember sitting in my car on the side of the road in complete disbelief while I was waiting for the tow truck. I didn’t even need to tear the motor apart to know that all of my hard work, patience and money were essentially now an abstract metal sculpture that you’d pay $20,000 for at an art museum (someone please buy it). I was more numb than I was mad or upset, and I kept telling myself “this wasn’t supposed to happen”. This motor hadn’t even seen 10,000 miles yet. I haven’t even had the opportunity to push it to its limits, or get it to what I truly envisioned performance wise. If this motor was to go, I wanted it to be my own doing, my own ignorance, my own mistake, and not some freak accident that caused it to seize entirely. But, I guess that’s life. Sometimes you wish for a unicorn, and instead, you get a goat.  

It’s funny, because my ownership experience with my Subaru has found many parallels with my own personal life. When I look back at what I’ve been though and what my car has been through over the course of the last 7 years, it’s been a ride that we have literally both shared, for better or for worse. My car and I eerily share a lot of ups and downs in similar ways that it’s almost something out of Final Destination movie. For example, when I split with my longtime girlfriend about 2 years ago, about a month after, in almost a symbolic way, my stock motor died too. It took me a long time to dig myself out of that mentally, and it took a long time too before that car left my garage running again. While I didn’t have to walk past my ex every day, walking past my car every day that was just sitting and rotting in my garage was torture. A daily reminder of “Hey, we used to have fun, do you remember?”. Putting that motor back together was almost like me putting my life back together. Bolt-by-bolt, one quarter-turn at a time, my confidence and car went back together simultaneously. Humpty Dumpy would live on, and life would be good again. When that motor started and ran for the first time, I felt like I could do anything. I was past whatever bullshit life threw at me and I made it to the other side. Things were on the upswing.

Looking at it now, this stroker motor dying is also full of creepy symbolism too. 6 months ago, my 18 year old brother died unexpectedly. He was a smart kid, and all around a good person, and although we had a 9 year age difference, the old and the new got a long pretty well. Both, as the gasoline-fueled heart of an old car, and as two brothers growing up with each other. Someone so young and so full of promise that suddenly was gone just caught everyone off guard all the same. It was the whole “It wasn’t supposed to happen” thing all over again. But it did, and for whatever reason, I find myself back at square one again. I have to find a way to pull myself out of this mess while I look at an empty garage this time, and while I look at this empty hole in my heart that I don’t know how to fill. My Subaru was the car that I drove to the hospital to see him before he died, and between me and you, a Pegasus couldn’t have gotten me there any faster. It was there when I absolutely needed it, but not there when I wanted it to be.

While I’m waiting to find out exactly what caused this failure and contemplate my next steps, I’m just left with heartbreak in the interim. If I decide to put a new motor in this car again, it should at least be cheaper to rebuild it, and I also learned a lot from my first crack at it. There are already a few things that I would do differently, but then again, do I really even want to? I’m coming to the realization that maybe it might also be time to try something new. While I enjoy my Subaru, and it has been a permanent fixture in my life that’s led to amazing relationships and friendships with such a large amount of people, I can’t help but wonder what other great cars I’ve been missing out on (or if maybe this car is just cursed). While going through all the work and financials of getting my car running again the way that I had it before is daunting, it’s also part of the game we play with modified cars. I just wasn’t prepared for this sort of thing to happen again so soon, but now that it has, I’m really not sure if I should rebuild it at all. I feel almost cheated out of time and fun that could’ve been had with this new motor, and even this car. I’m here asking myself, is this normal? Is it even worth the hassle of having something like this happening a third time? I think the financial aspect of getting this car running again is what will ultimately be the deciding factor for everything. I just have to be honest with myself and what I want from a fun car these days. Maybe I give the Subaru one last shot to be what I wanted it to be before I decide one way or another that it’s still the right car for me. I’m truly conflicted, and right now at the crossroads, I wish I had a clear path.

One of my favorite comedians, George Carlin, has this bit where he talks about how life is a series of dogs. You’re constantly replacing your old dog with another one when it dies. Sometimes you wait a little bit in-between dogs, but each dog you have is different, and each dog you have is special and loved in their own way. While no other car can replace my Subaru, maybe it’s time to see what else I can fall in love with. If I can fall in love with one car, I can certainly find another that makes me feel a certain way when I start it up.

Instead of dogs, maybe life is just a series of cars. Maybe my Subaru has shown me everything that I needed to see from it, and maybe it failing now is the sign that it’s time to do something new in my life. A fresh start when I could really use one. Or maybe we still have a few more moments and memories still left to share, and this chapter in my car life isn’t quite over yet (to be fair though, it’s slowing becoming a Stephen King novel at this rate). Some things get better with age after all, but all I know is that right now, there’s an Impala parked in my garage where I wish there was something else, Subaru or otherwise. Only time will tell what happens next.

WHAT GIVES A CAR A SOUL?

Sometimes, when I lay awake in bed thinking about my car, I wonder if my car is laying awake in the garage thinking about me too. It's probably not, but I'd like to think that my car is more than just a rolling piece of steel, glass and rubber. A noisy Subaru is definitely not short of character, that's for sure, but can a car be some sort of transient being? Can my car, or any other car for that matter, become...alive....*cue creepy music and stormy sounds effects*

Some cars have more character than others the day they roll off the assembly line. An STi is going to have more spunk than say a Toyota Camry, but does that translate to it having an actual soul? When I sit and think about it, maybe it's not so much the car's character that give it a soul, but it's something that blossoms over time. Maybe it's a high millage machine that refuses to die. Maybe it's a car that's been beat up in an accident but still drives straight. Maybe it's a car that's been on the road for more than 40 years and you cherish it more than your wife, but you won't tell her that because you know that would mean you'd be sleeping in it. Maybe it's simply a car that brings you joy in some way that another car can't.

So after much deliberation, I came to a conclusion. I think the soul of the car is tied to two things:

1. The car's character, and the attachment that you as an owner have to it.

2. The life that the vehicle itself has lived, regardless of the owner.

As I said before, while each car is something unique by itself, the longer that you own your car, the more of an attachment that you form with it. You learn all of it's little secrets, and what it can and can't do. You know what feelings are normal when you're behind the wheel, and when something is wrong. You know what noises it makes, and which ones are worth listening to. Sometimes if you whisper sweet nothings to it, it listens and magically starts to run better. But more than all of that, you share moments with your car that nobody else can take away from you. Traveling to far away lands, sliding sideways through snowy roads, and making friends (both of the human type and the machine type) along the way. But like real people, cars have flaws too. A Toyota MR2 would love to kill you on a daily basis if you're not careful, but yet there's people that still love them for their faults. Hell, people even give their cars human names too. If that's not some form of attachment, then I don't know what is.

  Some cars are more vocal than others...

Some cars are more vocal than others...

So through it all, a car begins to take on almost a life of its own. When I first bought my Subaru in 2009, I didn't know diddly squat about anything. I couldn't drive stick, I've never owned a turbocharged car, let alone any kind of foreign car. But not long after I bought it, we started to share moments. I got the hang of shifting down pretty quickly (after being honked at a lot), started leaning more about what makes these cars tick (and just cars in general), and because of the Subaru community on NASIOC, I met a lot of great people who would become equally great life-long friends. No matter what we did though, we did it with our cars. Cruises through the back roads of Wisconsin, weekend retreats in Michigan for Sno*Drift weekend, and taking turns going down the drag-strip for the Subaru Shootout. Next thing you know, I'm standing up in these people's weddings and I'm doing motor swaps in their garages for the first time. It doesn't take much for things to snow ball into something bigger, but I can trace everything back down to a single decision to buy my car, which is pretty remarkable.

The other aspect of a machine with a soul is the physical aspect of the car itself. While a new car is beautiful and pristine to look at with it's shiny paint and rust free body, it's almost a blank canvas in a way. The vehicle hasn't been used. It hasn't lived a car's life. There's something to be said about seeing a survivor classic car, or a 20 year old machine that's still chugging away on the road, caked in rust and dirt. A car like that earns my respect in my book, and all of the door dings and chipped paint along the way is just a way the car shares its life story with anyone that comes in contact with it.

For example, I'm pretty sure the hood of my car has more craters in it than the surface of the moon, but that's because I don't let it sit in my garage. My car sees a lot of highway miles because of my travels to work and other little road trips. I have door dings galore because the previous owner had kids and liked to ride their bicycles, and that just so happened to also be in the garage next to the car. You can do the math with how that worked out.

The dent in my front fender is from an accident I had when someone cut me off, just a few months after that exact same fender was repaired because I pulled a car out of snowbank and it wanted to thank me with a kiss. My roughed up front bumper is from hitting a snow bank while attempting to do a standing 180° turn at Sno*Drift last year - my bumper is evidence of how well I executed it.

The fact is that if you look at my car, you can see all of the imperfections, but they tell a story. While my car is no show car, and I still try my best to keep it nice, these things happen. But when it's all said and done, it's what makes my Subaru, my Subaru. And the best part of all of this is that when I decide to sell my car, those little imperfections stay with the car as if to say "This is what I've accomplished". The next owner will be able to make new memories with it, but it can't take away the moments I've already shared with it.

And it's the memories we share with our cars that leaves the most lasting impression. It's the stories you'll tell your friends or your kids someday. It's the reason why I've written about my beater car and why, despite its flaws, it was such a memorable vehicle to own. Because after you give up your keys to some new owner and say goodbye to your 4-wheeled friend for the last time, that's all that you'll be left with. So enjoy the moment, savor the memories, and drive it like you love it, because there isn't any shame in letting your car live a fun life too.

THE GRIDLIFE EXPERIENCE

As an avid racing fan and video game enthusiast, it should come as no surprise that I thoroughly enjoy playing the Forza Motorsports series. And while I enjoy hardcore racing games that offer as much simulation as you can get with a console game, the open word and more arcade-like Forza Horizon series holds a special place in my heart too. Horizon is a "racing game" that is centered around an ongoing car and music festival that has the player earning wristbands as you make your way to the top of the list of the festival's top drivers, and joining in after-parties when the sun goes down. If you've ever played the game, you know exactly what I'm talking about (and if you haven't you definitely owe it to yourself to check it out), but suffice to say, Gridlife is indeed a case of where life imitates art. A 3-day event that is focused on racing, dancing, and partying, and this year I was there in the midst of all of it.

This was my first Gridlife Midwest event (or any event ran by the Gridlife folks for that matter), and while I have the sunburn and stickers to prove I was there, the time spent at Gingerman Raceway left me with great memories, and it was definitely enough fun to make sure I come back next year. I was persuaded last minute to come and check the event out by a bunch of friends last week, and even though I didn't get to drive my car on the track, I had a great time just as a witness to the entire festival. The entire small town of South Haven is invaded with all sorts of cars for the weekend, and all you have to do is show up, get your wristbands, and have a good time. It was as simple as that.

Time attack runs, HPDE (High Performance Driving Events), and drifting sessions filled the track schedule up all 3 days. There were plenty of fast cars that made an appearance this year, and at least 4 different new class records we set for this event. Chitown Subarus members Graham Gaylord and Eric "Dewey" DeWitt both took home some hardware and raffle prizes for their accomplishments on track. Graham placed 1st in Time Attack AWD Street Mod, and Dewey placed 2nd in HPDE+ AWD Street, so score one for the good guys and making the rest of CTS proud!

  Yes - Matt Farah was there too announcing and handing out awards

Yes - Matt Farah was there too announcing and handing out awards

But the real stars of the show had to be the drift cars. This was my first time witnessing a drift event, and oh my lordy I had no idea what I have been missing out on. There is something to be said about a car flying past you at speed, on the edge of control, and showering the entire track with smoke and occasional dirt. The drift cars always drew the largest crowds, and for good reason too. Ryan Tuerck and his infamous GT-4586 was there, as was Vaughn Gittin Jr with his RTR Mustang and some of the Hoonigan guys. All of their cars were all out on track to put on a show, and their cars were some of the most exciting to watch. Even the factory backed Falken Tire drivers impressed, going 4 cars in tandem at times in some corners! The "Drift Taxi" was a 4-seat Infinity M35 with a Nissan Titan V8 swap that offered some lucky raffle winners the chance to go door-to-door with these guys too, and it was incredible to watch it all unfold on the track.

The paddock and the festival camping area was also a sight to behold. Everyone was making mid-day changes and repairs to their cars, and finding ways to keep both their cars and themselves cool (heck, even I got under the hood of one for a bit). Everyone was like one big car family working side by side with one another. It didn’t matter what you drove or if you needed spare parts, there was a feeling of comradery and mutual respect that you should be able to find at any track day. Everyone was there to go fast and have a good time, and nobody wanted to impede anyone else’s opportunity of doing just that.

If you couldn’t find at least one car that caught your attention walking around the paddock or the camping area on track, I’d have to have you examined to make sure you’re not clinically dead. From a 4G63-swapped Volvo Amazon to a Chevy Cavalier on Hoosiers with a supercharged Cobalt motor I stumbled upon, if you could think it, it was probably there, and I think that was what really made this event special to me. Sure, you had your Miata’s and S2000’s aplenty, but it was the odd ball cars that made walking around enjoyable. Every day seemed to bring different cars into the event, so you almost always saw something new. In order to stand out amongst a crowd of highly modified track cars, you had to have something truly unique to make people go “woah”.

But for those of you who know, the real fun of Gridlife is what happens when the sun goes down. While there is late night wrenching going on all over the place in preparation for the next day of racing, everyone else is cracking open a cold one with the boys as the nightlife at the track comes into its own. Each night there was a tent with music that had everyone’s head banging into the midnight hours, alongside a ferris wheel and small carnival rides. There was even a "Silent Disco" with everyone dancing to the same music while wearing headphones if that was more of your style (and it was not mine). It was your typical EDM festival atmosphere, and going into the festival camping area (better known as Guam) opened your eyes to a whole other level of people consuming alcohol responsibly. If you ever wanted to party with some pro drivers, this my friends, is your opportunity. They go just as hard off the track as they do on the track, and as I found, it doesn't matter where you're from, nothing brings people closer together like cars do (and beer).

All and all, it was one hot, long and tiring weekend, but I’d do it all over again without hesisitation. And who knows, maybe I will when Gridlife visits Road Atlanta later this summer for the Gridlife South festival.


BONUS Pictures:

GETTING STRANDED IN A CAVALIER

A few years ago I owned a 1998 Chevy Cavalier, or at the very least, a pile of dirt, rust and faded white paint that resembled the shape of a Cavalier. This car was the true definition of a “beater with a heater”. When I bought it, it had about 140K miles on it, and had only 3 hubcaps, manual doors and windows, and a 2200 series 4-cylinder that was leaking oil badly out of the valve cover gaskets. The air condition system also had a leak that I never cared to get fixed, so it just never worked, and there was also a giant crack along the entire length of the windshield. One of the back door latches would also just refuse to unlock sometimes, and the driver seat was so worn out that I could feel the metal frame of the seat dig against my back regularly. At one point I was also starting the car by jumping the starter with a screwdriver (which secretly made me feel badass like Jason Statham stealing a car in a movie or something, even though it was my own car). But hey, when you need cheap work beater, beggars can’t be choosers. Amazingly, despite the sorry state of the vehicle, I kind of grew fond of this little car that just refused to die, and it only stranded me one memorable time over the course of almost 50k miles that I put on it.

One spring morning on my way into work, I found myself driving through what felt like a monsoon. Heavy rain had been ongoing on our area for the past few days, so there was water everywhere, and there was serious flooding that was beginning to occur. Roads were so bad that police were beginning to shut them down while in route to my office, so I left the main roads that were closed in an attempt to sneak down some side roads to escape the traffic jams and find higher ground.

Wrong move.

The side street that I turned down had transformed into a shallow stream, and I came across a part of the road where it was considerably deeper water. While I could see salvation on the other side of this deep portion of the street, I had a brief Oregon Trail flashback about trying to either ford the river, or caulk the wagon and float it across. You gotta risk it for the biscut I always say, so I chose to ford my car down this street. I put the Cavalier dead center of the road where it was at its highest point (and I could still see a little bit of the pavement) and hoped for the best. At worst, I’d drown my beater car and get my feet wet waiting for the tow truck to drag me out, and at best, I might still be able to make it to work on time. I hit the water with speed and kept the gas pedal down. With the engine revving hard and water splashing everywhere, I held my breath as I felt the steering wheel go light for a brief moment. “Shit, I’m floating!” I thought to myself, but just as the quickly as I thought my downstream tour was over, my car found just pavement again to pull me out of the abyss. I had made to the other side.

My plan to find higher ground was going well. Turns out a lot of other drivers also had the same idea, and as I navigated through residential neighborhoods to get to the nearest major street, I started to realize that I had another problem. My brake pedal began to get softer and softer until suddenly, my brakes were simply gone altogether. Relying on my still functioning parking brake, I was able to maneuver my car to safety, but I needed to find a safe place to park. With the water still rising, I was concerned that leaving it on the side of the street would result in my car either being swept away, or serious flood damage. After my last fording attempt, I wasn’t feeling confident in going double or nothing with my bet against Mother Nature, so again, I had to find higher ground. Thankfully, I came across an elementary school that had a pitched driveway. It would actually turn out to be a walkway, but at this point, I took anything that I could get. I parked the car, hunkered down, and decided that there was no way I would be getting into work now.

I made a phone call to AAA for a tow and stewed about what could have happened. The only logical conclusion that I could draw was that somewhere on car, one of the rusted out brake lines must have snapped while I was pretending that my Cavalier was a jet ski. The pressure of the deep and fast moving water must have been too much, but there wasn’t anything that I could do about it now but wait.

Seeing has how I wasn’t going to be going anywhere for the foreseeable future, and the coffee I had drank earlier was reminding my bladder about what time it was, I got out of my car and started walking around the outside of the school to try and find someone who might be able to let me in and use their restroom. I found a custodian who let me in the building. I told him my situation and he didn’t seem to care that my car was parked where it was, and that the school wasn’t open that day (probably due to the flooding).

While I was waiting for my tow, I ate the lunch that I packed for myself in my car and just browsed the internet on my phone while I was waiting for the tow to arrive. Hourly check-ins with AAA was useless at this point since they continued to give me the same spiel every time I called them that someone would be out to assist me “soon”, and it was well into the afternoon by now. The rain was long gone by now and all of the flooding was rapidly subsiding. It was actually turning out to be a pretty nice and sunny day. Over the course of my waiting, I took a few more bathroom breaks in the school since I knew it was open, and just continued to camp out in my car.

Then the police arrived.

I was questioned what I was doing parked illegally on the walking path and told them the situation with my car and what happened. Apparently some of the parents that lived nearby didn’t like the fact that some older looking man in a beat up car was walking in and out of the elementary school and wanted them to investigate. The thought of that had not even occurred to me while I was waiting for the tow, so I apologized to the officers, moved the car onto the street where there was no longer any water, and continued to play the waiting game for another few hours. Thankfully, there was no further police intervention for the rest of the day.

All in all, I waited about 8 hours for my tow truck to arrive. The driver of the tow truck had been having himself a busy day with a lot of other cars downed in other various streets. It was one of the most memorable moments that I’ve ever been stranded by any car I’ve ever owned, and not one that I’d like to repeat any time soon.