COTA Blitz: The Road to Austin

What the heck am I doing?

I got it in my head some time ago that I should run laps at Circuit of the Americas. I think It’s pretty cool to drive my car on just about any race track, but to drive on a current Formula 1 track cranks the coolness factor up a notch or three.

I started planning this trip late last year. For a while it looked like David might make the trip too. He’d trailer his car, which meant he’d be able to take my track wheels. The scheduling just didn’t work out, though. So I’d do it solo, marathon style, shortest elapsed time, minimum vacation days used.

It’s a thousand miles each way, thirty hours driving time. To spend a day driving. A week after collecting the car from the shop, where it spent one hundred days. No shakedown cruise, just straight into battle, so to speak.

The days leading up to my Portland and Laguna Seca trips were filled with pleasant anticipation, a buzz of excitement. This time it’s a bit different. Those trips were scenic drives with many good Lotus roads. They were vacations. This will be more akin to spending a long weekend crossing the Russian Steppes.

COTA Blitz!

Friday, June 9

I left the house promptly at 3pm, hoping to arrive in Clayton, NM around 8pm. This was optimistic. I didn’t have a motel reservation in Clayton. The thinking was that if I was making good time I could make it to Dalhart, TX. If not, there are half a dozen motels in Clayton availability shouldn’t be a problem.

The two obvious routes out of town are I-25 through central Denver or C-470 to US 85 and catch I-25 at Castle Rock. I chose the latter. Things weren’t starting well. I should have taken Sheridan but took Wadsworth instead. It was backed up. I-70 to C-470 is the next leg, and I-70 was a parking lot for a few miles. C-470 wasn’t any better until nearly Chatfield.

Going down US 85 I briefly considered taking the back road, CO 105, to Monument. But I figured I was in a hurry and didn’t have time for the scenic route. In retrospect, the back road probably would almost certainly have been faster. I-25 was stop and go until the Larkspur exit, never getting over about 20mph. Then, there was an accident on the north side of Colorado Springs that had traffic snarled.

It took me over three hours to get to Pueblo. South of Pueblo the traffic thinned out to more what I expected. Now I could follow Ryan’s advice to modulate my engine RPM’s. The speed limit is 75, which I obeyed until somebody faster passed. Then, once I left a reasonable gap, I matched speeds with them. After a few miles I’d slow back to the limit. Lather, rinse, repeat. This got me all over the map between 4,000 and 5,000 RPM. The earlier stop-and-go covered the lower ranges.

I quit violating Rule #1 when I got gas at the junction with US 87 in Raton. Fueling up, I was approached by a gentleman who was gassing up his rig. “I had a 2002 Esprit, sold it a while back to Dez Bryant of the Cowboys.” He pulled out his phone and showed me Dez Bryant sitting in a yellow 25th anniversary Esprit. “That’s one car I’m not wanting to see again. I’m afraid it’ll have 25” wheels.” He bought it new, said it was number 25.

“I went to that ell-oh-gee a few years back.” “The one in Aspen?”, I ask. “Yup, the one in Snowmass.” He’s a Corvette guy. I asked him what he had, he listed off five or six. I lost count. “The Esprit was just sitting. So I sold it.” I told him I was heading to Circuit of the Americas. “Oh, you’ll enjoy see-oh-tea-ay!”

While this conversation was going on, a woman with a little kid, perhaps 4 years old, approached. “He wants to look at your car.” I asked him if he wanted to sit in it. Mom had to go back to the minivan for her cell phone so she could get a picture.

No longer violating Rule #1, I would soon be breaking Rule #2. The sun was setting behind me, and entering Des Moines the road bends slightly south. This put the rising full moon directly in front of me, sitting large on the horizon. The last 40 miles or so were in the dark. Parts of the road had recently been repaired but not yet painted, adding to the degree of difficulty. I keep a keen watch for the flash of eyes in the darkness. I passed the carcass of a deer or antelope on the shoulder, I couldn’t tell which.

When you enter Clayton from the west the road goes over a railroad overpass. On the far side of the overpass the police had a car pulled over in the right lane. Not on the right shoulder, but still on the road. The speed limit is 30 through here. A couple blocks later, a police cruiser coming the other way turned his lights on and flipped a U-turn right in front of me. I was going 28. There were two or three cars ahead of me in that block; I don’t think anybody was going 35 but one got pulled over. Looks like Clayton is working on generating some revenue!

I headed to the Super 8 at the opposite end of town, passing plans B and C on the way. It didn’t look like there were a lot of cars in the lot, which I took as a good sign. There was nobody at the front desk, though. I pushed the bell a couple of times, trying to be patient. Then I tried the bell on the outside of the building. Just then another gentleman came in and asked if I’d pushed the button. A few moments later, a clerk finally materialized. “I don’t know how many rooms I have, if I even have any rooms. Are you two together? I might have a queen smoking room.” We are definitely not together. She called her manager and finally was able to give a report: they had one queen non-smoking, one queen smoking. Having arrived first, I claimed the non-smoking room. The other guy left.

This week on “What Did I Forget?”: pajamas.

Saturday, June 10

I wanted to get an early start, as I’d lose an hour about ten miles down the road when I entered Texas and the Central time zone.

I loaded up the car, strapped myself in, turned the key and pushed the button. A quick “tik tik tik tik.” I wondered if I’d accidentally left an interior light on or something. It started up just fine at the gas station in Raton, but not here. Accessories worked okay, just no crank. There were some folks in the parking lot so I asked if I could get a jump. Friendly people; one provided the cables, the other the jump. So I was on the road pretty much on time. Hopefully, running the car a hundred miles would charge the battery and all would be well.

I won’t bother with turn by turn navigation. I ended up on a lot of different roads, and many of them had multiple route designations. I didn’t have an atlas, I put my faith in Google. I simply entered my hotel address as the destination and said “no tolls” and let it guide me.

But after my luck with this strategy on the Laguna Seca trip, why would I do it again? Crossing Texas is nothing like crossing Nevada. I was happy with the route. It skirted Amarillo and Lubbock, the biggest cities on the way. It was a mix of US highways, Texas highways, and Interstates, but probably as little of the latter as was possible without adding a lot of time to the drive.

Much of the morning was spent crossing the Caprock Escarpment. This is a geological formation that is notable for its flatness. There’s not a tree or river to be seen; the terrain is as flat as a table, no sign that water has ever flowed here. The extreme western end is in New Mexico. It stretches from the Oklahoma panhandle on the north to a point roughly east of El Paso on the south, and its eastern edge is east of Lubbock. It’s a big place. Featureless, dull, with roads that are the antithesis of Lotus roads: flat and straight. This is crop circle land, literally: farms featuring center-pivot irrigation, mile after mile.

The only relief from this monotony is a stretch between Channing and Bushland, on Texas routes, where you descend through a valley that has somehow managed to be eroded from its surroundings.

I stopped for fuel in Amarillo, at the extreme southwest corner of the loop highway, Texas 335. Unfortunately, the car again failed to start. We live in a time of technological marvels. I was able to consult my phone to get a list of auto shops, with hours of operation and phone numbers. As this was Saturday, though, quite a few were closed. And the first two I tried that were supposedly open failed to answer. My third try was a Firestone shop.

After some bad experiences decades ago with Firestone I was reluctant to try them, but they were now my best shot. I called them, told them I needed to get to Austin before dark and asked if they could help. They said yes, so I had a destination. It took me all of about 90 seconds to get a volunteer to give me a jump start. This friendly gentleman also gave me directions to the very Firestone shop I had just talked to.

Within ten minutes I was at the shop. They quickly diagnosed the problem – it was indeed the battery – and were able to provide a replacement of the same brand and model. I was in and out in a bit less than an hour, and everyone there was friendly and helpful. I was back on the road a bit after 11am.

With the phone doing the navigating, I typically don’t even hear it chime when I get text messages. Even when I do hear them, I certainly don’t bother with them until I get to my next stop. At one point Ryan texted, wondering how the car was running. I let him know of my difficulties, and he was quite supportive. It really means a lot that he took a few minutes out of his busy day. He’s working to support a car in the Ferrari Challenge, one of the several events in Montreal this Grand Prix weekend.

The next stretch of road was I-27 southbound toward Lubbock. We’re back atop the Caprock Escarpment, straight, flat, and boring. Just before arriving on the north end of Lubbock I started seeing the icons of Texas: longhorn cattle and oil pumps. I felt like I finally entered Texas.

I much prefer US highways to Interstates. But in Texas there is often little difference between the two. Many of the miles I’ve traversed on US 87, US 84, and US 183 may as well be Interstates. They’re four (or more) lanes, divided highways, often with limited access. Exactly the kind of roads I try to avoid. Luckily, they don’t have nearly the truck traffic we see on the Interstates.

Google skirted me around Lubbock on the loop highway and sent me southeast on US 84. This is very much oil patch territory. Each farm and ranch had a number of oil pumps. It looked to me like only about a quarter or a third of them were in operation, bouncing slowly up and down. The scent of Texas Tea was in the air. As the road descends from the Caprock, not only the terrain is transformed. The flora changes dramatically from ranchland to what we’re more used to seeing in stereotypical television and movie versions of Texas. But the bigger transformation, to my surprise, was from oil wells to windmills.

My first thought was, “Wow, there are hundreds of windmills!” This is wrong. There are not hundreds of windmills. There are thousands. While only a fraction of the oil wells are actively pumping, well over ninety percent of the windmills were spinning. There are more than ten thousand windmills generating power in Texas and my route takes me through the largest concentration of them.

I remained on US 84 until the junction with I-20, which I took for only a short distance. When you get to Sweetwater on I-20, there’s a windmill blade, maybe sixty feet long, by the side of the road with “Life is Sweet in Sweetwater” written on it. By now, we’ve been passing windmills for nearly a hundred miles. And still they line the horizon. Somewhere around Brownwood I find myself back on US 84 and finally we leave the windmills in the rearview mirror.

The remainder of the route follows US 183 south. I’m somewhat amused by the directions Google provides. We follow 183 for twenty or thirty or more miles and are directed to make a right turn to remain on 183. This happens five or six times before we finally get to Austin where 183 becomes an urban Interstate: four, five, or six lanes wide, elevated, with much traffic.

I was not so good today modulating my engine speed. There’s some degree of that that occurs naturally, being that the roads I traveled pass through many small towns. The speed limits drop from 75 to 70 to 55 and on down to 45, 35, and 30. Then back up through the progression on the other side of town. But on the open road I pretty much stuck to the speed limit, which is a nearly universal 75.

I checked in to the motel at a quarter to eight. I hadn’t eaten dinner but didn’t want to get back in the car, so I wandered down the road a couple of blocks and found a dive Mexican restaurant. I was one of only a few customers. Had two beers and two tacos. Tasty tacos and refreshing beer, sure hit the spot.

Got online to make reservations in Snyder for the way back. I didn’t want to risk not having a room, after the near miss in Clayton. I used Expedia; selected a motel, entered my credit card info, and pressed submit. No reservation showed up in my account. So I called the motel. They had no record either of my reservation, so I asked for one. No problem, she says, and reserves me a room.

It has been a long day, leavened with a little stress from the problem battery. And I have a big day tomorrow. Drivers meeting is at 7:15, so I need to be checked out of the hotel not much after 6:30. Time to hit the hay.

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