Feature Story

On The Road Again with Al Girard

Al Girard, a longtime Jeff Gordon fan from Canada, made his annual trip south to attend several NASCAR races. Behind the wheel of his motorhome, the route took him to Charlotte, Dover, Pocono, and Michigan. But as we know, the journey-- not so much the destination-- is where the real reward lies. He kept an updated journal during his 2003 trek, and did the same in 2004.

Journal Updates:
-May 9
-May 16
-May 29
-June 8
-June 17
-June 25

"Canadian Export"
Sunday, May 9. Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

This will be the fifth year in succession that I've made the long trip in my motorhome to attend NASCAR races, but it could very well be the last. With gasoline prices on the rise and with no idea just how high they will go, it's quite obvious that my annual trips are quite expensive. There was a time when camping was still the most economical way to attend so many races, but that seems to be changing, at least for me. The problem is that I live so far away from the tracks that I have to drive thousands of miles, unlike those lucky folks who live only mere hours away from the action. I have seen gas prices as low as $1.19 per gallon over those last few years. Two years ago the most expensive gasoline was in Michigan at $1.48. How I'd love to see those prices on this trip! I expect to burn 700 gallons of gasoline in the USA as I head from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada to races at Charlotte, Dover, Pocono and Michigan before the return trip home. My travels will take me through two Canadian Provinces and twenty States. I'm going to take a different route down this year for a change of scenery, but the return trip will be the same as in past years.

The motorhome is clean and all is ready but the water supply which I'll take care of on Sunday, May 9. I'll flush the anti-freeze out of the system, fill the water, stop for the first of many tanks of fuel and I'll hit the road around noon. My first stop will be Calgary where I'll have coffee with friends at a Tim Horton's shop. For those unaware, Tim Horton's is a large franchise chain of coffee, doughnut, soup and sandwich shops which are hugely popular in Canada. The chain has made inroads into the United States, as I saw several Tim Horton's shops in Ohio last year.

On the first part of my trip I'll visit the Custer Battlefield at Little Big Horn in Montana. After spending an hour or two, I'll continue on to South Dakota where many spectacular vistas await. Among which are Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Monument, and Deadwood (where Wild Bill Hicock played his last hand), and the South Dakota Badlands. If I have time, I'll also visit the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota. Every year the exterior of the Corn Palace is decorated with murals that are comprised of corns and grains. The design each year differs from past years, so it remains an attraction season after season.

Who knows what other sights I'll see as I wind my way to the Southeast? I have a new digital camera, so you can be sure that I will be taking thousands of photos over then next seven weeks. I'm looking forward to seeing a lot of friends from Jeff Gordon Online at the tracks. To see Jeff win some races in person would be fabulous. Just can't wait to get on the road again.

Thar she blows!
Sunday, May 16. Lexington, Kentucky

I left Edmonton as scheduled on May 9, and made the first stop in Calgary as planned, meeting some friends for coffee, and was on the way again an hour later. About eight hours after leaving home, I arrived at the border crossing point at Couttes, Alberta and Sweetgraass, Montana. When I drove up to the US Immigration window, the female officer asked for my license number and ID. I handed her my registration, driver's license, birth certificate, passport and Canadian Social Insurance card. She instructed me to park the vehicle over to the left and to go inside the building.

As I entered the building and went to the counter, I saw three Immigration Officers, all staring at computers, looking very glum. Each officer had a hand on his chin. I watched them for about ten minutes and not one of them moved. Finally, in a joking manner, I said "You guys look so serious. You're making me nervous". One officer looked at me, smiled, and said "It's all a facade." Eventually one officer asked me all sorts of questions. He wanted to know if I had guns, ammunition, fireworks, reptiles, snails, pets, tobacco, alcohol, gifts which I'd be leaving in the country, products for sale, and finally whether I had more than $10,000 in US currency (yeah, right!). Satisfied with my answers he then asked if he could enter my motorhome. I gave him the keys, and after he finished the inspection I was given my documents and told that I was free to go.

Every time I've entered the US the procedure has been different. This particular entry took about 25 minutes, which in my experience was the slowest ever. However, I was on my way, so I drove until I saw a rest area near Great Falls, Montana. The next morning I awoke quite early, so I continued on my trip. Just as I passed the Great Falls airport I saw a cloud of smoke billowing behind the motorhome, so I pulled over to see what had happened. There was a pool of antifreeze on the ground. I waited about fifteen minutes to let the engine cool down, and then I opened the radiator cap and poured a jug of water into the radiator, but the water ran right through and onto the ground. I obviously had a problem, so I called AAA Emergency Road Service. About 40 minutes later a large tow truck arrived. One of the drivers crawled underneath to see what my problem was. He said that the "soft plug" had popped. That was about the least serious of potential problems, so I was pretty lucky. They towed the motorhome about two miles to a large Ford dealership where a mechanic was put on the repair job immediately. It was now a reasonable hour, so I phoned an old friend, who practices law in Great Falls. My friend came right over and took me to see his new house. The interesting thing about the drive was that he took me in his new hybrid car.

About three hours after I broke down I was once again on my way, with a new soft plug and new antifreeze, but I was poorer by $175. I look on the experience as a good news/bad news situation. The bad news was that I had a mechanical breakdown. The good news was that it happened where it did, because my travels were to take me through some sparsely-settled areas over the next few days.

I remembered Montana as being boring, from past travels to the state, but now I was going through a different area, and the scenery was simply spectacular. This was the second day in a row where I was driving through snow squalls. It was quite cool, as it would be for the first five days of my trip. As a matter of fact, I had to use the furnace every night until I arrived in Kentucky. Driving through Montana and Wyoming, I saw many chain-up areas because there were some pretty long steep grades, but this was not chain-up season thankfully.

My first planned stop in Montana was the Custer Battlefield Memorial. The cold winds were blowing across the plains as I walked to the mass graves and memorials. It's an erie place even now. There are markers where soldiers of the doomed 7th Cavalry fell. There was no place to hide for protection, and one gets the feeling that panic must have set in when the soldiers found that they were so terribly outnumbered. Even though I'm a Canadian, I know quite a bit about American history, so this was a worthwhile place to visit and to reflect on the events which happened here.

Montana and Wyoming are pronghorn antelope country, and I sure saw a lot of them in fields along the roads, stopping occasionally to take some photos of the little groups of animals. In Wyoming I visited the Devil's Tower, a unique geological remnant of volcanic activity. In mid-afternoon I arrived in South Dakota. Deadwood was not far from the border, so I went there to look around. It's an interesting town, that seems to rely heavily on casinos. Just about every store had slot machines and video lottery terminals, but that wasn't what I came to see. I asked a local where Boot Hill was and after he pointed it out to me I went up the steep road to a parking lot next to the cemetary. It was only a short walk to the graves of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane which are side by side. Boot Hill is indeed a hill. It's a very steep one at that. I would think that in this former gold-mining town, the cemetary is a gold mine for historians.

I boondocked at a truck stop in Rapid City. When I went to bed the winds were blowing at close to 60 mph, and soft rain came down. In the morning as I drove to Mount Rushmore I was extremely disappointed while driving through fog where visibility was about 150 feet. However I drove out of the fog only a few miles from the mountain, and it was beautiful when I arrived. I gave the digital camera a good workout before heading next to the Crazy Horse project only 17 miles away. This is an absolutely amazing project which has been underway for some 56 years now. I took several photos and went into the visitor center to look at museum displays, buy a couple of books and DVDs on the project and to watch an orientation film. When I exited the film, the mountain could no longer be seen as it was now snowing heavily. I was lucky with the weather at both Mount Rushmore and at Crazy Horse.

Next on my agenda was to visit the South Dakota Badlands. I drove around a portion of the perimiter, stopping to take dozens of photos in areas where I could look right down into the desolate formations and canyons. Then I drove down into and through the area, taking still more photos from inside the gulches. I must have spent about six hours in the badlands.

After leaving the badlands I continued on to Lexington, Kentucky to visit friends. I arrived in late afternoon Fiday, and will hit the road again Monday morning (May 17) for Charlotte.

Center Stage
Saturday, May 29. Charlotte, North Carolina

The weekend in Kentucky was most enjoyable and relaxing. My friends and I went out for dinner a couple of times and on Sunday I was treated to a pasta dinner at one of the homes. Monday morning I was again on my way towards Charlotte, but I met with Charlie, and we spent a quiet evening chatting before I called it a night. My motorhome was parked in Charlie's yard and I went to sleep while lightning bugs flashed their little beacons. Tuesday I was up bright and early, continuing on to Charlotte, arriving in mid-afternoon. I took care of some grocery shopping before setting up camp, but it was so hot that I did not break any speed records in setting up camp. Actually, the whole time in Charlotte has been uncomfortably hot. That's quite a contrast to last year when we were deluged by heavy rains.

After the Friday night truck race I stopped by the Speed stage where they were taping Tackside. Rusty was the guest, and the crowd was large and boisterous. I was so impressed by the 24 team in the All Star race, as they made repairs which gave Jeff a reasonable finish. In the final laps, Jeff gained on Junior from a deficit of more than three seconds to where Jeff would have passed Junior in another lap or two. Jeff's damaged race car finished ahead of the undamaged car of pole-sitter Rusty Wallace. After the race the drivers' hellicopter shuttles flew over my motorhome which is only a couple of hundred feet from the helicopter landing pad.

Tuesday afternoon of the second week as I was reading a book under my awning an NBC TV crew spotted my license plate. They stopped and asked if they could interview me about the fact that the South (primarily the Carolinas) are losing races to the western states. The interview lasted about ten minutes, and although I think it went well, I didn't see the final outcome. Wednesday night we were warned by security that a severe storm was on the way, with potentially heavy rain and high winds, so several neighbors and I took down flag poles and rolled up awning, but other than dark skies and a light five-minute rain nothing of any consequence happened. Thursday I met Paul, a gordonline.com forum member. We set up his tent in a different camp ground from mine, and we went together to watch practice, qualifying and the ARCA race.

Friday I went to the Hendrick Motor Sports 20th Anniversary party. Jeff was to sign 250 autographs for lucky fans. I was told the lineup began at 6 pm the previous evening. That's 17 hours before Jeff was to begin to sign! While I didn't get an autograph or the chance to meet Jeff, I did take dozens of photos of our favorite driver. Friday evening Paul and I attended the races at the dirt track.

So far I've met several friends from gordonline.com, and with Coca Cola 600 weekend now here, I expect to meet several more. It's always nice to meet people with whom I've chatted on the forum. With Jeff starting on the second row, I'm really looking forward to Sunday.

"Always A Brand New Day"
Tuesday, June 8. Flemington, New Jersey

I looked forward with eager anticipation to the Coca-Cola 600 at Concord and to the MBNA 400 at Dover, but was disappointed at the outcome of those races. Jeff's cars let him down, and I just can't imagine how upset Jeff, Robbie and the team must have felt to finish so poorly in races where they really should have done well. Luck was not a member of the 24 team at those races.

The first time I camped at Concord, I was caught in general gridlock on Monday morning after the Coca Cola 600 as I attempted to leave the campgrounds to make my way to the on-ramp to I-85. The distance is about a mile, but it took nearly two hours to get to the Interstate, so I devised a plan which I've followed every year since, and it works perfectly. Before the Coca-Cola 600 I take down my flags, roll up the awning and carpets and generally secure the motorhome for travel, and then I go to bed.

While I sleep, the car traffic and RVs which try to leave after the race have their fun and frustrations for around three hours. I get up between 4-5am, drive to the Interstate with no problems, and stop at the rest stop at Kannapolis to finish my sleep. When I awake in the morning I then continue on towards Dover.

Dover campgrounds are on a first-come, first-served basis, so it's pretty important to arrive early in order to get a good spot. Locals take their RVS and park them up to ten days ahead, so even when I arrive on Tuesday afternoon, Campgrounds one to nine are already full.

Making my way to Dover, on Memorial Day, I stopped to visit the lighthouses at Cape Henry, near Virginia Beach. On the site there are two lighthouses, one completed in 1792 and the other in 1881. I took lots of photos of the two structures, and after I left there I headed out over Chesapeake Bay via the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel which I've crossed many times before. I stopped at the visitor center which is located four miles out and had supper in the restaurant. While I was there, a fisherman hauled in a black drum, which he guessed weighed about 60 pounds. After crossing the bridge, I stopped at the rest stop at the far end to spend the night.

When I arrived at Dover I fueled up the motorhome (gas prices varied from $1.96 to $2.17), bought a few groceries and then went to check in at the campground. I was assigned what I thought was a pretty good site, but I soon found that the road which ran alongside my site to the campgrounds further in the woods was extremely dusty which prevented me from sitting outside, or, for that matter, having my windows open. It seems that NASCAR fans think that they're NASCAR drivers as they speed through the campgrounds. At any rate, I complained to the attendants, requesting the road be watered, and on Friday a truck finally came to wet the roadway down. On Saturday, Mother Nature took over. The rains which caused the Bushe race to be postponed also brought relief from the dust.

After leaving the Dover area, I drove to Pennsylvania to tour the rural areas for a couple of days before heading to New Jersey. There's an attraction at Flemington which I recently read about, so I'm looking forward to visiting Northlandz, which is the largest model railroad layout in the world, with some eight miles of track. I'm also hoping to have lunch with an old friend, D.J. McLachlan, who was the leader of The Fendermen when I was the drummer for that band. D.J. is still in the business, but now he's an agent, representing such acts as Earl Scruggs.

RVs are allowed in to Pocono after 10am on Thursday, so I plan to be there at that time. Another good friend, Pat Kiernan, who's the morning anchor on NY1, bought tickets for the Saturday afternoon ARCA race so we'll be able to spend some time together visiting. Looking forward, ever hopeful, that Jeff will finally have good luck and success.

"My Window On The World"
Thursday, June 17. Brooklyn, Michigan

Upon arriving at Pocono I was assigned a campsite that was located only a hundred feet from the grandstand. I had a really nice spot, but the best part was I had terrific neighbors. Two men in a Class A motorhome really took a liking to me. Their families joined them on Saturday, and we spend a lot of time together, getting to know each other, sharing stories and quickly becoming friends. That's one of the most appealing aspects of camping at the tracks, as I'm made several close friends whom I see each year, with the list growing each season. The two men are both nuclear physicists in charge of radiation control at a nuclear power plant near Oswego, NY. They came up with an idea that should I be back next season we will get together before arriving at the track so that we arrive together which would allow us to camp together.

It rained shortly after I set up camp, and for the first time since I began camping I did not bother setting up my flags. I took out my barbeque, but did not use it all weekend as I was always invited to share with the new friends.

There's a huge American flag at the entrance to the grandstand area, and it's become a meeting place. Sherry Johnson, her husband Roy and I met after practice on Friday, and my friend Pat Kiernan from New York was there on Saturday. I did something that not many Canadians have done, I would suspect. After the race on Sunday, I assisted the people who were taking that flag down, as they did not want it to touch the ground. It was quite windy at the time.

After the Arca race on Saturday, as Pat and I were sitiing under my awning chatting, Robin came by and joined us for about an hour.

The cautions at the end of the race were really frustrating Jeff. He had a strong car, and I have no doubt that had the race ended in green he would have at least finished second. The cautions may have even prevented him from winning.

I left the area around 8am on Monday, making my way to Ohio where I paid a surprise visit to a friend in Canton. If you remember the JG/Santa Claus cartoon that is posted on gordonline.com around Christmas each year, Brian Johnson was the artist who drew it. We went to a place called "Joe's Crab Shack" for a very enjoyable dinner and conversation before heading our separate ways. There was a WalMart right across the street so I spent the night in their lot after buying a bunch of bargain DVDs.

I decided to drive through rural Ohio, as one doesn't get to see much while travelling on the Interstates. The roads, though, can be a little rough at times. On Tuesday, on a narrow road, my engine suddenly quit so I pulled to a stop at the gateway to a bed and breakfast. The engine would turn over, but would not start. I looked under neath and there was a small pool of fluid. I touched my finger to the fluid and put it to my nose. It smelled like tar. A call to AAA Emergency Roadside Service brought a tow truck a half hour later. My RV was towed to a Ford dealer about twelve miles away, but when I went to the Service Department I was told that they were booked solid for a week and a half, although when they could find time they'd send a mechanic to at least see what went wrong, so I spent the next three hours house cleaning.

After three hours a mechanic climbed in, tried to start the engine, crawled underneath, climbed back in and started the engine. He didn't spend more than a minute from the time he arrived to the time the engine was running. Apparantly the rough roads shook the gas line from the fuel filter, and he simply had to push it back in place. I had vision of spending a week in their parking lot while I waited for an expensive repair job, so I counted my blessings as I drove away after being charged $30.

Tuesday night I boondocked at a Flying J Truck Stop near Toledo and on Wednesday I stopped at Cabela's to shop before moving on to the Speedway. I have a method now of telling that I'm heading in the right direction to a Speedway where a race is being held: Gas prices get higher the closer I get to the tack.

In the campground my friends from previous years have their usual sites, so we've been getting together to have fun and enjoy each other's company. And, my friends from Iowa told me that they've added me to their budget, so I won't have to set up my barbecue again this weekend. I'll be enjoying their cooking, although on Wednesday evening I made bacon-wrapped jalapenos stuffed with cream cheese, mozzarella and chopped mushroom stems. Tonight I'll make stuffed mushroom buttons as a treat.

"So Much For My Happy Ending"
Friday, June 25. Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

Race day at Michigan dawned with promise of a great run by the DuPont Chevrolet. For the first 80 laps or so, Jeff's car was dominant. But a cloud of smoke brought dreams of another victory crashing down. What a contrast this tour was to that of a few years ago (2001) when I witnessed Jeff win the Winston, followed by races at Dover and Michigan.

After the race I struck camp and had a dinner of beef stroganoff with my Iowa friends, and then we headed home, our three RVs travelling in a convoy. As it is after any race, traffic was inching along for nearly an hour and a half, but eventually we broke free of the gridlock and were on our way. When we arrived at a service plaza on the Ohio Turnpike we bid our farewells as I decided that I'd spend the night in a quiet spot that's set up for RVs, away from the always-running diesels of the transport trucks.

I was up bright and early the next day, heading to my second destination of Rogers, Minnesota, where I boondocked at a T/A truck stop. I saw an interesting thing on the Turnpike. They have infra-red beams set up to detect animals which when triggered flashes a strobe light on a sign in the area. It's a very clever way to minimize road kill.

Bumper sticker on a car on the freeway: I like animals. They're delicious. And on another car: Help ban bumper stickers

The next morning I fueled up at the truck stop and shopped at a Camping World store which was only a block away. Onward to North Dakota. I think I'm going to bypass North Dakota next year, because for the second year in a row I had electrical trouble. At Carrington, after fueling, the ignition was dead. There was a garage a block away, and the mechanic gave me a boost, but after putting his test gear to work he found that my alternator had died. Exactly one year ago I had the same problem. He took my alternator out and took it to a nearby NAPA dealer to have it tested, but it tested good. So now what? He tried to find what else could be the problem, but everything pointed to a bad alternator. With the NAPA dealer now closed for the evening the mechanic called it a day and closed up shop after giving me a line to the shop's power. In the morning he took the alternator back to NAPA and with a different operator, the alternator tested faulty, so a new one was installed and within a half hour I was again travelling towards home.

I'm glad that I was honest with Canadian Customs,because two agents boarded my motorhome and they were in it for fifteen minutes while they did a thorough check. That day I drove for 16 hours, arriving home at 1:00 a.m. Besides the two Canadian Provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan I visited Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota. I drove 11,156.8 kilometers, or 6932.51 statute Miles. In Canada I bought 525 litres of gas for a total of $504.27 CAD. In the US I burned 790.0 US gallons for $1495.72 USD. The lowest gasoline price was near Toledo at $1.699 and the most expensive was in Pennsylvania at Pocono where the only station in the area is gouging motorists during race week. Even though I fueled up in Ronks, PA that day at $1.819, this guy charged $2.199.

I'm just about rested up after my trip. The motor home has been fueled and in just a couple of days I'll be heading west across the Canadian Rockies to Kamloops, British Columbia where I'll be attending a golden wedding anniversary banquet. In just a few short months the renewal notices will arrive, and as in the past, I'll begin preparing for yet another sojurn to the wonderful world of NASCAR racing.

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