Feature Story

On The Road with Al Girard - 2005

A lot of race fans drive down from Canada to attend NASCAR races. But few of them have the unique window on the world that Al Girard does. He's been making the trip in his motorhome for the past six years. For the third year in a row, Al will provide a road trip diary on the website. He'll send updates via email from friends' houses, public libraries, and any place with an internet terminal. More than six weeks on the road and a trunk full of memories to come. Pack 'em up and ship 'em out.

On The Road - 2004 | On The Road - 2003

Journal Updates:
-May 3
-May 14
-May 25
-June 7
-June 14
-June 23

"The Adventure Begins"
Tuesday, May 3. Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

As I turn the ignition key to start my motorhome, I take a look at my house. Nearly two months will have elapsed and I will have logged close to 6,000 miles before I see the house again. I am embarking on my sixth annual trip to Charlotte, Dover, Pocono and Michigan, quite possibly for the last time.

Each spring I head out on my journey with great anticipation and excitement. This year though, I'm a bit apprehensive because I suffered injuries last August in a freak incident, requiring surgery to both knees and as a result I no longer have the stamina that I once had. I have no idea how I'll fare with the long walks from the campsites to the stands and back, or what the climbs up and down the stands will be like. Luckily there are golf-cart shuttles that will help me go from place to place at Lowes Motor Speedway.

Ever-rising fuel costs will play a part in my decision about whether or not I will take the long drive again. The first year that I made the trip, the lowest gasoline price that I encountered was $1.19 per gallon. Considering the fact that I will buy between 650 and 700 U.S. gallons of unleaded gas in the United States, plus about six fillups in Canada, the fuel expenses this year will be nearly double what they were six years ago. Pocono has lost their June race for 2006, and even though that track was not high on my list of favorites, the change in venues for the June race will have little bearing on my decision about doing the trip or cancelling next season. That race has been replaced by one at Watkins Glen and the drive from Dover to the Glen would be a little longer than the trip from Dover to Pocono.

A lot of my friends from Edmonton would like to go to the races with me, but jobs and families just won't allow them to take trips of such a long duration, so I travel alone. I don't mind being alone because I have lots of music to entertain me as I drive. I prefer to drive during daylight hours so that I can enjoy the scenery and the various viewpoints.

While I'm alone on the drive, I look forward to seeing old friends whom I've met in the campgrounds. We see each other every racing season, and the list of friends grows year by year. Life in the campgrounds is a very enjoyable aspect of the racing ambience. I'll describe some of what will occur in future articles.

My first stop will be in Calgary, Alberta, a city about 200 miles to the South where I will spend a couple of days visiting old friends. After leaving Calgary I will head to Great Falls, Montana, through the mountain passes and beyond. I want to stop at the Reno-Benteen battlefield in Montana before turning East across Wyoming to Rapid City, South Dakota. Last year my travels took me to the Crazyhorse Monument, but the weather closed in shortly after I arrived with heavy snow obscuring the view of the mountain. I would like to spend a day there, watching the workers as they carve the world's largest sculpture. After I leave the Black Hills of South Dakota I'll work my way to Lexington, Kentucky to visit some good friends for the weekend. I really don't know what route I'll be taking on that leg of the trip as I have several options and I won't make a decision until I'm in the area. I want to arrive in Lexington on the evening of May 13th. The next report will be written in Lexington.

"Beyond The Tourist Traps"
Saturday, May 14. Lexington, Kentucky

After leaving home my first stop was Calgary, Alberta where I spent a couple of days visiting friends. We went out for a few drinks and pizza, and during the course of the conversation I was asked if Iíd enjoy a drive to Drumheller the next day. Drumheller is a city in the Alberta badlands, which is also known as dinosaur valley. The terrain is very interesting and it bears some similarities to the badlands of South Dakota with some exceptions. A river winds through the valley and there are several villages as well as the city of Drumheller down in the valley, whereas the American badlands are unpopulated and desolate. The side trip was an enjoyable one, offering several good photo opportunities.

The Sweetgrass Hills of Montana are visible for about thirty miles from the border. When I arrived at the U.S. Customs and Immigration buildings at Couttes/Sweetgrass and drove up to the window, I fully expected a thorough interrogation but I was quite surprised that in about a minute after answering about six questions I was admitted into the USA and on my way. For the first time since 9 -11, crossing the border into the United States was quick and easy, just as it used to be before that dreadful terrorist attack. About an hour after crossing the border I went to a Flying J truck stop at Great Falls where a friend brought a Sirius satellite radio that I had previously bought and had shipped to his address. With the motor home now equipped with the satellite radio I was ready to make my way South and East through the USA, but only after a good nightís sleep.

The weather in the first third of Montana was fine, but then the rains came. As my route took me through Montana and Wyoming and into South Dakota over the next two days the rains came down consistently and at times very heavily. The night of my arrival at Rapid City, South Dakota was spent at a Wallmart lot. The next day I drove to Crazyhorse where I had planned to spend the whole day visiting the complex with its marvelous museum and displays and watching the workers carving the mountain. Crazyhorse is 17 miles from Mount Rushmore which is visible from three different viewpoints, so when the opportunity to take photos of that huge work of art presented itself, the stops were made and the photos were taken.

When the brilliant self-taught sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski passed away unexpectedly in 1982 his wife Ruth took on the role as CEO of the mountain-carving project. Work on the massive sculpture has continued under her guidance, assisted by several of her children along with engineers and expert blasters. Measurements are taken from Korczakís original sculpture and expanded onto the mountain with great precision. One of my goals was to meet Ruth and to give her a hug. Mission accomplished. I spent the whole day there, and before I left after sunset I watched technicians aiming floodlights and spotlights onto the mountain. Later this year there will be laser displays on the mountain, which should be quite spectacular. I again passed Mount Rushmore as I returned to Rapid City for the night, fully expecting to see the images of the four presidents lit up, but they were in darkness, so I guess the floodlights are only on during tourist season in the summer months. It had been a beautiful, sunny day, and I found out a couple of days later that my timing was perfect, because a foot of snow was forecast for the area shortly after I had departed.

After a good nightís sleep at the same Walmart I hit the road eastward through South Dakota before turning South to Nebraska as the rains began again and the winds picked up strength. The winds became so strong that the spray from vehicles traveling in the opposite direction on the Interstate was hitting my vehicle. It was amazing to see because the rooster tail spray from big trucks was going straight sideways, a condition that I had never seen before. I could virtually see the wind. In Nebraska the rains finally stopped, and the weather improved after I turned Eastward again in Kansas.

While driving southbound in Kansas I saw a huge twin-spired cathedral off to my right, so I took the exit and went to investigate. Known as the Cathedral of the Prairies, St. Fidelis Church stands as the dominant structure in the small town of Victoria, a town that has a population of 1200 people. The sandstone cathedral is huge. The interior is overwhelming, and the stop was certainly worthwhile. Built by German settlers and completed in 1921, the cathedral would make any major city proud, but there it stands in the middle of the Kansas prairie.

As I continued on eastward, I saw billboards advertising the U.S. Cavalry Museum at Fort Riley, so that became my next destination. Since the museum is on a military base I had to get a day pass. Required documents were driverís license, registration and insurance and a vehicle inspection by a very cordial military police officer. The museum is very informative, with artifacts which include weaponry, different forms of uniforms and clothing through the years plus some well-done dioramas. I was hoping to see a gatling gun and found one on the second floor.

I was able to drive by Kansas Speedway, but was unable to gain access to view the track. My route then took me eastward through the remainder of Kansas, followed by Missouri (where I saw the famous arch as I drove past it in St. Louis), Indiana, Illinois and finally Kentucky. Itís good to have a rest top for the weekend as I visit good friends. The Richmond race will be recorded on TIVO and weíll be watching it later on a JVC 61 inch LCOS Hi Definition TV with surround sound. That should be awesome. Iíll be heading to Charlotte Monday morning, expecting to arrive Tuesday afternoon.

"Carolina State Of Mind"
Wednesday, May 25. Rock Hill, South Carolina

The weekend in Lexington, Kentucky with friends was as enjoyable as those good times in past years. We went to a couple of restaurants for dinner, and while the food was good, the experience at the second establishment (which shall remain nameless) was less than perfect. We sat for nearly twenty minutes without being approached by anyone, so the person manning the front counter was reminded that we had been seated quite some time ago and then promply forgotten. A very pleasant waitress was hastily dispatched to our table. She told us that the regular waiter for our section had been fired just that evening, resulting in a bit of a mixup. We gave her our orders, and the salads arrived quickly, but then the waiting resumed, as nearly an hour went by before our entrees were placed before us. What a difference a year makes, because I remember that when we ate there a year ago the service was perfect.

On May 16, I left Lexington on I-75, heading south towards Charlotte, but after an hour traffic came to a halt due to a fatal accident ahead. Northbound truckers told us via CB radio that there were three "four-wheelers" involved along with a tractor-trailer, and that two SUVs were on their roofs. We were also told that we would be there for at least two hours, as yellow tape had been stung across the interstate. As we sat, waiting for the highway to be reopened, little groups of people got out of their vehicles to stretch their legs or to have a smoke, and an interesting thing happened; people began to have conversations. All along the interstate, little groups of strangers were chatting, almost as if they were at a cocktail party. As the truckers had predicted, we were stopped for two hours. When the tape was removed to open the freeway, traffic began to flow normally again, and within a few short minutes we are again up to speed. I arrived at Lowes Motor Speedway at around 9pm. After registering at the campground office I found a level spot and went to bed.

On Tuesday I drove to my assigned spot, leveled the motorhome, put out the carpets and lowered and secured the awning. Other tasks such as putting up the flag poles and lights were done over the course of the week. Events began on Thursday, the first being the Pit Crew Challenge at the Charlotte Coliseum. Some campground neighbors and I went to that event, enjoying it thoroughly. Friday was practice followed by the Craftsman Truck race. I was very glad that I had taken a jacket with me because the temperatures dropped drastically. Quite a few of those in attendance were clad only in t-shirts and shorts. They must have been extremely cold. I listened to Steve Park on the scanner. He finished in sixth after driving a very good race.

Several of the Fan Forum members met in front of the main ticket office prior to the All-Star race. Before heading to our seats we had a few group photos taken. It's always nice to meet online friends at the tracks. In the evening during the All Star race most of the action happened right in front of me because my seat was at the start/finish line.

On Monday I went to RCR and to Richard Childress' new winery with a couple of Dale Earnhardt Junior fans whom I've known for several years. Richard Childress never does anything half-way, and his winery is no exception. The operation is simply first-class, and after tasting a few of his wines, I'd have to say that it won't be long before they win their first wine competition. The winery is so new that they only planted their first vines last year, and they won't get their first harvest until the vines are into the third season. For the current wines which are now being sold, the company purchased grapes from other North Carolina wineries. An interesting note: North Carolina is the 12th largest wine-producing area of the USA. Richard Childress Vineyards has eleven different grape varieties. Childress has hired an award-winning vinter to head the wine-making operation. We spotted an interesting bottle of Jeff Gordon wine in a locked room behind glass. It was obviously bottled by the Richard Childress Winery. I bought five bottles of various types along with several other items from his wine boutique.

On May 24, the three of us drove to the Victory Junction Camp, but we didn't get past the entrance as the camp was closed for a private function. We then went to Richard Petty's museum, Penske Racing, DEI and several other smaller shops. An interesting facet of the Petty museum is that it doesn't only encompass racing items. Richard has a huge gun collection, knife collection and pocket watch collection along with other sports memorabilia, while his wife has a very large collection of rare dolls.

I thought you'd enjoy a photo that I took of a puppy in a car next to my vehicle as we waited for a traffic light to change. I'm happy to tell you that my knees have not given me any problems. I've walked long distances several times, gone up and down stairs, and had absolutely no difficulties. I wrote this report on Jo's computer after a wonderful dinner prepared by a 'forum legend.' So far I've been in ten states on this trip. Much more further on up the road.

"Somewhere In The Sun"
Tuesday, June 7. Strasburg, Pennsylvania

After two disappointing weeks I'm in need of a few quiet days, so here I am again, in the peaceful Amish area of Pennsylvania. I feel like a local, because I knew exactly where the public library is, having used a computer here last year at about the same time. Since I'm posting this from a public library, I'm unable to upload photos.

It seems to me that whenever a race track breaks apart, Jeff Gordon will be sure to sustain front-end damage from the track fragments. In the Coca-Cola 600 Jeff ran over track fragments, which forced him to pit with both right-side tires going flat. Jeff complained on the radio earlier that the track was breaking up, but while he was complaining, little did he know that the surface was about to fling debris at the 24 car. Actually he had problems with the track surface in turns 1 and 2 during practice. The crew did a terrific repair job, keeping the car in contention.

As Jeff drove around under caution, he was asking what NASCAR did to repair the track surface, as Jeff did not think NASCAR had done anything to solve the problem. What had begun as a very promising race for the DuPont Chevy ended in a DNF, and points lost to the eventual winner, Jimmie Johnson.

I walked back to my motorhome while the victory lane celebrations were under way, since there were only a few golf-cart shuttles running after the race. My campsite is about 500 feet from the helicopter landing pad. I sat on a folding chair watching the choppers coming and going (right over my motorhome) as they shuttled drivers, team owners, sponsors and other VIPs over the traffic jam to wherever they had parked their cars. The air show went on for two hours. I went to bed to get a little sleep because I had intended to leave early in the morning, after the parking lots had emptied and before the campers created a second traffic jam.

When I awoke at 3:30 a.m. I left, heading up I-85 to a rest stop at Kannapolis where I went back to bed to finish my sleep. By 9 a.m. I was again on my way on the trip to Dover.

About 200 miles outside of Charlotte I stopped at a Flying J truck stop to get propane. I parked beside the propane tank and used the service telephone to call for an attendant. "HEY, AL!" I looked around and spotted a friend, Maureen Higgins from Maryland. Her husband Mark was at the nearby diesel pumps filling his motorhome, and it was Mark who had spotted me. They were on their way to Dover as well. I joined them in the restaurant as they had breakfast.

After crossing the Chesepeake Bay Bridge Tunnel ($14 last year, $17 this year) I had planned to spend the night at the rest stop which is located adjacent to the Eastern toll gates, and as I drove into the rest area, there they were again! I watched "Inside Nextel Cup" on Speed with the Higgins' in their motor home before turning in for the night. It's a huge rest area and I parked in the far corner where it would be quiet, but during the night a transport truck parked right next to me, keeping his engine running, so I got out of bed and drove to the other side of the lot where there was less noise.

In past years I've driven up Route 13 through Maryland, but Mark had suggested that Route 113 was a less-congested road, so that's the way I went. When I saw a sign that said "Ocean City: 6 miles" it wasn't a difficult decision to take the diversion. I dipped my feet into the Atlantic, got some sand beneath my feet, and bought the mandatory t-shirt. I arrived at Dover in mid-afternoon. With a few fresh groceries in the fridge I checked into the campgrounds ($45 last year, $60 this year) and was assigned a site which was only about three hundred feet from the elevator to my Nextel Cup seat.

Friday it rained all day. I didn't leave the motorhome at all, choosing to just stay inside, listen to music and read. Saturday the Busch Race and the Craftsman Truck races were held.

Sunday morning a lady from Virginia who along with her husband was in the unit next to mine gave me a Jeff Gordon cushion which she had made. It's really nice, and it will look good on my couch at home.

I met Nancy from the Fan Forum, before heading to the elevator where there was a long queue, but after inching my way forward for a half hour I was finally on the way up to my seat at row 58, turn one. What a hot day! I lathered at least six layers of sunblock on my arms and legs, and still I was worried about sunburn. What a contrast from two years ago when we were freezing in the stands. Another promising day ended in an early DNF with Jeff falling back in the standings to 11th place, but I'm ever the optomist, and I'm not worried that Jeff will miss the cut. He's simply too good for that to happen. I will bet that there will be fire in his eyes as he hits the track at Pocono and Michigan.

With about five laps remaining in the race I headed to the elevator, making it down and to my motorhome quickly. I was so hot I just turned on the air conditioner and crashed on the bed for a good hour before having enough energy to walk around.

I met a police officer as I walked. I said to him "why don't you take the rest of the day off?" He smiled and stopped to chat. He told me that there were a lot of cases of heat exhaustion, dehydration and sunburn, but all-in-all, things went well with one exception. He said that Saturday night a fan had tried to cross Route 13, was hit by a vehicle and was killed. He told me the fan was drunk. That kind of puts things into perspective. On a weekend where Jeff lost points, someone else lost his life. I'll take a points loss any day, because I'm certain Jeff be back in the top five or top ten again very soon.

"Deja Vu All Over Again"
Tuesday, June 14. Monroe, Michigan

What was to be a few quiet hours in Amish country turned out to be anything but quiet, at least for five hours, because a terrific thunderstorm with spectacular lightning, booming and rumbling thunder and driving rains hit the area on June 6. The rains were very heavy, dumping nearly five inches according to the local newspaper the next day, but I was in a good place, parked on pavement, so I had no problems. While in the area I went once again to the Strasburg Rail Museum and the Toy Train Museum, having visited both facilities last year. The displays are marvelous, and well-worth repeat visits.

Tuesday I left the area, driving back roads as I headed to New Jersey. I like to take the back roads when I'm in no hurry, as it gives me the opportunity to see "small-town America". I spent the night at a T/A truck stop before continuing on to the Pocono area. Pocono Raceway does not allow campers onto their property until Thursday morning at ten a.m., and the rule is "first come. first served" so I wanted to be in the area with the intent of arriving early enough to get near the front of the queue.

I drove around, looking for a camp ground, since the one which I had used in previous years had apparently gone our of business. As I was driving around, I passed a filling station that had unleaded gas posted as $2.10. I couldn't help thinking that someone must have given the command "gentlemen, start your gouging" because I found a campsite which quoted me a price of $52.00 for one night during race week. I told them that their price was outrageous, got back into the motorhome and went looking for another place. As I passed that same filling station, I saw that their price for gas was now $2.40 per gallon. Not too far away is Hickory Run State Park which offered campsites with water and elecrical hookups for $16, so it paid to look around.

I was about the tenth unit in line the next morning, with the result that I was assigned a spot only about a hundred feet from the grandstand. Pocono Raceway has a strange rule, where you must have a ticket in order to go to the souvenir haulers. That evening a severe thunderstorm hit, dumping a lot of rain during about an hour, flooding a lot of the campsites in up to ten inches of water, but my site which was on high ground had no such flooding.

I had a visit with Sherry on Friday and Sunday, and also Robin on Saturday. On Saturday evening I went to listen to the band at the MRO stage. It was a group called Corral, and they were pretty good, playing both country and rock tunes. MRO asks people to register because they draw names every half hour or so, for prizes such as hats, beach towels and tee shirts, but they had a special prize which they were going to give away at the end of the show. As the concert ended, they drew a name of a lady, but there was no response, so they drew another... mine! The prize was a tiffany-styletri-light touch lamp with images of several race cars on the glass. What a nice way to end the day!

My seat for the race was in an area called Terrace Club. The tickets are quite expensive, but the view of the race was excellent, plus there was a buffet along with drinks always available. I can't recall the last time that Jeff started a race dead last. I was really happy he finished in the top ten, as did his three Hendrick teammates.

Monday morning I headed to a nearby laundromat to do my laundry before beginning the drive to Michigan. The drive to Michigan was essentially the first leg of my return to my home in Western Canada. I knew exactly where a Flying J is located near Toledo, Ohio, and I drove straight to it without using a map. These annual trips have made me quite familiar with certain areas of the United States.

After a stop at the Cabella's store in Dundee, Michigan, I checked in to my campsite at the speedway late on Tuesday afternoon. I once was an assistant sysop on a Compuserve forum. This evening I'll be having dinner with an old friend from Michigan, whom I've never met in person. He was the "Wizop" of the HamNet forum.

"Back Where I Come From"
Thursday, June 23. Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

When I arrived at the campsite at Michigan Speedway, there were not very many campers on site, but an hour after I leveled the motorhome and put the awning and carpet out, two friends from Wisconsin arrived. Other friends from Iowa, Michigan and Canada arrived on Thursday. Most of my time prior to on-track activities and in the evenings was spent socializing with my friends. The campground is extremely clean and is patrolled regularly by friendly security personnel.

MIS has done an outstanding job in building a fan-friendly area where the souvenir haulers and commercial displays are set up. The entire area has been paved, and there is ample space between the units. I attended the ARCA and truck races as well as the Nextel Cup practices and qualifying. Jeff's car was fast during practices, with only slight modifications needed in order to improve the car, and Jeff was happy with the car. However, the race was an entirely different story, as the car was not handling well at all. It was reminiscent of the 2004 Coca-Cola 600 where he had a broken suspension part. Jeff was very frustrated, and his language on the radio was loaded with expletives. Whenever he pitted for tires there did not appear to be any improvements on the setup, leaving me, and I'm sure others to wonder why a car that was so good in practice and in qualifying could be so poor when it really counted.

The best part of the race for me, was the command to start engines, given by Batman in a low, distinguished voice. The fly-past was fabulous with the four jets making a surprise second pass at high speed from behind us, then climbing vertically and disappearing through the clouds. A beautiful World War II B-25 also made a couple of passes. The wicked-looking Batmobile ran ahead of the pace lap. About three hours after the race had ended I followed two RVs belonging to my Iowa friends to the Ohio Turnpike and then onward to the Indiana Turnpike. When I finally had to stop for fuel, I called it a day and pulled into the Travel Plaza for a night's sleep as I still had three days to go before I'd get home.

The next morning I worked my way through Chicago (always an adventure), past Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin, then through St. Paul and Minneapolis, onward to Rogers, Minnesota where I spent the night at a truck stop. The next day I drove to Regina, Saskatchewan, sleeping in a WalMart lot. Crossing the border into Canada was quick and easy. The Customs officer only asked a few questions. I gave him my receipts for my purchases, which he quickly inspected before telling me to have a nice day as he sent me on my way into Canada. I got up shortly after four in the morning, heading onto the highway for the final eight hours of the trip home.

The Butcher's Bill
Gasoline in Canada --- 7 fills --- 563.844 litres --- $494.42 CAD
Highest price - 91.9 per litre --- lowest price ------$84.5 per liter
Gasoline in USA --- 32 fills --- 760.0324 gallons ---$1589.32 US
Highest price - $2.309 at Crow Agency, Montana
Lowest price - $1.879 at Lexington, Kentucky
Canadian Provinces -- 2
US States -- 21
Kilometers travelled -- 10620
Miles travelled -- 6599
Days on the road - 50

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