Taken a few years ago at some joint on Broadway in Nashville, this was one of several photos with good-looking girls I had never laid eyes on before. It wasn't my birthday, but the Nissan crew was telling every attractive female we encountered that it was. Here's to getting older!

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Left Out In the Cold: A Disappointing Finish In the Latest Kia Contest

Kia's all-new Soul EV and redesigned Sedona.
I'm not the kind of guy who makes a habit of dinning on sour grapes. I don't make a habit of it, but that doesn't mean it's completely out of my wheelhouse. I can be petty when circumstances warrant, shaking my raised fist and shouting complaints from my high horse. I refer here to the unconscionable results of the latest Kia media-event contest.

For readers not among my auto journalist homies, Kia always includes a competition of some type in each of its media launch events. Contests have included photos, coloring pictures and, on the recent event introducing media to the redesigned Sedona and all-new Soul EV in southern California, a contest for rewriting the lyrics to some California-centric song.

Engineered to add some fun and keep otherwise jaded journalists at least somewhat engaged, these challenges also spotlight Kia's audio partner harman/kardon – in this case its Infinity brand – that always supplies the prizes.

The photo of me as Matrix's Morpheus that garnered a 2nd Place award at the K900 event.
Over the years, I've had my fair share of victories. My two-person teams or I have been to the podium four times, finishing first once, second twice and third once. Including this most recent incident, my teams have also received two honorable mentions.

Although it's always gratifying to be recognized, receiving an honorable mention is like kissing your sister. 

On the podium with fellow winners at the K900 event.
Following the “there are no rules in a knife fight” model, these contests have evolved into creative donnybrooks in which the judges often proffer prizes to teams doing something outrageous rather than strictly meeting the stated goal. To be totally honest, teams are informed beforehand that cheating, lying, pandering and otherwise deviating from the rules are perfectly acceptable. I will mention here that all victories my teams achieved were the result of sticking mostly to the rules. I'm not opposed to coloring outside the lines, but just haven't done it for these competitions.

Because of the judges' loose interpretation of contest parameters, the stated goal is often a moving target. In this case, the competition morphed from the best lyrics to the most outrageous audio or video recording of a team performing rewritten lyrics.

I'm throwing a flag and calling, foul!

My driving partner Keith Griffin and I rewrote some of the lyrics to “Hotel California” by the Eagles. 

Yukking it up with my pal Don Felder.
A few years ago I had a conversation with Eagles Don Felder at a Hyundai media event. We spoke on a number of topics. It was during that conversation that I posed to him the question: If you could do it again, what changes would you make to the lyrics of “Hotel California?” He offered several. I incorporated a few into our Kia effort. So, really, the lyrics we submitted were the result of a partnership among Griffin, Felder and me. If that's cheating, then so be it.

Although a couple of the podium finishes of my various teams surprised me, I was very positive about our effort for the contest in which we finished first. Kia supplied each team with a booklet of stories in which several key words were missing. We (Ron Moorhead and I) were to pick one and fill in the blanks. My confidence level was high on that one.

Another contest in which I thought we would be in the money was the original Soul media launch in South Florida. Kia armed each team with a disposable camera and instructed us to shoot a photo of the Soul with a Florida theme. My partner and I scoured the Miami area in search of a Hooters restaurant. This was years ago before you could just say a destination into your smart phone and instantly receive directions. Hooters is a Florida chain founded in Clearwater. We found one, but it was located in a complex with a parking garage. We required a store with a traditional parking lot where we could pull the Soul in front of the building. After about 30 minutes, we located one. My driving partner (Tim Spell) and I went inside, spoke with the manager and returned to the car with three or four “Hooters girls” in tow. We draped them over the car and shot the photo.

I was convinced we had a winner. Silly me. We received my first honorable mention for that one. The winner, if I remember correctly, was a photo of a Soul with a beach umbrella sticking out of it. You've got to be kidding me.

I had the same positive feeling before winners were announced in the recent lyrics contest. I wasn't convinced we had necessarily the best lyrics, but I was sure we would at least place or show.

Those conceiving the contest, I think, believed teams would perform their lyrics at the awards ceremony the second night. There was a piano player standing by. I told the powers that be that I would not be singing mine. My singing voice is a stray-dog siren call. Besides, I had come down with a raging cold that very morning; just speaking was an effort. None of the actual winners had to perform live because they submitted recordings.

Looking back on it, though, I should have at least read the lyrics sort of like a coffee-house poem. These were important words that the world should hear!

Because our lyrics weren't heard, I am revealing them below. Here's why I think they were a contender: We managed to include a California reference once, “MPV” once, “Kia” twice, “Sedona” four times, “Infinity” once, “Dawn Geary” (Infinity's rep at the event and contest judge) once, and "Scott McKee" (Kia's honcho of media relations and contest judge) once, yet we still created poetry that would bring a tear to Bob Dylan's eye.

Here's the opening stanza and refrain as we rewrote it:

In a silver Sedona, motoring without a care
The freshly downsized Keith Griffin and Heaps without hair
Pointed at San Diego, not yet in sight
Griffin working the wheel with Heaps directing him
Both still woozy from last night.
The Sedona's cabin is roomy; it's big as Hell
The V6 is whisper quiet; the Infinity system clear as a bell
Dawn Geary swears it's nearly perfect in each and every way
We turned down the volume just in time to hear Scott McKee say,

Step on up to the MPV Sedona
It's a Kia, you see
Built with quality
Plenty of zoom in the Kia Sedona
It's a stunning find
that will blow your mind.”

Give me a moment: I'm misting up here. If that isn't a money finisher, I don't know what is.

So, here's what I propose: Those who received the all-new and yet-unreleased $300 Infinity One wireless portable speakers as a prize can step up and do the right thing: Fed Ex them to me. I'll make sure Griffin and Felder get theirs.

You can call me for the shipping address at 1-864-UPYOURS.

Have a nice day.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Back in the Saddle Again: Eight Fijis and Their Trusty Steeds Take on Wyoming

I'm not the kind of guy who won't admit when he's too old to do something. I'll own up to my age, but I'm not aging gracefully. I hate every friggin' moment of it. I am still in the gym nearly every day when I'm home. And, if I had the dough, I'd probably be nipping, tucking and lifting at a rate that would make a washed-up Hollywood starlet envious.

Yet, I didn't give a second thought to the physical implications of heading to a couple of days of horseback riding at Eatons' Ranch in Wyoming last week. I went there with assorted buddies and fraternity brothers for nine years in a row beginning in 2002. I never had so much as a twinge of discomfort during the nine or ten 3-hour rides each of those trips entailed. 

Our merry band of misfits.
Then, after a three-year hiatus, the brothers returned to Eatons' this year. OMG! What a difference three years makes when you have as many years in your rearview mirror as I have.

Unlike years past when I was there for four or five days, this year, obligations at home – namely covering the big Greenville food/wine/craft beer/live music event Euphoria for GreenvilleInsider – meant that I could only stay for two nights and three rides this year....thank God! As I stagger around the airport in Billings, Mont. for my flights home, I doubt I'd be more stove up and sore had I plummeted over Niagara Falls in a barrel.

Seven of us arrived in Billings around noon on Tuesday. An eighth – an intrepid soul indeed – flew into the Sheridan Thrifty Mart and Airport that same morning. I arrived in fairly good shape despite spending the three-and-a-half-hour flight from Atlanta to Salt Lake City in an aisle seat with a young woman balancing a three-month-old baby in her lap in the center seat next to me. Incredibly, the baby snoozed the entire way, rousing only when the plane's landing gear deployed upon arrival. Just writing about this stroke of luck brings a tear to my eye. good and so good for you.
Wrangler Rick – so nick named because he introduced us to Eatons' all those years ago and led the way on our trail rides that first outing – was on my flight into Billings where we would all mount up into a couple of rental cars for the two-and-a-half-hour drive to the ranch in Wyoming. With an hour to fill waiting on the other arrivals, we collected our bags and retired to the airport bar where the bartender introduced us to Pig's Ass Porter. As the rest of our crew drifted in, most, naturally, joined us in a Pig's Ass.

A little shopping at Costco.
For years our routine after arriving in Billings was to seek out the Costco where we would load up on Moose Drool Ale, peanuts in the shell – both staples of our ranch boondoggles – and whatever other sundries we thought we needed. We did the same this trip, but, sadly, there was no Moose Drool to be found. We came up Drooless. One of the cars, though, detoured into a package store as we neared the ranch to procure that necessity.

The only one of us arriving early enough on Day 1 to ride was the brother who flew into Sheridan (about 20 miles from the ranch). He squeezed in an afternoon ride that first day. The rest of us had to settle for unpacking, drinking Moose Drool and catching up for an hour or so before dinner.

Moose Drool and peanuts: It's more than enough to sustain a cowboy.
If you have anyone you can be out of contact with for months or even years at a time, get back together and pretty much pick up where you left off as though you were last together yesterday, you understand what this group is like. Everyone still pretty much fills their role of 40 years ago when we were all Fijis at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, playing their part flawlessly. 

The living room in Big Graham.
Eatons' is the longest running guest ranch in the United States, and I guess that means in the world. So, changes (read that: improvements) don't come easily. The first thing I noticed was the new living-room furniture in the Big Graham cabin in which I stayed the last eight visits. There is also a very nice bar in the main ranch house. When we first went to the ranch, you had to keep any alcohol on the down low. Slowly the ranch began to allow guests to bring it with them into the dining room. Eventually the ranch even stocked bottles of liquor, bottles of wine and six packs of beer, which guests could buy. Now there is a full-fledged bar with a happy hour with free draft beer and wine for the hour before dinner. 

The ranch's well-stocked and nicely furnished bar.
Skeet shooting and organized fly fishing outings are also recent additions to the Eatons' activities menu. Because these would have interfered with our drinking, we didn't participate.

Although some of the entrees proved a little too froo-froo for me, the food was damn good. We went a couple of years where the Donner Party ate better than we did. Quality wasn't an issue this trip.

Some good sippin'.
Our after-dinner activities typically consist of retiring to one of our cabins' porches and tossing back a few drinks while regaling one another with stories and lies. This year we had the added bonus of several bottles of high-end scotches, bourbons and ryes from which to choose. 

Some expert saddle fitting.
Wednesday morning we gathered for breakfast around 7 a.m. By 8:00, we were at the barn being fitted for saddles. Our first trail ride kicked off at 9:30. Eatons' is unique in that, although they are available upon request, wranglers aren't required to lead the trail rides. Guests simply mount up and head out in whichever direction they want to go. During the shoulder season, there are morning and afternoon riding sessions, each roughly two-to-three hours long. More adventurous guests can take a sack lunch and head out on an all day ride. I've done a couple of all-day rides over the years and was not thrilled with the experience. Nope; I'd much rather take a break at noon, toss back a Moose Drool and have a sit-down lunch.

Once upon a time, we were much more adventurous. We took on the more challenging trails. Several of our group would take advantage of the sections of whatever trail we were on crossing into the plains to gallop. Not so much now. On this trip our primary goal was to stay in the saddle and avoid breaking anything. We were pretty much successful. It doesn't make for an exciting blog, but is certainly an accomplishment.

Wrangling the mounts for our afternoon ride.
Wednesday night broke with tradition on two fronts. First, during happy hour at the ranch's bar, our little group was alone in the room when two women joined our table. After dinner, they dropped by our porch. This, we later determined, was a violation of our ranch guys-only code. It has been violated before, but we really try to enforce it. The evening was sort of fun, but certainly the dynamic was much different. Second, we never play pranks on one another. However, as our group broke up that night, the five guys in the larger cabin discovered each of their beds had been salted with cashews. It was the Great Cashew Caper of 2014. Of course, the three of us in the smaller cabin fell under immediate suspicion. All I know is, it wasn't me. Actually as the investigation played out, all indications are it was one of the ranch staff. It's family owned and managed. We have been going there for years. We are now pretty sure it was some pot stirring by a ranch staffer. 

My steed this visit was Hova. He appeared a bit reluctant during our first ride. For the afternoon's outing, I donned my spurs, which provided him with some needed motivation. He became wonderfully responsive.

I only made it out on the trail three times during this trip. Despite my premature departure, however, I later felt every second spent in the saddle. About two-thirds of the way through my last ride on Thursday morning, I remarked that if this was golf, at this point in the ride would be my 12th hole. That's usually about when, weary from concentrating, I would lose interest in the game and be ready to head back to the clubhouse. Thursday's ride was about two miles beyond my capacity to enjoy it. My knees and lower back ached, my thighs hurt and I was craving a Moose Drool. Even if I had stayed at the ranch another couple of days as everyone else did, I wouldn't have ridden Thursday afternoon. 

I took advantage of the ranch's airport shuttle service to get myself back to Billings Thursday afternoon. I stayed at the least expensive motel I could find online. It was downtown, and had the advantage of being about a six-block walk from the Montana Brewing Company brew pub. There I sampled a Great White Stout while chowing down on fish and chips.

I had to order a taxi to haul me from the motel to the airport Friday morning. The motel's front desk gave me the number of a cab company and suggested I preorder it the night before. I was skeptical it would show at the designated time of 4:45 a.m., but arrive it did. It turned out to be $11 rather than the $7 the desk clerk quoted me, but I was just happy to have the on-time ride.

My flights home took me to Minneapolis and Detroit, but were uneventful. Landing in Greenville, I gathered my luggage, jumped in the car and headed directly downtown for Euphoria, the reason for my leaving the ranch early.

My tenth, and perhaps final, Eatons' trip is history.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Another Chapter In the Flying Circus That Is Delta

I was in New York to drive the all-new Lexus RC F at the Monticello Race Club track.
I'm not the kind of guy who thinks air travel should be totally absent of an occasional hiccup here or there. I fly anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 miles a year, depending on the volatile largesse of carmakers. (This will be a 50,000-mile year.) When one does that much flying, he should expect a delay or two. I do. I get it. I've even caused more than one delay for myself by volunteering for a later flight to pocket a $300-to-$500 voucher for future travel. Cha-ching!

I don't think, though, that it's good business for any airline that every fourth or fifth leg – a flight between two airports – should be delayed in some shape or fashion. Weather delays that no airline or airport can control should make up the lion's share of schedule interruptions. That, however, does not seem to be the case – at least for Delta.

After 25 years of more-than-average air travel, I am still amazed at the apparently limitless and creative ways my flights are delayed. When you ponder the intricacies of technology required to allow a metal cylinder to become airborne and stay that way, there's a lot that can go wrong. Once again, I get it.

That doesn't mean that my heart doesn't skip a beat when, from my on-board seat, I see a couple of maintenance guys begin scurrying in and out of the aircraft. As my scheduled departure time passes, I am often suddenly catapulted into ass-covering mode, which means a call to Delta on my cell to back myself up on later flights. My angst is dramatically reduced when I don't have to make a connection. If this is the final leg to my ultimate destination, it's just a matter of reconciling myself to a tardy arrival. On the other hand, if this leg is just one in a series of flights, my apprehension ratchets up considerably.

My recent return to Greenville-Spartanburg Airport from LaGuardia in New York, where I was the guest of Lexus driving its all-new RC F, was of the final-destination variety.

When I think of New York City or its airports, I don't get warm fuzzies. I'm not a fan. I could go the rest of my life without returning to NYC, and not lose a nano-second's sleep. But, when a carmaker invites me to an event, I go where the trip takes me – in this case: LaGuardia and NYC.

The flight in was uneventful. In fact, we landed about 20 minutes early. This, of course, caused a bit of confusion with the limo sent to scoop me up and haul me to the Ritz Carlton in White Plains, a city roughly an hour from LaGuardia. It wasn't a big deal, but did eat up the 20-minute time advantage the early arrival provided.

I'm not a fan of any airport where I am forced to leave the gate area, trudge down a flight or two of stairs schlepping my luggage only to squeeze into an over-crowded shuttle bus that drives to the plane. That's how it works at LaGuardia for regional equipment.

Snapped from my seat on the gate shuttle with my iPhone, the pilot and co-pilot discuss last week's Jets game while we stew on the bus. Let them eat cake!
We pulled up to our Delta Connection jet to find a maintenance pickup truck partially blocking our way. Two maintenance techs were walking around opposite sides of the plane with flashlights peeking into compartments and open panels. They would meet at the front or back of the plane, confer and continue on. Walk, peek, meet, confer, walk, peek, meet, confer....

Eventually the maintenance-vehicle count rose to three and the tech count to five. Mostly the other three techs remained in their vehicles texting or talking on their cell phones as the first two continued wandering around the plane. Occasionally, one of them would board the plane. The pilot and co-pilot were on the tarmac this entire time chitchatting. In the finest Delta fashion, no one was bothering to inform us exactly what was going on. It seems to me the pilot could have torn himself away from his stimulating intercourse with his backup to walk the 20 feet to our bus to tell us what was transpiring. Yep, nope.

We stayed on the bus for nearly 45 minutes watching this circus. Maintenance guys in and out of their vehicles, walking around the plane, peeking into things, conversing and then splitting up as one or two boarded the plane and the rest returned to their vehicles for more texting.

We sat on the bus plane side for so long, the driver's shift ended and his replacement was driven out to take his place. We could hear conversation between the plane, the techs and the gate on the driver's radio. We knew progress wasn't being made.

Finally, the driver received the order to haul us back to the gate. Apparently, the plane's electrical system was down and there wasn't any juice to start the engines.

As we approached the gate, we could see the plane's landing lights wink on. No sooner did the bus coast to a halt at the gate entrance than the driver was ordered to take us back to the plane. Evidently, a large battery was rolled out and the one of the engines was jump started. 

As we motored back to the plane, the lady sitting across from me confessed, “I'm not sure I want to get on a plane with no electrical power.”

“It's only an issue when taking off,” I assured her. “It will come down all by itself.”

She looked at me wide eyed. I don't think I calmed her fears.

We finally boarded and rolled down the taxi way about 50 minutes late.

We landed without incident.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Terrorizing Virginia Horse Country in Volkswagens!

I'm not the kind of guy who libels law enforcement at every turn. In fact, my experiences with state, county and city officers of the law since making South Carolina part of my routine has been pretty positive. But, I must admit, one of the reasons Virginia was never on my list of places to which I might relocate is because of its jackbooted enforcement of its speed limits – many of which are downright unbearably low. 

Among my fellow members of the motoring press, stories of being pulled over and some times even ticketed for doing three or four miles over the speed limit are quite common. Such behavior is obviously revenue driven, but come on.

Carmakers sporadically choose Virginia as the host of a media event. Typically these are in northern Virginia, near D.C. Such was the case with the recent Volkswagen 2015 full-line media event that was headquartered in Middleburg, Virginia.

Let me say that, in nearly every other respect, I love Virginia. I spent a lot of time there when working on the “Discover America” TV series. There is no other state – or commonwealth in the case of Virginia – in the country containing the history Virginia legitimately claims. I have always been a Civil War buff, and that alone makes Virginia a Mecca of sorts for me. But there is so much more history there as well from the homes of the presidents it provided to The Crooked Road music trail celebrating the birthplace of country and bluegrass music. Incredible!

I hadn't been to Middleburg since my days editing a couple of car magazines for American Media. We did an SUV comparison that had several of us piloting assorted SUVs through much of Virginia. Among our overnight stops was Middleburg. It's a quaint little town that's been around since 1787. Its Red Fox Inn dates back even further to 1728. 

Main entrance to the Salamander Resort and Spa punctuated with Volkswagens.
Volkswagen, though, chose the somewhat newer Salamander Resort and Spa that opened in 2013 to anchor our visit. Roughly a half-hour's drive from Washington Dulles Airport, it sprawls across 340 acres at the threshold of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Guests staying in one of its 168 rooms not only have access to its full-service spa, but also a state-of-the-art equestrian center. It's a gorgeous property with room rates beginning at $495 a night. My only disappointment was the puny selection of bourbons and tequilas. My local Ruby Tuesday matches it. Apparently Virginia gentry isn't into small-batch bourbons.

One of the seating areas in the resort's lobby.
This Volkswagen event was a quick in and out. We arrived the afternoon of the first day and flew home late afternoon/early evening of the second day. Our driving consisted of various routes through Virginia's stunningly beautiful horse country – the longest requiring more than an hour and the shortest roughly 20 minutes. 

Enjoying sunrise on the myself.
I arrived at breakfast the second day – my birthday by the way – around 6:15 a.m. We had a rollicking good time the night before. I hung out long enough to throw back a celebratory birthday shot of Patron at midnight. Others apparently stuck around much later than I. Sitting on the patio I watched the sun come up by myself. I mean not one other soul showed up for the 40 minutes I sat there. If the serving staff hadn't been hovering around, I might have jumped to the conclusion the Rapture had occurred as I slept. Then I remembered we were talking members of the automotive press who were M.I.A.; so, it couldn't be that. It was really strange, though.

2015 Jetta.
The big news at this event was the redesigned Jetta with the availability of its all-new 2.0 TDI clean diesel engine or a 1.8-liter turbocharged four. I've always liked Jetta. Volkswagen's sales have been struggling of late, but it's not because the cars aren't solid. They certainly are. It's difficult not to like the spunky 1.8L turbo with its 170 horsepower. It's a blast to drive. The 2L TDI with its 46 highway mpg and 236 lb-ft of line-busting torque, is a terrific addition to the Jetta engine stable. Jetta pricing really begins with the $17,325 2.0L S. There is an even more affordable Jetta Base, but it must be special ordered and probably won't be in any significant number.

2015 Eos Final Edition.
We had the opportunity to drive Jettas equipped with all three of its engine offerings – there is also a 2-liter four-cylinder – along with every other member of the Volkswagen family. One car that is taking its final lap in 2015 is the Eos. This hardtop convertible is a wonderful little car. Its top raises and lowers in less than 30 seconds. It utilizes a 200-horsepower 2-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine for its go. A driver-shiftable, six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission is standard for its $35,795 price tag. I recently spent a week in Greenville with a 2014 version. I loved every second of it. My only caveat is the price. At its price point, there are a lot of options out there. In every other respect, though, I can't think of a car I've driven lately that I've enjoyed more. It's energetic, athletic and nicely appointed. The top operates flawlessly and when raised, keeps the cabin remarkably quiet. It's the ideal, year-around convertible. 

My driving partner and I rotated in and out of several other models over the course of the day. It was a great way to sample all of Volkswagen's wares. If only we could have felt comfortable driving them a little faster.