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!

Friday, December 18, 2015

A Car Guy's Dream Odyssey: An Epic Drive from Dallas to Albuquerque in the 2016 Camaro SS

I'm not the kind of guy who turns his nose up at the opportunity for a two-day drive simply because I've made the same trip a few times in the past. That the trip in question wound up in Albuquerque, where I find myself at least twice a year visiting family, doesn't mean I shouldn't go, should it? I mean, it's not the destination; it's the journey, right? Right.

That's even more the case when Chevrolet hands over keys to its redesigned 2016 Camaro SS to make this 650-mile jaunt. Yes, sign me up, please.

It was all part of Chevy's “Find New Roads” cross-country media drive. The way it worked was Chevy planned routes from the Atlantic to the Pacific coasts. Included cities actually were scattered all over the place. To cover so much geography, Chevy established two distinct routes broken into 500- to 700-mile segments, Chevy invited motoring media to choose a leg to drive. There were 8 to 10 Camaros and their media drivers per segment.

I know it's hard to imagine, but Chevy didn't invite me on this epic event. Nope. I suspect I don't tweet or Instagram enough to rate a seat on such a historic drive. In today's social-media-driven marketing world, most carmakers don't have much use for media types who can string together complete sentences. I'm pretty much over it. Despite Chevy passing me over – no doubt for someone who can't drive a manual transmission – I managed to finagle my way on to the event.

Chevy offered actual invitees the opportunity to bring along a significant other or a photographer. My craft-beer buddy Keith Griffin, who did score an invite, offered me the right-hand seat in his Camaro. I think it was as his photographer; at least I hope it was. We will keep it on the down low that I drove about half our segment.

After flying us into Dallas, Chevy gave each Camaro in our group 36 hours to complete the trip to Albuquerque. Chevy provided each driver with a prepaid Visa card for gas and incidentals like snacks and meals. Each Camaro was equipped with OnStar, which we used to guide us from one point to the next, as well as as our concierge to book our hotel rooms for the night with a Chevy credit card.

To spice things up, Chevy also concocted a contest: a scavenger hunt of sorts. Points were awarded for engaging in all manner of social-media posts on various social-media sites, as well as visiting specified sites along the way. Huge point awards were tied to going a little out of the way to include states not really on the route. One goal of the event was to include all 50 states. Racking up at least 1,000 miles on the odo also garnered a big point award.

Chevy treated us to dinner with assorted engineers and Camaro wonks at our hotel near the Dallas-Fort Worth airport on our arrival night. Eager to finally get behind the wheel, our 7:30 breakfast the next morning was the only thing standing in our way. We were on the road by 8:30.

Who wouldn't be eager to test the mettle of this land-locked jet fighter? Generating 455 horsepower, as well as 455 lb-ft of asphalt chomping torque, the Camaro SS's 6.2-liter V8 employs either a six-speed manual or eight-speed automatic transmission to turn the rear wheels. From a standstill, the automatic-equipped Camaro SS with its steering wheel-mounted shift paddles slingshots to 60 miles per hour in a scorching 4.0 seconds! Our red Camaro SS had the automatic. The zero-to-60 time is by Chevy's stopwatch, but I don't doubt it for a second. 

What dazzled us right out of the chute was just how quiet and well mannered this coupe is. Working our way along congested freeways and a surface road or two in our Dallas – well, actually our Grapevine – escape, this Camaro was remarkably driveable. Chevy engineers managed to make the chassis 28% stiffer and more than 220 pounds lighter than the 2015 Camaro. This not only contributes to the car's quietness, but enhances handling and fuel economy, too. The government estimates that with the 6.2L and automatic tranny, the Camaro will deliver 17 mpg city, 28 mpg highway and 20 mpg combined. We found this pretty accurate by our coupe's trip computer.

Although they won't accelerate off the line as the Camaro SS does, there will also be versions with a 275-horsepower 2-liter turbo four-cylinder and a 335-horsepower 3.6-liter V6.

Sure, the big story – at least for serious car guys – about Camaro SS is its performance and acceleration, but Chevy has upped the ante inside as well. Packed with all manner of connectivity technology – an available eight-inch color touchscreen dominates the dashboard's center, while a standard eight-inch monitor fills the center on the instrument cluster – the cabin is amazingly comfortable. Interrupted by lunch, a couple of fuel stops, a pit stop or two for personal biological imperatives, and a couple more stops at scavenger-hunt sites, we spent a solid nine hours on day one in the Camaro's highly supportive seats. My age is north of 60, and I was no more fatigued than had we only driven across Dallas.

Keith and I had explored various routes we might take to Albuquerque both in e-mails and face-to-face discussions at the Miami Auto Show a few days prior to landing in Texas. Having dated a Dallas lady for a couple of years, I made the drive between Dallas and family in Albuquerque several times. I knew there wasn't much to see or do along the direct route that would take us on Route 287 through Wichita Falls and on up to Amarillo where we would pick up I-40 for a direct shot into the Duke City.

We really didn't have much time to mess around taking a more southern route. Keith had an early afternoon flight out of Albuquerque the next day. Whatever we were going to do, we had to do by noon. A week or so before the event Chevy provided a list of a few interesting things to see and do scattered around the area between our starting and stopping points. These also wound up being point earners on the scavenger hunt. Only two of them were really doable for us in our gallop along the roads we planned to use. I suggested we also stop at the Big Texan near Amarillo for lunch. Not that either of us were going to accept the 72-oz-steak challenge, but I had never been and thought it would be fun.

Much of what little preplaning we had done went out the window once Chevy announced the rules of the scavenger hunt at the first-night's dinner. Calling an audible, team-captain Keith decided we should sweep directly north, picking up I-40 in Oklahoma to earn the 350 bonus points that state represented. In for a penny in for a pound, I suggested we might as well cannonball all the way up to Colorado and pick up that state's 350 points, too. We could then drop due south into Santa Fe on I-25.

Game on! Taking a short detour to snap a photo of the Camaro in front of the Texas Motor Speedway sign in Fort Worth, we blasted up Rt 287, picking up Rt 81 in Bowie. We grabbed I-40 just west of Oklahoma City and zero'd in on Amarillo. The Big Texan was still our lunch target. 

Somewhere in Oklahoma we stopped for a leg stretch and some gas. Keith used his Chevy-issued card to pay for the fuel and a few snacks. That was the last we saw of the card. Lost like last year's Easter Egg, it was not to be found. Somewhere between swiping the card in Oklahoma and sitting down for lunch in Amarillo, the card mysteriously disappeared. At that point I was very happy playing Gilligan to Keith's captain of our team. What me worry? Hell, Chevy barely knows I'm here. 

We arrived at the Big Texan about 1:30 and chowed down on some barbecue. We burned roughly an hour eating and meandering around the restaurant, sections of which look like your grandfather's garage. Man, there's some uber weird stuff in there.

Reinvigorated, we mounted up and headed to our first official scavenger-hunt site: the Cadillac Ranch. A popular tourist spot, it's the Cadillac Stonehenge of West Texas consisting of a line of 10 Caddys of assorted years buried snout down. Once upon a time, you could actually identify the cars at which you were gazing. Today, they are barely recognizable hulks covered with graffiti. But costing us only about 30 minutes of travel time, it was worth 100 scavenger-hunt points.

The Cadillac Ranch: much ado about nothing.
With the posted speed limit along most of I-40 at 75 miles per hour, we felt 80 to 85 a reasonable pace. Contacting our new-found buddies at OnStar, we were directed north on Rt 385, through Dalhart and then onto Rt 87, where we clipped the northeast corner of New Mexico before rolling into Colorado on I-25.

Rt 385 and Rt 87 in Texas seem to have been laid out, paved and then forgotten by the locals. There was literally no other traffic on long stretches of these two-lane highways. It felt like we were on the raggedy edge of civilization. I fully expected some sort of cobbled-together Mad Max vehicle with zombie-like apocalypse survivors hanging all over it to come flying over a rise in an attempt to hijack us. I was driving this portion of our trip. We would crest a small rise and could see five or six miles ahead to the next small rise. No traffic. No Officer Friendlies. No reason not to air things out a little.

I won't go into detail, but suffice to say, the Camaro is stable and smooth as silk even at higher speeds. It was as much fun as I've ever had driving car.

Driving roughly 10 miles into Colorado, we took an exit and pulled over to snap a photo. Unfortunately, the sun had set 90 minutes earlier. What we got were photos of the Camaro's headlights. We would have to trust Chevy's GPS check of our car to verify our breaching the Colorado border.

Turning the reins back over to my partner for the sprint back down I-25 to Santa Fe, I busied myself with waking up the folks at OnStar to book rooms for the night. Because it was already nearly7:00, and we had at least a two-plus-hour slog to Santa Fe, we decided to overnight there. We had yet to eat dinner and lunch was already about 250 miles in our rearview mirror.

Like a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, the dining room at La Fonda.
 Each time we contacted OnStar, the agent we spoke with was well aware who were were and what we were doing. I suspected that Chevy issued parameters regarding the types of hotels the agents could book us. When I told the agent we needed two Santa Fe hotel rooms near the Plaza, he began rattling off names like Four Seasons and La Fonda on the Plaza. Always wanting to stay at La Fonda, we booked there. Our agent offered to provide directions, but instead I asked for directions to the one scavenger-hunt location in Santa Fe: the Palace of the Governors. We figured as long as we were nearby, we might as well pick up its 100 points.

We parked within what we calculated to be walking distance and set out looking for this historic site. Expecting some sort of actual mansion, we walked by the thing twice before realizing what looked all too much like a store front was the Palace of the Governors. From the outside, it could have had “Better Call Saul” stenciled on the door. We snapped a couple of photos and walked back to the car.

Yep, it's the historic Palace of the Governors.
Contacting OnStar, we reached the same agent who had booked our rooms. When I asked for directions to the hotel, we could almost hear him sigh as he directed us a block up the street. Yep, we were on the Plaza and didn't realize it. Our hotel was easily visible from the Palace of the Governors. Quite the brain trust in our little team.

Our Camaro's trip odometer turned over exactly 800.00 miles as we pulled into a parking space in the hotel's garage at about 9:30. Thankfully the hotel's restaurant was still open and served up some wonderful Santa Fe Nut Brown Ale. We were both ready for a beer!

We didn't have to turn in our Camaro until 4 p.m. the following day. With Keith's early flight and our determination to clock another 200 miles to reach 1,000, we decided I would drop off Keith at the airport myself and then return the car to save some time and rack up more miles. We did hit the 1,000-mile mark.

Pulling into the designated spot to drop off the car in downtown Albuquerque, I hung out for an hour or so chatting up some of the Chevy PR folks as I waited for my niece and her daughter to pick me up. I spent a few days in Albuquerque for some R&R and to attend a family wedding.

I can't think of a better way to become acquainted with the redesigned Camaro SS than this little adventure. What a rush!

Sunday, December 13, 2015

A Nav-System Experience from Hell or Rush Hour in Atlanta

I'm not the kind of guy who expects everything to work perfectly all the time. I have more than enough – actually way more than enough – experience in my rearview mirror to appreciate that little glitches arise from time to time that simply defy logic or explanation. I have also been around long enough to realize there is little to be gained – other than scrubbing a few minutes, hours or days from my life expectancy – by going ballistic when things happen over which I have no control.

However, I am my father's son; so, I am hard wired to go ballistic at the drop of a hat. I must confess that once in a while a cock-eyed situation gets the better of me, and I do lose it. Doc Budelmann tells me that this isn't good for my blood pressure, nor my health in general. I sort of figured that, but a paid medical professional confirming it, has done much to boost my caution level to Defcon 4. Consequently, I try very hard to keep my temper in check. (If I could, I'd insert a smiley-face emogi here.)

Here's the news flash: I am only human! No matter how destructive I know losing my temper to be, sometimes the situation simply overwhelms my impulse control and the spittle flies. I had such an encounter Thursday as I slugged my way through Atlanta's rush-hour traffic in an heroic attempt to join the fun at the Greater Atlanta Automotive Media Association's (GAAMA) Christmas party. Well, they've taken to calling it their “year end” party, but that's another rant for another time.

Over the years I have attended three or four of these GAAMA holiday galas, but I hadn't made the past couple. It's a two-plus-hour slog to and from downtown Atlanta from sleepy little Greenville, SC. Although I have become somewhat of an expert traveling this route thanks to my countless trips to Atlanta's airport, driving home at 10:00 or 11:00 at night is not my idea of fun. Of course, I'm way too cheap to spring for a $150 hotel room. Discretion being the better part of valor, I just skip the party.

This year, though, Nissan offered to pick up my hotel room. Bless its heart! Because of Nissan's largesse, I decided to break with recent tradition and put in an appearance.

My plan included driving directly to the Marriott Courtyard Cumberland Galleria and checking in before heading to the party roughly 10 miles away. I calculated that leaving my house around 2:00 would get me to the hotel well before 5:00, avoiding the worst of Atlanta rush hour. Sometimes I crack myself up.

I was hip deep in my upstairs remodeling project when I realized it was already nearly 2:00. I dropped what I was doing, hopped into the shower, dressed, threw my suitcase into the GMC Sierra 1500 that I am driving this week and managed to pull out of my driveway about 2:30. Already 30 minutes behind my self-imposed schedule, I breathed deeply two or three times and retained my calm.

To help pass the time on this drive, I've sort of broken it up into more palatable segments. It's 46 miles to the Georgia state line, another 25 miles to the Commerce, GA exit with its huge outlet mall, and then another 30 or so miles to the Buford exit: the point where I-85 spreads out from 8 lanes to 12 lanes for the final 10-mile sprint to Atlanta's I-285 outer belt.

About 10 miles before the Buford exit, traffic on my side of I-85 came to a near standstill. Clearly there was an accident somewhere ahead. Still doing its job quite adequately at this point, the GMC's nav system had been warning me of the traffic delay for about 50 miles, offering an alternative route. I ignored the warnings, figuring whatever the issue, it would be cleared by the time I arrived there. Not so much.

Finally heeding the nav's advice, I took the next exit, followed the nav's 10-mile detour and returned to I-85 a couple of miles from the Buford exit. I calculated that between the stalled traffic, and the over-the-river-and-through-the-woods detour, I lost about 45 minutes. Suddenly my strategy to beat the heaviest rush-hour traffic – Atlanta's rush hour typically spans 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., but the worst is just before and just after work – had been dashed. Thankfully, I was going against the flow of commuters fleeing downtown and traffic wasn't too bad.

Still only about 4:45, I was optimistic I would arrive at the hotel in plenty of time to check in and meander at a leisurely pace to the party with its 7 p.m. start time. I pressed on.

There is a certain amount of mea culpa in what happened next because I didn't fully research the location of the hotel nor the party. I had no clue where either was located in terms of greater Atlanta or their proximity to I-85 or I-285. Silly me, I trusted the nav system to guide me to my destinations. What I know now that I didn't know then is that the hotel is located almost at the intersection of I-75 and I-285. All but about 3 miles of my journey should have been freeway miles.

What happened next will go down in the annals of the greatest effed-up nav-system snafus. For whatever reason, the nav system decided to direct me off of I-85 about eight miles short of I-285. I followed its prompts and found myself on a frontage road of sorts that eventually turned into two lanes, winding through an industrial park. Now I'm in the thick of rush hour, and traffic is moving at a snail's pace on virtually every surface road in Atlanta.

At one point the street I was on crossed Pleasantdale Road. I glanced to the left and saw an entrance to I-85 S that I had been on earlier. The nav system guided me another mile or so then commanded a left-hand turn. It took me under I-85 where it had me turn left onto a frontage road along northbound I-85. I followed its directions back to Pleasantdale Road where it had me turn left again, cross over I-85 before taking another left onto the I-85 S entrance ramp. What? It was as though someone had poured a gallon of Old Grandad into the fuel tank. This nav system was like a drunken sailor. It had no clue where it was or where I needed to go. I had just lost another 30 or 40 minutes leaving I-85, running on a crowded surface street parallel to I-85 and then reacquiring I-85 10 miles later. I was still several miles short of I-285.

Reaching I-285, I was directed to take it West. A glance at the digital clock revealed it was now 5:45. My 2-hour trip was at more than 3 hours and the nav system was showing me still 20 miles from the hotel. About five miles into my I-285 stint, the nav unit's voice command told me exit the freeway onto Rt. 141, which also happens to be one of the myriad of Peachtree streets, lanes, boulevards, avenues and courts scattered around Atlanta proper.

As the digital clock ticked past 6:15 and the nav system had me making assorted left and right turns through the surface-street congestion – a couple of times the nav touchscreen actually showed the mileage to my destination increasing – I finally had had enough. I suspected my blood pressure was somewhere in the neighborhood of 220 over 195. The palm of my right hand ached from smacking the steering wheel. I was ready to bitch slap a nun!

With the party scheduled to begin at 7:00 and the mileage to the hotel an estimated 10 miles, I decided to wait post-party to find the hotel. I pulled over, entered the address to the party location, which actually was now behind me, and drove directly there. Apparently the GMC's nav unit was better equipped to find that address than that of the hotel because it directed me there without incident.

It was now 6:30 and I had been on the road for 4 hours. I felt like the passengers on the USS Minnow that left for a 3-hour tour and wound up stranded on a desert island. Ticked off? Oh, you bet.

Yes, sometimes I lose a little control; but I think in this instance, it was justified.

Also, I think you would find me hanged in my cubicle if I had to face driving through Atlanta traffic after work every day. Life is way too short for that nonsense.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

My Steelers Face Uphill Struggle Through Balance of the Season

Wilson made mincemeat of the league's 28th-ranked pass defense.
I'm not the kind of guy to throw up my hands and give up on a team that still has a shot at a Wild Card spot in this year's NFL playoffs, but what in the wide, wide world of sports is going on with the Steelers?

Never has so much talent been used to so little effect.

Last week's game against the Seahawks in Seattle was as frustrating a thing to watch as any Steelers fan has had to endure. The horrendous officiating – are there no officiating standards in the NFL? – and Tomlin's failed crazy fake-field-goal call early in the game notwithstanding, the Steelers managed to look terrible on offense in spite of Big Ben tossing for 456 yards. Ben, though, is not without blame; he also managed to throw two interceptions that Seattle converted into points. Oh, and despite only being on the field for a few plays, back-up QB Landry Jones matched Ben's interception count.

The only bright spot in last week's failed offensive effort was Markus Wheaton with over 200 receiving yards. In Seattle, Steelers suffered from the same shortcoming that has haunted them for the past couple of seasons: They can't turn Red Zone penetrations into touchdowns. The offense is hell on wheels getting into the Red Zone, but drives all too often sputter out inside the 10-yard line and sometimes within the 5-yard line. Settling for three rather than seven has become the norm. 

On to the defense. There is a good reason why the Steelers are ranked 28th in pass defense: They can't defend against the pass. What a train wreck the secondary is. Seattle QB Wilson threw with impunity last Sunday. His five touchdown tosses accounted for nearly all of Seattle's points. It was an embarrassing defensive performance.

So now what?

Steelers need an epiphany equal to Saul's on the road to Damascus to turn this season around. Basically they must run the table through the balance of the season to ensure a Wild Card spot in the playoffs. A second meeting with the Browns is the only gimme left this season. The Colts, Bengals, Broncos and Ravens make up the rest of the schedule. It will be an uphill struggle for a team that has run hot and cold through most of its games.