Maiden Voyage of Nero

Like so many adventures, the 2007 All Aluminum North American tour started with a stupid idea. Build the perfect trailer for my wacky vintage race car, and then use it as transport for an extended racing tour of all the famous tracks and events. Let me introduce you to my race car, and then the trailer and tour might make sense.

Peyote among the Can Am racecars at Sears Point in 2010

I’m privileged to be the most recent caretaker of Peyote, a car that has been raced hard and continuously since 1959. As near as I can tell it’s only missed five racing seasons. It wasn’t preserved because of it’s beauty. When the late Bill Ames finished building Peyote using a Triumph TR3 donor car, an assortment of surplus road sign aluminum, zillions of pop rivets and ample rye whiskey a friend asked “were you on drugs when you built that”? Hence, Peyote.

Over the thousands of racing miles and more than 45 years a lot of good racers and backyard tinkerers have layered their mojo onto this little car. It performs way beyond it’s pedigree. I love it to an unhealthy degree.

So what’s the perfect trailer for a car built of raw aluminum and rivets? Obviously an Airstream. And a “toy hauler” with car space that converts to living space wouldn’t suit the extended tour plan. A separate garage is necessary because I want to live in the trailer on the road and have enough tools and parts storage to maintain Peyote at tracks thousands of miles from home. That means a long trailer. Very long. Besides, one oil leak on the kitchen floor and my wife will opt for the Four Seasons.

I bought a 34 foot 1989 Airstream Excella on eBay for $14,000. The previous owner maintained it meticulously. I didn’t have the heart to tell him it would be gutted to a bare shell three days after it reached my driveway. I sold the heavy wooden interior on eBay for $3800. I wanted a lightweight aluminum interior. I figured on three months to french a hatch into the back, build interior walls, benches, toolboxes and living space, and get it on the road. Two years later it’s nearly done. It will never be truly done.

Peyote and Nero at the Pittsburg Vintage Grand Prix

At the start Nero looked kind of unpromising, but this is what Nero looked like after I gutted it and added a rear hatch. the hatch components were cut from 1/4 inch alluminum with a circular saw and a carbide blade–honest. Then I welded it together with my MIG. I expected this to be the hardest part, but it was really quite easy.

The stupid part is that I did it all myself, and it shows. As my friends pointed out, if I worked as hard at the things I’m expert at, I could pay a small crew of people who really know what they were doing to build the trailer. But what’s the fun in that? I got better at everything as I progressed. You can tell my first aluminum weld from my last. The first drawer I built is downright lumpy, the last has a certain funky precision. There’s ten times the work in every part because I was constantly compensating for earlier screw ups.

Once the bones were well in place my wife looked it over and said “what shall we use for a decorating scheme”? I looked at her a little blankly and said “inside of a DC3?” She smiled indulgently and ignored me henceforth. She decided on the style of Nero Wolfe’s office from the TV series we both enjoyed. The cost of the living space rose exponentially, but the net result is pleasant and comfortable. And we named the trailer Nero’s Peyote Pad or Nero for short.

The next step was to build a schedule and go. Nero and Peyote’s All Aluminum Tour launched in April 2007. It spans more than 14,000 miles, sixteen races (seventeen if you count the maiden voyage), twelve tracks.

Here’s the schedule we came up with after a huge amount of work on the logistics trying to limit backtracking:

Here’s a recounting of the maiden test voyage:
I decided to leave Portland early Tuesday morning to cover the 600 miles to Sonoma by Friday morning. Just about the time you’d need for a brisk bicycle trip. But I was hauling my newly more-or-less completed Airstream car hauler–Nero, with my race car–Peyote stuffed inside. I needed time to cope with potential minor issues like the trailer breaking in half, or the wheels falling off. My wife Diane elected not to join me. She’s a panicker. If Nero indulged itself in a death wobble coming down a mountain pass, I would have to pry Diane from around my neck before dealing with the emergency.

Pulling out of my driveway was the first challenge. Making certain that 34 feet of trailer gets clear of the gate before it closes and doesn’t take out a gatepost would be entertainment enough. But I live on Portland’s favorite racer road with my driveway between two blind curves–I needed to get truck and trailer across the road before someone came drifting around the corner. The sudden rise in the road levered the long trailer’s bumper rollers firmly into the tarmac, causing an alarming grunch and slowing my progress just as a clapped out Corolla appeared, reprising some scene from the Fast and the Furious. Somehow I got the trailer out of his way, but from the look of stark terror his face as he passed the truck he surely needed a change of linen. I made my way through the twisty roads near my house to the highway, learning as I went how to keep my wheels out of the ditch, on my side of the road (wide turns and a very late apex), and receiving fewer and fewer wild hand and arm gestures. Progress. Once on the highway the trailer pulled smoothly, was unperturbed by side gusts, and presented no challenges for my F350 Diesel pickup. Diane could have come. Well, maybe not on the first few miles.

Two books on tape, one bad road lunch, and 400 miles later I decided to stop for the night at a roadside rest area near Mt. Shasta. I locked up the truck, bundled into the comfortable bed, and fell asleep to gentle hum of an 18-wheeler idling two feet from my window. I woke up at what turned out to be three AM. The idling diesel was gone, replaced by a manic foof dog in a giant motorhome screaming “map, map, map” at one second intervals. I would have cheerfully toasted it for breakfast. Instead I rolled down the road and stoked my heartburn at one of those uninspired restaurants whose only saving grace is that they open early. A few years ago I found a dinky restaurant that opened at 4:00 AM in Milan during a jet lagged walk around the sleeping town and had one of the ten great meals of my life. Where did we go wrong?

Some wild notion lead me to try the back way to Sonoma, past Clearlake and Colusa through the mountains to Callistoga. Interesting idea. I had forgotten how twisty and narrow the road was, and how few turnoffs there are to let the snarling pack of early morning Napa commuters by. Ciao…Same to you…Hey, you don’t even know my momma. I got to Sears Point at 9:00 AM on Wednesday–two days before I needed to be there. So I amused myself by completely reworking the plumbing system in Nero and replacing the water pump. It took all the time available.

I had a great time racing–Sears (Infineon) is one of my favorite tracks. Finished second on Saturday when my gearbox gave me a momentary issue. Got first on Sunday though a Lotus 7 well-driven by Grant Reefer would surely have passed if we’d had one more lap. Peyote takes to Sears like a duck to water. I always wander around a bit in the carousel, never have figured out where I should be until I get to the apex and exit, and then I know it was wrong. But the 180 degree turn after that is just magic. Most folks brake hard and go down at least one gear. A few years ago I came into the turn with Pete Lovely right on my ass, which is always tough sledding. there’s just no one smoother. I was so busy looking in my mirrors that I blew the braking point totally. As I came into the turn much, much too fast I gave a quick stab at the brakes and turned in, expecting to spin. Instead the nose pointed in, the back end slid around neatly, and the straight opened before me like a harbor opens to a sailboat. I stood on the throttle, still waiting for the spin and Peyote shot down the straight like it was on tracks. Pete was at least three car lengths back. Magic. I tried it again the next lap and it worked again! I have no clue if that works with other cars, Peyote is pretty odd.

As always, the food in Sonoma was spectacular. If you go there and don’t eat at The Girl and the Fig, then it’s your loss, but please let me know that before you suggest a restaurant to me. I ate at the bar in the company of the convivial bartenders, wonderful people, at the end of the meal and two glasses of spectacular wine I wanted to adopt them all. Perfect mussels in a broth you could happily drink, Duck confit on a bed of couscous in some stunningly well balanced base that I can’t identify–certainly a hint of cheese, but not so rich that it competed with the duck. Berry cobbler with homemade vanilla bean ice cream and a fig sauce on top. The sweetness of the ice cream and berries were tempered perfectly so the fig sauce was necessary. Sounds too sweet but it was transcendental. I ate every morsel of each course and waddled back to my truck.

Loading up to leave I had the most serious incident of the week. I had Peyote nearly to the top of the ramps when the winch pulled completely away from the floor and went tumbling out the door as Peyote shot backward across the paddock right towards the Formula One garages. the vintage F1 cars were out racing and there was no one walking behind Peyote. Bill Hart’s cousin John (I forget his last name, but I owe him a good bottle of scotch) jumped behind the car and muscled it to a standstill before it smacked into the garage. I was horrified, but I made repairs, reinforced the winch mount and loaded Peyote without further incident. I’ve added several safety stops to prevent similar mishaps.

Except for a some crappy food and another night in a noisy rest stop, the trip home was completely uneventful, which is a good thing. Nero works! It didn’t crack in two, the frame didn’t bend, it seems to manage the load just perfectly. We’re ready to rock.

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