Life in the fast lane: The 1980 U.S. Express

For everyone who is younger than about 40, the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo and the resulting crash program to “reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil”—an effort that persists to this day—is probably mystifying. Kind of like World War II, the Space Race, and life without the internet. But in the 1970s, it was real.

Fuel efficiency became the mantra of automakers, replacing in short order words like Hemi, Boss 429, and LS6 in the lexicon of ad writers and consumers. Politicians, always ready to busk on popular trends, seized upon fuel economy, and in 1974, even as gas lines were beginning to shrink, they passed the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act.

In our federal system, settled law made the states the exclusive agency for establishing highway speed limits. But in one of the first major instances of the federal government’s arm-twisting via the power of the purse, the new law withheld highway funds from states that did not set their maximum speed limit at 55 miles per hour. They called it the Nationally Mandated Speed Limit, the NMSL.

It was draconian. Ninety percent of U.S. and Interstate highway construction money came from the federal government. Losing it meant construction of new highways, and even major upgrades or maintenance, would grind to a halt. So the states complied, some reluctantly, when the law was signed by President Carter in January 1975.

It’s reasonable to say today, more than 40 years later, that no one liked the regimentation. Drivers objected, for obvious reasons. Law enforcement agencies objected to wasting time pursuing drivers exceeding 55 mph on roads designed to be driven safely at 70—including purchasing planes to catch speeders, wasting plenty of fuel in the process.

To say the speed limit was unpopular misses the point. It was hated. And it inspired widespread civil disobedience, as flashing headlights, squawking radar detectors, and CB radio messages alerted drivers to the presence of radar-wielding “Bears” ahead. It was us against them. Drivers were in league against the speed limit enforcers.

The Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash

The Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash predated the speed limit mandate by three years. What became a protest against an overstepping government began as modest deviancy coupled with a more serious attempt to demonstrate that speed limits on the Interstate were unnecessary for serious, aware drivers in good-handling automobiles.

It was the product of the fertile imagination of Brock Yates, aided and abetted by Bob Brown and Leon Mandel, his colleagues at Car and Driver magazine. The first Cannonball, in May 1971, had only one entrant, a Dodge van driven by Yates, Steve Smith, and Jim Williams. They set a benchmark time of 41 hours, 54 minutes.

A November 1971 Cannonball followed with seven entrants. It was famously won by Dan Gurney and Brock Yates in a Sunoco Blue Ferrari Daytona (s/n 14271) borrowed from Kirk F. White. They reset the benchmark to 35 hours, 54 minutes. Other cross-continent runs followed sporadically until March 1979, when the final Cannonball record of 32 hours, 51 minutes was set by Dave Heinz and Dave Yarborough in a Jaguar XJS.

The movie The Cannonball Run precluded further Cannonballs. A lark that had injured no one and annoyed few had now deferred to the big money resting on the release of the film. The Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash went on hiatus.

Rick Doherty and the U.S. Express

Others were not so constrained, including a Long Island technologist named Rick Doherty. He put out feelers for participants in a Cannonball successor with a small classified ad in AutoWeek, setting in motion a feverish quest among the speed-afflicted for the right vehicle and co-driver(s) to make the start in mid-October of 1980.

1980 U.S. Express NY to LA
courtesy of Rick Carey

Which brings the story to Bob Fleischmann, owner of Bob’s Bow Street Garage in Portsmouth, New Hampshire (on Hanover Street by then), and me. My wall was decorated with a reprint of a Ferrari ad—a line drawing of a 308 GT with just a single line of text, “Only those who dare truly live.” And I was ready to live a little.

My ’67 Alfa GTV, just finishing its restoration with body repairs at Bob’s shop, was not the ride of choice for an event like the U.S. Express. I cast about for a suitable car—or someone with a suitable car who would take me on as a co-driver. I struck out repeatedly.

One day my office phone rang. It was Bob. He said something like, “Are you up for a drive to California?” A light went off in my head. “You’re taking the Pantera on the U.S. Express, aren’t you? I’ve been looking for a ride, and the answer is yes.”

But time was not on our side. Bob’s De Tomaso Pantera was lurking semi-finished, like most of Bob’s projects, in a remote corner of the shop, covered in blankets. With only three weeks to go, he began an urgent restoration program while I undertook route planning and gathering support and electronics.

De Tomaso Pantera before a cross country trip
courtesy of Rick Carey

A mid-October cross-country trip is somewhat straightforward—get on an even-numbered Interstate and head west—but weather considerations, the need to avoid states noted for intense NMSL enforcement, and plotting a course that avoided traffic in metropolitan areas demanded some consideration.

We didn’t have Google Maps, just good old Rand McNally, which meant laying out each potential route, reading point-to-point distances off the road map and adding up columns of numbers with a hand calculator. In the end we considered four routes: Red, Blue, Orange, and Green, with no-diversion totals of 2877, 2800, 2829, and 2776 miles. Each had its pluses and minuses.

The moment of truth

The weekend of October 18-20, 1980, was not a balmy one. We opted for a Red/Orange route from St. Louis to Oklahoma City, I-40 west to Barstow, then south on I-15 to pick up I-10 into L.A. Bob depended upon my navigational skills to get us quickly through New York City and New Jersey, which was his (our) first mistake. We got lost in the Jersey Meadowlands and ended up on I-80 where, we both agreed, there was no turning back. So we adjusted the itinerary to head across Pennsylvania into Ohio and southwest on I-71 to Columbus, where we could pick up our original Red/Orange route.

We soon encountered a Mazda RX-7 and a very quick Mercedes 450 SEL driven by two Texas ladies, the wife (CB handle “Daisy Mae”) and daughter (Becky) of Houston’s Nathan “Available” Jones—a real person and racing sponsor, not a character from “Li’l Abner.” It was at a fuel stop in the Delaware Water Gap that we helped them fix the hood latch on their Benz, an early example of what proved to be continuing cooperation among the Express participants. We were in it together, even though none of us wanted to finish behind anyone else.

Before leaving I’d disassembled a Rand McNally road atlas, a big one, discarding pages we didn’t need and arranging the remainder in sequence on a very large clipboard made for me by the guys at Donnelly Manufacturing Company, a precision sheet metal fabricator in in Exeter, New Hampshire, where I worked at the time. It made me feel a little like Denis Jenkinson in the M-B 300SL alongside Stirling Moss in the 1955 Mille Miglia.

I’d put together a complement of electronics for the Pantera, including a Regency M-100 scanner, Cobra CB radio, Whistler Q-1000 radar detector, and prototype Whistler Fuel Scan that showed fuel and miles remaining to empty. While Bob made the Pantera run and drive, I drilled, fastened, and wired the electronics and installed the aftermarket seats. We finished preparation on Friday evening, October 17, the night before the start.

Pantera interior pre cross country trip.
courtesy of Rick Carey

The scanner proved to be worthless, but the Fuel Scan, radar detector and CB would be our eyes and ears.

We left Portsmouth for Long Island about 8 p.m., arriving at my parents’ home, an hour east of the starting point in Merrick, at 2:30 a.m. Then we spent an hour explaining what we were about to do before falling into bed. I think my mother understood; my father, not so much.

The morning of the start, we had to calibrate the Fuel Scan. We pulled into a gas station, running on empty (by design), and warned the clerk, “We’ll be at the pump for a half hour or so.” We had to fill the tank one gallon at a time, waiting a minute between each gallon. The tank held 22 gallons. We’d added no extra fuel capacity to the Pantera, and 15 or so miles per gallon meant we’d have to stop at least every 200 miles. We might be able to stretch that a little if the Fuel Scan gave us reliable readings.

The black Pantera, bedecked with flared fenders, air dam, wing, and gold-center modular wheels with fat Goodrich Comp T/A rubber, probably attracted enough traffic to the gas station to make up for us lounging around the pump.

road trip De Tomaso Pantera
courtesy of Rick Carey

We joined the rest of the crazies participating in this thing for the obligatory admonition, “There are no rules,” and drew for starting times. We were ready.  We avoided Manhattan for a more circuitous route that we hoped would have less traffic, which lead to our early mistake and route adjustment.

The CB radio was a source of constant communication when within range, not to mention the constant stream of “Breaker one-nine” discussions of road conditions and Bear sightings from truckers and four-wheelers. There was so much chit-chat on channel 19 that it was frequently hard to break in with a question or observation.

Contrary to the cinematic impression in 1976’s The Gumball Rally or 1981’s Brock Yates-written The Cannonball Run, the chosen vehicles were largely sedans and sports cars that blended into the traffic landscape. Our black, winged, air-dammed, flared, fat-tired Pantera was the most conspicuous in the field. Several entries had auxiliary fuel capacity and beefed-up suspension and brakes, but there were no imaginative ruses like ambulances and fake cop cars, which would result in an instant trip to the gray bar hotel if discovered.

An incident in New Jersey set the tone. We were heading blindly down an access road and encountered a hairpin bend at a prodigious rate. I uttered an “Oh shiiiit.” Bob skillfully negotiated the turn and said, “If you do that again, I’m going to let you out.” He was a very good driver with lightning reactions and quick hands, despite wearing glasses as thick as Coke bottle bottoms. I think my voice went up several octaves uttering that expletive.

After gassing up at the western edge of Jersey and again in Clearfield, Pennsylvania, fuel stops quickly became a routine. Whichever one of us with the more challenged bladder would head for the men’s room, stopping to slap a pair of Twenties on the cashier’s counter if they didn’t take credit cards. The other guy would start the gas pump, then head for the men’s room. First one out would buy coffee (black for Bob, cream and sugar for me) and head back to top off the tank. Last out of the loo would grab the change and we’d be off.

In the middle of Ohio we stopped for fuel, and two of our compatriots—the Jones girls and the Wolfkill Porsche 928—were leaving just as we arrived. We did our fuel-stop routine, then set out again, only to be halted by a phalanx of Ohio State Troopers. They had apparently been alerted to Bear Baiters on the roads, drawn by the CB chit chat between the Benz and Porsche. An extended conversation about rolling a stop sign ensued, and they insisted on the whole inspection thing: license, registration, lights, horn, turn signals, hand brake, tires. It was almost humorous, but it was time lost, made worse as we were followed by a Trooper almost all the way to I-70 in Columbus, at a ludicrous 55 mph, of course.

Bob finally relinquished the steering wheel on I-70 just before reaching Effingham, Illinois, at 8 a.m. on Sunday morning, a gorgeous day with bright fall foliage, clear skies, and blessedly limited traffic. It had been less than half a day since leaving Merrick. After Bob took the wheel again, we fell into our driving routine on I-44: Let the Pantera out when the road was clear, approach blind hills and overpasses with care, watch slow traffic and trucks carefully for erratic movements. And monitor the CB constantly.

It was, as Brock Yates maintained a few years before, entirely safe to drive 110 to 120 mph on the Interstates. The only hazards were Bears, erratic Sunday drivers, and the occasional trucker slowly passing another truck and blocking the left lane for miles.

Out of Oklahoma on I-40 we looked forward to hours of fast cruising across the Texas Panhandle, New Mexico, and Arizona, entering California at Barstow. Bob was hammering across the Panhandle, approaching Groom on I-40, when the Whistler sounded off. Doing 115 or so, he nailed the brakes, and when the Ranger going east popped over the rise we were down to 74 mph. It was not enough to sneak through. We knew we were nailed when he slithered through the median, lights ablaze.

An interview by the side of the road followed. Texas Ranger said, “You have to follow me to court and pay the fine.” Salt in the wounds: Court was in Shamrock, nearly 50 miles behind us on I-40. It felt like an eternity going the wrong way at 55 mph.

In Shamrock, the friendly judge assessed the fine, a whole $25. We paid. She asked, “Where you boys going?” We replied, “L.A.” Then she asked where we were coming from, and we answered, “New York.” She continued, “When did you leave?” Now, we’d already ponied over the cash, but this was a trick question. Bob and I looked at each other and I determined honesty was the best policy: “Saturday evening.” We had traveled 1600 miles in 20 hours, and if you care to do the math, that’s a whole lot faster than 55 mph. She looked at us and said, “Why, you boys drive like I do.”

She wanted to see the car, and as she walked out of the courtroom she called out to our nemesis, “Ranger Smith, are you off duty now?” He answered that he was, and she whispered to us, “You’ve got nothing to worry about from here to New Mexico.”

Through Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, I-40 follows old U.S. 66 and is, to a large degree, laid down atop the old roadbed. It dips and droops in a series of what we New Englanders call “whoops.” At 110–115 mph, the Pantera’s air dam would scrape the whoops, making a “skitch … skitch … skitch” as it hit pavement.

Through Moriarty, New Mexico, fog set in, so making time through the Cibola National Forest meant using roadside trees, guardrails, and vague lines on the road for guidance. And time was catching up with us. We’d been on the road over 24 hours with scant sleep in the preceding days. Driving fast kept our adrenaline up; driving slow was debilitating.

I replaced Bob at a fuel stop in Winslow, Arizona, and we headed for Flagstaff. It was cold. It was dark. The Pantera’s heater was useless. We were tired. Bob was crapped out in the passenger’s seat. My eyes were so tired I couldn’t focus, and west of Flagstaff I had to stop. It took only a few minutes for the cold to wake Bob, and I drove a few more miles to Williams, where he took the wheel.

The last 12 hours or so were a blur. By the time we hit L.A. it was Monday morning, and the traffic was heavy. Bob took to the breakdown lane to get off the freeway, which earned us another ticket. We were the last running finisher, arriving in time for a badly needed nap before dinner and a glorious Pacific Ocean sunset.

Pantera road trip
courtesy of Rick Carey

The Pantera’s starting mileage was 46,321; it was 49,285 upon arrival—2,964 miles all-in. That’s about 68.9 mph average including 13 fuel stops, two roadside Bear meetings, and the long trip back to Shamrock, Texas.

The next day I made a business trip to inspect a Beloit plastic injection molding machine nearby, and then I flew home on Tuesday. Bob drove back after getting the Pantera’s overworked brakes rebuilt and visiting family in Montana.

On his way home, Bob was pulled over on an empty Ohio Turnpike.  The Ohio Bear looked at the Pantera and asked about it. Bob gave him the tour. The Bear asked about its performance, and then, curiously, asked, “Can I drive it?” Bob said, “Yes,” and got out. He explained the controls, and the Smokey went smoking east on the turnpike. He was gone a while, then came smoking back, suitably enthusiastic about the Pantera’s performance. When Bob got back in, the cop handed him a speeding ticket.

It was only after arriving back in Portsmouth that a still-fuming Bob realized the ticket was dated April 1—April Fool’s Day. He mailed it to Ohio authorities with an explanation that he wasn’t in Ohio on April 1. The ticket was voided.

Bob ran the U.S. Express twice more, both times solo in a Porsche 928 S4. I didn’t go along. Although “Only those who dare truly live” remains true, I’d dared and lived in 1980. With a young family and a demanding job, another U.S. Express wasn’t in the cards.

Could it be done again? Not likely, although some may argue otherwise. Traffic is heavier. The country is more densely populated, particularly along the main Interstates. Drivers’ lane discipline is nearly nonexistent, making it impossible to travel fast in the left lane. Enforcement is both more prevalent and better organized.

“Should” it be done again? That answer isn’t so clear. The Interstate system is better than ever. On a clear, dry, fall or spring weekend without holiday traffic, the way across the continent is open. Fifteen or 20 cars attract attention, but one or two using divergent routes might escape notice.

I won’t be in one of them, but once, 37 years ago, I was with Bob Fleischmann in the Pantera. I’m glad the statute of limitations for speeding has expired.

The Pantera’s fate

The Pantera remained with Bob until cancer took his life in September 2016. Bob had begun yet another restoration years ago with a professionally built 351, still preserved with Cosmoline and wrapped in plastic. When he sold his business in 2013, the Pantera and its many parts went into a single-car enclosed trailer and was parked on a piece of land in York, Maine, where Bob dreamed of building another Bob’s Garage as a place to finish his projects. It was not to be, although when I last saw him in June 2016 he maintained he’d finish the Pantera, the Nova, the Nomad, the Thing, and all the others.

Hagerty’s “Barn Find Hunter” video series, starring Tom Cotter, profiled Bob’s cars last summer, and in August 2017 his family sold them at a no-reserve auction in Portsmouth that was organized by my son Michael and conducted by Jim Saturley and his crew at Auction Boss in Concord, New Hampshire. The Pantera went to one of Bob’s associates, who took it home to Colorado and immediately began a complete restoration.

Pantera Barn Find
courtesy of Rick Carey

After transcribing post-Express notes into this narrative, I realized I hadn’t seen The Cannonball Run or The Gumball Rally movies in years, an oversight that was promptly remedied with quick service from Amazon. About halfway through The Cannonball Run it became apparent that the people making the flick were having a great time doing it. For all the contrived stunts, exaggerated characters, and improbable gimmicks, it was exactly what the U.S. Express turned out to be: flat-out fun. Undertaken with serious preparation and due care for the safety of the participants and others on the highway, at its core it was light-hearted.

If you won, great, but if you didn’t, just taking part was an accomplishment. I can attest to that.