The Copperstate 1000: Pre-1973 classics pile on miles across Arizona

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Howard Koby

It’s hard to fathom that the Copperstate 1000 road rally just celebrated its 32nd year of camaraderie and friendship surrounding its annual concours in motion. This nostalgic cruise of the Arizona outback is one I’ve been personally covering for more than two decades.

Select cars manufactured before 1973 are invited on the Copperstate tour, which is similar to the Colorado Grand, The California Mille, and New Mexico’s Las Millas Encantadas. The goal? Pure, unadulterated enjoyment of the car as a pleasure object.

In 1990, Louis Laflin III, member of the Phoenix Art Museum’s Men’s Art Council, proposed replicating the famed Mille Miglia of Italy, albeit in the desert and to raise money for the museum. The inaugural rally set sail in 1991 with an outstanding collection of vintage and classic cars, birthing the Copperstate 1000. That first rally toured throughout Arizona, including Wickenburg, Prescott, Flagstaff, Grand Canyon, Payson, and Show Low. There were stops at the Boyce Thomson Arboretum as well as Bondurant’s School of High Performance Driving, with the likes of Harley Cluxton and Grand Marshal Walter Payton (the famous Bears running back) in attendance.

The rally was so successful that for the second year, in 1992, Phil Hill was invited to be Grand Marshal (a role he would fulfill five times) and Stirling Moss did the honors for 1993. In the forthcoming years, Augie Pabst (1995) Brian Redman (1996), Bobby Rahal (1998), Arie Luyendyk (2002), Bob Bondurant (2003), Lyn St. James (2004), Alain De Cadenet (2005), and Barry Meguiar (2006) have served the esteemed position. In 1996 I had my most memorable Copperstate, involving a lake cruise on a wind-free night at Lake Powell. I met Phil Hill at a formal dinner on a sandy beach, with a Navajo flutist playing as hoop dancers performed in front of a huge bonfire and calm, moon-reflecting waters. Hill told endless stories of his racing career that kept the Coppersaters enthralled for hours.

Copperstate 500 porsche
Howard Koby

The 32nd Bell Lexus North Scottsdale Copperstate 1000 ran from April 2–April 6, 2022, on a challenging northern route towards Flagstaff. The journey took us through high chaparral and Ponderosa pine forest with snow-capped mountains, and we skirted the desert on twisty roads amid statuesque Saguaro cacti standing at attention.

At the start, on a brilliant sunbathed Sunday morning, more than 85 classic automotive works of art gathered at Tempe Diablo Stadium (training home for the Los Angeles Angeles baseball team) for a free “Field of Dreams” concours. A “rainbow of steel” engulfed the attractive stadium with vintage machinery sitting in formation on the well-clipped lawns. Copperstaters were putting the final touches on their cherished chariots, applying polish and checking oil and tire pressure in preparation for the Mille Miglia-style send off. As in prior years, eight Arizona Department of Public Safety motorcycle patrolman tagged along on this free-wheeling festival of speed to make sure no one got too carried away.

At 10 a.m. sharp, on a crisp sunny morning, the motorcade blasted out of the stadium. One by one we headed north for a 1500-mile jaunt to traverse some of the best asphalt Arizona has to offer. Our modern wagon train motored to Payson for lunch, passing Strawberry and the magnificent Red Rocks of Sedona before landing in the timber town of Flagstaff for a two-night sleepover. The field of cars were as varied as the beautiful landscapes, ranging from the oldest car—a 1938 Adler Type 10, the streamlined fastback that was introduced at the 1937 Berlin Motor Show—to Alfa Romeos, Aston Martins, BMWs, Chevrolets, Ferraris, Jaguars, Lamborghinis, MGs, Mercedes 300SLs, Porsches 911s, Shelbys, a 1965 VW Karmann Ghia Convertible, and more.

Copperstate 500 adler
Howard Koby

The 1938 Adler intrigued me, so I caught up with Jeff Lane and Christine O’Neill (of the wonderful Lane Motor Museum) driving the unusual car. Turns out that the Frankfurt-based Adler started manufacturing bicycles in 1886 and then motorcycles, typewriters, and finally cars. Lane driven in about five Copperstates. “I come back because of the great roads and great people. I like this car because it’s weird and different an so am I,” he says. The Adler has a 2.5-liter side-valve straight-six and handles slow on the road, but it remains comfortable while cruising, Lane says. The car was nicknamed “the Adler Autobahn” for its ability to cruise at 70 mph. This example is believed to be the only one in North America that is still running.

Copperstate 500 AC winslow AZ
Howard Koby

After a hearty buffet breakfast, we made our way into the historic Route 66 town of Winslow, home of the statue “Standing on the corner” at 2nd and Kilsley. The famous phrase comes from the Eagles’ 1972 hit “Take It Easy,” which to this day draws thousands every year to gaze upon the statue. A one-hundred mile run brought the cavalcade back to Flagstaff, along Lake Mary Road and passing Mormon Lake in the Coconino National Forest.

I met Alberto Gutierrez two years ago on the Copperstate, when he was driving a low-slung Dino. This year piloted a sleek 1966 Jaguar E-Type Series I coupe with navigator Lisa Weinberger. Alberto told us he had the car for about ten years and started his ownership by sorting out the cooling system. “I’ve done about 13 Copperstates because I love the scenery, the camaraderie, and that it raises money for the Phoenix Art Museum and the 10-90 Copperstate Foundation,” Gutierrez said. “These cars need to keep going, you just can’t just let ‘em sit … you drive ‘em like you stole ‘em.” He appreciates the E-Type coupe’s rigidity and that it’s nonetheless so easy to drive. “It’s not as glued to the ground as the Dino but if you drive it hard it will respond and do what it needs to do.”

Tuesday marked a 250-mile cruise with an anticipated lunch stop at the Grand Canyons Caverns—the largest dry caverns in the U.S. A tour of the canyons, located 200 to 300 feet below the surface of the earth, was not part of the itinerary but you can bet many of the rally’s participants will be back to tour the caves.

Before we descended from the high plateau to Arizona’s grasslands we went through Seligman onto the longest stretch of the original historic Route 66. One curious thing I observed in Seligman: A few of the Copperstate cars were going back the way we came. I discovered later that these few drivers loved the ride so much they wanted to do it again. Amazing!

Copperstate 500 alfa romeo
Howard Koby

Along Route 66 we headed south to Prescott, known for its authentic cowboy history, and the rebuilt Whiskey Row, for our well-deserved overnight rest. At least 25 Copperstates have been completed by long time Copperstater Rick Mahrle, who brought his recently acquired 1971 Alfa Romeo GTV. The car has had some suspension modifications (Koni shocks and anti-sway bar) but is otherwise all-original and was ready for its maiden voyage. “I was the Prescott City Captain for the very first Copperstate and I was chairman of the event in 1999 and 2000,” Mahrle said. “I have been working on the organizing committee ever since. What keeps me involved is meeting some fabulous people that I would have never met before, and it keeps me interested in the eclectic car hobby. The GTV handles wonderfully, and my wife loves the fact that it has a lid on it; I have had the top down on my Spider during prior rallies.”

For the last day of this incredible adventure, we motored downhill as we passed Skull Valley, a rural ranch community which derived its name from the bleached bones found by European settlers. Proceeding west on the Kirkland, Bagdad Highway and then south to Wickenburg, known as the Dude Ranch Capital of the world, we arrived for our final evening in Scottsdale. There we enjoyed an awards dinner honoring Ken Roath (driving his 1955 Ferrari 250 Europa) with the Participants’ Choice Award and Dennis Varni (1961 Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint Speciale) with the Immaculate Presentation Award. The Louis E. Laflin III Spirit award (given to the participant that most personifies the spirit of the Copperstate and its founder) went to Budd Florkiewicz in his 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle L6.

In addition to the significant funds the Coppersate 1000 raises for the Men’s Art Council (this year co-chaired by Keith Martin and Doug Hodges), noted artist Ed Mell creates a painting each year for the route book cover. The original is then auctioned off at the banquet, with part of the proceeds benefiting the Phoenix Art Museum. Financials aside, though, it is really all about the people—and their fantastic automobiles—who make the event truly magnificent.

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