Hotel Airstream

We spend a weekend in a $180,000 Airstream Interstate to race $500 cars, and hope the dissonance doesn't explode our heads.

By Blake Z. Rong | Photos By Blake Z. Rong | February 13, 2013
Eight hours to Thunderhill Raceway -- an hour and a half north of Sacramento -- was a daunting, foolhardy task, but not impossible. That's what the man in the service department at Airstream Los Angeles insinuated when I returned the Interstate motorhome -- blanketed in dust and evaporated Windex, a bug-strewn morasses across its 6-foot windshield -- after a sweat-filled weekend of liquefied dinosaurs, of searing heat and shivering mornings. I hadn't taken a shower since the morning before. My deodorant ran out around the time my toothpaste did. "Sacramento, huh?" he said, struggling to convey the proper intonation. "Hot damn! That's what, like...nine hours? You must've been in there all day. Course, the people that had this before, these two girls from some blog, they drove it all the way from Jackson Center" -- Ohio, where Airstream calls its home -- "down here across the country." Here, his voice lowered. "5,000 miles." "They spent 30 days in it," he finished, beaming. Thirty days may as well be a mission to Mars, and under such an extended stay the choice of company you keep becomes a matter of life and death. The Airstream Interstate luxury touring coach is no finer a partner for such cross-country escapades; a damn sight more comfortable, spacious, and grandiose than the Mazda Miata upon which I embarked on my own Winning of the West (though my lithe sports car eked out better mileage. Barely). Within its high-roof, 23-foot long, stretched Mercedes-Benz Sprinter chassis, the Interstate has an electrically-folding queen-sized bed, cream-leatherette upholstery -- buttery soft as to be damn near edible -- across four swiveling captain's chairs, a removable stone table that can be fitted in two locations, a propane generator powering a minifridge as well as two gas burners and a microwave, two 19-inch flatscreen televisions with digital satellite connections, a roof-mounted air conditioner that mostly converted hot air into noise, a 3.0-liter Mercedes-Benz BlueEfficiency diesel V-6 with 128 horsepower and 325 lb-ft of torque at a near-instant 1,200 rpm, a Kenwood touchscreen navigation system ripped from a 1990s Hot Import Nights show, and six tires with a full-sized spare in back. Its dark Onyx paneling is real wood, its faux-granite countertops nicer than my last 3 apartments. Its electric retracting awning unfolds with the glittering breadth and awe of the wings on Darth Vader's Imperial Shuttle, with gentle retracting arms elegantly locking into simple aluminum latches on the side. This is a state-of-the-art Airstream, after all, not a Boy Scout tent. The fresh water tank holds 26 gallons of San Gabriel's finest tap water; its filling process consists of jamming a garden-variety hose into the side and holding it "until it spills out and you get wet," said the service manager. "Oh, you don't want to fill it up here," the Airstream man kept explaining, "this water isn't exactly what we'd call 'clean.' You wouldn't want to do anything with it." Twenty gallons, incidentally, is about how much low-sulfur diesel fuel the Interstate can also hold, mercifully stored in a different tank. Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters toured the country in a 1934 International Harvester bus that he picked up for $1,500 and subsequently painted under the influence of hallucinogens. Our Interstate cost $121,274 and was finished in Jet Black, which made me feel like voting Republican. At that price, it is one of the most expensive and most lavish vehicles I have ever piloted. Which is exactly why I drove it to an endurance race for $500 cars.
I packed up the Airstream Interstate with my helmet, a newly-christened racing suit, my Sunday best Levi's, about 80 bucks worth of various imbibements and cased meat products, and my lovely girlfriend Rachel, who knew as little about cars as she knew as much about Doctor Who and proportionally cared as much. We were headed to Thunderhill Raceway, two hours north of Sacramento, where I would be driving a 1979 Ford Fairmont at the 24 Hours of LeMons: a specialty endurance race series designed for cars that cost no more than $500, and were cruelly shoehorned into competitive duty. The Fairmont had two things going for it: it had a newly swapped 200-horsepower, iron-block, straight six lifted from Ford's less dark days, and a brush-painted livery devoted to Billy Carter, keeping with the theme of keeping uncouth presidential relatives well within our memories. I had never driven a Ford Fairmont before. I had never driven at Thunderhill before. I had never gone there in a vehicle in which I could conceivably live. It would be racing in the grand European tradition, where young, swarthy men would hop into Citroen H-Vans with their girlfriends in tow, and trapeze across the country from racing venue to racing venue, stopping only to indulge in the finest Fume blanc and the farmer's wife. The spirit would still be there, if not the arm hair. We left Los Angeles on a Thursday night, under cover of darkness. The Airstream drove smoothly and directly, in a manner unbefitting of its size. Despite a curb weight close to 11,000 pounds, it felt less burdensome than, say, the Meals On Wheels Ford F-150 with a dual refrigerator/heater bed that I drove for my first real job in high school. The view out the windshield is expansive, like a set piece from 2001. There's a sense of invulnerability in something of this scale; I found myself casually crossing a parking lot humming "Flight of the Valkyries," then parked across four spaces at a Safeway, merely because I could. Later, I left. When the sun fades away the denizens of the night come out to ply their way up the 5: the proud, eighteen-wheeled procession of American commerce, a noble and solitary pursuit best undertaken at dark. Rows of trucks clogged the right lane: some with Texas and New Mexico plates; some with Bible verses on the back; some that pull out for a pass and hold up our pace for a few pernicious minutes. Rachel puts on the theme song to "Convoy" to fit the mood, to which she knows all the lyrics. At 1 in the morning, bleary-eyed, we pull into the KOA Campground in Prunedale, California -- less an idyllic wooded haven of nature than a parking lot off the 101, across from a Valero and a Denny's, filled with even more lavish bus-length RVs and their corn-fed occupants. We sleep transversely in the back of the Airstream, feet pressed up against the sides.
The sunlight streamed in through the windows, as it tends to do in the mornings, but this time amplified by the Airstream's high-wattage front windshield, 4 feet tall. We find the shower clogged -- then, the sink. Like the coma after Thanksgiving, our blissful use of the Airstream's facilities had filled their respective tanks to dangerous levels. Murky water the consistency of oatmeal had dribbled its way up the sink drain; likewise with the bathtub, whose water shook and sloshed with every passing footstep, threatening to expunge its contents over the high, narrow threshold. Perhaps in a reflection of male chivalry, the water heater failed to turn on during my shower but did so just in time for Rachel. James Bond favored the cleansing immunity of the cold shower. As do the courageously provisional Finns. Things got really bad when the toilet stopped working, however. I had to drain the tank. "Luckily your site's got full hookups," said Larry, middle-aged, a ring of wispy hair on his smooth head, bright yellow KOA Kampground polo around his skinny frame, the sort of guy who can tell you all about blue boys and boondocking over a box of Blue Nun. "Well, I guess I'll go down with you." He scowled but in that nonthreatening way, as if charming grumpiness was his natural state. The Airstream has a hose on the left-hand side of the vehicle, an inch-wide PVC tube bent at the end and retractable at the push of a button -- one of the luxury selling points, at this price. On the ground was a black PVC cap, inset into the ground, and a double-ended brass spigot, which I deduced was one of those magical bizarro spigots that mounted tightly to the hose and extracted waste efficiently. "What are you doing?" Larry exclaimed, "you're draining!" Nope. Larry kicked loose the PVC cap with his foot. Inside, a murky brown pipe with some shimmering liquid that, surprisingly, didn't smell as bad as I expected, figuring that it'd be filled with the immaterials of Grand Slamwiches and Shasta. I dangled the hose loosely into the hole, flipped the switch on the left -- the one for "black water," so the RV euphemism goes. And it started pouring out of the hose in gurgles, splashing out of the end, spraying and bouncing off the sides of the pipe. Errant flicks may have been flung. Larry and I stared at the action with mild ennui. Rachel was still inside the RV, checking Facebook. Black water drained, it was time to clear the gray water. The Airstream has two switches that must be operated independently: one switch turns on and off the flow from the gray water tank, and one does the same for the waste tank. Except the switches aren't labeled; a light simply blinks on and off, surreally, like the equally-unfeeling HAL. I shut the switch for the black water tank and hit the one for the gray -- but other than a whirring sound, nothing came out. A shot glass's worth of liquid poured out of the hose with a splort. "Uh oh, you might have a stuck tank," said Larry, expressing genuine sympathy, "how far did you say you were gonna drive this thing?" I didn't answer. Larry took over, fiddled with the controls, before unlocking the secret: the black water tank switch wasn't responsive, and both valves were stuck half open. Grey water flowed forth in earnest. The smell reminded me of El Segundo in the morning. An hour behind schedule, I thought I'd never come to this conclusion: I was never so happy to see a waterfall of waste.
We pulled into the gates of Thunderhill Raceway Park at around 4 in the afternoon, the reserve light panicking with still a quarter tank of diesel left. Team leader Woody and Michael, an affable Corvette-driving German prone to fits of frustration, are there to greet us, including a mysterious ringer driver the former recruited known only to us as "Bay Area Doug." Jason shows up later -- a stern, lanky youth who arrived carrying a briefcase full of advanced radio equipment procured at great cost, our own James Bond's Q. The Fairmont was there, too. Unlike the last time I saw it -- which involved us swapping out the blown 260 cubic-inch engine for another one that produced twice the horsepower -- this time there was a Tupperware container mounted on the hood, "for airflow," said Woody, "and I made sure to go through the kitchen and find the one that said 'Hillshire Farms' on it." The air cleaner was a vegetable strainer from Target. The tires are Primewells, $50 per tire, prized by Lemons racers for their inherent cheapness. Overall, the car was running better than it had at its last outing at Buttonwillow when the engine had blown up on the second day of racing. "Yeah, I just happened to be in the car when it exploded," said Jason, smugly. "C'mon," said Woody, who once drove a ratty 1966 Malibu from Boston in the dead of winter with a leaking heater core and unpowered drum brakes, "I've driven cars that ran worse than this across the country." "Woody," I tell him, "did I ever tell you that you're the MacGyver of hoopties?" But first, a mandatory tech and gear inspection, which allowed us the chance to scope out the sort of competition that turns up at these things. One of the hallmarks of LeMons racing -- aside from the cheap cars -- is the outrageous theme building of the teams. For example, stationed next to us was a newish Scion xB in grey, with fiberglass "toast" sticking out the roof and smoke generators mounted in the crust, adding to an already toxic track atmosphere. A flawless replica of the Deathmobile from the film Animal House boasted a bronze bust of Lemons founder Jay Lamm on the hood. The Toyota MR2 done up to resemble Noah's Ark was complete with aerodynamics-snuffing "wood" prow and a bevy of stuffed animals stapled to the side. Rachel really liked the nauseatingly yellow Subaru Outback wagon with a squiggly plywood Pikachu tail, until she realized that the tail was "drawn wrong," she said. A BMW 3-Series was re-imagined as a lime green and wood-trimmed 1975 Ford Ranchero, one of many examples of the all-dominating BMWs. A pea-soup green Plymouth Valiant with "Dudes Ex Machina" scrawled across the side turned out to be my favorite theme. There was a Corvette with semi-truck pipes, and a Toyota Starlet with a paper-mache volcano inexplicably on its roof. One car resembled Pac-Man, chased by a car that resembled Pac-Man's ghost. And there was a Jeep mail truck from the 70s, on a stretched chassis with a Ford V-8 under its extended hood and the rear axle from a Toyota 4Runner under its flawlessly replicated US Postal Service paint, liberally applied with a roller. Overheard: "I had a Mercury Capri that would make that kind of smoke, right before it stopped running." Our Ford sorted, we proceeded to embark on the important business of consuming the beer stashed in the Airstream's "cooler" (in reality, an uninsulated bin in the back perfectly sized for two 12-packs). Lemons at night is a surreal, carnivalistic experience: Place a bunch of young racing enthusiasts next to a mountain of beer -- all the better to bribe the judges, a tradition long welcomed -- and watch the party unfold. Teens zooming by on pit bikes. Teammates sharing beers with pit neighbors. Dance music blasting from a Chevrolet S-10's outward-mounted speakers circling the pits, its team members riding in the bed and handing out shots to eager bystanders. And as the paddock indicated, many motorsports enthusiasts are also experienced RV drivers -- what better way to capture the romanticism of hot-shoeing from track to track, especially when there's no money left over for hotel rooms. But park a hulking, sleek, jet-black Mercedes RV that's more in line with Hotblack Desiato's stuntship than anything with a Vandura badge to an infield that's less preoccupied with people working on their hoopties and more with wandering around to different team's tents with beers in hand, and people will notice. "Boy, she's pretty fancy, huh?" piped up a fellow who stuck his head in uninvited, while Rachel was changing. She glared at me. I quickly closed the door. "Er, she's sleeping back there," I explained, and the gentle o faces across the man and his friend meant that they would have to poke around elsewhere, possibly to the concession stands to refill their beer-laden bowels.
The driver's meeting was over by 9:20 a.m., the cars out on their rolling start by 9:30. "Sounds a little bit cammy," Woody said to Michael as he climbed in for the first stint, the car sputtering in and out of life. "Don't pump the gas, just hold it down a little bit. Stop taking your foot off the gas so quickly!" Thunderhill is a beautiful track, nestled in the rolling, sweeping amber hills of Northern California in a way that would make any number of overall-attired farmers beam in a political ad of one's persuasion. This is quiet territory: nearby Willows, California is the seat of Glenn County, home to just 28,122 Californian souls, or about the population lining Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles. The motorized haven takes a while to drive to for a reason: after all, almond groves don't issue noise complaints. It was God's own country, something I couldn't help staring at when it came my turn in the Fairmont -- the car and Michael pulled in early at around 10 in the morning, ahead of schedule, after getting rear ended and spun around somewhere around Turn 10. "Bumper looks like it might have been tweaked," Woody opined, "we might as well do the driver change now and refuel. Get your stuff ready." I suited up, climbed in. Woody pulled the five-point harness tight enough to strangle my chest while Jason checked my radio. Rachel wished me luck. I creeped across the paddock, down the straightaway, and right into Turn 1. There was a thing Woody had mentioned about the car: either due to the peculiarities of the two-barrel carburetor he had retrofitted, or the tank itself, the fuel cut itself off around left-hand corners. Which was a noticeable problem, as we were running Thunderhill counter-clockwise. The 260-ci inline six was stout and sounded sufficiently unhinged, but reluctant to rev much above 5,000 rpm. Cars dive-bombed along my left going into Turn 3 and up the sweeping esses; I ducked to the right, feebly attempting a half-hearted racing line but really trying to avoid contact. Contact, of course, meant a black flag, and a black flag meant letting the team down -- we had driven cleanly all morning. How did it handle? With 200 horsepower on a chassis that weighed (an estimated) 2600 pounds, exactly like a Miata -- one with an extra heaping dose of benzodiazepine. Turn 5 at Thunderhill is known as the Cyclone or the Eagle's Nest, depending on how nicely it treats you. It is a steep, blind uphill that crests with a sharp left-hander, seemingly pulling the road out from under you: like a roller coaster with just as much nerve-wracking terror, only worse because if you die here, your family won't be able to sue Six Flags. Carry too much speed through the hill, turn in too late, and you'll careen down the hill in the dirt, a darkened patch of loose soil exactly a car's width that had seen its share of sheer incompetence. And this is the first time where I went off, less than 20 minutes into my hour stint. I'm not proud of this. I had taken up the old racing adage of late braking to heave the Fairmont's recalcitrant body as far as possible up the hill, before turning in and -- whoa, hey, where'd the pavement go? The brakes made the tortured rerererer sound of a VCR chewing the last tape of Basic Instinct. The mushroom cloud of dust could be witnessed from the playground. I sat there at the bottom, half stunned, half waiting for traffic to clear in order to make my graceful exit. Three turns later, the corner workers got me, pointing at me angrily with their flags. The judges left me with one sage piece of advice: "stop driving it like a real race car!" Then they sent me on my way again. Back on the track, a rolling roadblock, again. The few moments of bliss when the traffic cleared out -- turns 7 and 8, lazy left-handers taken flat out into a rolling uphill -- peered out into the slightest of distant bumps, like motoring into a Windows desktop background. Then into the crowded turns 10 and 11, two wicked 90-degree corners where traffic bunched up and I sent the rear end flying into the dirt, two wheels off in spectacular fashion, in full view of the pits and a jaded audience. "You go out one more time in that fat lump, you're done," threatened the judges, ominously. But less than two laps later, another black flag, which left me sweating more than usual as I hadn't done anything. Turns out, the corner workers hadn't realized that I had gone in; I was told, "they don't really have good communication, they can't always see everything." Failing a visual check, the judges sought after me again. Now was a good enough time as any, however. Jason jumped in the car, glaring at me as he climbed in, the man who treated this race with a degree of seriousness more suitable for the Nurburgring. Then, he followed the smoke-spewing Scion toaster out the pits.
I had bought way more hot dogs than entirely necessary, under the assumption that we were all men here, and men subsided on a diet of processed kielbasa. The stove was reminiscent of the Coleman camp stoves from my Boy Scout youth: push a button to ignite, turn the knob while simultaneously pressing down on it, and voila, let there be propane. Reliable, effortless, no threat of gas poisoning in the middle of the night. After I pan-fried some frankfurters, the sink chose this opportune time to run out of water. We had been second in our class, but after my shenanigans -- three forced pits in an hour, a stunning track record the envy of Schumacher, Foyt and Nuvolari -- we had dropped to around fifth or sixth. Woody was back out there now, the creator and his machine, homing in around corners with a mechanical precision only imbued through muscle memory and an overwhelming familiarity. After a heroic two hours, Woody finally came back in, drenched with sweat. "Man," he said, catching his breath, "it was like in the middle of the race, a race broke out." With half an hour left, he decided to send me out again. "Just go out there," he peered through the window, exasperated, "and stay on the track. I don't care if you go slow or turn in 3-minute lap times. Just don't get any more black flags because if we go in there one more time, they'll make us do some ridiculous penalty." Yeah, I thought, I can do this. I'll just go out there and drive smoothly, consistently, not worrying about passing or holding my racing line. "Stop driving it like a real car," the judges had told me, and it was a welcome dose of reality, a check on my aggressive ambitions...the first two laps after I entered were full-course yellow flags, so I lapped the track in an orderly line, giving myself a chance to relax, focus, and learn the course. We were third in our class, and just 4 laps separated us from first place. I would drive at an even pace, avoid any more penalties, and carry my team to the finish and cap off a successful first day of racing, to atone for my earlier sins. Yeah. I'll do my team good. I got this. And then I went off at turn 5 again, got yet another black flag, and everything went to hell after that.
The Airstream had to be back in Los Angeles by Sunday afternoon. It was going to the prestigious Barrett-Jackson auction in Las Vegas that Monday. Woody had considered putting me in the earliest stint that morning, but the looming deadline meant that I had to leave early -- to say nothing of my previous day's results. We pulled the Airstream out of the paddock in the early morning stillness, just as the sounds of noisy two-stroke ATVs and pit bikes started carousing between the pits, echoing off the other slablike RVs. We were running on fumes down the 5: no water, no auxiliary battery power to power the refrigerator, both waste tanks full, half a tank of propane for the generator. The satellite television couldn't find reception the entire time I had it. We never figured out how to turn off the infuriating Kenwood navigation system, as bright as a binary star and slowly eviscerating any power in the batteries. We slept at night by putting a towel on it. You can replicate the same effect by watching Japanese horror movies on the couch and waiting for a little girl to crawl out of the TV while you're asleep. But the Airstream Interstate remained a faithful travel steed for a weekend in the paddock, offering us a rare glimpse of trackside privacy and luxury details that spoiled us for granted. The LED lights, for example, were designed to produce no excess heat. The bathroom was cramped but surprisingly functional, the "marine toilet" powerful enough to suck down loose change and petanque balls if we tried. The electric awning was sheer genius. And after five fill-ups, the Interstate returned us an average figure of 16 miles per gallon -- a far sight above Larry's GMC Vandura conversion van parked behind his KOA office. The corner workers did their best to inadvertently sabotage us but our team ended up placing fifth in our class without any more major incidents, limping the car around on shot tie rods and steering looser than Nickel Slot Night. Final results: 63rd overall, 238 laps completed, and errant misty-eyed nostalgia of the 1976 Presidential Election. There are some things in life that one just shouldn't cheapen out on: a three-piece suit; a Cuisinart; a racecar. An RV, of course, should be first and foremost. The Airstream Interstate, if nothing else, proves that "go big, or go home" mentality is still alive and well in America. And with an Airstream, "going home" isn't very far at all.
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