Epic Road Tests - The Driver’s Seat
If there’s one thing that I love more than anything else about this job, it would be getting the opportunity to road test some pretty amazing vehicles. Sometimes I’m given the chance to drive new trucks and SUVs early, even before the public, but that’s not always as much fun as you might think. Those drives are all business. There’s typically a stuffy suit-and-tie–wearing executive or engineer sitting in the passenger seat assuming the role of fun-sponge, and the time behind the wheel is kept relatively short. It’s not until several months later when they finally relinquish the keys and allow us to head out on our own that the real excitement begins.
"We spent four days in the Sprinter crisscrossing the California and Nevada desert."
Even then, not all road tests are created equal. Most of the time they are pretty mechanical. Every now and then, however, an idea and the right vehicle come together to create the perfect storm of awesomeness. One of the greatest adventures I’ve been on in the name of vehicle testing happened way back in 2007.
The test was the brainchild of David Kennedy (now editor of Hot Rod) and involved a Dodge Sprinter and Area 51. The idea sounds just about as crazy as it was. David was looking for the perfect way to test the new ’07 Dodge Sprinter, which was equipped with a 3.0L CRD diesel engine, so he conned John Cappa (then editor of Jp), Jason Sands (Diesel Power’s technical editor), and me into piling into the van for a four-day adventure into parts unknown. Since the Sprinter shares its oddly shaped styling with that of an otherworldly craft, at least in our minds anyway, heading off in search of aliens and top-secret aircraft made perfect sense.
We spent four days in the Sprinter crisscrossing the California and Nevada desert, stopping at military installations, government research and development centers, and any place that looked like it might hold the key to extra terrestrials and secret military aircraft. The first day took us past Rocketdyne and their former test facility and then on to Plant 42, which is right outside Lockheed’s famous Skunk Works. Oddly, a pair of SR-71 Blackbirds sit on display outside this remote location. We then made a visit to Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake before calling it a day.
Day Two, now armed with a CB radio, VHF scanner, two toy helicopters, and a box kite, saw the Sprinter pointed towards Death Valley. Our destination was Tonopah, Nevada, which is home to the Tonopah Test Range. Legend has it the Tonopah Test Range was used as an emergency landing strip for experimental aircraft coming out of Area 51. We spent some time watching the night sky, consumed a few adult beverages, and told some lies. However, the only lights we saw in the sky were from our toy helicopters.
Finally, on the third day, we reached or destination: the sprawling metropolis that is known as Rachel, Nevada. This was it—what the entire trip was leading up to. We were finally going to get a glimpse of Area 51. We first headed down the dirt road that leads to the main gate, but quickly turned around after encountering ominous signs, camera towers, and unmarked (and heavily armed) security trucks. Never the ones to give up, we next found a dirt road that leads to a mountain that overlooks the base. After 19 miles off-road in a two-wheel-drive Sprinter and a 3-mile hike on foot, there they were: the glowing lights of Area 51. Satisfied with our victory, we racked out and got some much-needed shuteye ahead of the long drive back to civilization.
The reality was simple: We all knew we weren’t going to find any aliens or mysterious aircraft. Although, that didn’t matter—it was all about the adventure. Through our journey, we got to know the Sprinter inside and out by practically living it in for four days and piloting it through such an incredibly varied assortment of terrain and driving conditions. It’s these sorts of tests that I want to do more of. I want to put the fun back in truck testing, and I want to hear from you, the readers. Email me your crazy road trip ideas and the vehicle you’d choose to do it in, and you might just see it come to life on these pages. But please, no more aliens.