story and photos by Steve Legel
Plum assignments for automotive journalists lean toward major shows like Detroit’s NAIAS or opportunities to test drive high performance or exotic automobiles. Sometimes the assignment comes with perks, like glamorous parties and celebrity elbow rubbing.
My assignment to cover the Mopars on the Strip, in Las Vegas, Nevada, came with none of that. But I sure scored with a triple treat; road trip, performance report [Jeep Liberty over the Rockies review], and car show coverage. Along the way I met a great group of Mopar enthusiasts, saw great scenery, and can favorably report on a home grown, American made production car. I made my travel arrangements online, stayed at modest motels and set up the trip in a family oriented way, that you can do too!
Mopars at the Strip, held each April in at the Las Vegas, Motor Sports Complex, is one of several major Mopar Meccas that take presence around the country. Mostly a drag racing venue for vintage Chrysler powered vintage drag cars, as well as a huge Chrysler car show, MATS draws participants from around the country and Canada.
Getting there is the first order of business, and half the fun! Caravans were arranged with meeting points at Gilbert (Phoenix) AZ, Nephi (Salt Lake City), UT, Grand Junction, CO, and Albuquerque, NM, with participants meeting the night before and caravanning to opening day of the MATS. For me, I arranged a flight from Detroit (my home) to Denver, Colorado, where I picked up a 2012 Jeep Liberty for a driver’s review, en route to the show. My route took me through northern Colorado along I-70 from Denver to Grand Junction where I met up with the caravan group.
Colorado offers spectacular mountain view driving experiences, and treacherous winter road driving. Past road trips through Colorado had taken me south through Montrose and along the western edge of the state to cross eastbound over Monarch Pass one trip, and further south to Durango over the Million Dollar Highway on another. The unpredictable spring weather in the mountains looked favorably on me this time.
For spectacular scenery and a lesson in geology, this trip was awesome and I highly recommend it! Denver’s mile high plateau gives way to rugged foot hills west of the city. Once past the hectic city traffic, I-70 West (easy access from the airport), Colorado takes on a more out west appearance including notable stops like the Brass Armadillo antique mall for unique treasure hunting. As we start to ascend the mountains we are reminded of winter’s danger signs posting truck tire chain up areas become more frequent. Check the website for the Boecher Mansion, 20 minutes outside Denver, for a list of activities.
A snow capped peak is visible as I round an up hill bend. I noticed no body roll even in the steep tight turns on Colorado 91 (the Road To the Top of the Rockies) leading to the town of Leadville.
Leadville is the home to the Mining Museum and the 24 mile drive south from the interstate was not the challenge of the Million Dollar Highway to Durango. Hwy 91 crosses Freemont Pass (ele. 10,200 ft) on its way to Leadville. Along the way we cross the headwaters of the Arkansas River. The Museum is worth the side trip. Its interesting educational presentations describe the Colorado mining industry, the history of mining around the world, current resources, techniques and environmental sensitivity are illustrated though extensive displays and dioramas. It is most interesting to learn just home many “mined” products we come in contact with every day.
The road bed has been terraced into the side of the mountain, reducing the amount of demolition required for a throughway, and minimizing man’s impact here. Signs like “Falling Rock Zone” and “Caution Strong Gale Winds” are reminders of nature’s sometimes hostile presence in the mountains, and not to be taken lightly.
The winter of 2011- 2012 was mild by history’s records, though there was still plenty of snow along the road way. Higher and higher we climb past the last of the deciduous trees and to elevations where only conifers stand tall. Beyond that we drive past the tree line, where nothing grows and the land is barren. There are no advertising billboards along I-70. Even at exits, the highway services available signs serve rather than tall lighted familiar franchise identifiers intruding on the scenery.
The Eisenhower Tunnel is an engineering marvel for convenience and safety. Loveland Pass is the old and alternate route — a two laner through the mountains.
Through the San Isabelle Forest the road unwinds ahead. Snowmelt swells the streams that race through the deepest reaches of the divides, as the roadway shares what little level land the road builders could find.
Further west, the mountains provide the steep snow covered runs for the skiers at Vail. Frozen waterfalls are visible where the stone face is bare of snow. The architecture and the landscape here is decidedly Alpine.
Before we crest the Rockies, the Eagle River joins us on downhill descent. On the other side of the mountain range, the architecture and landscape changes from Alpine to a ranch like vision of America’s Out West. Pine gives way to Junipers and the chiseled cliffs of red sandstone are sharp in comparison to the volcanic formed granite peaks we leave behind in the rear view mirror. This stretch of road is long and lonely. There are no service areas west of Vail, and the signs say so. No radio stations tune in.
The Eagle River meanders westward from the Continental Divide. We share a narrow valley floor with the Eagle and a trail of railroad tracks and its accompanying string of telephone poles click by like counters marking our mileage as we pass. The ultimate narrowing of this valley occurs at the Glenwood Canyon, where the road and river twist and turn at the bottom of 4,000 ft steep walls above. Exciting to the eye, the Glen Canyon Drive is worth turning around and doing it again. So, struck with awe, we barely notice leaving the Canyon and meeting up with the larger Colorado River as the road opens to a broad, flat valley of the Grand Mesa. The snow capped mountains disappear from the mirror. Pallisades, Colorado is the home of a growing local wine industry. Perhaps on another trip we will make a stop for tasting.
Our day’s journey ends at Grand Junction, where we meet up with Vi and Dennis Crawford. They organized the Meet and Greet for the travelers at Pine Valley Truck Center and a visit to Ron Kissner’s personal Mopar Collection. Early the next morning, we travelers were greeted with a chilly desert sunrise at Grand Junction Chrysler, who sponsored a breakfast and tire kicking session before we hit the road. Stories abounded about lost Mopars and rare finds, including finding a ring of great vintage Chrysler, Plymouth and Dodge cars set on their sides out in the desert and used as fencing for a cattle feeding area. Our group was made up of some high performance modern day Chargers and Challengers, as well as a 1961 Imperial convertible and a 1970 Road Runner and some full blown drag race cars traveling by trailer, pulled by Dodge Ram pickups.
Grand Junction sits in the high desert and is bound by the Grand Mesa to the east and the Colorado (Mountain) Monument to the west. Our caravan pulled out into the morning sun and westward on I 70 to the Utah state line. The Grand Mesa gives way to the more mountainous Colorado Monument which in turn gives way to the high desert. Junipers give way to sage. Yellow and red sandstone layers illustrate the geology of the anticline. Steep cliffs of crumbling sandstone line each side of the interstate, as we pass through the wide flat San Rafael Reef. The steep cliffs on each side watch us, as though sentries, along the 200 mile stretch.
I-70 crosses the high desert in the real-world version of the scenery depicted in the Disney/Pixar movie, Cars. At one scenic outlook, the now familiar railroad tracks and telephone poles are joined by an abandoned roadway. They share a long journey stretching forlornly out into the desert and disappear from view. The land here is flat and the road is smooth and straight for great distances ahead. The flatness is punctuated by steep mountains off to our south. Some, still snow capped, at 10,000 foot elevations.
Our early start provides a near private viewing of the changing color of the rock faces as the sun eases its way into the morning sky. Glistening silica and quartz offer silent testimony to the long history of mining here. The town of Green River is one of my favorite stops. It has two exits off I-70, and the short slow drive through town will provide a quick study in the demise of Route 66 and the towns and business that once prospered serving traveler’s needs before the Interstate system passed them by.
We drive our way across the San Rafeal Reef and meet the nemesis of explorers past. The magnificent San Rafeal Swell! The Swell is a 70 mile long and 30 mile wide rise in the earth’s crust and it is marked with a maze of deep narrow walled canyons, “from which there is no escape from misery.” Many explorers became lost and disoriented exploring the lifeless rock and died in its twisted canyons. It must be magnificent to see from above.
Like yesterday’s drive through the Glenwood Canyon, I-70 allows a traveler a glimpse into the eons of time, seen in the layers of sedimentation and erosion. Engineers and construction workers sensitively carved the roadway combining otherwise unrelated canyons and divides to make passage through. Stopping at the scenic outlooks is worthy of your time. Imagine Indians and explorers crossing the deserted lifeless lands. Then imagine workers living in tents at night and blasting and excavating the shear rock walls by day. Stop for a moment here and let the journey be part of your destination.
Near the town of Price Loa and Richfield, the high desert valley plateau ends abruptly as we climb the eastern slopes of the Western Rockies. Reminded of winter’s fury there is still snow here in the springtime. We pass well below the mountain tops across the pass at 6,800 feet elevation. Sweeping curves and steep inclines challenge us. Up, then over, and then down again, pine trees, rather than the juniper and sage of the desert cover the mountainside. Near the end of our decent, I-70 makes a gentle curve to join I-15 as we forge southbound. The I-15 corridor in Utah is a broad flat valley between parallel mountain ranges — 200 miles or more we travel south. The fertile valley is home to cattle ranches and farms. Streams meander across the land. I-70 runs fast, smooth and straight, ignoring the bucolic husbandry it passes. The valley narrows at its southernmost end. The tall cliff walls funnel us through the Virgin River Canyon. Akin to the Glenwood Canyon and the San Rafeal Swell, the Virgin River Canyon drive is an exhilarating drive of twists and turns and inclines between steep walls of mountain. The road criss-crosses the Virgin River a dozen times and makes no less than 23 sharp turns, before it delivers us to the high desert on the other side.
The high desert offers us little to see until we consider a stop at Bryce or Zion Canyons. From across the desert, the oasis known as Las Vegas appears in the desert. The tall skyscraper hotels and unique Stratosphere tower rise unmistakably from the flat desert floor. Soon, we arrive on “the Strip.”
Las Vegas is alive with action and offers no shortage of non-gambling things to do. I enjoyed the Freemont Street Experience and attended free exhibitions at the various resorts. Guidebooks and information are plentiful. Pre arranged tours to Boulder Dam, Grand Canyon West and South rims are easy to attend.
I stayed in a small motel just off Las Vegas Boulevard (the Strip). Look for Motel 6, America’s Best and other motels. They offer modest, clean, secure accommodations, and served me well, as it was not my plan to spend time in a hotel room, when I could see the Grand Canyon and a show field of fine Mopars.
Mopars on the Strip is a wonderful show, and worth attending. Primarily a drag racing venue for vintage (1962 through 1970) and nostalgia drag racing, the show encompasses a large show field of contemporary as well as classic Chrysler products, a vendor section, a swap meet and a car corral. Various brackets for the drag racing are run throughout the day, including stock, super stock, altered super stock and professional. You know it’s Mopar by the acrid smell of burning rubber and the thunder of exhaust as the Christmas tree stages from yellow to green! I’ll let photos tell the story of the car show.
In my 25 years covering the hobby, I would like to share this observation. More and more I see acceptance and encouragement among owners of both classic and modern Mopar Muscle. This show was no exception. Vintage Mopar owners did not look down their nose at modern non-carbureted counterparts and owners of Modern Mopar Muscle truly respected the heritage from which the Modern classic came. Any classic Mopar that was trailered to the show, was most likely towed by a modern Dodge Ram!
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