Car country

Recently, my father called with a question: "You up for a Road Trip?"

"Where to?" I queried.

"I thought we'd do a few car collections/museums. We'd start here in Vegas and go through the Imperial Palace's collection. Then drive to L.A., do the Petersen Automotive Museum, go through Parnelli's place with JoAnn Brock, finish with the NHRA drag racing museum in Pomona and then drive back to Vegas and you could fly home."

The Imperial Palace is a Vegas casino that has a collection of around 60 cars on its fifth floor. These ranged from early-1900s Rolls-Royces and Duesenbergs to late-'60s muscle cars.

The unique thing about this collection was that a large number of the cars were for sale; some weren't, but most were. They ranged from multimillion-dollar old classics to a $20,000-plus Pontiac GTO.

They had an orange 1970 Dodge Challenger T/A on the floor with Washington license plates and BBC Dodge license plate frames. That was kinda cool. My brother had one just like it, and I think they wanted $35,000 for it.

We then set out on the road to Los Angeles. The drive across the

Mojave Desert was both interesting and somewhat nostalgic. I watched very carefully, and Pop still drives very well. He pays attention, keeps a steady legal speed and doesn't wander from lane to lane. I've probably ridden 100,000 miles with him behind the wheel.

It's been 40 years since I've crossed a Southwest desert. The colors ranged from shades of sand, orange and brown. Yuccas, Joshua trees and low scrub grew intermittently. Now, the road between Sin City and Excessville is three lanes on each side of the freeway, where once it was all two-lane highway.

The visibility was "severe clear," as a former carrier pilot buddy of mine would have described it. Driving across the desert, the freeway ahead would finally reach a ridge that you've been watching approach for the past 25 miles, and then, when you at last crest it, the road goes on straight as a die until the next ridge on the horizon 30 miles away.

JoANN BROCK, the widow of the late Ray Brock who, among other things, was once editor of Hot Rod and later a VP at Petersen Publishing, got us tickets for the Petersen Automotive Museum. Ray and my father raced together in 1962, and the families have been close friends ever since.

Robert Petersen started Hot Rod and then added Motor Trend, Car Craft, Rod & Custom and 'Teen magazines under the Petersen masthead. There might have also been a couple of other titles.

Anyway, he retired, sold the magazines and built the museum out of a failed department store building. Encompassing more than 300,000 square feet, the museum showcases not only the cars in the Petersen collection, but cars of other collectors as well. More than 150 race cars, classic cars, hot rods, motorcycles and movie and celebrity cars are on display at any one time.

Changing exhibits ensure there is always something new to see. While we were there, two galleries were filled with the whimsical kustom cars of Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, and because this is the 75th anniversary of the 1932 Ford, there was another gallery filled with at least 48 gleaming Deuce coupes and roadsters. The Petersen Automotive Museum is a must-see for car buffs.

Monday morning, we picked up JoAnn, and she had gotten from Parnelli an invitation to go over to Hawthorne and go through his collection. If you're a car enthusiast, you know who Parnelli Jones is. In 1963, driving "Old Calhoun," one of the last roadsters, he was the first to qualify for the Indy 500 faster than 150 m.p.h., and then he won the 500, too.

He also drove Andy Granatelli's turbine car in 1967 and led the whole 500 until a failed $2 gasket put him out four laps from the end. Then he became a car owner, won Indianapolis twice more with Al Unser driving and a number of championship races also. He then ran Baja with a hot-rod Ford Bronco and won one year. He also won the TransAm Championship in an orange factory Boss 302 1970 Mustang that Bud Moore built in Spartanburg, S.C.

Parnelli has been quoted as saying, "If you're in control, you're not going fast enough." And like Foyt, Parnelli wasn't above driving over you to move you out of the way.

Unfortunately, Parnelli was in Utah on business when we visited his place. His collection then was 25-30 cars. His Indy winners, the Big Oly Baja Bronco, a hole for the Mustang (it was out on loan to a magazine) and a lot of dirt midgets and other race cars and memo- rabilia he owned were all there. He even has the wooden Indy garage doors from Al Unser's garage saved when the Speedway tore the old garages down to modernize.

Part of the fun, though, was just listening to JoAnn and Pop tell old car stories.

JoAnn knows most of the old racers, she traveled a lot with Ray and can easily match you story for story. We also went past her daughter Sarah's house, met her son-in-law Charlie and looked at his clone of the 1964 Comet that Ray drove in the Trans-Africa Safari Rally for Mercury that year.

TUESDAY MORNING, after a bit of lost wandering, we pulled up in front of the fence surrounding the NHRA drag racing museum at the L.A. County Fairgrounds in Pomona. There was a sign on the fence that said, "Closed Monday and Tuesday."

Pop got out of the car and walked up to a small gate in the fence; you could see the keyhole in the handle on the gate. "Let's just see," he said as he put his hand on the handle and turned it. It opened. We then walked up to the museum building and knocked on one of the doors. In a little while, a custodian came to the door and we told him who we were and mentioned a number of weighty names. We must have said the right ones.

"I can't charge you anything," the custodian said, "all the admissions stuff is locked up, but there's a dona-tions box over there and I'll turn the lights on so you can wander around."

Once again, we were all alone with another collection and we saw a number of significant historical cars. I had even seen a number of these cars run, and as a matter of fact, they had the winning car, the Dragmaster Dart, from the first drag race I had ever seen, the 1962 Winternationals.

The NHRA museum is another must-see for L.A.-bound car freaks.

We put a thousand miles on my father's new Chrysler 300.

Pop says I passed the test, and then he invited me on what he figures will be his last major drive now that he's 84 - a Grand Lap of America, so to speak. "Wanna go from Vegas to Texas, to Florida, to Spartanburg, S.C., to Michigan, maybe Indianapolis and then back to Vegas?"

Stay tuned.

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