According to Google Maps, the distance between Manhattan and Redondo Beach is about 2,800 miles. Following the respective speed limits and abstracting away from pesky things like stopping for fuel or the necessities of nature, Google is confident that such a drive can be completed in 41 hours, point to point.
Reality, of course, is a little different.
There will be traffic. If you don’t travel over a holiday or weekend, there will be at least one and possibly three “rush hours”. There will be weather. Variable road conditions, including construction, potholes, lane closures. You’re going to need fuel, so that means a stop, which means an average of zero-miles-per-hour during those 5+ minute stops, which means making up that time. You have to eat. You have to do whatever it is your body usually does with food, once it’s finished with it. And there’s that little issue of sleep.
Up until about 30 years ago, there was this … race. You might have heard about it, but I (for one) had not. I mean, not as a real thing — I had, however, watched it. It was one of my favorite movies, actually, starring Burt Reynolds, Dom Deluise and Farah Fawcett: The Cannonball Run (1981). Apparently, this movie was based on a real thing, that is, a real race, a cross-country, pell-mell and damn-the-torpedoes dash. The record run, coming during the final race in 1979, was set in April 1979 in a Jaguar XJS (a car I’ve always loved) by Cannonballers Dave Heinz and Dave Yarborough. Their run was 32 hours and 51 minutes, with an average speed of 87mph. This record was subsequently broken in 1983 by David Diem and Doug Turner … and there the record sat.
In 2006, Alex Roy and Dave Maher took that little drive across the country, starting in Manhattan and ending in LA. They did that drive in 31 hours and 7 seconds. Roy wrote a book about that trip, and what got him to that point and through it, called The Driver.
Here’s the fun thing — I remember hearing about this trip. When the details came out in 2007, I was rather distracted (something about newborn twins), so I missed most of the hoopla. Okay, just about all of it. But I remember something about a trip starting out on April 1st, flipping April Fools Day, and that he blasted across the US in a tricked out 2000 E39 BMW M5. And when I say “tricked out”, yeah, I may be understating things.
The problem with all of this (okay, one of the many problems) is that it’s all horrendously illegal. Heh heh. Whoops. I remember being amazed and appalled that anyone would attempt to do this run, at those speeds, and blown away by the idea that anyone would ever expect to get away with it. “Couldn’t be real,” I remember saying. I mean, it had to be an April Fool’s Day joke. Had to be.
Or … evil genius.
I mean, think about it — if you wanted to hide something so obviously illegal and colossally dangerous, but still claim credit for it all without being unceremoniously hauled in front of every traffic court along a 3,000 strip, you’d need “plausible deniability”. You could do your run, publicize it obliquely, but deny and demur and pretend it was all an innocent joke. Then, when the requisite timers were all up, you could post the proof.
4/1/2006: Guess what I just did! Woo hoo! Wait — ha ha! April Fools!
4/1/2007: Oh, by the way, about that joke? Yeah. Not so much. By the way, hope you like the new book, you know, the one with the copious amounts of proof! Ta ta!
That’s not how they did it, however. Maher and Roy (and their entire support team) were all NDA’d up to their eyeballs until the book came out, a year after the run. But as for proof, Alex and his co-driver, Dave Maher, have oodles of it. Witnesses at the start. Witnesses at the finish. All manner of data and verification in between and along the way. Their veracity has been unchallenged and at this point, it’s all a matter of public record.
In 2012, the Roy/Maher record was smashed by Ed Bolian, Dave Black, and Dan Huang. Driving a 2004 Mercedes-Benz CL55 AMG, that team blitzed across the country in an astounding 28 hours and 50 minutes. While their proof has been something of an issue, it’s now (generally) accepted that they can back up their claim.
It took 23 years before Roy and Maher beat the old record held by Heinz and Yarborough. It took 6 years before their record fell to Bolian, Black and Huang. That new record has stood ever since.
That is, until April 1st, 2015.
Invitation from Team Polizei
I met Alex Roy at CES this past year. Alex and John DeVore of DeVore Fidelity used to sell audio gear at Stereo Exchange in Manhattan some 20+ years ago and they’ve stayed in touch over the years. I’ve known John for a couple of years, and I’ve been a vocal fan of his speaker designs.
John asked me to join them for a night out at a super-secret-squirrel steak joint in Vegas, and if you know me, I’m hardly the one to say ‘no’ to that kind of thing. John also happens to a car nut, and was practically bouncing at the thought of stuffing John Darko and myself into his buddy’s Citroën SM for a ride over to the restaurant. Bemused, and generally open to wackiness, we happily piled in. The SM, in case you’re as benighted as I, was a technical marvel when it was released back in the 1970s, but very few of them were ever made and fewer still are still around — much less, running. This car was nearly mint, absolutely charming, and an utter delight.
It wasn’t until dinner that John casually mentioned that Alex was “that” M5 driver that set “that record”, and the hamsters finally got the wheel moving. The phrase “holy sh*tballs” spent a good part of the evening chasing its tail around in my head. I might have babbled something about cars and audio systems when Alex said something along the lines of “I would love to do something for your site!” I might also have peed myself. Maybe. It’s entirely possible.
We traded info. Over the next couple of weeks, we traded some texts. Things were looking very promising.
Then, somewhere in February, Alex went dark. Couldn’t reach him. Texts weren’t answered. Emails were ignored. Weeks passed. Things were not looking very promising.
Then, out of the blue, an invitation.
“You should come to New York in a couple of weeks,” said he. “It’ll be fun. The New York International Auto Show will be in town. We can walk the show, talk to some vendors about our audio-in-auto project. I’ve got a little something special lined up for the show, too. You’ll like it. Come up! You can crash at my place.”
The Driver just invited me to NYC?
I bought a train ticket the next day.
The night before the show, Alex sent me a text. “You wanna laugh? A call is all it’ll take.”
He’d seen my post on Facebook about the death of little Hayden, a friend of my 8 year-old-twins. I was pissed off, angry at the world and generally depressed. Alex was trying to cheer me up.
“So … got some news.”
He told me. He’d broken Bolian’s record. In 26 hours and 28 minutes.
Wait! Wha –?
It was March 31st. The story was going to break the following day, on April Fools Day. During the NYIAS. “I’m gonna need to do a series of interviews tomorrow,” he said, almost apologetically.
I laughed. Very much out loud: “You think?!?”
He. Broke. 28. Hell, he’d crushed it. I might have said that out loud, too.
“Yeah! Well. Sort of. Okay, not really.”
Wait! Wha –?
“It’s a joke! April Fools? We’re pranking the whole industry! On the 2nd, we’ll run a retraction. Then, I’ll follow up with a series of articles about how not-hard it is to fake all this kind of thing. It’ll be a send-up of auto journalism — because I’ll bet you, no one is going to do the due-diligence on this!”
A joke. An April Fools Day joke … wait a second … this is …
… just like the 2006 run.
“Plausible Deniability” screamed through my head.
Alex was surprised. Taken aback, even. “No, no! Really, it’s a joke!”
Sure it was.
“No! Really!” He laughed. “C’mon — Spy Hunter mods? No one can take that seriously,” he paused. “Can they?” His voice might have risen a bit on that last word.
He was referring to the rather colorful article just he’d published on The Truth About Cars. Reading quickly through, he had a valid point — the article was more than a little outrageous. Two steering wheels? A smoke generator?
Okay, assuming that didn’t do it, what about his new devotion to … Wotan?!? Matthew McConaughey as the Herbert Spencer of American philosophy? “Post-modernism should be taught before math”?
It’s almost enough to trip the BS alarms … almost.
“Plausible Deniability!” I said, “What if you wanted to keep me — or anyone — from possibly being indicted, deposed or in anyway impacted by your little escapade — what would you say? Are you telling me you would really tell me something different if it wasn’t a joke?”
There was a pause. Was it just me, or could I imagine a little smirk on the other end of the line?
“No,” he said firmly. “I’d tell you. This is just a joke.”
Which is exactly what he had to say.
Then, the smirk came through loud and clear: “Tomorrow is gonna be huge, though!”
NYIAS 2015: Press Day
I arrived at the Javits Center just past noon on April 1st.
I texted John — sure enough, Alex was tied up in an interview over at Volvo. By the time I’d wandered through the maze, they’d wrapped that up and relocated next door to Lincoln. Alex, in his Team Polizei leather jacket festooned with rally patches and his signature yellow sunglasses perched atop his recently shaved head, was chatting up a the PR contact. John was listening in. There was a demo going on. We were waiting our turn.
My first stop, and I’d treed Revel‘s designer Kevin Voecks.
Let me back up a second. “The reason” I was in town was to explore the possibility of working with Alex on a project, perhaps a series of articles or videos featuring some of the oddest little bits barnacled on the high-end auto industry: the high-end auto audio system.
Yes, that’s apparently a thing.
Okay, obviously that’s a thing. Everyone that’s ever played with a auto manufacturer’s website “option configurator” knows that most cars have the option to upgrade the shtty “stock” audio system for a slightly less shtty one, albeit at an eye-popping premium.
Totally worth it, right?
Of course not, says The Audiophile. You are encouraged to imagine that this is served with a side order of sneer.
Actually, audiophiles are pretty consistent on this point. The very idea is absurd, they say. The acoustic space in an a car is the absolute worst for acoustics. They’ll talk about lack of damping, or reflections, or the impact of seats, bodies (passengers and driver), and all the weird surfaces, all of which need to be addressed and overcome to produce even passable sound. Given that most car designers had to be utterly ignorant of such things, given the average result — or so the argument went — it followed that audio-in-auto was a complete waste of money and energy. “No serious audiophile would bother,” the armchair purists opine, verbally washing their hands of the topic.
This is pretty much exactly what I was told on Facebook when I asked about it a week or two back: it was a waste of time.
So, naturally, I was convinced there was something to it. Which brings me back to Revel Speakers and Kevin Voecks.
Kevin is an audiophile. There’s really no serious doubt about this. His designs occupy several spaces on Stereophile’s “Recommended Components” list, and Revel’s parent company, Harman International, has recently shown some very serious interest in expanding their dominance in the car-audio space.
Late last year, Lincoln announced that they’d be partnering with Revel to offer a suite of lux audio systems in their newest version of the MKX. And here he was.
Perhaps remarkably, the system did not suck. Actually, far from it. More on that, later.
There were interruptions. Lots of them, actually.
Alex spent most of the day interrupted. Twitter, Facebook, text messaging, IM, email, voice mail — his phone was chirping, barking, belling and generally demanding attention all day. Friends, former rally colleagues, reporters.
“You’re a maniac!”
“You cannot be serious.”*
*Fine, I have no idea what was being said; I’m merely interpreting based on the responses Alex offered (guffaws, usually) before sneaking off to discuss “the new record”.
Let’s just say that there were a lot of people that were very curious.
I missed seeing Dave Maher — he apparently showed up earlier in the day and had skipped out by the time I showed up. Bummer, that.
By the time we left the show, Alex may have interacted with something just shy of 500 specific and individual people. And shot a handful of videos.
Clearly, the game was afoot.
I’d never seen a Morgan before. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of one before I saw Alex pull up in front of the Javits, cap screwed down, yellow sunglasses traded in for goggles and a scarf. Okay, that’s probably not true, but the reality of what this little “car” is had never … fully … bloomed, for lack of a better word.
It is, in short, a death trap.
It is also, in point of fact, insanely fun. Emphasis on the word ‘insane’.
The “cockpit” is tiny. Buckling up means half climbing out and settling back in again. Of course, to buckle yourself in at all is more an acknowledgement to law than for any real security — there are no doors, no windshield worthy of the name, and most definitely no top. The “roll bars” are only discussed with air-sketched zap-quotes as they don’t even pass the shoulders of anyone over 5′ tall — if you roll this car, you’re pizza sauce, plain and simple.
Now, before you get cocky, let me suggest that this might not be all that unreasonable an expectation. The two wheels up front provide a remarkably car-like driving experience (sort of), but that single motorcycle-sized rear wheel is really all there is between you, a cross breeze and a Jersey wall. Ba-da-bing.
There’s a suspension. Again, sort of. Given the size of the wheels (again, think “motor bike”), potholes are now life-threatening. The 2-banger engine is front-mounted and gloriously exposed. That is, it’s noisy as all hell. Think: “Harley-Davidson”, and you’re in the right ball-park. Alex offered a vintage tank-gunner’s helmet, which included some serious ear-protection along with the padded noggin’ pocket, but I declined because I’m brain damaged.
Alex tells me that his Morgan has spent an ungodly amount of time getting various repairs, and after rattling across Manhattan like Alex does every day — this is his year-round daily driver (when it’s running) — I can see why. I asked after the mileage. Alex grinned. “Oh, maybe 10mpg. Maybe.” I shook my head and chalked it up to yet another oddity on what was already a technicolor personality.
And then we started driving.
First, let me underscore how loud that car is. Most of our driving was through rush-hour traffic in downtown Manhattan. That is, there’s a lot of traffic. That said, you could hear Alex coming way down the block. No problem. Which may, in part, explain all the head-turning.
Believe me when I tell you about how much head-turning this car got.
Probably due to the effects of a brain-eating amoeba, Alex actually let me drive the doodlebug. This was, most definitely, a horrible idea. I white-knuckled the (removable) steering wheel and cluelessly burned off half of his remaining clutch pad while Alex worked the various knobs and switches that activated the turn signals and horn and whatnot. Aside from nearly killing us a few (dozen) times, I will say that it’s even more fun to drive than to ride in, and this was the best passenger car I’d been in. Comfort? Pshaw. It was an experience.
This is not the car for the introvert. Being an introvert, I was horrified. And enthralled.
I WANT ONE. Oh boy howdy do I want one. At $50k for what would be, to me, a one-season car I couldn’t take both of my kids out in at the same time (or, if I were being responsible — ever), this would rank up there as the single most narcissistic thing I’d ever spent money on. But who cares? It’s a Morgan! My bucket-list just got a little longer.
I so totally and desperately do not want to get into cars. No no no no no ….
An elaborate ruse
After dinner, Alex had to write his retraction. Or rewrite. Actually, it was more re-rewrite. His editor (not me!) needed some clarity and punch. I was (and still am) suspicious about the whole thing. Did he? Didn’t he?
I suggested, as a way to try and tease out a admission or perhaps get an inkling to the plan that lay behind the whole charade, that he write it in such a way that it left open the door. You know. Just because. He saw through my feeble ploy. All I got was a raised eyebrow and a Cheshire Grin.
The retraction was published the following morning.
It’s a delicious piece, actually. First, it doesn’t precisely deny that Roy & Maher didn’t reprise their run. Second, it doesn’t rule out the possibility of a future run. In fact, this whole did-he/didn’t-he thing is quite equivocal. He even explicitly acknowledges my hectoring: “April Fools’ Day is a great day to announce and keep your plausible deniability.”
I don’t care what he says, I think he did it. The details, however, will have to wait 366 days. Unlike the last run, where he thought he had to remain completely “mum” about the entire affair for the entire period, this time (thanks to Ed Bolian’s example), he can shoot his mouth off and still play coy. As long as he doesn’t offer any proof during that intervening period, that is. In fact, this little denial may be just the ticket to defray and obfuscate past all of those statutes of limitations. As he says, “it just might work.” Clever, sneaky bastard.
Of course, I say all this to be coy, too.
Fact is, Alex Roy didn’t do it. He also clearly has absolutely zero desire to do it. Less, maybe. It’s not that he’s old, or tired, or scared, or unable, though some of that may be true. He’s moved on.
But for the others? Let’s just say that there were a lot of people that were less than thrilled at being duped. And, to Alex’s surprise (and to my glee), quite a few that found the retraction to be less than convincing. I expect that there will be quite a few of us keeping a keen eye on Amazon for any new books by Alex Roy with a publication date in 2016.
But there’s another big piece to the retraction that’s worth spending a moment on.
Given this recent editorial in Jalopnik, I’m not surprised by the complaint that Alex has with the state of automotive journalism, though I know that his complaint and it’s root causes are not unique to that segment. The fact is, journalism everywhere is hacked to hell.
Even when the claims are clearly outlandish, the lack of scrutiny that they receive by people paid to know better is horrifically embarrassing.
Unfortunately, this isn’t new. Doesn’t make it better, much less make it okay, however.
I can rail like the best of them, but an exegesis isn’t really required. When “clickbait” is a thing that even serious folks indulge in as a perfectly acceptable way to drive the eyeballs past the ever-diminishing “inherent value” of online adverts, truth and accuracy is of little interest, relevance or import. The Truth is … well, it’s expensive, and commercially, has little quantitative value. Why should they care why about quality when we don’t seem to care enough to demand it? We still click. Site owners report those clicks to their advertisers, crowing about their “impressions”, and the publishing world shudders, cringes, but still moves on.
This is not good news for writers. Or publishers. Or, ultimately, anyone else.
Welcome to The New New Media. This is all our fault.
NYIAS 2015: Press Day Two
The Day After, Alex and I walked the show floor again. This time, we were on-task to collect contact info from various car makers and PR flacks.
The goal, as we’d hashed it out, was to talk our way into borrowing some hellaciously expensive automobiles in order to talk about the associated audio experience each had to offer. We met with Lexus, BMW, Audi, Mercedes, Jaguar & Land Rover, Porsche, Aston Martin, Maserati, McLaren, and quite a few more.
Alex suggested that we have them delivered to either of us (DC or NY); the recipient would just drive it over to the other one, collect him, and then cannonball to LA drive around a bit before heading home. Or something.
Me? I’ll be happy to be able to visit some local dealers without having to mortgage the house just to get onto the lot. We’ll see how that goes.
I’ll offer this as a tease: in-car audio is not what The Audiophile thinks it is. Except when it totally is.
Worth exploring? Most definitely.