Posted by: Jerry Garrett | July 2, 2017

What Ever Happened To NASCAR?

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Weird race: Eventual winner Ricky Stenhouse drives under a crash. (NBC)

 

DAYTONA BEACH, Florida

“I’d rather fill the seats we have, than look at empty ones,” Bill France Jr. explained to me in 1977. I had asked him why he turned down a proposal to add a mere 5,000 new seats at Daytona International Speedway. “Tell me we can sell those seats, and I might change my mind.”

That seemed such conservative thinking to me at the time – the Daytona 500 was always a sellout back then – but the perspective of history has brought France’s logic into clearer focus now.

“Yes, we sell out the seats we have for the 500,” he added, “but we don’t sell out the July race. Or any other race we have here – and we have more than a dozen each year.”

He and his father, Bill Sr. the NASCAR founder, had been through high times and lean times since the racing sanctioning body had been founded in 1949. They were so broke after the first Daytona 500 in 1959 – a very successful race – they couldn’t afford to clean the grandstands or haul away the infield trash afterward (they got the Boy Scouts to volunteer). The Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 had thrown an existential scare into them.

“We’re always trying to look for ways to improve our product,” France continued, “but we’re pretty happy with what we have now. We don’t make changes, just to be making changes.”

Eventually, however, those seats at Daytona, and whole lot more, got built – at the behest of others who challenged France in his waning days of control of the sport. Ironically, 44,000 of those seats at Daytona got taken right back out in the past couple of years (in the $400 million Daytona Rising “expansion”) because NASCAR couldn’t fill them in a tanking economy. Many other NASCAR tracks that also ill-advisedly over-expanded have had to do the same thing.

Empty seats, to television viewers, look like failure. Empty seats have helped get the conversation started about what has gone wrong for NASCAR, which up until 10 years or so ago was so wildly popular. But so many other factors now play into NASCAR’s sagging fortunes. The conversation is definitely started.

Nowadays the once-sacred annual slate of races now changes yearly; sponsors come and go (mostly go). Teams, tracks and backers go out of business. Officials jigger constantly with rules, formats, points and strategies in a (so far) failing attempt to get their groove back. Race times and dates change. Night races were added to appeal to TV viewers, while stifling live gates. The big-bucks television packages include events on obscure cable channels like Fox Sports, NBCSN  and CNBC – boo-yah!

What would Bill Jr., who had a heart attack in 1999 and was in declining health until his death in 2007, have thought of NASCAR today? His successor, his son Brian, and the braintrust he has assembled to run the sport seem forever in search of an answer.

Those changes Bill Jr. was always so loath to make are now made freely – almost weekly – by a an ever-changing leadership team that seems to still be trying define what NASCAR is, or ought to be, or could be, in the 21st Century. Perhaps there is no better example of how much is changing, and how quickly, than the rather unsatisfying outcome of the wreck-plagued Coke Zero 400 at Daytona last night. The capriciousness of the pervasive violence in NASCAR these days has drivers vexed, if not downright fed up.

“Way different race tonight than usual,” Brad Keselowski, the outspoken former series champion, opined on Twitter afterward. “Combo of the short stages & softer Goodyear tire has made the track super easy to drive = wreckfest.” The list of top ten finishers looked like names drawn out of a hat; the preparation, attention to detail, skill and excellence of the top teams mattered less than blind luck.

Keselowski was among the 15 non-finishing victims, out of 40 starters. Another casualty was the overwhelming pre-race favorite and sentimental choice Dale Earnhardt Jr., the fastest qualifier who was taken out in yet another crash not of his making. Even the surprise winner, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., only got to the finish line safely by driving under a car that flipped in front of him. Even many finishers were battered, bruised and covered in duct tape.

Outcomes are almost impossible to predict in a new 2017 format that breaks races into thirds, or fourths, like soccer or basketball, with breaks between segments. Every lap is an inconclusive mad scramble of cars packed ever-more dangerously close together. Old, time-tested strategies are out the window.

NASCAR “Cup” races, as the major league events have long been known, were once epic affairs that lasted for hours – five hours was once considered about the norm. Plenty of time to consume a whole cooler of beer.

The series – year after year – visited the same eccentric, colorful venues scattered about the Southern States, from whence the sport evolved: Wilkesboro, Martinsville, Rockingham, Richmond, Bristol, Nashville and Darlington. Two stops a year at each of those bullrings, plus visits to the big “superspeedways” at Charlotte, Daytona, Talladega and various venues in California (Riverside, Ontario, Fontana and Sonoma). Indianapolis was a popular addition in 1994 (its appeal has since faded embarrassingly).

Fans used to come for the spectacle, and they seldom went home disappointed. It was a tried-and-true format that produced ever greater returns. Up until newcomers – old hardliners might call them “carpetbaggers” – started fiddling with the formula.

The growing profit potential of owning a NASCAR racing track, with its attendant slate of annual race dates – the “Cup” races being almost sure-fire money-makers – inspired a number of would-be promoters to build new racetracks. Opulent venues, with almost gladiatorial grandeur, were built – unlike anything the sport had seen. When NASCAR balked at expanding its schedule to accommodate all the potential new races they were offered, the race track owners started buying the “weak sister” tracks like Wilkesboro and Rockingham – just to close them down, and expropriate their race dates. So the series began a process of re-defining itself in new non-traditional markets like central Texas, suburban Chicago, Kansas City, greater Miami and Las Vegas. Brian France even bought a large tract of land on Staten Island for a suburban New York speedway (it has yet to be built).

With the growing popularity of the sport, and its offbeat cast of Old School, tough-as-nails drivers like Richard Petty, David Pearson, Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough, Donnie and Bobby Allison and Dale Earnhardt Sr., came the interest of television. But there was a catch: Television wanted to re-program NASCAR into a “Reader’s Digest” version of itself – with races jammed into tight three-hour formats of action-packed racing that maintained couch-potato interest from beginning to end. Oh, and the networks also wanted to shoehorn at least an hour’s worth of distracting advertisements into that format. Sometimes it worked; most often, it didn’t.

A three-hour race wasn’t as alluring a prospect for fans to drive to, and spend the weekend tailgating at, especially if it was going to be on live national television anyway. Their old favorite tracks were gone – even the legendary Darlington track and its beloved Southern 500 were unceremoniously yanked from the schedule – and so the nostalgic appeal of attending in person was blown away. A sort of modern-day Gone with the Wind, courtesy of NASCAR’s new management team and consultants.

Tickets became unattainably expensive – especially for so many Americans who lost their jobs and homes in the recession that started in 2007 (and, for many, has yet to end.) So, seats sat empty.

Traditional sponsorships like those of Winston cigarettes – the sport’s mainstay for decades – went away, followed by a revolving door cast of cellphone companies, unrelated consumer product and retail companies, vanity projects, and tenuous charitable connections. Traditional events have lost their traditional names and now are bizarre conglomerates of “presented by” married to mouths-full of advertising slogans.

The whole sport has an identity crisis, and at many different levels. Racing used to be about finding who was the fastest driver, in the fastest car. NASCAR races aren’t about that anymore. Most of these races feature a gaggle of cars riding around in an aerodynamic bubble they’ve created, waiting to see what happens when they get too close together. The results are unpredictable, at best.

Drivers used to have productive careers into their 50s. But top still relatively young stars like Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards walked away suddenly last year. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is leaving after this season. Others, like Danica Patrick – the sport’s only female regular, are sure to follow, especially as many of the older drivers, who cut their teeth on a more traditional form of NASCAR racing, become frustrated at the increasingly random nature of race outcomes. The explanations, if given at all, are usually polite creampuffs like, “It was just time.”

But all too often these days racers complain, “I was just cruising along, minding my own business, when – wham! – out of nowhere, I’m in a 20-car pileup.” Dale Jr. missed half of last season with his fifth or sixth concussion; Patrick estimates she might have had a dozen or more by now. Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Aric Almirola have all had to endure broken bones.

Yet, every race the announcers breathlessly speculate when the next “big one” pileup will occur.

To entertain these ghoulish fantasies week after week is expensive; last night’s Daytona race probably cost more in wrecked race cars than it paid in purse money.

Though drivers accept that what they do is dangerous, there must be a margin for error, a feeling that to some extent they can control their own destinies, that they must have to continue to be willing to put their lives on the line. In today’s NASCAR that assurance is harder and harder for some to find.

Perhaps, as NASCAR is hoping, a new generation of promising talents such as Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Erik Jones, Darrell Wallace Jr., Ty and Austin Dillon will help re-define the sport in a way that appeals to a new generation of race fans.

If that happens, you’ll know it when NASCAR tracks start adding seats again.

Jerry Garrett

July 2, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by: Jerry Garrett | June 22, 2017

Driving My Mercedes From LA To Italy – A Happy Ending?

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My Mercedes in the Genoa port customs impound.

GENOA, Italy

Today, for the first time in more than nine weeks, I saw my 1973 Mercedes-Benz 450 SL again.

It was sitting in a warehouse in the port district of Genoa. It was dusty and dirty from more than five weeks inside the 40-foot shipping container that brought it here from the port in Los Angeles, on the deck of the Duesseldorf Express cargo ship.

But it was otherwise unscathed.

I had been braced for dings and dents, maybe even some sea water encroachment into the container. But no, there was nothing wrong. The 5,600-mile trip inside the Duesseldorf Express, which I have chronicled here on this blog, was uneventful.

“It was unloaded last week from the ship, and brought here by truck from the Voltri docks, which are about 12 kilometers from here,” said the shipping agent. “We unpacked it, processed various paperwork that was needed for the authorities here, and pushed it out of the way to here. We did not try to start it; we just push it.”

Would it start? I wasn’t sure it would after sitting around since April 11 or so.

The big moment came, when I got my chance to fire it up. One turn of the key – vroom!

All that was left for me to do was pay the agent, obtain a few stamps and seals from the customs inspectors, the Guardia di Finanza (the Italian IRS), and the local police. I needed special permissions, I was told, to be able get it into Italy without customs duties. (My story is that I am just going to drive it around for my own personal use and then ship it back to America when I go home.)

But the authorities seemed to just enjoy seeing an old classic like that still in running condition, and they happily waved me out on to the freeway on-ramp in front of the port.

I stopped once for gas, on the 100-mile trip home; it cost 102 euro to fill it up. Yikes.

In some ways, it was so strange, driving my car from America down a road in Italy. In other ways, we seemed right at home.

Jerry Garrett

June 22, 2017

 

 

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The Duesseldorf Express arrived this morning at Genoa’s Voltri docks. (VesselFinder)

GENOA, Italy

The Duesseldorf Express cargo ship arrived here at the Voltri docks, just west of downtown Genoa this morning, completing more than a month-long journey from Los Angeles with my 1973 Mercedes-Benz 450 SL onboard.

But don’t break out the champagne just yet.

The ship was originally scheduled to arrive here late Tuesday night, which would have given port workers here plenty of time this week to unload the container with the car in it, unload the car from the container, and transport it to the pick up point for my retrieval of it. (Voltri is massive; it is where many cruise ships are built; including the Fincantieri models used by Costa, Carnival, etc.)

For 28 days, the ship kept admirably close to that schedule, set by the ship’s operator, Hapag-Lloyd. But then it hit Italian waters, and a slowdown started – I call it Italian Standard Time. Hence, its arrival here this morning, which was a good 36 hours behind that schedule. But don’t tell that to the local port authorities here.

“There is no delay in this case,” said the agent handling my shipment. There is no delay in their book, because they weren’t the ones who set that original schedule.

“We will receive customs documents from the shipping line Friday,” the agent continued. “The container will be collected on Monday the 19th and your car, if customs will not inspect it, will be ready for pickup on 20th.”

(Reminder: As mentioned in previous reports, nobody works in Italy from basically Friday afternoon to sometime on Monday. Certainly not Saturday or Sunday. And sometimes not on Wednesday afternoon either.)

I also have some hoops to jump through at my end. I must write a letter to customs, asking if I may please be allowed to bring my car into the country for tourism purposes. (If I would ask for any other purposes, such as selling it, I would have to pay import duties and probably register and plate the car. Not to mention, I would need to get an Italian driving license, which is a good six-week process.

I also need to provide a copy of my driving license. And to extend my insurance coverage for me to drive on Italian roads (about $250 more from my insurer, Hagerty, the classic car guys).

The agent is supposed to hand over to me my original title, which I had to provide to the shipper before it could be shipped.

And one more thing: I will cost me another $540 to get the car unloaded, unpacked, through the paperwork and released to me. On top of the $1,405 that I already paid the shipping agent, Schumacher, to pack it and send it – way back on April 12.

I thought that was a bit odd. Sort of like buying an airline ticket from somebody to fly you somewhere, and then when you arrive, having to buy another ticket from somebody else to let you off the plane. The shipper countered that it was not odd at all. End of discussion.

This has been a real learning experience.

Jerry Garrett

June 15, 2017

 

 

 

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Mercedes-Benz organizes Tuscan tours in classic SL vehicles like these.

LIVORNO, Italy

Welcome to Tuscany, to the Duesseldorf Express cargo ship, which arrived at the port here yesterday.

In one of the containers onboard sits my 1973 Mercedes-Benz 450 SL, which is on the final leg of its epic journey to me in Genoa (Genova). It is supposed to arrive tomorrow (Thursday), a day behind schedule thanks to delays that have been encountered at stops in Italian ports such as Cagliari and Livorno.

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Location of the ship 5/14

The delays will translate to a further five-day delay in me receiving the car in Genoa – the container won’t be unloaded until Friday, which is now too late to do anything before the weekend looms. Nobody works in Italy on Saturday and Sunday; Monday might be inconvenient too, says the customs agent handling my shipment. So, figure on Tuesday, June 20.

Oh well. This is Italy. Delays have already caused the Mercedes to miss the Mille Miglia sports car tour, Villa d’Este car show, the Monaco Grand Prix, and the Mercedes-Benz tour. You know, almost all of the things I wanted to ship it to Italy for. It is already a month late; what’s another week?

This journey started April 13 when the car finally was picked up at my house on the U.S. west coast and transported to the cargo loading facility in Gardena, California. It sat around there for an entire month, until finally on May 13 the container was loaded on the ship, to begin a 5,900+ mile odyssey down the west coast of Mexico, through the Panama Canal, across the Caribbean Sea and then the Atlantic, and now the Mediterranean.

I could have picked up the Mercedes here in Livorno, but Genoa is a few hours closer to where I am staying, near the France-Italy border. Though most of Tuscany is land-locked – and most foreigners think of that way – a small western portion of the state is on the Ligurian Sea coast.

This kind of Mercedes, I have discovered, is a popular item around these parts – especially in the Tuscan interior. A number of tour companies operate itineraries that travel around to various Tuscan hill towns like Siena, San Gimignano and Montalcino in classic SLs from the 1960s and 1970s. At least one of these tour packages is backed officially by Mercedes-Benz.

The official M-B tours happen twice a year; one just happened the first week of June. Another is coming up the first week of September. They last three nights, and parts of four days. Up to 18 people can participate; everyone flies into Florence and is transported to a castle near Siena called Borgo Scopeto (it was featured in the 2010 rom-com “Letters To Juliet” and written about in this blog).

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Borgo Scopeto

The price? 1,995 euro, per person, double occupancy.

Maybe I should look into renting my car out for one of these things. It might help defray the costs of shipping it here.

Jerry Garrett

June 14, 2017

 

 

 

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The red box is the ship.

LIVORNO, Italy

The Duesseldorf Express is not here today, as it was scheduled to be.

For a month now, the cargo ship carrying my 1973 Mercedes-Benz 450 SL from Los Angeles to a rendezvous with me in Genoa, Italy, has been running on time like a Swiss train – through a dozen ports, across more than 5,000 miles of ocean. Despite wind, waves, high seas and strong currents, the 282-meter-long ship has admirably kept to a tight schedule – until it reached Italian waters yesterday.

Then it plowed into a nearly immovable force we call Italian Standard Time. Instead of numbers, an Italian clock face has “domani” at each hour.

The ship was supposed to arrive in Cagliari, on the island of Sardinia, early Sunday, and leave by late Sunday evening. Instead it was slowed down being allowed into the port, and slowed for its clearance to leave. (Not much happens anywhere in Italy on a Sunday, so maybe that part of the schedule was a little ignorant of local mores.) It was supposed to arrive in Livorno, on the coast of Tuscany, late last night, and leave for Genoa (Genova) by this afternoon.

Instead, it just left Cagliari this morning, and is chugging along the busy shipping lanes off the coast of Sardinia, as I write, at about 14 knots. It is now not due in Livorno until tomorrow morning. Domani.

And that will subsequently delay its arrival in Genoa until sometime the next day (Thursday).

Italian Standard Time is this gotcha in Italy that roughly translates to “whenever.” It’s like trying to play golf underwater, read while looking in a mirror, or climb Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen.

Everything seems to happen in slow motion (if at all).

Here’s an example: We recently had to wait for three weeks for a plumber to come boost the low water pressure at our apartment; he finally came the other day, adjusted it a bit then left. We were actually left with less water pressure, because he adjusted it the wrong way, without telling us what he was doing or why; we called him immediately to come back and really fix it correctly this time. He says he may be able to come back in a week or two – and the guy’s office is a half-mile away from our apartment. It might take him five minutes.

If you try to buck the system, or ask for things to hurry up, you just piss people off. So, the Mercedes arrives Thursday, June 15 now. Or whenever.

Domani.

Jerry Garrett

June 13, 2017

 

 

Posted by: Jerry Garrett | June 12, 2017

Driving My Mercedes From LA To Italy – Day 30 Cagliari

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The Duesseldorf Express cargo ship in the port of Cagliari on June 12 (VesselFinder)

CAGLIARI, Sardinia

The Duesseldorf Express cargo ship docked at the port here this morning, a couple of hours behind schedule. It should have little or no trouble making up the time, and leaving on time this evening around the dinner hour on the next leg of its journey.

That will take it up the gloriously beautiful eastern coast of Sardinia, across the Ligurian Sea along the Tuscan coast, to Livorno, by tomorrow.

The ship is carrying a container, that it picked up in Los Angeles, with my 1973 Mercedes-Benz 450 SL in it. And the plan is to bring it to me at the Voltri docks in Genoa by the day after tomorrow (Wednesday). The trip, as the headline of this article notes, has taken 30 days so far, out of an expected 32. The journey for my Mercedes will have covered over 5,600 miles, with stops in Manzanillo, Mexico; Panama; Cartagena, Colombia; Caucedo, Dominica; Lisbon, Portugal; Tangier, Morocco; Valencia, Spain; and now Cagliari.

I haven’t been to Cagliari before, but I have been to Sardinia a couple of times. In 1984, I was invited to the Costa Smeralda Rally. The rally was supposed to last almost a week, and I was assigned to videotape highlights for the old “MotorWeek Illustrated” racing show on WTBS. (Search YouTube; the video is still up!)Screen Shot 2017-06-12 at 3.14.33 PM

To reconnoiter the island, I rented a car; I was given a Fiat that was so old and crappy the driver’s seat supports had rotted out of the floor boards. When I’d pop the clutch the seat would tumble over into the back seat. There were no seatbelts. The rear hatch would come unlatched over bumps. It could have been a last-generation Fiat 127 (or first-generation Panda 30); either way, it had an appalling 652-cc engine that produced 23 horsepower.

The night before the rally’s start, I nearly got stranded with it on the isle of La Maddelena, after an ill-advised ferry ride there to look around. I was the last car back on the ferry that Friday evening, beating out a number of irate drivers; I didn’t realize until later their extreme anger was because it was the last ferry until Monday.

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A still from our video, before the crash

The driver whose exploits I meant to follow in the race, Audi’s John Buffum (#9), crashed out the first night of the four-day event.

We were staying at a fabulous alabaster white Moroccan style villa, so I went back and retired early. When I went down to the hotel breakfast room the next morning, nobody was there; I was told the American contingent had checked out and gone home.

I figured I’d better go too, since the people I was covering had left, and I didn’t want my host to get stuck for what I figured would be a big hotel bill.

But getting off Sardinia at a moment’s notice is not easy. There are more flights in than out – or at least back to the airport I had come from – Milan (this is not a math problem; the flights in, often go on to other places). I paid top dollar and got on a last minute flight to Rome, rented a car there, and drove to Milan. Gas was expensive and the tolls took the last of my lira. The drop fee for the one-way rental was a steep $200 (for 1984).

After I arrived at Linate airport, and returned my rental car, I was told I could not get an earlier flight out of Milan; my ticket was not changeable. I couldn’t re-rent my rental car either. So I had to sit around for three days in Milan doing nothing. I got a seedy hotel near the train station, and figured my host would appreciate that it was much cheaper than the luxurious villa in Porto Cervo.

My host did not appreciate my efforts, as it turned out.

“Why didn’t you just stay?” she said. “The room was pre-paid for the entire week.”

Oh.

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Yeah, I shoulda stayed. (Visit costasmeralda.it)

Ironically, I returned to Costa Smeralda in 2011 on an Audi test drive program. We stayed at the same white alabaster villa.

(We even ate in the same expensive restaurant where, as I mentioned in my Day 29 report, we had spent a million lira on a dinner for five.)

Although it took 27 years, I feel like the universe finally gave me my lost three nights back.

Jerry Garrett

June 12, 2017

 

 

Posted by: Jerry Garrett | June 11, 2017

Driving My Mercedes From LA To Italy – Day 29, Sardinia

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Position of the Duesseldorf Express cargo ship June 11 (VesselFinder.com)

CAGLIARI, Sardinia

My 1973 Mercedes-Benz 450 SL is making good progress today, crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Valencia, Spain, to Cagliari on the southern tip of the Italian island of Sardinia. The sea is as smooth as glass today.

This is quite a trip, as the cargo ship in which my Mercedes is traveling weaves its way through the Balearic Islands of Ibiza and Majorca toward Sardinia. You could have a good argument over which of those islands has the most beautiful waters. A large section of Sardinia’s seafront is called Costa Smeralda (“Emerald Coast”) for good reason. The waters are the colors of precious stones such as emeralds, sapphires and turquoise.

I’ve written previously about Sardinia (My 36 Hours in Costa Smeralda) if you would like to know more.

Although Sardinia is a part of Italy, it is an autonomous region, that pretty much does its own thing. It has a long history of control over its own affairs, and in fact centuries ago controlled vast areas of Italy itself. Today, Russian oligarchs have infiltrated the whole island – especially the prettiest parts.

For instance, if you go out to dinner in tony Porto Cervo, the menus are printed in Italian, English and Russian. The joke is the Russians are the only ones who can afford to eat in the best restaurants anymore. (Years ago, at a dinner for five in Porto Cervo, we spent one million…lira – I think it was only about $700. But I always wanted to spend a million on something; the torta cioccolata for dessert put us over the top.)

The palatial waterfront homes are now owned by oligarchs; the yacht harbor is jammed with Russian-owned yachts.

Island life in Sardinia is very much dominated by travel on the seas. Yachts, ferries and cargo ships connect it to the Italian mainland, and the huge French island of Corsica, which nearly touches its northern tip.  At one time, I thought about picking up my Mercedes in Cagliari, driving around the coast to the short ferry crossing to Corsica, touring Corsica and then taking the daily car ferry from Bastia at the north end of that island to Nice (about 100 miles). But the price of gas probably would have bankrupted me! That whole trip would have been several hundred miles in total.

Anyway, the cargo ship, the Duesseldorf Express, carrying my Mercedes to its rapidly approaching rendezvous with me, will only be a short time in Sardinia; then it will wind around the southern tip of the island, before heading up its glorious eastern coast, toward its next stop in the Tuscan port of Livorno.

And then its on to Genoa, where I plan to pick the car up, as soon as port authorities tell me it has cleared customs and is ready to go (hopefully that process does not take as long as it seems to for customs to clear my lost luggage at Italian airports). This two-month odyssey from my house in the western United States to my temporary home near Nice – a month of it on the high seas – is starting to get real…

Jerry Garrett

June 11, 2017

 

 

 

 

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The position of the Duesseldorf Express, outside Valencia, on June 9

VALENCIA, Spain

The Duesseldorf Express cargo ship was waiting outside of the port of Valencia this morning, after a two-day trip from Tangier, Morocco.

The ship is carrying a container with my 1973 Mercedes-Benz 450 SL in it, en route from Los Angeles to Genoa, Italy. It’s scheduled to be a trip that takes about 31 days. The ship is due to arrive in Genoa by June 14.

I’ve been to Valencia once. It’s a lovely city, with classical architecture, sited along turquoise shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Traveling by road from Barcelona to Valencia was memorable for its scenery, as well as for the number of whores that line the main road. In rural sections, they set battered plastic lawn chairs along the roadway, to let travelers know they are at the ready. They service their clients, right along the roadway. At first, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Shocking.

I suppose it has something to do with Spain’s “austerity” program, which has wrecked the country’s economy (sort of like how austerity has trashed every other European economy that has tried it) and thrown so many young people out of work. But Spain seems to have more whores than the other austere nations. That’s just a subjective judgment; I have no data (or personal experience) to back it up. It’s tragic to see, in an otherwise impressive country.

Sorry for the digression.

From Valencia, it’s on to Cagliari on the southern end of the island of Sardinia. Be forewarned: I have digressions to relate about that glorious island as well.

Jerry Garrett

June 9, 2017

 

 

Posted by: Jerry Garrett | June 7, 2017

Driving My Mercedes To Italy – Day 26 Tangier, Morocco

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The Duesseldorf Express (red box) approaches Tangier

TANGIER, Morocco

The Duesseldorf Express cargo ship, carrying my 1973 Mercedes-Benz 450 SL to a rendezvous with me in Genoa, Italy next week, headed into the Moroccan port of Tangier today at the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea.

The ship just spent the previous evening in Lisbon, Portugal refueling after a 3,500-mile crossing of the Atlantic Ocean that took 10 days (from the Dominican Republic). My Mercedes was picked up in Los Angeles on May 13, and has been enjoying (as much enjoyment as can be had inside a shipping container) a trip down the coast of Mexico, a Panama Canal crossing, a Caribbean cruise and trans-Atlantic crossing. Soon it will be transitioning into a four-stop tour of the western Caribbean, before it gets to Genoa on late on June 13. The whole trip is in excess of 5,600 miles.

It seems to have been an uneventful cruise for the most part, with the ship arriving slightly ahead of schedule for most ports since it left Manzanillo, Mexico.

The ship won’t be in Tangier long; it is scheduled to leave tomorrow.

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The port in Tangier

The port there isn’t very exciting; I got stranded there for several hours (a couple of years back) when I missed the ferry back to Tarifa, Spain. That ferry ride to Morocco was one of those bucket list things (that probably didn’t need to be on the list, frankly, as it turned out).

A slight digression: We stayed one night in the ancient Hotel Continental overlooking the harbor from the edge of the medina. It was supposedly the oldest tourist hotel in town, dating back to the 1880s or so. Terribly run-down and seedy. But also ornate and fascinating, with curious relics littered everywhere. No one seemed to know its history.

Over the reception desk hung an original oil portrait of someone that I thought I recognized.

“Is that Colonel Lawrence?” I asked the clerk.

“Yes, it is, sir,” he answered.

“Why it is here?”

“It was my understanding he was a frequent guest here, sir.”

Wow.

img_3746Col. T.E. Lawrence – perhaps you know him better as “Lawrence of Arabia” – officially died in 1935 at age 46 in a motorcycle accident in England, after a long, colorful military career as a British operative in the Middle East. Yet, stories persist of sightings of Lawrence for many years after that in places such as north Africa – particularly in Tangier. The stories had Lawrence living a rather decadent lifestyle for the time in Tangier, which was known then as a destination for like-minded individuals, before disappearing during World War II.

Nothing has ever been proven about these allegations (unusually detailed, I might add) but the stories have been widely published.

Oh if that portrait could have talked. I took a photo of it, or I wouldn’t have believed I actually saw it, after these many years; I posted it above. No, he doesn’t look much like Peter O’Toole.

Anyway, so much for exotic Tangier, and my unsolved mystery encountered there.

Tomorrow, it’s on to Valencia, Spain.

Jerry Garrett

June 7, 2017

 

 

 

Posted by: Jerry Garrett | June 4, 2017

Driving My Mercedes To Italy – Land Ho!

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Red box indicates location of the Duesseldorf Express on June 4 (Vesselfinder)

PUNTA DELGADA, The Azores

Exciting news!

The container ship carrying my Mercedes 450 SL to Italy has just entered European waters.

The ship, the Duesseldorf Express, has been off the standard tracking devices for nearly two weeks, since it left Cartagena, Colombia, to cross the Atlantic Ocean en route to Lisbon, Portugal. (I’m certain its owner, Hapag-Lloyd, knew where it was at all times.)

The journey started May 13 in the Port of Los Angeles, where the container with my Mercedes in it was loaded onto the ship. So far, there have been stops in Manzanillo, Mexico; the Panama Canal; Colombia and the Dominican Republic.

The ship is due in Lisbon at 09:00 on Tuesday, but it looks like the 3,500-mile crossing was a speedier one than expected. As I kept track of the weather in Atlantic the past week, conditions seemed absolutely ideal the whole way. (Note: The Atlantic Hurricane season officially started June 1!)

That allays many fears I had about the Mercedes being jostled about too much inside the container during what can often be a tempestuous crossing.

We’ll see tomorrow whether the ship will arrive earlier than expected in Lisbon.

Its schedule calls for stops Wednesday in Tangiers, Friday in Valencia, Spain; Sunday in Cagliari on the island of Sardinia; Monday in Livorno, on Italy’s Tuscan coast, before arriving in Genoa the next day.

That’s where I hope to a) locate it, b) clear it to leave the port with me, and c) start it. (It was last started in April.)

It’s a 1973 model, and its a little temperamental after so many years on the road. Like its owner.

Jerry Garrett

June 4, 2017

 

Posted by: Jerry Garrett | June 2, 2017

Driving My Mercedes To Italy – Hurricane Season

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SOMEWHERE IN THE ATLANTIC OCEAN

The Duesseldorf Express cargo ship is now more than halfway across the Atlantic Ocean, on a 3,500-mile route from Caucedo, Dominica, to Lisbon, Portugal.

This is the ship with my 1973 Mercedes-Benz 450 SL in a container on board, en route from Los Angeles to me in Italy.Screen Shot 2017-05-30 at 10.41.08 AM

And yes, dear readers, thanks for pointing out that the 2017 Hurricane Season officially began June 1.

Fortunately, there are no storms firing up in the tropical convergence zone. So it looks like a smooth crossing for the Duesseldorf Express.

How lucky is that? I don’t know, but I’ve done three trans-Atlantic cruises in recent years, and on all three, the ships I was on encountered Category 7 storms.

On one trip, on Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth II, we veered north to miss a hurricane – only to have the hurricane veer unexpectedly north too – right into our path; that was a rugged 24-hours. Dishes shattered, displays fell, the outside areas were closed off.

On a Royal Caribbean ship (can’t remember if it was Monarch of the Seas, or Majesty of the Seas – I’ve been on both) took a wave over Deck 11.

On the third, the Norwegian Epic, we were battered for 36 hours, with waves often up to the lifeboats. We saw scores of passengers with bruises, bandages and casts the morning after the worst night of it.

“Even I was worried,” our captain said.

Barring any unforeseen weather or other delays, the Duesseldorf Express is due in Lisbon early Tuesday, June 6. From there, it makes stops in Tangiers, Valencia, Cagliari and Livorno before finally arriving in Genoa, late June 13.

It will have been more than two months since I waved goodbye to the Mercedes, as it left my driveway. I wonder if it will still start?

Jerry Garrett

June 2, 2017

 

 

Screen Shot 2017-05-30 at 10.41.08 AMCAUCEDO, Dominican Republic

The Duesseldorf Express cargo ship left here Sunday at 7:30 a.m., bound for its next stop, in Lisbon, Portugal.

It is scheduled to arrive there Tuesday morning, June 6, after a voyage of about 3,500 miles.

That’s an average of about 325 miles a day.

To put that in perspective, imagine driving from, say, San Diego to Bangor, Maine – by way of Miami – at an average speed of 14 m.p.h.

I’ve been tracking the Duesseldorf Express, one of about 200 ships operated by the Hapag-Lloyd line, since it left the port of Los Angeles on May 13. That’s where it had loaded a container, with my 1973 Mercedes-Benz 450 SL inside, for a month-long voyage to Genoa, Italy.

I like to think of my Mercedes as being on a trans-Atlantic cruise right now.

Consider this, though: The Mercedes is just returning to from whence it came – almost 45 years ago. And by the same manner of transport: A cargo ship. It was manufactured at the Mercedes plant in Sindelfingen, Germany (“West Germany” back then). And then shipped to the United States. (I don’t know what port it left from, or arrived at – but if readers know, please leave a comment!)

Somehow, mine has still the European headlights (not the American-market quads).

This may be an unexpected stroke of good luck, because I might have had to convert the car back to European specifications, to get it through customs. (A friend of mine said she imported a Thunderbird to France a few years back, and she was forced to outfit it with “European-spec taillights”, for whatever reason. That was costly, she said, as well as “stupid-looking.”)

Actually, I’m led to believe the Mercedes is old enough now, so as to be exempt from most modern regulations, on lighting, emissions, fuel economy and (ominously) safety.

In all, the Mercedes’ voyage from LA to Italy will comprise at least 5,600 miles – probably more, since the ship will be traveling a rather circuitous route through the Mediterranean Sea, around various islands.

Genoa’s Voltri port is where I hope to claim it, so I can start driving it around southern Europe for the next few months. This is a developing story that still has a lot of loose ends, to say the least. I don’t know if the thing will start – it will have been two months since I parted ways with it – or if I can get it to my rental apartment (which is about 100 miles away from the port where it will be unloaded). Or if I will be able to afford $6+ a gallon Italian gas, in a car that gets 11 m.p.g., if I am lucky.

I will need to stop once for gas, before I can even get it home!

Jerry Garrett

May 30, 2017

 

 

 

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