Project Luna: A Drive to the Moon (March 1987)
By Greg Raven
Note: This is is kind of a first draft of what eventually became a magazine article.
I had always thought that life as a magazine editor would be much more exciting than it is. It seemed a cinch that while working in close contact with top representatives of automobile manufacturers there would be no end to the interesting deals that would come up. Don’t get me wrong, it is not a boring job, but not surprisingly most of the manufacturer-sponsored junkets are prepared for the purpose of selling cars.
My first hint that not all junkets were the same came in November 1986. Martha McKinley, our press contact with Porsche Cars North America, innocently asked if anyone at VW&Porsche Magazine (where I work) would care to participate in a long-distance endurance test of the 944S. I’m sure that for a moment I must have looked at her as if she was crazy. Of course we would be interested in such a thing. How soon would we leave?
She mentioned that the plan as she understood it was to drive the 944S 384,405 kilometers (the distance from the Earth to the Moon) in one year. Gerhard Plattner, the famous Austrian long-distance driving ace, would be the man in charge of this effort. The leg of the journey with which they needed help was the descent into Mexico. Without consulting a calendar or schedule of any sort I said that I would definitely go; Sign me up, I’m ready. Martha seemed pleased by this news and promised to relay my readiness to the people who were handling the logistics for the trip.
Weeks went by with no word. Then one day I received a phone call from a pr firm in Reno, Nevada that had been retained by Porsche for the “moon run.” The pr contact repeated Martha’s question in a voice that indicated he might as well be cold-calling total strangers at random out of the phone book. I again expressed my enthusiasm, which was duly noted. The man from the pr firm promised to get back to me with details soon.
Another week or so went by before the second call came. This time the voice belonged to someone else at the Reno pr firm, and again I was asked if I would like to go on this journey. I answered in the affirmative for the third time, wondering as I did so if there was something in my demeanor that belied other feelings.
Apparently this time the answer was found to be satisfactory because I was filled in on some of the details. First, Gerhard was leaving from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida on Thursday, January 15, with Porsche Cup winner Price Cobb as his co-driver. Because of the necessity of observing the 55 mph speed limit, it was calculated that Plattner and Cobb would arrive in Dallas, Texas either late in the day on Saturday, January 17, or possibly Sunday, January 18.
To be on the safe side I was to arrive in Dallas on Saturday and wait for them. When they arrived I would take a turn at the wheel while Gerhard rested, and after he recuperated we would then turn southward together towards our destination, the Temple of the Moon just outside of Mexico City. The PR person wasn’t sure how long it would take us to get there because we would have to observe the speed limits the entire way. This was also a record run for the Guinness Book of World Records, after all, so there could be no funny business. She opined that almost certainly I would be back home by Friday, January 23.
It seemed strange that the schedule for this endeavor could not be laid out more than a day in advance. In the minds of most Americans, Germans are famous for their efficiency. My mental image of the upcoming trip was that it would be run by the numbers, with checkpoints, meal stops, fuel stops, routes, and back-up vehicles all painstakingly pre-arranged with no deviations allowed. This promised to make the journey a safe one even though Mexico has not been known for its friendliness to outsiders, even if all this planning did come at the expense of a lack of spontaneity.
I landed in Dallas as planned just after the noon hour on Saturday. I was half-way through the check-in procedure at the rendezvous hotel when Gerhard walked through the door, looking for all the world like a man who had been waiting quite a while for me to arrive.
I didn’t know whether to despair or rejoice. According to the plan, Gerhard and Price driving at the speed limit would still be on the road. His early arrival seemed to suggest they had made somewhat better time than expected. On the other hand, every minute that the car was not on the road was a minute lost, and who knew how many minutes he had been waiting? With an average of 700 kilometers per day to maintain, there were not many extra minutes to waste.
Instead of checking into the motel, therefore, we opted to leave immediately for Mexico. From the motel, it was a short walk to Forest Lane Porsche/Audi, the largest such dealership in the United States. In spite of the gloomy oil situation in Texas, Forest Lane sold over 500 cars last year or, as Gerhard was quick to point out, more Porsches and Audis than were sold in Austria during the same period of time. The mechanics and lot boys at Forest Lane had given the car a quick examination in preparation for the next leg of the trial, checking the unmarked Pirelli P-7 tires with air and changing the oil and filter using the superior quality European Shell motor oil that comes in the big gallon (four liter?) containers. The car was as ready as it was ever going to be.
While I was loading my gear into the 944S, Gerhard handed me a map and a highlighter pen and said, “Here, Greg. You choose the route.” That pretty much told me all there was to know about the possibility of there being a Porsche-engined Cessna overhead monitoring our progress, or of a Porsche satellite relaying our every move back to Stuttgart. When I later told Gerhard that I had assumed anything connected with Porsche would be organized down to the last detail he just laughed. But then he could afford to laugh, having driven around the world once for Porsche and once for Volkswagen, and having set many other driving records in a wide variety of vehicles. For me, it meant being out virtually alone in a country that has a reputation of jailing any gringo (non-Mexican) who looks to have enough money to bribe his way back out.
It was raining in Dallas when we left and the temperature was dropping to a point at which one would normally expect sleet. We did manage to miss the afternoon rush hour, however, so we were clear of the Dallas/Fort Worth area and out on the open road within a few minutes. By the time we reached Waco, the roads were beginning to dry out, and as we continued through Austin and San Antonio there were only occasional sprinkles.
By Laredo, the rain had stopped. Even though it was nearly 10:00 at night the temperature gauge was no longer flashing its red “icy conditions” warning at us, indicating that we had moved beyond the reach of the storm front. We stopped for a fast-food dinner, changed some travelers’ checks for pesos, and crossed the border to Nuevo Laredo.
The first order of business in Mexico was to obtain all the proper papers and insurance. In spite of the hour, the weather, the cold, and the fact that I had no passport, Gerhard’s accent was light enough for the Mexican officials to gain an understanding of why a German car with Nevada license plates and signs all over it was driving an Austrian and a Californian to see the pyramids near Mexico City.
We had parked the car across the street from the station, so while Gerhard continued with the forms I went out to move the car into the official parking area for the upcoming inspection. Right off the bat, I made a wrong turn onto an unmarked one-way street. I waited patiently for the long line of cars coming from the opposite direction to make way for me, but after about ten minutes I noticed that parked cars on both sides of the street were also facing me. I backed the car around into a three-point U-turn and immediately became trapped between two busses that were in no apparent hurry to deliver their passengers to any destination. In my mind’s eye I could see Gerhard, papers in hand, looking in vain for the 944S by the curb where he had last seen it, while I was caught in traffic just two blocks away.
I needn’t have worried. I made it to the parking area well ahead of Gerhard and the papers. By eleven o’clock the papers were nearly completed, however, and after a search of the car by two armed guards, it seemed as if we would finally be allowed to proceed.
Then Gerhard grabbed one of the guards and started wrestling with him. My life flashed before my eyes as I listened to Gerhard repeating over and over, “Not on the windshield, not on the windshield!” By the time I reached his side the situation was under control, and the mandatory sticker had been applied to a side window instead of to the Securiflex windshield, which would have been irreparably damaged by having any decal affixed to it.
With the decal and all the papers serving as our official welcome to Mexico, we pointed the nose of the 944S south along the muddy, unmarked streets in a direction we mutually guessed was the correct one and were soon out on an open highway, headed for Monterrey.
With the cloud cover, the night was pitch black. Back in Dallas Gerhard and I had discussed the fact that the biggest threat facing us on the Mexican highways would be range animals. Unlike the United States, the highways in Mexico are not fenced, so cattle, burros, and horses can wander freely out onto the roadway. Hitting one would spell the end of the trip. Seeing them on a moonless night was going to be a challenge.
For safety’s sake, I started out at the posted speed limit of 80 kph. The roads were in good shape, however, and after being overtaken by two fast-moving police cars our speed gradually increased to between 120 and 140 kph. The roads were straight and, at that hour, relatively unpopulated by other traffic, the upper limit on speed being determined by the spotty condition of the roadway surface and the lingering concern about outdriving the headlights.
By 1:15 we had reached Monterrey, a large city with no signs, and it was time to start looking for fuel again. Gerhard had prepared for the trip by learning how to ask for unleaded gasoline in Spanish, “gasolina sin plomo.” The first station we tried didn’t have any, so we asked directions to someplace that did. This is when we found out that no matter how slowly you ask a question in English, the Mexicans answer in fast and fluent Spanish. I don’t speak much Spanish and neither did Gerhard, but I soon came to recognize that repeating the question even slower than the first time had no audible effect either on the word selection or speed of delivery of the answer. For an hour we wandered around someplace that most decidedly was not Monterrey in search of the road to Saltillo. Three times we stopped for directions, and each time we received an overwhelming load of unintelligible chatter. By a process of elimination, we finally found the way out of Monterrey, with a gas station thrown in for good measure.
With Gerhard behind the wheel, it was time for another surprise; neither of us had brought a pillow for the passenger to use. I had thought of borrowing one from the airplane, but decided against it in favor of borrowing one from the motel we would be staying at in Dallas. My plans were ruined when I didn’t check into the hotel, but I figured a world traveler such as Gerhard would surely have brought along something. Alas, he had forgotten to, preserving my personal record of nearly 11 years running of taking long automobile trips without once remembering to bring along a pillow until it was much too late to do anything about it.
I fell asleep anyway and awoke a few hours and many kilometers later. Gerhard had found a bus headed our way averaging 140 kph and had tucked in behind it, reasoning that if there were any range animals it was better for them to be hit by the bus than by us, and the bus was certainly not holding up our progress.
We found gasolina sin plomo without any problem at the next fuel stop as well and changed over so Gerhard could sleep. Our southward progress was evident not only on the odometer but on the thermometer, as well. The temperature had been gradually rising, the roads becoming steadily drier, and the cloud cover more scattered. By 5:30 on Sunday morning the sky was clear enough to forebode a beautiful day ahead. A short time later the mountains on our left were being illuminated from behind by the rising sun, and we found ourselves immersed in the beauty of the Mexican desert.
The light traffic and the scattered housing we saw had, by 7:30, given way to little clumps of people everywhere. Some were obviously on their way to some sort of fun outing, while others were clearly on their way to work, or to their weekly chores around the yard. Small fires were burning everywhere as households took the direct approach to getting rid of trash. The resulting brush fires would sometimes burn right up to the edge of the roadway unattended, and air you would otherwise expect to be clean was filled with dark smoke as far as the eye could see.
We stopped just outside of Mexico City for fuel, and after asking around located a young man who was willing to wash the car for us. I thought the Porsche had more character with all the road dirt, but Gerhard had his heart set on being able to see the decals and lettering in any pictures he took once we reached the pyramids. While we were waiting for the car wash to be completed, I ducked into a diner and ordered three chicken enchiladas and some fresh- squeezed orange juice. The enchiladas were delicious and the orange juice came in a huge glass, all for the equivalent of $2.00. Gerhard looked at what I was eating but clearly felt I was being brave beyond the call of duty.
One of the men working at the gas station approached us and asked how much the 944S cost. When he heard the answer, $30,000, his eyes rolled back up in his head, although not so much out of disbelief, I felt, than out of the simple unimaginability of it all. The term “conspicuous consumption” popped into my mind when I saw his reaction.
For its part, however, the 944S was cooking merrily along. The farther south we drove the more my imagination would run rampant with all the things that could go wrong with a car, any car, Porsche or not. Fortunately, I did not project my fears onto the car, and it ran flawlessly.
Before we collected our now-presentable car, Gerhard and I asked first a policemen and then a passerby how to get to the pyramids. The two answers could have been read from the same piece of paper, so close they were. Even though we faced a change-over from one highway to another, I felt confident that this time we would pull it off without a hitch.
Fifteen minutes later we were lost. We stopped and asked another policemen for directions, but he merely compounded the problem. So with Gerhard at the wheel, we headed off in the general direction of where we felt the pyramids must be. At this point in our journey, we were between 40 and 50 kilometers away from the pyramids, and an error in dead reckoning could have landed us anywhere. Gerhard, however, noticed that there were many Volkswagen tour buses out and about, and he made a good argument for the theory that they were no doubt headed for the pyramids themselves. All we had to do was follow them.
Follow them we did. One by one they turned off or stopped to pick up passengers until at last we were left with one solitary bus ahead of us. When he turned into a driveway of a small residential neighborhood we were on our own again. We doubled back and picked out a likely looking road that seemed to roughly parallel what looked like a main highway off to our left. There were no connecting roads, however, so the best we could do was to keep the highway in sight and head in the general direction where the pyramids should be. We finally stopped to ask directions of a man who was changing a tire by the side of the road and this time we actually got directions we could use. Within minutes we were on the main highway that went directly to the pyramids in Teotihuacan.
At 2:00 we pulled into the parking lot of the Sun pyramid and arranged ourselves in such a way that we could get pictures of the car with the pyramid in the background while leaving out as many as possible of the other cars that shared the parking lot. Off to the left, we could just see the top of the Moon pyramid, and we soon found the road that led to it. Again we tried to arrange the car for maximum pyramid and minimum parking lot, this time with somewhat better success.
While we were taking our photos we were approached by two young men selling souvenirs. Among their treasures, they carried small statues of the Sun god and the Moon god carved from obsidean (a glass-like volcanic rock). For over half an hour they implored us to buy, using half a dozen languages, including German for Gerhard’s sake. The statues they had hand-carved themselves, they said, and were accurate representations of the actual statues we would find inside. Saying “no” repeatedly didn’t even slow them down. Finally, I managed to convince them that with all the driving we had ahead of us we could spare no room for trinkets. Reluctantly, they left us alone.
Gerhard was eager to get back on the road but I felt that after having driven that far I should at least walk the final half kilometer to the nearest of the pyramids and touch it. As valuable as the car and its contents were, only one of us could go, and Gerhard volunteered to stay behind. Taking one of each of our cameras I scampered off towards the Pyramid of the Moon.
Inside the long courtyard that faces the Pyramid of the Moon I soon saw what a massive job the construction of these edifices must have been. Not only were the pyramids themselves of good size, but everywhere there were long stone walls and platforms, each built using the same techniques as the pyramids themselves. Containing my awe I climbed the Pyramid of the Moon and shot half of the pictures remaining in each camera.
Once at the bottom I looked longingly at the Pyramid of the Sun, which seemed to be 2 kilometers away, and thought of Gerhard guarding the cars in the blazing sun. He was probably pacing back and forth and checking his watch every two minutes even now. Selfishness was the rule of the day, however, and off I trotted towards the Sun pyramid. Every ten yards I was accosted by other vendors, each selling items identical to the “handmade” relics we had been offered in the parking lot.
The Sun pyramid is a lot larger than the Moon pyramid, and the sides are a lot steeper. One-third of the way up the Sun pyramid I began wondering if I had made the right choice. I was sweating as if there was no tomorrow and my face felt to be as red as the colorful yarns the local weavers use in their traditional clothing. Meanwhile, children whose shoulders barely reached the top of the next step were scampering up and down with gleeful abandon. It was then that I remembered the Summer Olympics that had been held in Mexico City and the speculation that had centered around how the extreme elevation would affect the performances of the athletes. Once I did reach the top it was all I could do to hold the camera steady while I took the pictures I wanted.
Half an hour after leaving Gerhard to guard the cars I was back at the parking lot, having climbed both pyramids and run both our cameras out of film. By 4:00 we were on the road for home.
It should have been a simple matter to retrace our steps and arrive back in Dallas. Within a couple of kilometers, however, we had missed a crucial turn-off and were on our way to Mexico City, yet another large city with no directional signs (we knew it was Mexico City by the amount of pollution in the air). We had a number of reference materials with us that were all purported to contain street maps of Mexico City. The trouble was that the maps did not agree among themselves, and no two of them covered the same portion of the city. An hour and fifteen minutes later we had it figured out and were once again headed north on Highway 57 towards Queretaro.
At our next fuel stop we switched again, Gerhard driving and me sleeping. We made it through San Luis Potosi okay, but I soon got the feeling that Gerhard was afraid we would never get out of Mexico except on foot. He developed the habit of seeking out gas stations every 100 kilometers or so. Fortunately, Pemex stations, owned by the Mexican government, are ubiquitous and most are open all night. Most of the ones we stopped at had the gasolina sin plomo, although a couple of them were eager to sell us something else instead.
Somewhere outside of Saltillo, I dozed off again. Gerhard negotiated the transition from the 57 to Highway 40, but when I awoke to find us at a traffic light I knew we were lost again.
As with the trip south, we were having a problem getting through Monterrey. After driving for a few minutes down a very long street festooned every few feet with another (red) traffic light, we came upon two directional signs each contradicting the other, according to the map we had. We first explored the directions of the sign on the left. When they didn’t work we then backtracked and tried the directions of the sign on the right. An hour later we were headed out of Monterrey again. From the looks of things, we got out just in time. Even at 4:30 Monday morning there seemed to be a great many people preparing for work.
The border crossing going north took much less time than it had when we were headed the other way. By this time, however, our outside thermometer was again giving us readings that I as a Southern Californian found difficult to accept. The Texas freeways seemed as smooth as a pool table compared to the roads in Mexico, but even with the sun coming up the temperature did not budge. We stopped for breakfast at Dilley, Texas, which for Gerhard was only the second full meal he had had since our departure on Saturday.
We sped across the great expanses of Texas, making good conversation and good time in spite of the speed limit. By 3:00 Monday afternoon we were back at Forest Lane Porsche/Audi, and to be truthful they acted startled to see us back so soon. With the unspoken tension of our excursion to Mexico behind us, we checked into the motel, showered, and walked across the street to have dinner. I then left a wake-up call for 6:30 the next morning and went to sleep on a nice flat surface that was not moving, shaking, or surrounded by wind noise.
I pulled the 944S out of the Forest Lane service entrance at precisely 7:01 Tuesday morning. I had no real plan for where I wanted to go, but to the north and west, the news was forecasting snow and worse, which left south and east. I choose east to start off with since I had never been to Louisiana. As it turned out I had just enough fuel to get to Shreveport (just over the Texas/Louisiana border) to fill up. The scenery was very pleasant with gently rolling hills and lots of green plants, and the traffic was light enough to set the cruise control and let the Passport radar detector keep tabs on the Texas highway patrol.
Back in Dallas again I called Gerhard on the mobile phone to see if there was anything to report. There was not, so I exercised my second option and headed south, only this time towards Houston instead of Waco, Austin, San Antonio, etc. Once again I had just enough fuel to get there, so with the cruise control set I relaxed and enjoyed the scenery passing by.
South of Dallas the scenery isn’t much to look at, however, so I had plenty of time to appreciate the virtues of the 944S that was performing such yeoman-like service for us. The reliability of the car was, of course, the strongest point thus far in the trip, but running a very close second place were the seats.
I wouldn’t have believed that there could be a seat much more comfortable than the ones in my 1979 928, but the seats in the 944S win hands-down. I’m a little too tall to be truly comfortable in a 911 (now called the Carrera), as much as I like them, so the layout of the new generation Porsches suits me just fine. Virtually everything in the cockpit area is designed in such a way that long distance trips such as this are made pleasant.
By the time I returned to Dallas to hand the car back over to Gerhard for the last time it was 10:00 at night. I telephoned him to let him know I was on the way, and he requested I fill the gas tank before coming in. I met him at the motel entrance with all the appropriate gas receipts and chart recorder cards. In fifteen straight hours of driving, I had averaged just over 100 kph, including fuel stops and a traffic jam in Houston. Even after all that time, I felt so at home in the driver’s seat I was reluctant to give it up.
As Gerhard climbed behind the wheel I gave him directions to the nearest freeway and waved him off, hoping that the encroaching bad weather from the north would not catch him. I comforted myself with the thought that if anybody would be safe on the roads in the snow, it would be the Tiroler Adler (Tyrolian Eagle, Gerhard’s pet name for all of his long-distance vehicles) and Gerhard Plattner, long-distance driving ace.
As I watched the taillights of the 944S disappear into the night I felt proud to have been able to help out on this endurance run, even if it was for less than one one-hundredth of the total distance. Now if I could only get the magazine to see the value of flying me to Germany to help Gerhard drive the car on the Autobahn.