Planning a road trip in theory always seems so easy – have a start point, an end point, and decide what roadside attractions you have time for along the way. Ours was a little bit different. We planned to fly to Seattle, Washington and pick up the latest addition to the MHCC rental fleet: a 1977 Mazda Rotary Pickup we purchased on a Bring a Trailer auction. You might be asking yourself, “Why drive it back? Wouldn’t it be cheaper and easier to ship it?” Absolutely–but it’ll take more than that to deter us.
Thus, we started planning our trip to bring home the Mazda. Our Marketing Director just so happened to be competing in the 25 Hours of Thunderhill endurance race with Mazda Motorsports, and we decided that was as good an excuse as any to plan a slightly longer trip back by way of Willows, California.
After much consideration, the plan was to fly out of Minneapolis to Seattle, then take a cab to Gig Harbor, Washington which is a town located about 30 miles southwest of Seattle. Once we landed and made it to the owner’s house we met his father, Max, in the driveway and the truck was sitting there low, blue, and mean looking. The first thing out of Max’s mouth was “”Are you sure you guys want to drive it cross country? Furthest I’ve been in it is about 45 miles…” We confidently responded, “Yes!”despite the incredulous look on his face. We spent some time talking to him about the REPU as we put our gear in the bed of the truck, and then we were off to get winter tires installed. (We had heard something about mountain passes being prone to snow. Who knew?) After the tires were installed, we swung by a home improvement store to get a lockable box for our luggage (space is at a bit of a premium in the cabin) and grab a couple of basic tools that we might need along the way. We spent the first night in Seattle right in the center of town, and due to the incline of the hotels parking lot, quickly realized how low the truck was. This was to become a regular theme during the journey home. Since we had some time to kill, we walked around Seattle taking in the sights – including the Space Needle which was located only a couple of blocks from our hotel.
We hit the road first thing on day two with about six hours of driving between us and Newport, Oregon. While planning the trip, we thought we should experience the best of what the West Coast had to offer in terms of roads, so instead of sitting on the freeway we made our way to the historic Highway 101 by way of Portland, Oregon. As we made our way south, the truck was running great and we were starting to get a feel for it when it abruptly started running rough. The gas gauge was getting low, so we thought it may not be accurate as we have come to find on older cars. We made a pit stop, gassed it up, and hit the road again. The problem returned several miles down the road as the elevation started to climb, so we pulled into a rest area to investigate. We made a call to a Mazda specialist who had recently worked on the truck, and he said it might be the cold rainy weather or the fuel filter. The truck didn’t really have air filters – it just had screens of the inlets to the carburetor. We hit the road again and stopped at the nearest auto parts store where we looked at the fuel filter and discovered it was very dirty and rusty. We walked into the parts store wondering if they would even have parts for a 40-year-old truck that was pretty rare when it was new! Luckily it takes a fairly universal fuel filter so we bought a couple of them and tried to figure out an air filter setup which the parts store didn’t really have an option for. Adam is a long time motorcycle fan and mentioned the carburetor was similar to a café bike. We asked if there was a powersport shop in town and the parts guy said there was a really good one not too far away. We headed that direction with the truck already running much better. We made it the mile or so to the aforementioned shop where we bought a mismatched pair of dirt bike filters that we simply placed over the intake horns to the carb. Back on the road the truck was running like a champ and we made good time to Portland. We went downtown to what appeared to be a food truck trailer park in the middle of the city. We grabbed lunch and walked around, quickly discovering it wasn’t the Portland we were expecting. (We later found out it wasn’t really the “right” area of the city to experience.)
After Portland we started to make our way to Highway 101, although there was one stop along the way we wanted to make: the Evergreen Aviation Museum. For those who aren’t aware, the EVM is a well-known air and space museum which houses the Hughes H-4 Hercules “Spruce Goose”, which is insanely huge, along with some other very cool commercial and military aircraft. We hopped back in the Mazda which had been problem-free since Washington and made a mad dash to our hotel in Newport. Without getting into the details too heavily this involved driving a mountain pass full of curves, trees, and a heavy rain. Once we arrived at the hotel, we checked in and found a place to grab some dinner right on the bay in Newport and had some great food.
After a good night’s sleep, we set off on day three. Our route would take us down the 101 into California, over to Redding, and then cut down to Thunderhill Raceway to hang out and watch qualifying–but the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.
We left Newport and headed south, even though it was raining we were shocked how amazing the scenery was. It wasn’t long before the truck acted up a little with the same issue when going up hills, but would act normally going down the the other side of the pass. We were able to nurse it to the next parts store in search of a headlight that had burned out in the morning drive and another fuel filter and quickly replaced it in the parking lot. They didn’t even have a part number for a replacement headlight, which worried us a little, but with no choice we pushed on to the nearest gas station to fill up the tank. We once again were cruising along stopping from time to time for photo ops. We cruised through the Redwood National Forest and the surrounding coastline had some of the most picturesque sights in the States.
The Mazda was grumpy along this stretch, and not long after we had to pull over on a rather large hill going into Trinidad, CA and replace the filter again (if you’re keeping track, that’s #3). We barely made it up that pass, going about 10 mph or so in the right lane with our emergency flashers on the entire time. Once we saw a place to exit, we took it, and stopped at a Walmart to collect ourselves a bit and see if they had a anything in their automotive section that could help. They didn’t have any fuel filters, but we were able to find a headlight in a random spot nowhere near the rest of the headlight replacements. We grabbed two of them so we would have a spare, grabbed some other stuff including some fuel for ourselves, and went out to replace the headlights as it was raining once again.
For the fourth time that day, we headed out to find a parts store. We found one in the town where we would need to head east for Redding, CA which was a curvy mountain pass and it was getting dark. We did a quick diagnosis and it looked like our fuel pump was not working well, if at all. It was was pushing 40 years old and had been working hard to pull fuel through clogged filters for several hundred miles. We walked in to hopefully find a fuel pump for a 1977 Mazda Rotary pick up. We were not sure if we would be able to find something, but we were in luck–they had a generic low pressure fuel pump. It was fairly simple to replace, but once again we were in a parking lot in the rain laying on the ground working on the Mazda. It didn’t take too long until we were up and running again. The fuel pump had solved our problem. It was starting faster and was clearly driving much better than it had before. With just under 200 miles of driving until we could get some sleep after a long day, we once again fueled up and headed into a dark, rainy mountain pass. Even though we were confident the truck was fixed, there’s always a little doubt in your head. The route from Alliance, CA to Redding, CA is state route 299 and this may be one of the finest roads out there. Even in the rain, the truck made this road a blast! We finally made it to the hotel around 10:00pm and got some very much needed sleep.
Day four was race day and since we planned on being at the race for the long haul, we checked out of our hotel and headed straight down to Thunderhill Raceway. We arrived trackside around 9 am to catch up with Ben, who would be racing for 25 hours with three other drivers. They drove the number 56 car, one of four MX-5 Global Cup Cars Mazda brought out. The racers ranged from amateurs to the some pretty big names like Flying Lizards Racing. Luckily we scored some crew passes so we were able spend time in the pits, up close and personal, before we settled in for the start of the race at 11am. Ben took the green flag and we decided to walk around to check out the track and take photos and video of all the amazing machines running the race. Even though Mazda is a big company and their racing effort is factory backed, it still has a grassroots feel which really shows in how welcoming and genuinely nice every person was at the race. Some are employees and some are from dealerships like Ben. Several hours into the race we decided to make a quick run into Willows, CA and see what it had to offer. We quickly headed back to the track to see if we missed anything. We did not, so we hung out in our home for the night, the little Mazda pick up. The tiny cabin heated up quickly and we found a spot where we could watch the race and listen to music on the bluetooth speaker we bought since the radio in the truck didn’t function. I am not sure how we did it, but we ended up sleeping in the truck for a couple of hours. We woke up around 4am and watched the race and captured some more video and photos from the night shift. Ben hopped back in the car with a couple of hours left to take the checkered flag. Endurance racing is certainly something to witness if you’ve never seen it before. We’re hoping to return someday, but maybe next time with a hotel room, rather than a mini truck to sleep in.