Fiat FreakOut – 21-24 July 2011

I decided to attend Fiat FreakOut this year – having missed the 2010 edition – despite the fact that it would be held in Nashville, TN. That would be a two-day trip each way, at about 1650 km and it would be very hot there in mid-July. I decided to trailer the Spider, since the truck has both cup holders and air conditioning, while the Fiat doesn’t enjoy running at prolonged high engine speeds in the intense heat.

Before departure date arrived, I spent at least three full days detailing the car to prepare it for the concours d’elegance. I polished the paint and then I waxed and buffed it. I went over all of the black rubber and vinyl pieces with Armor-All and polished all of the chrome. By the time I was finished, the car looked and felt better than it ever had and I would be proud to show it. The weather began to get very hot in Ottawa, reaching the mid-30’s Celsius and mimicking the weather forecast for Nashville. I would get no respite from our northern heat wave, but at least I would have air conditioning. I packed a good selection of T-shirts, collared short sleeve shirts and shorts – as well as my swimming suit – to be prepared for the heat.

When Wednesday morning finally arrived, the car was already on the trailer and a collection of cleaning supplies and towels was packed in the truck, along with the usual selection of tools and equipment. I left home a few minutes before 8 AM, looking forward to a trip down the familiar route of I-81 and I-90 towards Columbus, OH.  I was making good time and everything was going smoothly until I reached the US border. The guard gave me a peculiar look and asked me whether I’d ever been the subject of a “vehicle inspection”. Initially I didn’t know what he meant, connecting the word “inspection” with safety regulations or the like. But of course what he really meant was a “search”. Well, I had not and I don’t think it would have stopped him if I had. My number had come up in the randomness of the computerized process, so I had to park the truck and hand over the keys. However, it was a painless process at it turned out. By the time I’d walked into the customs building, filled out a declaration and returned, the four guards who had been waiting for me had finished their inspection and I was free to go. It simply cost me ten minutes on my total trip.

From there to Syracuse it was smooth sailing and the temperature crept up into the high 20’s C. By the time I got onto the NY State Thruway, I was ready to be cooled off with the truck’s handy air conditioning. I turned it on, but the desired effect didn’t last long. After a short while I realized that the cool air was actually just air blowing on me – not cool at all. Of course I tried the usual idiot tricks of turning it off and on again, adjusting the fan speed and vent setting, but nothing I did made a difference. When I stopped at a service area for fuel and relief, I heard strange grinding noises coming from under the hood. When I looked at the belt, it seemed fine, but something – likely the A/C compressor – was not rotating silently. Ironically, I had brought along two spare serpentine belts (not knowing precisely the length required), just in case the belt failed. But it looked as though I would have a more serious repair to make and it wouldn’t be at the side of the road!

So I soldiered on all the way to Lexington, OH – the home of the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course – where I had a reservation at the Days Inn. Somewhere around Cleveland I phone my friend Denise, who would be at FFO, to ask for help in finding a dealership in Nashville that could do the repair on Friday. Like the good friend that she is, she phoned back in a half hour or so with the name and number of the closest Chrysler dealer – Gary Mathews Chrysler in Antioch, TN. I phoned them and arranged an appointment for first thing Friday morning and I planned to get directions from the hotel, although the service representative described some simple directions over the phone.  Feeling better about that problem, I continued to Lexington, by now absolutely bathed in perspiration from the extreme heat.

When I checked into the Days Inn a few minutes after 7 PM, I inspected the trailer and found some fluid under the Fiat’s right rear wheel area, a few inches inboard of the hub. It didn’t have an odour and didn’t feel oily, but I wondered if I’d damaged a brake line when I attached the trailer straps to the axle. The only other source of fluid in that area is the shock absorber and I couldn’t imagine why it would be leaking, especially something that felt like water. It remains a mystery to be solved after I get home. While checking in, there was a bit of a problem finding my reservation in the computer. The woman who I had spoken to was very soft spoken and I suspect her hearing wasn’t too good either. She had misspelled my name and shown my home address as Connecticut. When I told the East Indian manager that I had just been in CT the previous week, he said “You’re freaking me out, man!” in his best put-on Indian accent. Later we had a good laugh about it over a smoke and agreed that comedian Russell Peters is a pretty funny guy.

Thursday morning I got up early and left Lexington around 6:30, so I could get to Nashville in the early afternoon and have time to cool off. The traffic in Columbus was very heavy, since it was the morning commute, and the drivers there are very aggressive. I just stayed in my lane and did the speed limit, letting them work around me. Cincinnati was not nearly so bad and I was amazed yet again by the five levels of curving overpasses that criss-cross the waterways outside of Three Rivers Stadium. Someone had to be very creative to design such a traffic pattern in free space, elevated at least 70 feet above the water. I had forgotten that you enter Kentucky while still within sight of the Stadium – people there must have strange mailing addresses, being in Cincinnati, OH and Kentucky at the same time.

The interstate between the city and Kentucky Speedway was under heavy construction, with traffic limited to one lane. That might help explain why so many people had trouble getting to the recent Nascar race there. I stopped for gas and refreshments at Bowling Green, right across the street from the Corvette factory and flea market, and behind the National Corvette museum, but didn’t do any shopping. While in that area, the temperature on the truck’s thermometer hit 36 C! Around 2:30 I arrived at the Sheraton Music City hotel in Nashville, having had no problems with the directions from Mapquest. The total distance from home was 1640 km, which I travelled at an average speed of just under 90 km/h, using fuel at the rate of 18.7 L/100 km.

I met up with several guys I already knew, including Dave, Craig, Mike, Gary (Pope), Tony, Lee and some new people. There were at least 15-20 new Fiat 500’s scattered around the front and rear of the hotel, plus a large outdoor arrangement of furniture designed to look like a bistro, which was situated in the rear parking lot. All of this had been arranged by Fiat corporate, as part of their contribution to sponsoring FreakOut. The group decided not to take one of the available shuttle buses into downtown Nashville to sample the bar scene, opting instead for several separate outings to local restaurants in small clusters of friends. Dave and I waited for Denise and Mike to finish working at the FLU goodie store and the registration desk and six of us went to a nice local steakhouse for supper around 8:30. By the time we finished and returned to the hotel, I had had enough and went to bed earlier than some, knowing that I had to get up early to get the truck repaired.

Friday morning I left the hotel around 7 AM and drove to Gary Mathews Chrysler, in Antioch. I had used Mapquest in the hotel in OH so I had a pretty good idea of how to find them, but I had to stop in a gas station to get the last ¼ mile of directions because the dealership was down a road that looked rural at first, but which turned into a newer commercial/industrial area. The people there were very friendly and helpful and I had a good chat with the shuttle driver when he returned me to the hotel around 8:45. I just had time to talk to a few people before it was time to leave in a convoy for the Lane Motor Museum.

The FFO agenda included a trip to this museum partly because they had bought the first new Fiat 500 that had been brought to the US by our Irish friend Jim in 2008 and subsequently driven across the country and back on an epic journey. The shuttle driver had told me the easiest way to find the museum, in case I was too late for the convoy, but we followed a different route that used more thruways and added some unnecessary complexity. Nevertheless, we got there safely and the weather was already heating up considerably. We all parked behind the building and did what we could to minimize the sun’s damage to our interiors.

The first car we saw stopped us in our tracks and was the subject of much conversation and gentle teasing directed at me. It was an early ‘70’s Porsche 911T that had obviously been rolled, wrecked, burned and stripped of usable parts, which was sitting abandoned in the parking lot. It was a pretty sad sight and I hope the museum was simply waiting for the scrap metal truck to remove it. There’s no way that car should be considered for restoration! We all filed into the museum and began walking around and photographing the numerous cars, motorcycles and airplanes on display.

The Lane Museum has one of the most eclectic collections of vehicles I’ve ever seen. The accompanying pictures tell a better story than I can, but there is everything from famous race cars (and replicas thereof) to the largest collection of micro-cars imaginable. There are three Tatras, multiple Fiats, a couple of Renault Alpines, several late forties MG’s, a replica of Paul Newman’s Datsun 240Z race car, a midget sprint car, numerous motorcycles, a Citroen with two drive trains and steering wheels that can go in either direction, a home-made wooden car, etc. It’s interesting, but not for everyone.

After looking around thoroughly and having the included lunch, I decided that I’d seen enough and left early. It was blistering hot, so when I got back to the hotel I delayed my shower long enough to wash and detail my car, since I was drenched in sweat already. On the way to the museum I saw the Brake warning light flickering, although the brakes were working just fine. When I checked, I found that the fluid level was a bit low, which I attributed to the very high temperatures. This continued the next day since I had no fluid with which to top up the reservoir, but it was never a problem.

After washing the car I cleaned myself up and went looking for Dave or someone else who might be willing to come with me in the Fiat to pick up the truck, since they had phoned to tell me it would be ready at 5 o’clock. The shuttle driver said he couldn’t be sure he’d be able to get to the hotel early enough to guarantee that I’d arrive at the dealership before closing, so I needed a back-up plan.  Many of my friends had taken the scenic drive after leaving the museum and I couldn’t find anyone I knew to help out, so I decided to take a taxi in order to avoid any last minute stress about getting the truck back. The taxi ride cost about $35 but the peace of mind was worth it. I only waited about 10 minutes after reaching the dealership until the truck appeared and I was presented with a bill for slightly more than $1000 US – about what I had expected.

After returning to the hotel, I found the rest of the gang hanging around lobby, trying to stay cool. Around 6 o’clock we migrated towards the pool/patio area where a buffet meal would be served following a complimentary bar. Dave and I grabbed a beer at the bar and found a large table with many of our friends. That table continued to expand with the addition of more friends and more tables, until there were at least 20 of us there. Afterwards, we heard others refer to it as “the fun table”, since it was full of some pretty notable characters that many people know from the forums as the more experienced and helpful members. At one point I said that I felt like a member of multiple regional chapters, including Detroit, West Michigan, Indianapolis and Chicago. The buffet dinner was pretty good, although the line-up was long, and the beer kept flowing during a couple of short speeches from our club executive.

After dinner, we all retired to the dedicated parking lot, where people were arranging their cars so they would be facing the temporary inflatable movie screen where the The Italian Job would be shown after dark. People were also milling around Lee’s pop-up canopy and station wagon, where he was mixing up batch after batch of mean margaritas. Most of the “fun table” crowd was there and great conversation was flowing, along with the drinks. I wandered over to where I had parked, as I could see some work lights and people standing by watching something. It turned out that two young guys from Oklahoma were trying to change the guibo (driveshaft rubber donut), in their ’78 Spider. They had the front tires up on the curb and a jack under the rear, but only one jack stand to support the rear. Since I had a full tool chest in the truck, I asked them if they needed any help and they said a second jack stand would be useful. So I went up to the other parking lot and drove my truck down close to them, bringing my jack stand down to their car. They carried on gratefully and finished changing the guibo by the time the movie had ended. They were very lucky that one of the suppliers had brought one along, which they were able to use.

Having seen the movie more than once before, many of us just wandered around making conversation, while a number of the newer members sat in their cars or on lawn chairs and stared at the screen. The sound was being piped over a radio frequency, so they could use their radios to listen along. Whenever I looked at the screen, I found it hard to see the picture clearly, since it wasn’t really dark enough. But they seemed to be enjoying themselves, so I guess it was acceptable. Around 11 o’clock I’d had enough and the guibo job was finished, so I packed up my truck, moved it back to the trailer’s parking spot and called it a night.

Saturday morning dawned clear and hot – again. I made some coffee in my room and wandered down to the parking lot, to begin preparations for the drive to the show field. A few people were frantically washing and polishing their cars, but since I’d already done that, I simply wiped it off and buffed up a few spots that needed some attention. They had free coffee and donuts (the edible kind), available, so I helped myself and started chatting with Bernie and his wife who are from Baltimore. The organizers began marshalling people for the drive to the Parthenon a little ahead of schedule, to spread out the arrival of all of the cars at the staging area for the show field. Bernie’s wife loaned me a cup holder that would hook over the glove box door so I could finish my coffee and we set out in a parade of about 10-15 cars.

We had a drive of about 20 minutes to the other side of downtown Nashville, so of course traffic lights interrupted our parade a couple of times. Since I didn’t have a co-driver, I was relying on others to lead the way but suddenly I found myself at the front of the train with only a sketchy idea of the directions and a brief description in the event pamphlet. When part of the train peeled off on what I believed was the wrong portion of a multiple exit from the freeway, I was truly out there leading the blind! But with a little bit of horn tooting, some hollered directions and a switch to a two-person car to lead the pack (Shaun F. and his family), we eventually navigated our way to the Parthenon field. It is quite a site, being situated in the heart of Dixie – a full-scale replica of the Parthenon in Greece, constructed of huge stone blocks. I believe it was built to celebrate Nashville’s centenary, but why they chose that particular design is beyond me. The show field was a very large flat lawn that is part of a municipal park and was open to the public, but not to their cars.

We staged at the entrance to the field and waited (in the shade of some welcome trees), while the organizers finished staking out the field with little flags to mark where they wanted the rows of cars to be parked. Eventually they got it done and beckoned each of us to drive over to the photographer’s location where individual photos were taken of our cars with the Parthenon in the background. The pictures are good, but the building is so big that the cars and people all look very small in the foreground. They had organized the field to group cars of each model and vintage together, so I was directed to a place where all of the ’75-’78 Spiders would be located. As it turned out, I was the first of my group, so I got a great spot at the end of a row near where the vendor displays and food service would be. People would be able to see the entire left side of my car from a distance, as well as up close, while the other cars in my group were parked close to one another and harder to appreciate.

I was quite happy with this arrangement, since it gave me a chance to show my car to its best advantage. After everyone else had parked, I unloaded my trunk and placed all of the non-essentials under the rear of the car. I displayed a provenance sheet on the windshield, along with my official show card, and laid out my tool kit, owner’s manuals and a copy of my book in the open trunk. I looked over the other five cars in my group and felt pretty good about my chances to win a prize, maybe even first place. One of the cars was the two young guys who had replaced their guibo and that car was still a restoration in progress, with a pretty rusty hood and trunk lid and a body desperately in need of significant work. Another car was not very clean and had major rust on its rear chrome bumper. The other three were nice examples, but each had significant flaws, such as body dents, scratches, mismatched interior bits, dirty engine bays, etc.

After all of the cars were parked, we waited quite a while for the photographer on the scaffolding to declare that were ready to shoot the panoramic photo. At this point, all hoods and trunks had to be closed and people were expected to stand by their cars. Getting the pictures taken was like herding cats, but we finally settled down enough to get it done. From then on, everyone spent the next couple of hours wandering around admiring the various cars, the vendor displays and the scenery, and lining up for some pretty good pizza and cold drinks. We all voted for the cars in our respective classes and handed in our ballots, having endured the mandatory speeches from the club executive. Around 2 o’clock people started to drift off, some of them going on a scenic drive of downtown Nashville and the rest of us returning to the hotel. It was so hot that I simply wanted to find somewhere to cool down.

I returned to the hotel, loaded the car on the trailer and immediately changed and headed for the pool. Many of the gang from the “fun table” had the same idea, so we resumed our conversations and camaraderie in the water, grateful for the respite from the heat of the day. After showering and changing, I wandered down to the lobby to stay cool and talk with whoever happened to be there. Between multiple conversations and browsing the vendor room, I killed enough time to fill the gap before the banquet was scheduled to begin. Dave and I lined up and entered the banquet hall, but found that the “fun table” gang had already filled one table of eight, so we started another one. We were joined by Shaun and his family from Indianapolis and another couple, so we got to know each other a bit while having drinks and then lined up for the buffet.

While waiting in line, Bobb (yes, two “b’s”; one of the club’s founders), brought over Laura Soave and her entourage and asked me to shepherd her through the buffet line. She is the head of Fiat USA and seemed like a pretty nice lady, although she has a twangy, high-pitched NY City accent that’s a bit hard to take in person. She mentioned that she has relatives in London, ON and we were starting to get comfortable talking to each other, when Shaun F. came over with his little daughter and asked Laura to step out of line for a minute to talk to his family. Shaun bought the first Fiat 500 in the US and has had many photo ops with Laura, so she was happy to oblige. Later on during the dinner, Shaun came over to our table and apologized to me for interrupting our conversation, as though he thought I was hitting on Laura or something! That was pretty funny to me – I’m old enough to be her father!

Through dinner I was seated next to a fellow named Ed Zabinkski, who races professionally with Level5 Motorsports and The Racers Group and coaches drivering at Road Atlanta. He knows Mark Wilkins well and we shared several stories about the different tracks we’ve driven. After the usual speeches – again – from the club executive and Laura – we were ready to hear about the winner’s of the concours d’elegance. They started with the oldest Spiders, so I didn’t have to wait long before they got to my group. They announced the third place winner, then the second place winner and I was poised to stand up to go to the front receive my award for first place. But it wasn’t me! I was shocked and disappointed! I don’t know which cars won each place, but I couldn’t believe that I had won nothing at all! My car was the only all-original Spider; attracted many viewers and compliments from people outside of our group; and it showed extremely well. I had prepared it as well as I possibly could and it has never been cleaner or shiner. But I won nothing. I was really disappointed and ticked off at the process. So as soon as I could, I left the banquet hall and went to bed, where it took me a while to eventually fall asleep.

Sunday morning I woke early, packed my stuff and left long before everyone else was up or the special breakfast had begun. I was on the road at 6:15 AM and made it to Willoughby, OH around 4:45 – a distance of 860 km, averaging about 90 km/h. Throughout the trip I spent a lot of time trying to figure out why my car hadn’t been chosen for any prize. I concluded that the voting process has a major flaw. Since there were only six cars in my class, it would take only two members to elect a winner for each prize, if everyone else voted for their own cars. I don’t know how many votes I got for first place – other than my own – but I was surprised that the young guys from OK didn’t support me, since I had helped them and they had admired my car Friday night. But if two of the others agreed to vote for one of their cars and everyone else voted for their own, that would do it. So I have become as philosophical about it as I can, but it still irks me that the process can work this way.

Monday morning I left Willoughby around 7 o’clock and crossed the border at Buffalo, since there were radio announcements that the NY State Thruway was closed north of Watkins Glen due to a car fire. This detour added about 65 km to my trip, but it saved me about a half hour, since the border crossing was faster and I didn’t have to slow down for toll booths or construction zones. There was a major thunder storm in the Buffalo – Niagara Falls area and the heat wave broke – finally. The temperature dropped at least 10 degrees in about 15 minutes and it was a welcome change. I had rain from Kingston until highway 416 and then it cleared up for last dash to my home. The total trip was 1705 km, in which I averaged 18.8 L/100 km and about 90 km/h. I may attend another FreakOut in the future, but only if it’s a lot closer to home. That’s a long way to go for such disappointment, notwithstanding the good friends I have met through the club.

Photos are available at  http://s229.photobucket.com/albums/ee234/kilrwail/Fiat%20FreakOut%202011/#!cpZZ1QQtppZZ24

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