As the alabaster 1979 Chevrolet Monte Carlo sits on the dirt floor of our garage growing mold and many generations of spiders, my brother Dan and I doubt more and more it will ever move again.
It's as if the car knows what awaits it when it re-awakens, and it's staying dormant out of fear. The car is being rebuilt not to bracket race 1/8th of a mile at a time, but to run a loop of Rockbridge County, Virginia, that would make the Nurburgring look like a dead-straight abandoned highway.
Since the days when Lynrd Skynrd eight tracks were new, high-school boys in Rockbridge have been challenging this 83.6 (yes, eighty-three point six)-mile series of blind turns, loose gravel, elevation changes and double apexes. If you drive like a man with a sense of his own mortality, the loop takes a shade under three hours.
If you can swallow your sense of the inevitable and your brakes hold, a two-hour run isn't unheard of. Back when people first started running the Rockbridge Loop, someone allegedly made the run in just over two hours in a GM G-Body not unlike ours.
For those who have done 2-hour runs on the loop, that feat sounds impossible. One local, who used to give the run his all in a worked-over Civic, compared the task to running a tugboat through the Grand Canyon.
Complicating the route are surprise driveways, farm tractors, errant cattle, sub-division traffic and Johnny Law. This makes averaging better than 40 mph along the entire route a Herculean task.
Speaking of Herculean tasks, this is all relegated to the theory department if we can't get the Monte to move under its own power. As it sits, there is a fresh Turbo 350-backed GM Performance Parts 350/290 where the decrepit 267 used to reside. It needs accessories, the carburetor hooked up, an ignition system and an exhaust to run.
We're close to buttoning the mill up, but money's tight, and with Dan off at college, time's tighter than money. Then there's our collected mechanical prowess, which would make the average house wife look like Smokey Yunick.
Still, if we can make it run, 290hp should be more than enough gusto to make our goal realistic, considering the car, despite its length and width, weighs just over 3,000 pounds. On this loop, enormous power would likely be more of a burden than a benefit; an easy way to get into big trouble quick.
Keeping the car moving quickly with the dreaded slush box certainly isn't ideal, but with big torque down low, it isn't a monumental task either.
Once it's moving under its own power, there's the hurdle of the wheels/tires/suspension. Of course, the Summit catalogue is full of tantalizing powder-coated options from companies like Hotchkiss, but we're on a budget here. That doesn't change the fact that the springs and shocks are shot, and were originally designed to cushion an elderly lady as she cruised South Florida.
The frustrating thing about the Rockbridge Loop is that skill and practice and memorization don't in any way guarantee success. Doing the loop quickly and safely is impossible. Everything could be going swimmingly, smoother than Charlie Parker's sax, and then, from nowhere, a deer, a cow, a tractor, or, worse, a yuppie. In a split second you can go from a heroic wail at 10/10ths, deftly clipping a blind apex, to a pathetic whinny, full-tilt at a gravel truck, clutching your jewels and begging for mommy.
You have to settle for one or the other: safe or fast. Doing it quickly without incident is a matter of blind luck. There is no "safe" section of the route.
From the start, on what locals refer to as Collierstown Road, or Virginia Route 251, the dangers manifest themselves in the form of blind curves, other motorists and a false sense of security. For the most part, 251 is a clean, smooth surface along long sections that are relatively wide and straight, inviting you to push your limits. Then, as quickly as the road widens, it pitches you into a 90-degree right-hander over a blind hill.
Past 251, the rest of the route is plagued by uneven surfaces, loose gravel, hairy spots of hastily-patched pavement and blind turn after blind turn. Here you have to be almost suicidal to average more than 40.
Just over halfway through the run, you blast along Va. 56, which runs along South River through a tiny community called Vesuvius in the county's sycamore-lined north east corner, before climbing 1,500 feet in only a couple miles. At the top is the reward of the Blue Ridge Parkway, the home stretch and one of the most-predictable and fastest sections.
Between you and the glory that is the Parkway, however, is Route 56. The road is narrow, slick as wet snot and offers a precipitous drop to your right should you cut an apex too close or run afoul of an oncoming log truck.
Having survived both 56 and the Parkway, you're within a few miles of the start of the loop. Here, though is where the watchful eye of local constabulary threatens the fun. It is safest to take this section as near the speed limit as possible, as you roll down Va. 501 through the town of Buena Vista. Much of this section is a speed-trap 25 mph zone, which makes hastiness on the rural legs of the trip key.
The journey to get the Monte into fighting shape has already been a long one. Though we're well on our way, money and time remain hard to come by. Stay tuned for updates on our chaotic and Quixotic build, and maybe, just maybe a run on the Rockbridge Loop.
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