Mustang 50th Birthday Celebration - The Great American Cruises
Neither rain, snow, ice, nor the threat of tornado warnings could keep the long-haulers away from the Mustang 50th Birthday Celebrations
"Driving" is a relative term. For the majority of Mustang owners, it means commuting to work daily in a newer Mustang or weekend cruising in a vintage model. A few hardy souls even drive their older Mustangs on a daily basis. Others may only move their Mustang a few feet, like from the trailer to their spot for concours judging, while another group drives to the track, puts the pedal to the metal on a road course or quarter-mile, then bolts the street tires back on for the drive home.
Then there are the serious drivers who participate in long-distance cruises, like David Turnbull's Great American Pony Drives or Sam Haymart's Mustangs Across America. It's one thing to commute 15 or 20 minutes to work; it's totally different spending several days crossing this great country of ours while dealing with changing weather conditions, road construction, traffic, and inconsiderate non-enthusiast drivers. And while most Mustang long-haulers these days choose the comfort and reliability of newer models, we have the utmost respect for owners who make such long treks in their older Mustangs, which are prone to convertible top leaks in the rain, overheating, and bucket seats that were never designed for long-distance comfort.
To celebrate the Mustang's 50th Anniversary, both GAPD and MAA staged long-distance cruises last April, plus the Mustang Club of America hosted its own 50th Pony Drives from Norman, Oklahoma's 50th Kick-Off Party to the Mustang 50th Birthday Celebrations in Charlotte and Las Vegas. The GAPD herded Mustangs to Oklahoma for the start of the MCA Pony Drive, while Mustangs Across America made the longest haul of all from Los Angeles to Charlotte.
After spending four days and over 1,100 miles with the MCA's Pony Drive from Oklahoma to Charlotte, we have a new appreciation and admiration for anyone with the stamina to cruise long-distance. As Haymart explains, "Staying in a different hotel each night gives you an idea of what it must be like to be a rock star on tour!"
Resisting the temptation to drive our own '66 Mustang on the multi-state MCA ride, Pam and I accepted Ford's offer to supply a '14 Shelby GT 500 as part of Heacock Classic Insurance's participation in both the Charlotte and Las Vegas legs of the MCA's 50th Pony Drive. For some reason, 662 hp, A/C, and Recaro seats in a brand-new Mustang seemed a tad more tolerable, comfortable, and reliable than a 48-year-old GT hardtop that has barely left the city limits since its restoration two years ago (It's OK Donald, I would have picked the Shelby too!-Ed.).
We picked up our Ruby Red Shelby in Dallas and immediately discovered that 662 hp is useless in rush-hour and construction traffic. Not a good start for a five-day highway adventure. We eventually escaped the I-35 log-jam and tapped the speed control at 80 mph, which translated to a loafing 1,800 rpm for the Shelby's 5.8-liter supercharged DOHC powerplant. At the Oklahoma welcome area, an attendant spotted our GT 500 and mentioned that a long line of Mustangs had zoomed by a couple of hours earlier, a reference to the southeastern leg of Turnbull's Great American Pony Drive that was closing in on Norman after departing Jacksonville, Florida, a few days earlier.
As a pre-cursor to the MCA's Oklahoma Kick-off Party, Turnbull organized seven GAPD cruises from all corners of the country to Oklahoma. In all, the GAPD (not to be confused with the MCA's Pony Drives) delivered over 200 Mustangs to Norman—just so they could reload for the drive to Charlotte or Las Vegas!
By the time our Shelby rolled into Norman, Mustangs filled the parking lots at the NCED Hotel and Conference Center, a resort-style facility that serves as a training center for U.S. Post Office employees. Inside, the MCA set up a registration area and organized a Saturday night banquet, where Heacock Classic Insurance handed out cards with a phone number to call for free towing. We hoped that wasn't an omen.
On Sunday morning, we awoke to the rumbling of Mustangs coming alive before sunrise to line up at the rear of the hotel for the 9:00 a.m. start of the eastern Pony Drive. It was cool and windy when I ran downstairs to position our Heacock-sponsored Shelby near the front. By 8:30, the line of Mustangs stretched around the NCED facility, nearly 200 cars according to Trail Boss Turnbull, who had just completed his Great American Pony Drive to Norman before leading the stampede to Charlotte in his black '64½ convertible with nearly 400,000 miles on the odometer. The on-time departure took us along rural roads to I-40, where Mustangs filled our vision through the windshield and rearview mirror. We were on our way.
And so was a major storm front. It caught up with us just as we arrived in Fort Smith, Arkansas, for our lunch stop at Randall Ford, which had emptied its sales lot to make room for the Pony Drive Mustangs. Out came the umbrellas as Mustang owners scurried across the pavement to the dealership showroom for some Arkansas barbecue.
The big gob of yellow and red followed us on our smartphone's weather radar as we hit I-40 again for the day's last leg to Little Rock. I felt bad for the owners who had spent much of the previous evening cleaning their Mustangs. By the time we arrived at our Little Rock hotel, the rain and wind had picked up, pretty much canceling the best-laid plans for a cruise-in hosted by Central Mustangers of Arkansas at the Shackleford Crossing Shopping Center. When tornado warnings were issued, many Pony Drive participants elected to stay put at their hotels. That's how we learned that the Embassy Suites in Little Rock has great baby-back ribs!
The clouds stayed with us for Monday morning's chilly departure from Crain Ford but the rain stayed away long enough for our Mustang caravan to roll into Memphis, accompanied by a police escort to Beale Street, where Mustang Club of Memphis volunteers staged the Pony Drive cars in a lineup that ran the length of the famous street. By the time the last Mustang arrived, the lane was packed with Mustangs as owners scattered to the various restaurants for lunch. Our return to I-40 was greatly aided by the Memphis Police Department's motorcycle cops who braved a downpour as they escorted us out of town.
In Nashville, many Pony Drive participants headed downtown to Margaritaville for an organized, and sold out, dinner. Pam and I cruised the Shelby to downtown as well but elected to use the opportunity to dine with longtime friend and Paintucation owner Kevin Tetz, who has written several Mustang Monthly how-to articles over the years.
Tuesday's nearly 400-mile jaunt to Asheville, North Carolina, would be the most adventurous and treacherous. Shortly before arriving at Knoxville's Lance Cunningham Ford for lunch, the rain turned to snow in the higher elevations, covering the trees and road banks with white but fortunately not sticking to the pavement. It was pretty but not welcomed as we made our way through the twisting Tennessee Mountains. By the time the Pony Drive arrived in Asheville, a stiff wind was whipping the snow through downtown. Some participants headed to the NC Arboretum for a Pony Drive dinner; Pam and I ventured only a block or two from our hotel and discovered a quaint—and warm—Italian piano bar. Best food of the trip.
The storm system finally outran us by Wednesday morning, although the cold wind stayed behind for our last-leg departure to Charlotte. Former colleague Rob Kinnan, who was writing blogs about his Pony Drive adventure for Ford www.social.ford.com, joined us for the final push to the 50th, which saw nearly 500 Mustangs merging onto I-40 outside Asheville. With the sun shining at last and the promise of warmer weather ahead, the final 120 miles were uneventful, at least until we arrived at Charlotte Motor Speedway. That's when we were herded to the zMAX dragstrip and staged for a surprise parade lap around CMS to conclude our journey.
In all, we added almost 2,000 miles to Ford's Shelby GT 500, including highway miles and side trips. But that was nothing compared to Turnbull, who rolled another 4,500 miles onto his nearly 400,000-mile '64½ Mustang as he drove from Florida to Oklahoma to Charlotte.
Mustangs were built to be driven, so participating in the MCA Pony Drive added a sense of purpose to the Mustang 50th and provided more time to enjoy the occasion. The view of Mustangs front and rear more than offset the long periods of Interstate boredom, plus we got to hang out with many new Mustang friends.
Combined with the 50th weekend at Charlotte, we spent 10 days on the road in one of the best Mustangs ever built as part of the Mustang's golden anniversary. Not a bad way to celebrate, although we could have done without the rain, snow, and tornado warnings.
While one group of Pony Drivers headed east from Oklahoma to Charlotte, another batch departed the NCED Hotel and Conference Center on a westbound route destined for Las Vegas. Heacock Classic Insurance representative Bob DeKorne, driving a Gotta Have It Green Mustang GT convertible provided by Ford, reports that nearly 200 Mustangs departed the NCED facility for the 280-mile first-leg to Amarillo, Texas, where the Pony Drive faithful woke up the next morning to a white surprise.
"The few inches of blowing snow and ice on the roads delayed us for a few hours," said DeKorne. "Some of the Mustangs had never seen rain, much less snow, so caution was the watchword of the day."
After a leisurely breakfast at The Big Texan to await clearing conditions, the Vegas contingent, led by Trail Boss Tim Toy, proceeded westward, stopping for sightseeing in Tucumari, New Mexico, on the way to the second night's stop in Albuquerque, where an impromptu Mustang show broke out at BJ's Brewery. Day Three started with a continental breakfast at Rich Ford before setting out on the longest leg of the westward Pony Drive, 330 miles, made even longer for some by side trips to the south rim of the Grand Canyon and a stop to pose for photos "On the corner in Winslow, Arizona."
With more Mustangs joining along the way, the western Pony Drive Mustangs departed Flagstaff for the final run to Las Vegas, which incorporated part of historic Route 66 and a lunch stop at Colorado River Ford/Lincoln in Kingman, Arizona.
"Almost all of the participants drove Mustangs," reports DeKorne, "with many of the foreign visitors renting new '14 Mustangs for the trip. Enthusiasts from Germany, New Zealand, Australia, and The Netherlands made the entire drive from Oklahoma to Vegas. We also had license plates from East Coast states, many from the Midwest, and just about every western state, including Hawaii and Alaska."
Arriving in Las Vegas, the western Pony Drive group dispersed to their hotels, gathering later at Las Vegas Motor Speedway to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Mustang.
"We were a rolling Mustang history lesson," says DeKorne as a wrap-up to the 1,100-mile Pony Drive. "We were a force to be reckoned with on the highways!"
Are We Having Fun Yet?
Twenty years ago for the Mustang's 30th anniversary, Sam Haymart organized his first Mustang Across America, leading a caravan of Mustangs from California to Charlotte. For the 50th, Haymart put together his sixth MAA cruise, starting from the Saleen Automotive facility in Corona, California, and crossing the southern part of the United States on a seven-day, nearly 2,500-mile journey, once again ending up in Charlotte. "It was 100 percent perfect," Haymart reports. "We had only one day of rain in Mississippi, no crashes, and no one got hurt."
Haymart reports that 530 Mustangs registered for the 2014 MAA trip, with 320 of them departing Saleen at the start. Participants represented 45 states and 15 countries, including Austria, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. Most foreigners rented Mustangs, but a gentleman from the United Kingdom actually shipped his '65 Mustang to the U.S. for the MAA trip. Several Australians bought Mustangs upon arrival, drove them across country, then shipped them home.
The MAA schedule included overnight stops in Phoenix; Las Cruces, New Mexico; Midland, Texas; Dallas; Jackson, Mississippi; and Atlanta. After the kickoff party at Saleen, participants had plenty of opportunities to explore America on their own, although Haymart kept things interesting with a dinner at the Rawhide Western Town and Steakhouse in Phoenix, tour of the Petroleum Museum in Texas, a visit to the JFK Museum in Dallas, and a stop at the International Motorsports Museum in Talladega, Alabama, before arriving at Charlotte's Embassy Suites to check-in for the 50th celebration.