Not the Cannonball, Day 6: Spinning through the Montana Snow

The car begins a climb up a mild grade. I can’t recall if it was me pushing the pedal just a bit more, or the automatic
transmission kicking down under the load, but the rear end kicks out just slightly to the right. Only a few minutes
before I had remarked to my father “it feels like I have more grip here.” Well all grip was now gone, and we’re starting
a lazy spin at about 45 MPH headed for the median between the lanes. Dad grabs the dashboard and says “oh god”
with obvious fear in his voice. Oddly I’m calm and have no feeling of dread. I really do not want
to cross the median and put us at risk of oncoming traffic. I manage to correct our counter-clockwise rotation, only
to exchange it for clockwise, but at least now we’re headed for the shoulder and not who ever is driving eastbound.
I am looking ahead, oddly through the driver’s side window and considering our options. I’m not in fear for us, so
much as I am the car. I’m calm and my brain is telling me what to do. “Don’t slam on the brakes.” “No crazy wheel
motions.” “You are going to be OK.” “Just find a soft landing spot, and aim for it.” We’re not really moving that
fast, and we’re wrapped in three thousand pounds of German steel. Mind you it is German steel that is tumbling like
an off-course V-1 rocket in a flat spin, but for some odd reason I have no fear for our health. I’m worried about
over-shooting the shoulder and going too far into the ditch. If that happens we could be stuck and seriously damage
the car. I’m also worried about running over any of the reflector posts spaced at intervals along the roadside.
I’m able to make minor adjustments to the car’s attitude but have no hope of recovering fully from the spin at this
point. I tell Dad, “Hang on.” I’ve got the spin stopped and now we’re just sliding sideways, but inexorably also
towards the shoulder. I’m completely off the pedals now and decide where I want to come to a stop. A place between
two reflector posts, and short of a dead tree in the ditch. As soon as the front tires hit the grass I brake and turn the
wheel to the left, which pivots the rear end forward and completes our 360° spin, bringing us to a halt with the car
facing the westbound direction of travel in the grass.

You ask yourself “How did we get here?”

We awoke to an October snowstorm in Billings, Montana. Took us a bit by surprise.
The appearance of the Cruise Missile after a night of wind and snow.

This scaled our expectations way back in terms of distance, as there is no way that we can violate “Montana Code 61-8-303(1)(a)[2] SPEEDING ON INTERSTATE, EXCEED DAY LIMIT OF 75 MPH” in these conditions. We’d be lucky to meet the limit, much less exceed it.

We check the weather and it looks like the storm is centered on Billings and other than a few flakes falling here and there it looks like we should have clear running once we can get far enough west of the weather. The Cruise Missile gets brushed off and warmed up, and we hit the Autobahn going westbound… at significantly less than autobahn speeds. (Note: I forgot to charge my SLR’s battery overnight, hence the cell-cam photos. I have a car-charger and the battery is taking the place of the Valentine today as we certainly will not need the latter!)

Not exactly autobahn conditions!

West of Billings. High winds and snow. Max 40 MPH drving.

We’re able to make a top speed of about 40 MPH. Grip is tenuous. This car is really not made for these conditions. Trucks and SUVs are passing us all the time. I just putt along trying to stay safe. When the loss of control happened thankfully there were no other cars around us.

Where I went off the road.

After the car stopped moving. I asked Dad if he was OK, and he answered affirmatively. I shut off the car and climbed out to have a look and check for damage. I walk around the car completely and see no issues. I climb back in, start it up and try to move it. It appears stuck. I climb back out and look closely at where the tires are sitting. The front passenger side tire has a huge pile of dirt and grass in front of it. I walk up the hill a bit to that dead tree I didn’t want to hit was located and break off one of it’s lower branches, walk back to the car and use the branch to scrape out the debris from the front of the wheel. Once it is cleared away I break the branch in half and jam the two pieces as ramps under the rear tires to give the car some traction. Climbing back in I rock the car back then forward and it pops right out. I drive up onto the shoulder and once again walk around the car looking for damage (this is when I snapped the above photo of the “crash site.”) The car appears a bit muddied but otherwise unscathed.

I climb in and drive off, slowly and carefully, towards Big Timber.

Needless to say I drive very slowly, and very carefully. By now the plows are out and clearing/sanding the road. We eventually make it to Livingston, where we get off the freeway for some caffeine and a pit stop. Dad takes the wheel and now he drives very slowly and very carefully. About four and a half hours after leaving Billings we arrive in Bozeman. This is normally a two-ish hour drive. Thankfully as we drop into the Gallatin Valley the road becomes bare and wet. A welcome change from the hockey rink we’ve been driving on so far!

Approaching Butte.

Things stay clear and allow us to travel at the speed limit for quite a ways, that is until we climb the pass coming into Butte, where it snows up again. At least they’ve sanded and the road has a bit of grip.

We stop for gas, lunch, and a driver change in Red Lodge. My camera battery has finally charged enough to work, but the only lens I can find is my telephoto:

The dirtiest Cruise Missile, ever.

From here west, both the skies and the roads clear of any menace. We reconnect the Valentine and make time as best we can, arriving in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho around sunset. At dinner I down two big Margaritas to celebrate our survival.

Read on for the re-play of the 1999 Cannonball Classic’s wild run through Colorado, Utah, and Nevada:

Friday, October 1st, 1999: Steamboat Springs, CO to Eureka, NV.

Murphy’s Law of Mountain Driving: The opposite lane will remain empty until the solid yellow line leaves your lane.

We start the day with a minor problem. As we pull away from the hotel, Barry Brown, the excellent event mechanic checks out our parking lot puddles and pronounces the substance to be gasoline. We check under the hood at breakfast and sure enough, the banjo bolts on the carbs are loose (rattled on the long road I guess!) He helps us to get them sorted. We then head west out US 40, a road I have driven many times in my Seattle/Vail runs to get a few runs on the hill in the guise of a visit to see Mom & Dad. =)

We fly along, with our new Colorado Highway Patrol hats on to protect us from radar electrons. We pull up in Vernal, Utah for some gasoline and to tighten the last of the 3 banjos and wash the puddles of petrol out of the engine compartment. We also figure it is warm enough to jack up the Jag and bleed the clutch hydraulics. As the majority of the group passes us, we work on the car in a parking lot just off US 40. We get some genuine assistance from a rancher, and some genuine annoyance from several other gawkers who come over and interrupt us to tell Jaguar stories. We bleed it best we can and hit the road. We catch-up to several folks along US 191.

Left to Right Above: Bleeding the clutch in Vernal – The Bergman Jag and the Cunningham in Price Canyon – Delayed by Sheep!

The route does some serious wide swings through Utah, and several folks decide to short-cut some of these fantastic roads out in order to save time. I have driven I-15, and it doesn’t hold a candle to the scenery and roads that those of us who stuck to the course saw! We come upon and 3 car pileup right in front of a huge Mormon Temple… We get stopped by a herd of sheep… we drive through verdant valleys high above the usual Utah deserts.

Left to Right Above: Approaching a 3 SUV pileup near a temple in Manti, Utah, 2 Jaguars, one old & one new, waiting for road work, and… Identify that species at 80mph!

We drop down to the desert floor near Delta and fly along US 50, "the loneliest road in America"… The scenery is awesome. I bet the British journalists in the Subaru are going dizzy at the scale of the surroundings. Dry lakes, alkali flats, sage, mountains, powerlines, and a narrow strip of asphalt vanishing at the horizon. The surroundings are so desolate that even the roadkill count drops from an all-week high on the stretch from Steamboat to Delta, to near zero… just the occasional jackrabbit.

Above: The Brits get gobsmacked by the wide open spaces… US Highway 50.

The area from Delta Utah west into Nevada is jaw-droppingly beautiful, in an austere sort of way.

Right after sunset and shortly before we come into Eureka we are stopped for a single-lane construction site. There are 3 cars ahead of us and the two Saabs pull up behind us. The pilot truck guides us through the work zone and we are again free to drive… The road is twisty and rolling and since it is dark I don’t go too fast and just hang back behind the 3 other cars. As we come around a long right-hand curve I see a pickup truck going about 35 mph ahead of us. The road has a double yellow line, but I can clearly see the 3 cars ahead (they must have passed him when I was behind the curve.) I go ahead and roll around the pickup rather than dramatically braking since we lost our brake lights right before this event and have had to be real careful if someone was behind us. I’d rather make a safe pass in a "no passing zone" than have the 2 Saabs pile into our rear. About 2 miles down the road our rearview is filled with flashing red and blue lights and all 3 of us get a ticket for passing in a no passing zone… within a mile from the hotel. Grrrr.

Left: "Yes, sir."



Dinner was wonderful at The Jackson House in Eureka. Great little town. The hotel was nice too.

Roadkill Update: (If you are a small critter, *stay away from Utah!*… All I can figure is those LDS-folks mow down small mammals with impunity.) 1 Pronghorn Antelope, 7 Raccoons, 1 Case of Coors Light (I’m right about those Mormons aren’t I?), 12 Gophers, 2 Cats, 18 Jackrabbits, 3 SUVs, 1 Snake, 1 Coyote, 1 Skunk, 3 Jaguar Carb banjo bolts, 1 Magpie (the single confirmed Cannonball kill… ironically enough by the Plymouth SuperBird!), 2 Deer strapped to a Ford Bronco with 2 camo-clad occupants, 6 Deer (though I suspect it was only 5, with one being split in two parts about 100 yards apart… we were going too fast to confirm), and 23 indistinguishable piles of flesh guts and fur/feathers.

Today’s Americana: Since when is a shotgun a cleaning tool? Sign in a Sanpete County, Utah gas station. "All day of Fun!" ??


3 thoughts on “Not the Cannonball, Day 6: Spinning through the Montana Snow”

  1. Great job at catching the spin, Chuck. These things are scary. We’ll have you on the Monte Carlo yet (actually I’m going to pass in 2010). Now I’m still trying to figure out why you need to bring a shotgun to an archery shoot….

  2. Mad Dog sez, “Now I’m still trying to figure out why you need to bring a shotgun to an archery shoot….”

    In case ya miss……:)

  3. Yeah, you have to put the critter out of the misery you just inflicted with your arrow.

    I once put my 260z onto the median during a snow storm on route 20 in upstate NY. The miracle was that I didn’t hit any of the closely spaced reflector poles on the way on to the median or on my relatively high speed return to the road.

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