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800 Miles of Freedom

On the road with the 2005 California Melee Rally

By Jeff Guzaitis

Things just didn’t seem to go my way on the 2005 California Melee. After months of reviving a homebuilt special that hadn’t moved under its own power in 40 years, I was rolling onto a narrow shoulder amidst a cloud of steam and a broken shock. Worse yet, I was only 37 miles into an 800-mile odyssey, and to top it off…I was the event organizer.

Welcome to the California Melee. A place where mechanical gremlins and challenging roads are engaged in a battle royale against naive yet determined rally drivers and finicky cars that were born to run but engineered to break. Amazingly, this is the first time in the nine-year history of the Melee that I didn’t finish in the same car I started in.

The author in his ’50s-era homebuilt sports car crossing the Golden Gate.

The author in his ’50s-era homebuilt sports car crossing the Golden Gate.

The Beginning

Early iron enthusiast Harley Welch and I began the California Melee back in 1997, after staging an impromptu weekend event called the “Dirtbag 500” a few years earlier. We wanted an event that was the polar opposite of lavish ordeals like the California Mille [A high-buck rally for ultra-rare vintage cars held annually in Northern California –Ed.].

We felt that you shouldn’t need a D-Type Jag and big-league money to experience a few days of classic motoring fun in the sun. Our event was designed to be different. Gone were the four-star hotels, catered luncheons at wineries, and commemorative watches. The focus would be on the roads and the drive itself. Eligibility would be limited to smog exempt (pre-‘75) sports and touring cars and the condition was of no importance. The unwashed and the freshly manicured would come together in an old car brotherhood. Polished chrome wire wheels on a Morgan were as acceptable as a dented brown door on a red Spitfire.

High Speed & Heartache

My ride for ’05 was a hand-built 1950s attempt at a racecar, the McBride Wild Hare. Built in Stockton California from $300 of junkyard gold, it was featured on the cover of Science and Mechanics magazine back in the day. Discovered in a barn a little over a year ago, I decided the car would be the perfect Melee secret weapon for 2005. That was, of course, after I breathed a little life back into it.

Contestants gathered in the early September morning fog just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, hot cups of coffee in hand and a wild assortment of vintage tin scattered throughout the parking lot. Part of the fun about the Melee is the variety of machines it attracts. British, Italian, German, Japanese—it’s a virtual U.N. summit of sports cars. A rusty MGB might be seen chasing a pristine DB5, or a primered Iso Rivolta might stop to help a Datsun 510. That’s why, after a few years in a TR4, I knew I would need something different, and the McBride fit the bill perfectly.

After pictures, getting acquainted, and the preliminary safety speech, we left in formation over the Golden Gate, the McBride serving as the pace car until we reached Marin county, where the formation broke and we were under way!

Shortly after leaving the city, the aforementioned cloud of steam erupted in my face, bringing my dreams of homebuilt racing glory crashing down. I knew if I struggled on, my fellow participants would consider me a hero for overcoming the obstacles. On the other hand, I had my girlfriend’s Falcon Sprint back in San Francisco and it was a proven daily driver.

The author’s ride, the McBride Wild Hare, betrayed its homebrew past by breaking down 37 miles into the journey.

The author’s ride, the McBride Wild Hare, betrayed its homebrew past by breaking down 37 miles into the journey.

My yearning for open-road glory won out, and after refilling the radiator and wiring the shock in place, I rolled on to Napa, where I quickly overheated again, and discovered oil in the coolant and a possible blown head gasket. Reality had reached out and smacked me upside the head, so I poured more water in, and limped home in shame. Fast-forward a few hours, and I was in the Falcon seeking out a shortcut to catch up with the rest of the Melee in Lakeport. I arrived as the slower cars were departing, so I skipped lunch and motored on.

The Road to Glory

The route for the Melee is kept a secret until the morning of departure, and while overnight stops are the same year-to-year, the roads leading there are a mystery. This keeps tag-a-long freeloaders at bay, and the local law enforcement in the dark. Don’t get me wrong, the Melee is not a speed contest, and reckless driving will get you a one-way ticket home. But, in my experience, when a group of sports cars festooned with numbers and decals roll into Podunk Junction, the law feels the need to look into it, and usually does.

Matt Prentiss and his clean TR3A pause on the way to Fort Bragg.

Matt Prentiss and his clean TR3A pause on the way to Fort Bragg.

Day one was a dash north through the lush wine regions of Napa Valley, then into the hills over a few dry creek beds near Clear Lake. Next we went over a seldom-traveled mountain pass into the central valley, where we eventually reached our destination, a no-frills motel in the town of Red Bluff. Some contestants celebrated with a beer, or cooled off by displaying their cannonball prowess in the pool. Others tackled repairs in the parking lot.

The roads vary between freshly poured asphalt to broken chunks of rock and steer manure. On some of the most challenging unpaved stages, alternate routes are available for those with expensive paint or limited ground clearance. On two separate occasions, different Lotus Sevens punched holes in their oil pans. Fortunately, a little JB weld and an empty beer patched the damage. Arriving at the awards banquet battered and covered with dust and bugs is part of the Melee experience.

Melee participant Graham Davis and his TR4 ham it up on the Redwood Highway.

Melee participant Graham Davis and his TR4 ham it up on the Redwood Highway.

The morning of day two, the sound of cold engines sputtering to life cut through the calm. This leg of the rally is nicknamed Mega Miles, because you need to cover 360 miles of forgotten nowhere-land to get to the next motel. The hot inland valley gave way to the cool breezes off the coast, as we ventured westward on amazingly smooth and twisty roads. Lunch was held in the town of Samoa at the Historic Samoa Cookhouse, an enormous eatery that catered to Northern California loggers back when there was a logging industry in California. No menus are offered. They simply bring out several courses until everyone is full. Afterwards, a leisurely drive south to Fort Bragg led us through some great tourist traps, where drivers stopped to have their picture taken with Bigfoot.

Day two features the longest driving leg and the most scenic routes of the trip, capped by a stay in Fort Bragg.

Day two features the longest driving leg and the most scenic routes of the trip, capped by a stay in Fort Bragg.

The final leg took us zigzagging down the coast back to San Francisco. This is the easiest part of the trip and designed so that everyone gets back for the feast and the awards on time. The Melee has no real finish line, and there are no prizes for being first. At the end of day three we converged at a great restaurant for the Gala awards banquet. Raffle prizes and trophies are given for breakdowns, interesting outfits, people’s choice, and whatever else we feel deserves recognition.

The Andrews-Taber Triumph team poses with their “Spirit of the Dirtbag” trophy.

The Andrews-Taber Triumph team poses with their “Spirit of the Dirtbag” trophy.

Journey’s End

Finally, a new king or queen is crowned with the “Spirit of the Dirtbag” cup, a perpetual trophy that the lucky winner can display for one year along with a FREE entry for the next event. Selection for the coveted cup falls squarely to the organizers (Harley and me), who select the driver or the car that best surmises the can-do spirit of the original Dirtbag 500. This year the trophy went to Mike Andrews, a seasoned veteran who not only survived a breakdown and an off-road excursion, but drove his immaculate Triumph TR2 450 miles each way just to participate!

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