Friday, July 20
Los Angeles to New York
I'm wandering through Los Angeles airport. I'm supposed to fly to New York, but the reason why has escaped me. Perhaps this is the first stages of Alzheimer's. But I'm not naked or wearing a dress. I have money, keys, and an iPod. This isn't too bad this Alz-whatever.
I manage to board the right plane and wander out into JFK a few hours later. A man holding a white board with my name written on it motions me to follow. I'm soon standing in front of Hotel Gansevoort, a stunningly refurbished place in the heart of Manhattan. On my bed is a bucket of champagne, a few snacks, and a letter welcoming me to the Bullrun. Oh yeah... Bullrun. What the hell is that? According to the letter, Bullrun is an invitation-only, eight-day rally across the United States, punctuated with nightly bacchanalian activity in exclusive locations. Essentially, Bullrun is a rolling party, a ticket to play with fast cars in cool places. I can do that-even if I can't remember my own name.
After a great meal at Lou's, a classic Italian-style ristorante, I amble across the street and check out the hardware. Ferraris, Bentleys, Lamborghinis, Ford GTs... they're all getting Bullrun decals. And although it's close to midnight, the street is abuzz with people, many of them the female flavor.
With several new 'friends,' I decide to hit the hotel's nightclub, but the line outside snakes for several blocks. As I soon learn, wearing a Bullrun driver's badge opens doors. We are ushered inside to a reserved table. Paparazzi take my picture. I am king.
Saturday, July 21
New York to Toronto, via Pocono Raceway
Our conveyance for this gig is a Brabus CLS55 K8, a 550-bhp study in automotive hedonism. It is big, powerful and impossibly luxurious. It's also understated and, for reasons that will become obvious, that's a good thing.
My co-driver is Claus Ettensberger, the brains behind the CEC empire. Claus and I go back almost 20 years, when I had all my hair and no children. I'm lucky to consider him a close friend. Lucky because I don't have many. If I'm going to spend a few thousand miles with a guy, it had better be someone I don't want to kill after the first 50. Claus will do just fine.
We are sent to Times Square-pronto. I've often seen Times Square on TV, usually with Dick Clark on December 31. It's much different in person; it's sensory overload. The mood is like Mardi Gras, New Year's Eve, and the Indy 500 all rolled into one. The idea that we'd get through this mass of humanity is insane. No one is going anywhere fast.
An hour later, a small squad of cops manages to part the crowd like Moses at the Red Sea. It's an admirable feat. I have great respect for NYPD blue-I think they are some of the finest cops in the world. They manage to be authoritative without being dicks.
Around 11 am, someone waves a green flag and we are off. Off to where, we have no idea. Upon reaching the starting line, we're handed a small card that says Pocono Raceway Park, Pennsylvania. In a haze of tire smoke, we blaze through the city streets before cheering crowds and flashing cameras. And then promptly get lost. The drivers of a Ferrari 550 up front have hired a taxi to lead them through NYC's Byzantine streets. It's a brilliant move and we are wise to follow.
After lunch, we poke Pocono Raceway into the Merc's navigation computer and the resulting route is direct and fast. It even gives the option of using non-highway roads, something we'll be thankful for later. There's a way to make good time on a rally, one that doesn't have you driving like a lunatic. The majority of Bullrun contestants adhere to that. Some do not.
A couple guys up ahead have already met The Man and proudly display no fewer than eight tickets between two of them. From what I've seen, they probably deserved 20. A few laps around the Pocono track lets the Brabus stretch its legs to 150 mph. It barely breaks a sweat.
By 1:30 we have our next location mapped: the Toronto Hilton. A 911 Turbo leads our four-car train, as it is equipped with a half-dozen radar detectors, police scanners and several radios. The road to Canada is curiously empty. I'm certain it's a trap. Every bush holds a cop, each panel van is a photo-radar station and every aircraft a police spotter plane.
"What the hell are you worried about?" asks Claus. "You're going 58 mph." If I'm going to get nabbed, I might as well make it worthwhile. Despite its size, the Brabus responds instantly. Acceleration is like entering a wormhole and in many ways just as unnerving. Nothing this quiet should be so fast. The scenery becomes a smeared mess of green and black, like the world is melting around the car. Within a few hours we reach the border; the mist from Niagara Falls makes the car look sweaty.
A Mosler sits conspicuously in front of Hotel Gansevoort.
Here's a safety tip: don't get out of your car at the border. Doing so will result in guns being drawn and much screaming.
Nighttime in the Toronto Hilton is a blur, probably because my glass is never empty of champagne. Again, Bullrun credentials open doors. The club is so packed it's impossible to move. I climb onto a partition and pretend to be a gargoyle. A few others follow suit until the entire wall collapses. I pick myself up and a drink magically appears in my hand. Good times.
Sunday, July 22
Toronto to Chicago, via West Windsor
The idea for the morning is a stealthy departure. We will leave from the basement and exit through the alley to avoid the Mounties milling around the hotel's entrance. Great idea, except for the dude in a Corvette who decides to perform smoking spinouts at the first intersection. We don't so much leave Toronto as escape it. A Ford GT blazes a trail to the nearest interstate. Next stop: the Windsor Casino in West Windsor.
Bullrunners plan an alternate route due to Heat-induced heat.
It must be a holiday for law enforcement types; we see little evidence of their presence. The road is wide open, so we take full advantage. This Mercedes is the most stable car I've ever driven, especially at high speed. It feels like the car is Velcroed to the road. There's also a pronounced weight and balance to the steering, so you never lack for feedback. And despite its 4500-pound curb weight, the K8 has all the supple grace of an Olympic gymnast. The Brabus treatment does great things to the suspension without degrading the ride quality, and after 1200 miles one becomes sensitive to a car's faults. I notice this as people get out of their cars at rest stops-the overtly sporty vehicles expel their occupants beat up and exhausted. We leave the Brabus feeling like those guys in soap commercials.
The Windsor Casino is host to the most incredible buffet in the world. Buffets typically conjure images of macaroni salad and green jello. This one is different. I gorge on tuna sashimi and wash it down with the best cioppino ever. I'd come back just for the food.
On to the House of Blues in Chicago, and drivers seem hell-bent on getting there in the least amount of time. Bad idea. The moment we leave Canada, word filters down of an APB for "racecars on public roads." We pass a half-dozen Bullrunners pinched by The Man. The K8 slips through as though it has a Klingon cloaking device. Later, the bulletin is modified to include "any car wearing Bullrun decals." We swap the main highway for back roads, like we're the Dukes of Hazzard.
The Spyker in its natural environment.
Our lucky Troy Lee painted VW FAST, who we dubbed 'Schnell.' Schnell told us high speed is good, and good for you.
Our lucky Troy Lee painted VW FAST, who we dubbed 'Schnell.' Schnell told us high speed is
Bullrunners partied in the shadow of the St. Louis Arch.
Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis behind the Spyker's wheel. The dude's funny and a good driver too.
Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis behind the Spyker's wheel. The dude's funny and a good dr
Although the detour is not as direct, it's more entertaining. It's a stab-it-and-steer type of road, marked by half-mile straights and 90-degree turns. On a deserted farm trail 100 miles south of nowhere, we see 185 mph on the speedometer. In any other car, it would have been an achievement. In the Brabus, it's simply a brisk walk. Just before dusk I make out the Sears Tower and Hancock building. The satellite navigation system makes short work of finding the House of Blues. It almost feels like we're cheating. Almost. I hook up with deputy editor Funke, who will assume driving duties tomorrow. He's been here for several hours and has become intimate with the local bar scene. I need to pour him into his room so he doesn't walk off a balcony or something.
I had planned on interviewing the Bullrun producers, but that doesn't seem important now. I'd rather talk to my fellow drivers and see how they fared, which routes they took, how fast they went. We end up in the parking garage, talking cars till late. We don't utilize the ultra-hot House of Blues bar; it's too noisy and the uncorked Ford GT sounds better than the band.
A Las Vegas showgirl greets Hallstrom and the Brabus K8.
Monday, July 24
Chicago to Kansas City, via St. Louis,
I've never seen this many police on a single stretch of road. Having gotten completely destroyed at a dingy Chicago dive the night before while waiting for the boys to roll into town (I flew in around 2 pm and the 'Run didn't arrive till closer to 7:30), I was really looking forward to letting Claus drive.
"Nein," says Claus. "You must drive. Check out the car, yah?"
In spite of my fragile head and dubious constitution, the first few hundred miles are fine; the car is incredible. And then the troopers attack. I proceed to log two separate speeding tickets in less than 25 minutes. The first is legit, but the second was, as our British friends like to say, bollocks; he writes me up for 79 in a 65, but it was more like 69 (and probably less). Far from peeved, Claus derives an undue amount of mirth from my predicament and insists I continue to the lunch stop at the Anheuser-Busch brewery in St. Louis, then he'll drive. That's easy for him to say, he's yet to be pulled over.
Cute girls magically appeared when Bullrun came to town.
Just past St. Louis, with Claus back behind the wheel, our contact on the road ahead-the one equipped with a police scanner-informs us that an APB has gone out statewide to be on the lookout for "stickered-up cars participating in an illegal road race."
"What is this... this A P D?" Claus asks.
"APB. All Points Bulletin," says our back-seat companion, a lovely NY freelance journalist whose name escaped me as soon as I looked into her eyes. "Our friends in Illinois have alerted the Missouri state police and they'll be on the lookout for us."
"Ah... APB." Claus feigns concern, hands clenched firmly at nine and three, accelerator pedal pinned close to the floorboard. "This is not good, huh?
"He continues to demonstrate his incredible autobahn-bred driving mojo and we make it into Kansas City without any delays, though en route we pass more than a few sidelined Bullrunners; some by themselves, some in pairs, and always a Missouri state trooper looking on sternly.
Tuesday, July 25
Kansas City to Vail, via Great Bend
Great Where? Yeah, exactly. I wasn't particularly looking forward to this section, as it cut through some of the flattest, most farm-laden country within these great United States (no offense meant to our readers in Kansas). Lying in bed this morning, I can almost smell the cow shit.
The finish line. These guys should be exhausted (or at least out of gas, like their cars).
Hallstrom's turn to pay homage to The Man.
A tightly packed group leaves Vail.
This well-tuned Porsche Turbo contains a host of instruments designed to scan and monitor the environment (and we're not talking about temp and humidity).
This well-tuned Porsche Turbo contains a host of instruments designed to scan and monitor
On our way out, I witness the first really scary casualty of the 'Run: a big-pimpin', blinged-to-the-nines Cadillac Escalade is completely wadded up on a huge tree not half a block from the hotel. Two days before, this guy brought the fury of the law down onto the rally by reportedly running several private vehicles, not necessarily Bullrunners, off the road, driving recklessly, and just being an all-around asshole. Throughout the day, rumors fly about a possible fatality, but they ultimately prove to be unfounded. We're all relieved no one was seriously hurt, but most agree Bullrun is better off without him.
As it turns out, the drive through Kansas doesn't suck at all, since I somehow weasel my way into one of the two Spyker C8 Spyders entered in the rally by the Dutch coachbuilder. Despite appearing (to me, anyway) somewhat half-finished-you'll either love or hate looking at it-driving this car is an amazing experience. The pedal and shifter inputs are so incredibly sharp and every action so deliberate that it's downright intimidating at first, but I manage. The C8 Spyder is one of the purest sports cars money can buy; no power steering, no assisted brakes, and no traction control. Paradoxically, it begs a heck of a lot of money to own one-the asking price is reportedly well north of a quarter million dollars.
The Wynn Hotel houses a busy Ferrari and Maserati dealership. That it's right next to the payout window is no coincidence.
The Wynn Hotel houses a busy Ferrari and Maserati dealership. That it's right next to the
About a hundred miles outside Vail, Colorado, my co-pilot, a Mr. Russo, and I are enveloped in a mountain thunderstorm of biblical proportions. The Spyker was originally designed without a roof, since, having no traction control, it is pointedly not meant for the wet. Ours is equipped with a folding soft top, designed as an afterthought to satisfy the US market, and it fits like hell. By the time we reach the leg's conclusion, Mr. Russo, myself and the $300,000 quilted-leather-and-machined-aluminum interior are completely soaked. But damn, it's a lot of fun. Even the getting soaked part.
Wednesday, July 26
Vail to Las Vegas
This stretch constitutes a good 750 or more miles, so today there is no scheduled midway checkpoint. Having burned to a crisp riding all day yesterday in the topless Spyker through 100-degree Kansas and eastern Colorado (my nose and forehead now sport the hue and consistency of a boiled lobster) I am pretty damned happy to see Claus Ettensberger and his Brabus K8 again. I can almost feel the seat ventilators caressing my saddle-sore backside. We are again joined by our gorgeous female NY journo companion. Fast car, beautiful woman, ebullient German companion, and seat ventilators... I couldn't possibly do any better.
Not far from the Colorado-Utah border, we get another call from our scanner-wielding compatriot some 30 miles ahead:
"We've just intercepted another transmission... they are looking for a black Mercedes. They've clocked you at over 115 mph... they're going to pull you over."
There's just one issue. We weren't doing 115 and there's at least one other black Mercedes on the rally. Claus follows today's wingman, a silver C6 Corvette Z06, off at the next exit, but the police are already there waiting.
In spite of the fact that we're sure they've got the wrong cars, the Corvette's driver, Nick Frankl, does some fast talking.
"Officer, we weren't attempting to evade. My sister here, she's got diarrhea, and, well, we were just trying to find the nearest toilet-"
The officer is not interested. "Sir, what type of Porsche is this?"
"Officer, this isn't a Porsche. It's a Chevrolet."
Though we at ec don't necessarily subscribe to it, this was a prevalent sentiment among Bullrunners.
Though we at ec don't necessarily subscribe to it, this was a prevalent sentiment among Bu
A long, awkward pause.
"Well then, it looks like I've got the wrong information. Look, I know you guys are just out here to have some fun, but we've been getting calls from other motorists.
Honestly, I could care less how fast you drive. I'm going to let you go... just be safe."
Yes, we will, officer. Yes, we will.
Thursday, July 27
Las Vegas to San Diego, via Lake Havasu City
Caesar's Palace. The last checkpoint of the day and the end of the road for Funke. I will co-pilot the remainder of the rally with Claus. First car in is the red 996 Turbo driven by Tove Christensen, brother to Hayden Christensen (aka Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader). Hayden is also taking part in a Ferrari F360. The main entrance is soon overrun with dozens of exotic sports cars. The Brabus is there among the pack leaders. It's been a long drive, yet they are still clearly pumped with adrenaline from the day's rush-and way too many cans of Red Bull.
A 911 GT3 celebrates in the Beverly Hilton parking lot. Hilton management was not amused.
As with all the other overnight stops, social dining culminates in after-hours escapades. Vegas is no different, beginning with a casual poolside dinner at Caesar's Venus swim club, followed with a gathering at Treasure Island's Tangerine nightclub. The night is all too short.
The next morning, our first stop before heading out of town is a quick visit to Carroll Shelby's nearby museum and manufacturing facility at the Las Vegas International Speedway. The place is undeniably impressive and demands a visit. Cars are all hand assembled, similar in fashion to any respected European coachbuilder. Being so close to the raceway, we're all given the opportunity to burn off a couple hot laps.
We're then handed our next destination point: Sandbar & Grill in Lake Havasu City, Arizona.
"Isn't this where they put the London Bridge?" asks Claus.
"That's the place," I reply, "but it'll be an extremely short visit."
We make a beeline for Interstate 40 and soon lead the pack, accompanied by a modified Mercedes CL600 and a black Ferrari. We're on a mission and desperately want to win this leg.
And we almost do, but for a mix-up at the Bridge and because the Bullrun organizers have not yet posted any checkpoint signage. It's Tove in his red Turbo who again takes first place. We grab our next destination card, some fruit and a few bottles of water, and we're back on the road.
The W Hotel in San Diego is next and there are two ways to go. We take the less populated route via Imperial County, just miles away from the Mexican border. There are some great open stretches where we let the Brabus run hard into the horizon. Even in triple digits, the car's massive power output via its twin superchargers continues to pull with incredible force. Equally impressive is the ride at these speeds: exceptionally quiet and well behaved. You would think you're barely cracking the speed limit. Unfortunately, this isn't the case and I end up pulled over by a CHP. Luckily, he writes me up for only 75. Claus is actually the lucky one, having slipped under the radar the entire trip without a single ticket.
Friday, July 28
San Diego to Beverly Hills, via California Speedway
This is it. The final day. Since destination points are kept secret until the very last minute, everyone believes we will make a mad dash to LA. Wrong. We're first sent to California Speedway in Fontana. With two routes to work with, we go back and forth between the nav and our trusty road atlas for the quickest way around traffic. Like many 'Runners, we end up sitting on the I-15, inching along for what seems like hours. We finally make it to the Speedway for a catered lunch and some track time on the infield road course. The smaller exotics clearly shine on the track, but regardless of its heft, the Brabus is hard on their heels. Did I mention we're seated comfortably and completely relaxed with the A/C pumping? I feel a bit sorry for the poor guys cramped into the Lotus 340R.
Stop 22. Our coast-to-coast adventure climaxes in a 57-mile sprint to the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills.
With all the fury of Pamplona's real running bulls, the cacophony of cars rushes to the two nearest freeways heading west. The problem is it's near rush hour, Friday night in Los Angeles, where a snail's pace is usually considered good progress. Most head north to catch the typically less traveled 210. We decide to jump on the I-10 further south, which, though busier, is more direct. The finish will be decided by simple math. You take the high road and we'll take the low road. About 15 minutes in, we slow abruptly to a crawl. Claus places a call to Tove, who took the other route (that should have been our clue). As it turns out, twenty cars or more are already beyond the halfway point. Claus refuses to give in. "No one knows the back roads of Beverly Hills better than me," he says through clenched teeth.
We pull off the freeway and swiftly, albeit cautiously, wind our way to the hotel. "It's normally a 20- or 30-minute drive from the freeway exit to the hotel," he says confidently. "This shortcut will get us there in 10." Zipping down Santa Monica toward Wilshire Boulevard, the hotel drops into sight. Claus makes a final sprint into the parking lot and we arrive within minutes of the leader, just six cars back.
The collective feeling of completing a coast-to-coast race of nearly 4000 miles is overwhelming. In celebration, the lead car begins a series of donuts in the parking lot, eventually engulfing the area in a giant cloud of smoke. The rest of the cars enter the fray and Bullrun finishes in one big, jubilant, smoky, champagne-spraying celebration. The party goes on until the very last car crosses the finish line. Of the 100 entrants that started, fewer than 65 finish, and we end up in the top ten. Not bad for the first time out.
The festivities carry over to the awards ceremony held at yet another popular night spot, this time the remodeled Social Hollywood. To no one's surprise, this year's overall event winner was Tove Christensen in his tuned 996 Turbo, which we later learn was equipped with an extra fuel cell. He will no doubt return next year with even further mods. So shall we.
Brabus CLS55 K8
If Darth Vader drove to work
Bullrun 2006 was, in retrospect, a veritable smorgasbord for car freaks. Examples of virtually every desirable modern car-and some not so modern-could be found here. Some of the more notable entries included a Lotus 340R, not one but two Spyker C8 Spyders, a Ford GT, a Mosler MT900S, a RUF Yellowbird, a 996 GT3 RS, a 1958 Studebaker Commander, and a (reportedly) 1000-bhp Mallett Corvette Z06.
Forget about all of them. Our favorite car is the one we drove: a Brabus-tuned CLS55 entered by Claus Ettensberger Corporation. In factory form, the CLS55 AMG is an inspired machine; the Brabus enhancements make it that much more so. The original CLS flaunts an elegant design, but imbued with the subtle Brabus exterior treatments, its presence becomes downright predatory. Come screaming up on slow-moving left-lane traffic and cars will literally dive out of your way. It's almost like being instantaneously transported to a German autobahn.
Exterior treatments include a Rocket front bumper (identical to that on Brabus' biturbo V12, 730-bhp Rocket CLS) side skirts and a rear diffuser with LED ground illumination, and a rear trunklid lip spoiler. Brabus Monoblock S lightweight forged wheels, blackout taillamps and wraparound window tinting complete the package.
The 20-inch wheels are strung with Michelin Pilot Sport 2s, and honestly, we can't say enough good stuff about them. The ultra-high performance Michelins perform flawlessly throughout the week, weathering 3800-plus miles of extreme abuse, including impromptu burnout displays and track sessions at various local venues (the above sequence was snapped in the middle of the week, with 2000 or more miles left to go).
Engine tuning comprises new software, a new exhaust and a mysterious bit of supercharger tweaking. The Brabus was by no means the fastest car on the rally, but it is hellishly fast. Lifting from full throttle at around 80 mph will snap your head forward nearly as violently as burying the throttle on a standing start snaps it back. That's testament to some serious forward thrust.
Consider this. At the SRCA drag strip in Great Bend, Kansas, the K8 ran a low ET of 12.7 seconds; two-tenths faster than a certain Spyker's best run, and faster than most cars that elected to run the quarter-mile. The only cars I saw with lower times were one of the 911 Turbos and the Mosler. The latter ran just under 11 seconds with no air conditioning and carbon wheels that may as well have been suspended on bricks.
This Brabus, on the other hand, had air-conditioned seats with active lateral bolsters, a Harman Kardon stereo, exceptional ergonomics, and an exemplary ride quality at both low and high speeds, borne from a venerable luxury heritage.So you can have your Lambos, your Ferraris, your Spykers and your over-glorified racecars-for-the-street. I'll take a Brabus K8, thanks (in black, of course). -Karl Funke
Brabus CLS55 K8
Longitudinal front engine, rear-wheel drive
5.5-liter V8, sohc, three valves per cylinder, supercharged and intercooled, Brabus supercharger pulleys, software and sport exhaust
Brabus electronic lowering module
Cross-drilled AMG assemblies
*Wheels and Tires
Brabus Monoblock S, 9x20 (f) 10.5x20 (r)Michelin Pilot Sport 2 255/30 (f), 295/25 (r)
Brabus Rocket front bumper, side skirts, rear diffuser, trunklid spoiler
Brabus sport steering wheel and seat upholstery, illuminated doorsill plates, door lock pins
Peak Power: 550 bhp
Peak Torque: 572 lb-ft
0-60mph: 4.4 sec. (est.)
Top Speed: 199 mph