Beyond the Piston Cup to the Main Street of America

by | Nov 16, 2017

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Leaving for this mega road trip to California proved to be more difficult than expected. Of course a 5000 mile road trip through the mother land would be a huge undertaking for anyone, plus the fact that my wife and I were out numbered by the kids 3-1. But we couldn’t even make it out of the driveway! We locked ourselves out of the car just after we locked up the house. Seriously? Stranded outside our own home without the keys to the van wasn’t a good way to get an early start. After calling in an emergency set of keys held by my father-in-law, we were finally on our way only to realize we left our phone chargers and had to make a U-turn. Arrrhhh! How we managed such a feat, could have only been coordinated by Uncle Murphy himself.

We figured that the first part of the trip would be tough because we were on a timetable for my presentation in Los Angeles, so we decided to drive as far as we could the first night. If we made good time, then we might be able to spend more time at unique sections of the Painted Desert/Petrified Forest National Park, such as the Rainbow Forest and Petrified Ruins.  There is lot to see and only a small amount of time, so lets get driving!

Lucky for us, we got all the worst weather out the way on the first day. Throughout Missouri, our radio was blasting one severe weather alert after another. The announcer seemed to rotate between her three favorite warning scripts: hail storms, tornado warnings, and high winds.


After blasting through Missouri and Oklahoma (I couldn’t sleep for more than an hour at the truck stops, so we pressed on) we finally arrived in Amarillo, Texas. We arrived just in time to catch Mass then grab some famous TexMex for breakfast and hit the road again.


Route 66 – Main Street of America

As we sailed through New Mexico on the open road, we soaked in the beautiful small towns of Route 66 and listened to podcasts about how the movie Cars brought new life to this almost forgotten roadway that defined American exceptionalism. Our constant search for new challenges, exploration, diversity, and adventure could be delivered through a new medium for the middle class family – the road trip. Yet, traveling on Rte 66 is more than just any road trip. Once it begins on Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, this Main Street of America crosses the rivers, plains, mountains, deserts, and canyons of eight states and several Native American reservations before ending on the Santa Monica Pier in SoCal, 2448 miles later.

Beyond the Piston Cup

The podcast we were listening to was an interview with Michael Wallis, a historian who consulted for the Pixar creative team to develop characters and sets for the movie that related to life and culture on the historic byway. In fact, Michael even became the voice of “Sheriff” in the movie. He explained how Radiator Springs, although fictional, related to many small towns on Route 66. If I had to pick one town it resembled the most on our trip, it would be Tucumcari, New Mexico. It had the neon signs, dated hotels, and even a mountain in the shape of a radiator cap!

Lets see if we figured out any other similarities between the movie and what we saw on the Mother Road.

The ill-behaved herd of tractors seen wandering through town and invading a store in Radiator Springs are a likely homage to the wild burros that roam along the Route 66 ghost town of Oatman, Arizona between Kingman and the California border. The animals are descendants of the burros once used in the gold mines there. The burros are definitely a tourist attraction unto themselves. We had to stop on the side of the road when we saw this unlikely foursome hanging out in the bush without a care in the world. Although they don’t make the “moo-ing” sounds of the tractors in the movie, the burros definitely made their presence known.


Lizzie’s Curio Shop in Radiator Springs resembles any one of the crazy gas station/mini-museums you see along the long sections of Route 66. They don’t sell gas any more, but you can find everything else from a jumble of memorabilia and knickknacks to rocks and bottle caps. 


Tow Mater, everyone’s favorite character in the movie, is played by Larry the Cable Guy and he’s a homage to the owners of Sandhills Curiousity Shop in Erick, Oklahoma who describe it as the “Redneck Capital of the World.” My opinion is that Tow Mater’s character pays homage to all the hard working Americans who wake up every morning to swing a hammer, wrench, or other tool to make a living. Below is a picture of the kids and I hanging out with Tow Mater’s cousin, Tow Tater?



In the movie, “Ornament Valley” is a reference to Monument Valley, in the far northern portion of the state, but you can pretty much see these monuments everywhere on varying scales. After we woke up one morning, we scaled this monument rock next to our campsite near Kingman, AZ.


Finally, when Sally and Lightning McQueen drive into the country along old Route 66, the forest road resembles the highways winding through the Kaibab National Forest west of Flagstaff, Ariz., and the twisting, turning road that leads to Oatman, Ariz. 


Unfortunately, our “exceptionalism” has also spurned the development of highway improvements that have replaced many of Route 66’s sections with four-lane interstate highways.  In fact, they even removed many traces of Route 66 signage, which guarantees you will easily miss all of this scenic byway, along with the small dinners, curious museums, and wild burros. Skip the fast food highway by picking up a Route 66 guide to get you off the humdrum of interstate travel, beyond the Piston Cup, and back to Main Street America.

Book Recommendations:

Route 66 Tom Snyder

Route 66: The Mother Road Michael Wallis

Full map and descriptions of the Cars characters and scenery found along Route 66


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