For years now, I’ve wanted to attend the Hot Rod Power Tour and display the now iconic ‘Long Haul Gang’ sticker across the back window of my project car.
Alas, my project car didn’t make it this year, but I did.
2019 year marks the 25th anniversary of the event… show… road trip… whatever you want to call it. It’s hard to define because there isn’t anything else like it. At least not on this scale.
Power Tour started as an idea by the editors of Hot Rod magazine in 1995. The magazine called it, “a cross-country high-performance drive from Los Angeles to Norwalk, Ohio.” Starting on the rooftop parking lot at the Petersen Automotive Museum in LA, a total of eight editors and publishers met in their project cars. Sixteen vehicles that made the journey the first year, the other eight being loyal fans of the magazine. No vendors, no sponsors, and no rules.
These humble beginnings snow-balled into a seven-day, seven-city trip spanning over 1,500 miles, with over 100,000 spectators and 6,000 cars taking part. There’s only one major common theme: drive your car.
Power Tour should not be confused with Hot Rod magazine’s Drag Week (see our recent piece on an Unlimited class winner and Drag Week record setter), but this event is similar in that the traveling show goes to a new venue every day, strictly on backroads and definitely no trailering your car. We did catch one RV driver who was trailering their hot rod, but they hid their rig off-site.
There are no restrictions on make or model either. We saw some performance late-model imports and minivans and compacts with ‘Power Tour Backup Plan’ written on their rear glass.
That freedom creates a unique dynamic. There’s no arrival time on any of the days and you also don’t have to do the entire tour; many new arrivals met up mid-route at gas stations and intersections.
Charlotte, North Carolina is NASCAR country, the home to many of the Cup teams and a slew of drag racers. Adjacent to the Speedway is zMax Dragway, a four-wide track on par with the most upscale venues in the country.
The first day starts early with gates opening at 9:00am (the rest of the stops start around 11:00am). We arrive to see a sea of cars beating us there; old guys in the South attend cars shows before sun-up.
There’s one line in, as photographers snap each car in front of the Power Tour banner. The track’s pits, which generally house NHRA participants, are luxurious with big open fresh asphalt and wide lanes.
The first lot houses VIP ticket holders, past that is the vendor area, and then the remaining participants stretch beyond the vendors to the end of the track.
The trek to the next venue begins in the morning. The suggested route from Charlotte, North Carolina to Martinsville, Virginia is far from a straight shot; it stretches 200 miles through the backroad country east of Greensboro, and then north into Danville.
The only roadside conveniences are mom-and-pop gas stations and mini-marts. These roads are very similar to those used for Drag Week, however, it’s not enforced like Drag Week.
We meet up with the tour on the side of Hwy 220 before a 30-mile stretch of rolling hills. The constant up and down enough to make you sick if not paying attention, but it’s far more entertaining than driving on the highway.
We catch a clean Fox Body Mustang followed by a pack of ’60s-era muscle car with a blue first-gen Camaro and a yellow Gone in 60 Seconds-esque Mustang (the original, not the Nicholas Cage remake).
We roll into the track, although this time there’s no drag strip. The Martinsville stop features no action, but the next couple days (Bristol Speedway and Kentucky Speedway) include laps on the track.
VIP cars are ushered onto the track, as one track worker tells me this is the first time Martinsville has done anything like this before.
The rolling hills beside the track turn from asphalt to grass and mud, but it’s hard to see any of it under the colorful array of cars. This area is usually reserved for NASCAR tailgating with beat-up trucks and vans; today it’s an array of brightly-colored hot rods covering the hills like a spilled bag of Skittles.
Our favorite out-of-place import is this elegant ’91 Miata. You might be thinking LS-swap, but this one’s actually powered by a small-block Ford. Built and driven by Terry Pearson of Indianapolis, the 302ci engine came from a ’94 Mustang GT and has since been rebuilt with performance heads and a FiTech EFI system. A T-5 transmission backs the 302.
The Mazda has run a 11.40-second ET at 120mph on the quarter mile, “just spinning the tires the whole way,” said Terry. “It’s not very good straight, but really good around corners.”
There’s a constant struggle to keep going on Power Tour. These guys came from Texas in their 1972 Buick with a 6.0L-LS swap and were experiencing vapor lock issues, which they believe were due to an overkill fuel pump. They found a smaller one on Craigslist and proceeded to swap it out in the parking lot.
Every year the stops change for Power Tour, and most participants attend multiple years. You may have even seen a ‘Long Haul’ sticker on a back window at your local car show. I only attended the first two days and returned to the garage to work on the car.
While I didn’t have my project car there this year, I’ll definitely be back in 2020 for my sticker.