Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Final Assault on Navy Pier

I am back in Birmingham. On the drive home yesterday and at work today I thought about what I would say about the final day of the trip. I decided instead of getting philosophical about the trip I would just lay out the challenges, decisions, and fate of the last day.

The background is as follows. This trip was not a pushover no brainer trip at all. It took months of preparation. But because we were relying on web sites for CNG filling locations that may or may not be accurate we were taking a leap of faith that all the stations would be there when we needed them. They were not. Did we build in a safty net? Yes we did. Not only did we have the 30 gallon capacity in the Chevy pickup truck to refuel the GTO, we also stashed an identical setup of tanks in the front of the trailer that matched the GTO configuration of a 9 gallon and a 7 gallon dual tank. These were intended to not be touched and were a fail safe if plan A did not work. Little did I know what was in store for these duplicate fueling tanks.

First let me divulge that the trip was not as smooth as it appeared from the fun Tweets and Facebook posts. In Gallup, New Mexico the GTO basically baked its battery. We pulled off to refuel from the CNG Hummer's 50 gallon capacity and the ignition switch would not even turn the car over. The battery was dead. Not only that, it was almost too hot to pickup out of the car. The cells were completely dry. It was a 5 year old battery, but that was not the failure point. A new battery purchase and the GTO cranked just fine. We thought we were home free. But of course thats when we discovered the CNG Fusion had a slow leaking front right tire. The only place in sight was Bozo's Garage. Yes, from the name you can tell it was an experience. But one of the best experiences I have ever had at a locally owned garage. Bozo, his nickname, had his chief mechanic take the tire off and locate the puncture. Of course it was in the sidewall. This tire had already been plugged by my good friend Mark at Goodyear in Birmingham. So now the tire could not be helped since it was in the sidewall and a new tire had to be purchased. Bozo had one "1" tire left my size. Thank goodness. I quickly agreed and while it was being mounted Bozo talked about all of the hot rods and muscle cars he had in his Route 66 museum in Gallup. We had just left the museum so the memories of purple 70 Road Runners and Gremlin X's were fresh in my mind. He took us to see a current project which was a panel van custom hot rod painted John Deere Green. It was a fantastic work in project. Bozo gave me a great deal on the tire and we asked him to look at the CNG GTO. It was Bozo who noticed that the brand new battery had acid on top. He told us immediately that the voltage regulator was overcharging. Thanks Bozo, again. When we got to Tulsa, it measured 19 volts output. That is far over the 13.6 necessary to keep the battery charged. Tom Sewell fixed that regulator for us. Thanks Tom.

So you see that the mechanical and fueling on this trip was no cakewalk. Now with that mindset in place, when we got to Tulsa OK, we thought that the long stretches of wasteland and lack of fueling stops were behind us. I relaxed and so did Mark. Mark had pulled a heroic overnight drive from Flagstaff down to Phoenix to refuel the pickup truck tanks to bridge Flagstaff. We didnt think it could get any worse. Our new friends from Salt Lake City, John and Steven Mitton, provided a crucial fillup of CNG from the CNG Beast of a Hummer in Gallup NM. Randy Oldham provided a critical transfer in Amarillo and provided access to a private Apache CNG station that the general public would not have had. With all of this going for us we relaxed. Then the panic set in. From Tulsa to St. Louis, it became apparent that we were short AGAIN. Jack Mitchell with assistance from Mark McConvilles dad got a head start on the GTO and drove the refueling truck to St Louis, refueled and headed back to meet the GTO wherever it ran out. That trick got us to St Louis.

At our breakfast meeting on July 4th the reality set in. A critical filling station in Springfield that was in operation when we made our plans was NO LONGER IN SERVICE. It was on our planned map at but was gone from What happened? We found out from Tom Sewell that the station was there but not being used. Our hopes of finishing the last day of the trip were dashed. I heard Mark tell Libby that she could go ahead and get ready to turn around and head back to Birmingham. I was sitting there in a tired kind of shock thinking about what we did wrong. How could we face everyone that helped us make it that close if we failed? What can we do outside the box to save the trip? Mark has a tremendous network of friends because of this. He was on the phone constantly. It was Sunday. It was July the 4th. We had enough real life data on hand to calculate that even if we had access to a public CNG filling station that a full fullup of every tank would not make it for us. Then Mark announced that someone with Laclede Gas Company was waiting at their pumps to fill us up. That would get us tantalizing close to Chicago, but still not enough.

When the CNG pumps fillup your tank, they check the pressure and the temperature. The pumps do a calculation and fill your tanks to a "safe" level allowing for expansion. This practically means that on our 16 gallon GTO tanks, we would get about 12 gallons of usable fuel.
But Tom Shultz at Laclede made something magic happen. He called his chief CNG mechanic Lee at 7 am on Sunday July 4th and asked him to come in and help us. Thats insane. Lee agreed. And with him came the knowledge and experience that we never dreamed of. He filled every one of the 6 tanks we had on the trip to exactly capacity. He overrode the automatic calculation and if the container said it held 9 gallons, then 9 gallons it got. It was the first time these tanks had ever been filled over 70% of their rated capacity. Of course it was completely safe to fill them to 3600 psi. We had been to the factory and witnessed pressure tests of 8000 psi.

And with that stroke of genius, we had a hope of making it to Navy Pier. We made it to Pontiac IL that night on the CNG in the GTO tank and one refuel from the pickup. EVERYONE we knew discouraged us from going to Navy Pier on July 4th night because of the 2 million people watching 3 fireworks shows. We held back and woke up early Monday morning July 5th for the final assault on Chicago. It was almost ritualistic the refueling that morning. We took every scrap we had learned about CNG and put it in work. The final refueling. Thirty miles from the finish line. The GTO had lost an oil ring either on the drive up from St Louis or with the celebratory triple donut after getting slammed tanks in St Louis and was smoking heavily out of the left tailpipe only. So we poured in a bottle of Bardhal Smoke Stop. And we began the ritual of the cascade fill. If you dont know what it is, look it up. We filled the GTO off the first tank in the pickup till it whined like a really high pitched baby. We shut it down with 1500 psi. We filled off the other pickup tank and it squeeled up to 1750 psi. Then to the trailer. The 9 gallon tank that was maxed out barely squeezed in another bit to get us to 1900 psi. Finally the 7 gallon small tank to top off the ritual. It almost got us to 2000 psi. Whew, it felt good to have that to make it into Chicago.

Mark and I rode the last 30 miles together in the car. We got off 55 North and turned north on Lakeshore. When we passed Jackson Street we both were relieved to know that technically we had driven the whole way. But we promised Navy Pier. It was up ahead. There was no fanfare like in Arcadia OK with AP and the TV stations. Because of the last minute change and near calamity of not having fuel, we didn't have time to arrange press. Thanks to the Fourth of July hangovers, there were no fireworks spectators in sight and we rolled right into the front gate, and parked the GTO in a gated driveway 25 yards from the security guard shack. We had no permits or paperwork. We were just there. The caravan was parked and we bailed out with cameras snapping that wonderful moment of success. I have some video and so does Libby with her video camera but we have not downloaded it yet. The Birmingham news is covering us with an update on Friday July 9th. The journy of 9 planning months and 2400 un-airconditioned miles was done. We made over a hundred serious new friends on the road. We spread the word about CNG and the potential future for a better America. But the real question is, did we inspire anyone?

No comments:

Post a Comment