A First-Timer Runs the Copperstate 1000 in a Borrowed Car

Photography by Otis Blank for Petrolicious

I stumbled upon the world of road rallies when I was much younger. The first event that really caught my attention was the Gumball 3000. At that time, I was all about those fantastically obnoxious modern exotics flying through whatever highways on whatever continent of the world. As I grew older and my taste in cars shifted to the more classic and less ostentatious, I became aware of the Copperstate 1000 Rally. The Copperstate 1000 isn’t a rally for your stereotypical playboy or heiress, it’s a rally for the driver.

The Copperstate is a bit like the Mille Miglia, but with less pressure. There are no rewards or advantages to getting anywhere before anyone else. Copperstate is about enjoying and appreciating the drive without the worry of any sort of timing.

The start of the rally, from Tempe Diablo Stadium's baseball field, is always exciting; getting to see, hear, and smell all the amazing vehicles pouring from the stadium is a treat for the senses. This year though, rather than just seeing the send off as in years before, I would be among the drivers taking part. I was generously loaned a stunning 1966 Mercedes-Benz 230SL by my friend Keith (who is no stranger to Petrolicious) for the journey, which fit right in with the rest of the cars. I really couldn't have asked for a better way to run my first Copperstate.

I was immediately in the thick of it, surrounded by classics valued well into the six (and sometimes seven) figure range, many of which could be shown at Pebble Beach and some that probably had been. I was filled with a great feeling of excitement knowing that this was only the beginning of a four day adventure. We left the greater Phoenix area, and as the roads opened up we were given the first real opportunity to stretch our car’s legs. The group that I found myself running with included two Mercedes 300SLs, one was a rare alloy bodied Gullwing, the other a beautiful white roadster. Also with us were a number of vintage Italian cars and a Shelby or two, all of which maintained a steady and brisk pace as we made our way southwest from Phoenix. I had always been aware that cars like 300SLs and Ferrari 330s were incredibly capable for their time, but I didn’t realize how at home they were on modern roads at modern speeds. Even the adorable little Pagoda SL I was piloting was handling the highway speeds with poise, eating up the road’s imperfections while still communicating just the right amount of road feel through the classic Nardi wheel.

The first stop on Day 1 was for lunch in Sells, Arizona where we enjoyed prickly pear glazed grilled chicken sandwiches and other regionally inspired options. Our large group of classics caused a small stir among the locals coming through to do their regular shopping at the adjacent supermarket. Cars like these are a rare treat when found anywhere in the world but in a small town like Sells they really brought out a lot of smiles and excitement from anyone lucky enough to happen upon them.

After lunch it was time to run up Kitt Peak, the site of one of the best observatories in the world. The twelve mile winding mountain route that brought us to the peak was the first though certainly not the last time we’d be seeing tight twisting roads. The SL’s penchant for remaining at least partially luxurious became obvious with the body roll it exhibited through some of the slower turns. That certainly isn’t to say that it wasn’t an excellent drive, however. As I was finding out, the little W113 makes a perfect daily driver classic.

After grabbing refreshments it was time to head to our home for the night, Tubac, Arizona, with a quick stop at the famous San Xavier mission. I made much of the journey in good company with a 1936 Cord 810 Westchester which seemed to have no trouble maintaining a good pace down the two-lane highway we were on. As we all started arriving in Tubac, our drives for the day completed, out came the drink cart and conversation. Seeing just about every parking spot at our resort filled by one of the rally cars was a surreal and beautiful experience, especially as the sun began to set.

Day 2 started with a spectacular drive to lunch in historic Bisbee via Nogales and Ft. Huachuca. Once a popular tourist destination, Nogales sits right on the border of the United States and Mexico. I couldn’t tell you what it's like though, as I took a wrong turn and missed Nogales all together! After enjoying another seventy miles of desert roadways we arrived at Ft. Huachuca, a US Army installation. I had never been in an area like that before, it basically seemed like a normal small suburban town but with very high security and a number of weapons testing ranges.

After leaving the fort we made our way to the Copper Queen Hotel in Bisbee for lunch. The vibe there was much different than that of Huachuca. Bisbee is much older and has a greater sense of freedom brought probably due to the general artsiness of the downtown area now known as Old Bisbee (and the lack of high-tech security and surveillance systems). Bisbee was a mining town from the late 1800s well into the 1900s. In the '70s it underwent a renaissance as an artist’s haven and still thrives with a small population of less than 6000 people.

After wrapping up in Bisbee we were off to yet another historical Arizona town, Tombstone. Tombstone is well known for its former silver riches and the classic story of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. The town, while modernized to a certain degree, still has a very old west feel to it. On mainstreet you’re likely to find a horse and carriage and a few cowboys walking around, as we did. One of the local police officers (known as a Marshall in Tombstone) patrolled in a Hummer H1, which somehow didn’t seem at all out of place in such an old fashioned town.

The following day, after touring an aircraft museum, we made our way towards Mt. Lemmon through Tucson. Tucson is generally awful for driving, as it's very spread out and lacks a central (read: useful) highway/freeway system, but it is home to one of the greatest roads on this side of the state, Catalina Highway. Catalina Highway is twenty-five miles of turns and scenery up Mt. Lemmon, leading to the small town of Summerhaven. Having driven the road many times in my years in Tucson, getting to go up with all the incredible cars from the rally was a fantastic experience. Some of the cars struggled to make it up the nearly 7000 feet of elevation change, I recall one sputtering outright as it was rolling in to the checkpoint parking lot (to a round of applause).

The last day of the rally was an easy drive north back to the Phoenix area for the finish line. Our drive took us through many of Arizona’s smaller towns like Mammoth, Oracle, and a slightly-less-small town called Globe. 150 miles and a couple of overheated rally cars later, we ended up at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum. A question I heard more than once was “what’s an Arboretum?” Turns out it’s a botanical garden with a focus on woody plants, a great place to eat our lunch for the last day of the rally.

The final leg of the journey was a quick 70 mile drive to the finish line in North Phoenix where anyone who wanted to could get the 1000 miles worth of bug splats and dirt washed off their well exercised vehicles. Reaching the end of the rally was bittersweet. On one hand, I was pretty worn out from 4 days of driving. On the other, it would be a whole year before I might have the chance to do it all again. After an excellent dinner and awards ceremony, we viewed a slideshow of photos from the journey. It was a great way to wrap up four of the most enjoyable days I’ve had. With the gorgeous scenery of the southwest, the incredible assortment of fascinating and beautiful automobiles, and the excellent company of a group of like-minded and good-natured individuals, the Copperstate 1000 is easily one of the best ways you can spend time behind the wheel.