Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet—it’s one of the most iconic taglines in the history of automotive advertising. The TV commercials with this jingle were both popular and award-winning. The campaign was so successful Chevy used it from 1975 to 1978. Like “See The USA In Your Chevrolet” from the 1950s and ’60s, generations of enthusiasts can still sing along to it decades after the commercials disappeared from the airwaves.
Is it karma or just destiny that I love all four of the elements touted in the song? As my waistline would indicate, I love a good hot dog and warm apple pie. I memorize opening day of the baseball season with a zeal that should probably be reserved for my wedding anniversary. As for the Chevrolet part, well, there’s no denying my love affair with the Bow Tie. I’ve owned plenty of them, gone into hock for quite a few, and let my passion for them dictate a few serious life decisions.
Before the 2013 baseball season started, I had seen major league games in no less than 32 stadiums—yes, that’s two more than there are actual teams—and my goal is ultimately to go to them all. Many of my all-time favorites are gone (Tiger Stadium, Shea Stadium, and Memorial Stadium among them), but some of the new ones are every bit their equal—or better (Baltimore’s Camden Yards tops this list). I’ve been to All-Star games, pennant clinchers and World Series’ tilts, plus hundreds of regular season offerings from coast to coast and from San Diego to Montreal.
My 14-year-old son, Sam, has the same affinity for baseball I do, and he’s getting sucked into automotive addiction as he gets closer to his driver’s license. Earlier this year, I knocked Marlins Park in Miami and the new Busch Stadium in St. Louis off my list, bringing the total to 34. As the summer drew to a close, I noticed on a map that if you start in Detroit and head south on I-75, there are no less than four major league parks between there and Tampa/St. Pete: Comerica Park in Detroit, Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, Turner Field in Atlanta, and Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. With the mid-August introduction of the ’14 Corvette just a week away in Monterey, California, Sam noticed that if we started in Detroit on Labor Day weekend, we could knock off a game in each park (and he’d only miss one day of school).
Given the potential father-son bonding experience and my scheming to score us a C7, I couldn’t wait to pitch the concept to the powers that be at General Motors. My contact at Chevrolet loved the idea, but didn’t have a ’14 Vette that needed to be in South Florida just yet. “What about a 2014 Camaro ZL1 convertible?”
Does a bear shift in the woods? Detroit, here we come!
Days 1 & 2: Detroit
Once we landed in the Motor City, I made a call and quicker than you could say “Al Kaline” our chariot appeared curbside at the airport. Covered in sinister Ashen Gray paint with a charcoal black interior and black top, it burbled through the dual mode exhaust, which is open when the car is idling. Inside, we were greeted by an odometer that read a hair over 400 miles and an automatic transmission with Tap Shift function. Sam had a look in his eyes that only a teenage boy could muster, but I can’t say mine was much different.
It was early when we checked into our hotel and our first game (Indians-Tigers) didn’t start for a few hours, so there was only one thing to do: Make a pilgrimage to the former site of Tiger Stadium. Sam was not ready for the devastation that is much of Detroit. Abandoned buildings, empty lots where businesses used to stand, potholes the size of swimming pools. It was depressing.
“It’s worse than I thought it would be,” Sam said. “It’s really sad.”
Still, a group of volunteers comes to the corner of Michigan and Trumbull to tend what used to be the field in one of baseball’s original cathedrals. You can dig in at home plate and fantasize you are Ty Cobb. The flagpole still flies Old Glory in deep centerfield and the Olde English “D” is painted (and maintained) in the outfield grass. There’s one gate still standing and one other good omen: The old “Corktown” neighborhood is seeing signs of renovation—baby steps perhaps, but steps forward nonetheless.
After watching the Tigers crush the Indians 10-5 Saturday night, we were up early the next morning to meet photographer (and native Detroiter) Mike Y. He positioned the car in some great locations—as you can see from the photos. While I wondered aloud if we could shoot in certain places sans permits and Sam was shocked by our guerilla tactics, Mike assured me, “As long as there’s not a dead body or gunshots involved, the cops pretty much look the other way. They’ve got too much else on their plates.”
Sam and I were then off to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn. The neighboring town might be home to Brand X and the name of the museum might suggest otherwise, but this is a can’t-miss place if you’re in the area. Where else can you sit in the Rosa Parks bus and see the chair in which Abraham Lincoln was sitting when he was assassinated? It’s got locomotives, steam engines, and a DC3 hanging from the ceiling, not to mention some of the most amazing automobiles—of all makes, including Chevrolets—ever made.
Next up: Cincinnati. The state police in Ohio keep check on speeders with what can only be described as religious zeal, ergo we never ventured far from the posted limit on I-75. Maybe it was the holiday weekend, but they were picking off motorists left and right. Glad I wasn’t one of them.
As we approached the Queen City, we saw exit signs for the town of Norwood. This used to be a Chevy town. Millions of GM’s finest rolled off the assembly line at the Norwood Assembly Plant from 1923-1987, everything from brass era cars to Impalas to Novas and Camaros. The legacy of this plant is complex. For some it was a sign of the greatness of GM; for others it will be forever stigmatized by labor troubles that at one point led to the destruction of 1,100 partially finished ’72 Camaros, abandoned by striking workers. By the time the strike was over, the cars had to be crushed because they could not be turned into ‘73s.
That enormous facility (which also included a Fisher Body plant) is all but gone today. I did some Internet research, but it seems like there’s little left but a loading ramp and a couple of parking garages that are now part of an office complex.
We can say this about the ZL1: Top up or down, it’s a spectacular highway cruiser. Keep the adjustable suspension in the Tour mode and the shifter in “D” and it’s as comfy as a Cadillac CTS. Punch the throttle, however, and it knocks you back in the spectacular sport bucket seats. Lift and it goes back to something your grandmother could drive. When you find a road you like, however, twist the knob to Sport and pull the shifter into the Manual mode. Then the ZL1’s true personality emerges: Rock and roll animal. Its tires claw at the road while the 580-horse LSA tries to turn the expensive Goodyear Supercar tires into clouds of acrid smoke. We learned more about the car’s Mr. Hyde personality after Monday’s game at Great American Ballpark. It was an epic NL Central fight between two playoff-bound rivals, with the Reds getting the edge on this Labor Day, 7-2.
Cincy To Georgia
Gotta say, Great American is a beautiful yard, right on the banks of the Ohio River. It’s immaculate, colorful, and there doesn’t seem to be a bad seat in the house. Good hot dogs, too! It replaced Riverfront Stadium, one of the old circular multipurpose sports stadiums that have almost all been knocked down. From our seats behind home plate you could see the river and Kentucky on the other side.
After we departed, some of the more entertaining parts of our ride happened. Not long after we entered Kentucky after the game, we exited I-75 after filling the Camaro’s fuel tank (again!) and hopped on Route 25, also known as the Dixie Highway. This road runs parallel to the Interstate, but through scenic countryside. Once we cleared traffic, we were treated to lots of switchbacks, roller coaster ups-and-downs, blind corners—it was just a fun driver’s road, especially with the top down. Eventually, some rains came so we pulled over, put up the lined canvas top, and made our way back to the interstate. We had a lot of mileage to cover if we wanted to get close to Atlanta that night.
About that fuel economy—or lack thereof. The 6L80E-equipped F-body with a supercharged powerplant is a thirsty beast. It’s EPA-rated at 12 mpg city, 18 highway and that’s about what we got. With a heavy foot we were able to get about 18.5 mpg at cruising speeds of 80, but in the city it’s like there’s a hole in the tank. Twelve mpg is what we saw around town. Even babying it didn’t really help.
What was great about this leg of the trip was that I-75 through Kentucky and Tennessee was like the American Autobahn. Everyone around me was cruising at 85-90 mph and police presence was next to zero—who am I to argue? I tried to blend in. Unlike the interstates in most places, there were some actually some curves in the road as it wound through the hills.
Entering Tennessee reminded me a lot of crossing the Delaware Water Gap in from west New Jersey into Pennsylvania. It was quite beautiful. Eventually we got into Georgia. Not much to see here. We called it a night at around 10:30 in Cartersville.
Atlanta To Tampa
With a night game ahead of us, we were able to sleep in. We grabbed a quick breakfast at the Mickey D’s, then head out on the road again. With not a lot on the schedule, we tried sightseeing: Stone Mountain Park and the world’s largest high relief sculpture. Think Mount Rushmore as a memorial to the Confederate States of America and the men who served it during the Civil War. More than 400 feet above the ground, it measures 90x190-feet and is recessed 42 feet into the mountain. It depicts President Jefferson Davis and Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. The project began in 1923 and wasn’t completely finished until 1972. It’s quite remarkable, but probably never would get done in this politically correct age.
After this we were off to Atlanta. We stopped at Turner Field to buy tickets. The parking lot sat on the site of the old Fulton County Stadium, and we were able to pose for pictures at the location marked where Henry Aaron’s 715th home run landed. We dined at the Hard Rock Café downtown, then headed back to the yard for the game. People were a little shocked to see two guys in Mets attire—we were enemy territory for sure—but their barbs were all in good fun and the verbal jousting never got heated. To tell the truth, the folks in the seats around us loved hearing about our baseball journey and were happy to take pictures of us for our scrapbook. Baseball fans are good people.
Naturally, the Mets wasted a good pitching performance by leaving their bats in New York—a familiar story for them in ’13. On the plus side, I knocked off park number 36 (12 for Sam). Turner Field is a nice enough place, but it couldn’t compare to Comerica or Great American Ballpark. It was a little too big and lacked the intimacy of the other two stadiums. On the plus side, there was a Hot Wheels Edition Camaro convertible on display. Its $51,100 stick price was a lot more appealing than the $66,630 of our test ZL1, though still a lot of cabbage.
Even though Turner Field is built right next to I-75, it took nearly an hour to get out of the parking lot. There was plenty of traffic for about an hour after that, but once that cleared I kicked in the afterburners. The Camaro’s excellent GPS/infotainment system said we’d be getting home around 5:45. Ouch. Taking full advantage of the ZL1’s dual nature, we pulled in the driveway at 4:45. Fueled by sugar-free NOS and the Camaro’s magnificent road manners, I never felt like I was nodding off. This is one hell of a fine automobile and it help facilitate one of the great father-son bonding experiences ever. These are memories that we’ll have forever and you can’t put a price tag on that.
The big question was would we take in a game at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, home of the Tampa Bay Rays. I wish I could say yes, but we’d been there a couple of times already this season and this trip had already cost me enough. It would have been anti-climatic. We watched them on TV from the comfort of our couch. In keeping with our theme, I celebrated with some apple pie-flavored moonshine. Tastes great and it’s less filling than the sugar-laden dessert.
Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and ZL1, indeed.