On The Road

ON THE ROAD: Saying Goodbye to the DI Sprinter

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Every time I head to Florida in the wintertime, I’m always reminded of the first time I ever drove the DI Sprinter on Daytona Beach. I was halfway expecting to sink up to the axles, but still, I couldn’t resist the urge to see what driving alongside the ocean in a giant cargo van felt like! Thankfully, it didn’t sink and I’ve actually driven it on the beach several times since then.

As I ponder all the miles traveled and memorable experiences I’ve encountered in this vehicle, it is with mixed emotions that I announce that the famous DI Sprinter will be retired and replaced with a newer model in early 2018.

As far as cargo vans go, the DI Sprinter is kind of iconic and very well-known around the track. People always seem amused when they learn that we actually acquired this beloved vehicle by way of an eBay transaction in late 2009! This particular Sprinter van was originally sold new at a dealership in New Jersey, when it was purchased by an upstate New York company who used it to haul drums of chemicals. After they retired it from their fleet, a car dealership acquired it and listed it online via eBay. After the auction had ended – with yours truly being the winning bidder – I flew to Albany, New York, and drove the Sprinter home to North Carolina, where it has resided ever since.

The motivation for us to acquire a high-roof cargo van was because we thought it would make a practical vehicle to haul a golf cart, pack boxes of magazines and t-shirts, and also “get noticed” as I travel the country in an earnest attempt to visit every single operational drag strip in America, and while I’ve no doubt pulled through the gates of many tracks, I’ve really only scratched the surface of what’s out there in this great land of ours.

Before the Sprinter visited a single track, though, the first place we took it was to Chuck Chapman’s paint shop, where Chuck sprayed the eye-catching design dreamed up by Eddie Hollon. Amazingly, Chuck lives only a few miles across town from me, so he was the obvious choice when it came time to commission a world-class painter for the Sprinter, and he did an amazing job.

It made its debut a short time later at the Greensboro Coliseum during the annual Shriner’s Drag Racing and Hot Rod expo in January. My local Farmington Dragway was the first drag strip I took the Sprinter, while the first major trek I ever embarked upon began late on a Tuesday when I left for Baytown, Texas, for an ADRL race, as my wife stood at the door and waved me off when I began the 15-plus-hour journey. I remember thinking, “OK, now this is a serious trip!” The Sprinter did fine and got me there and back in about seven days round trip.

Thankfully, it would be years before it ever broke down on me, but even then it was inevitable…you simply can’t stay gone 170-plus days a year and not experience mechanical problems. As it turned out, the Sprinter had a bad habit of breaking serpentine belts, and would render me stranded until AAA could arrive with a roll back. Amazingly, I experienced only one flat tire in all the miles I drove it. Never did I encounter any serious engine trouble, and the original transmission and rear end are both still intact.

I’ve seen a whole lot of the country in that vehicle, and in stark contrast to cruising alongside the ocean, I’ve also driven it through downtown Brooklyn, New York, as I journeyed to visit my beloved Yankee relatives after an event at Englishtown. I’ve saluted the Washington Monument from the interstate, and even humorously shouted “Yo, Adrian!” as I slowly drove past the statue of Rocky Balboa, which is located a short distance from the famous “Rocky Steps” on Spring Garden Street in Philadelphia.

Best I can tell, I’ve driven that vehicle through 30 states…and that repeatedly! I’ve pondered a few dreams as the sun slipped out of sight while driving through Oklahoma and Kansas on warm summer nights with the windows rolled down. I even discovered my love of watching Greyhounds race in my travels a few years ago, when I stopped in Cross Lanes, West Virginia, after seeing a sign on the interstate advertising Greyhound racing. The DI Sprinter finally began to show its age in 2015, when it famously stranded me three times that year! I seriously thought AAA was going to cancel my policy, and I strongly considered trading vehicles that year. I kept on driving it, though, and it’s actually been pretty reliable in the years that followed.

It’s amazing how many inquisitive looks and “thumbs up” I’ve gotten, and even people I met away from the track who wanted to subscribe to DI! I’ve actually sold magazine subscriptions to people I’ve met at Waffle Houses, gas stations, motels and rest areas. I walked out of a McDonalds once and found a note left on the Sprinter from someone wanting to renew their subscription!

My favorite unscripted subscription sale happened late one night when I was driving through Georgia and this guy pulls up beside me at a stop light. “You going to Lights Out?” he asked from his car. “You know it!” I bellowed back. He told me he was headed there too, and said he would look me up because he wanted to subscribe. I said, “Why wait…let’s do it now!” We both started laughing as we pulled off the road and into a Burger King parking lot at 11 o’clock at night, where I signed him up for a 1-year subscription – and signed up his passenger! I saw the guy in Orlando years later and he asked me if I remembered selling him a subscription late one night in Georgia. I excitedly replied, “That was you!?” We had another good laugh about it and I was pleased to hear that he’s still enjoying the magazine.

I’ve truly gathered some fond memories in my travels, and all the while there was the DI Sprinter not too far away. It had 181,000 miles on it the first time I ever cranked it. At the conclusion of the 2017 season, the odometer showed just over 439,000. On the very last race of the 2017 season, wouldn’t you know it…the Sprinter stranded me in Florida. I was grounded four days while I awaited parts, but even then it wasn’t a complete disaster since the nice folks at LeBelle Dodge gave me the keys to an awesome loaner Ram truck, so I drove over to nearby Bonita Springs and watched some Greyhounds race – twice! By the time all the parts had come in to fix the Sprinter, I had regrettably missed half the Snowbirds at Bradenton, but I did manage to arrive mid-day on Saturday to close out the 2017 race season. I came home and promptly put the DI Sprinter up for sale.

It’s been a good one, but she’s ready for greener pastures. Meanwhile, I’ll be ready to hit the ground running in late January, because there’s so many cross-country trips I still want to take, as well as intriguing drag strips I fully intend on exploring. Here’s to 2018 and all the wonderment that’s sure to follow. Hope to see you there!

This column originally appeared in DI #129, the Champions Issue, in January of 2018.

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