Steve Nash and Paul Williams quickly become firm friends
Steve Nash and Paul Williams quickly become firm friends. Click image to enlarge

Article and photos by Paul Williams

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Photo Gallery: Dash for Nash

Phoenix, Arizona – According to the navigation system in our Inferno Red 2006 Dodge Charger SRT8, the trip from Los Angeles, California to Phoenix, Arizona should take five hours and fifty minutes. That doesn’t take into account the phenomenon that is Route 91 East, through Riverside, California. Fourteen lanes of nightmare traffic, it’s an endless procession in slow motion that could have been conjured up by Rod Serling as a Twilight Zone interpretation of hell. Where are they all going? Who knows? When will it end? Maybe never. The same volume of vehicles is heading west into LA, as is heading east out of it. Scan some stations on the radio, and incidents of road rage are the hot topic. Better not hit the horn.

And man, my left leg was dying on me.

That’s because I wasn’t driving the Charger SRT8 with its automatic transmission that purists typically criticize. Oh, no, I chose the dark blue Ford Shelby GT500 convertible, with its six-speed manual and beefcake clutch. First, second, first, second, first, second, for miles and miles and miles.

The Dash for Nash had met its match: Los Angeles traffic: you’ve heard about it, but you can’t imagine it. This is not the natural venue for two fast cars whose drivers are heading to Arizona for the big game between the Phoenix Suns and Toronto Raptors.

2007 Ford Shelby GT500 and 2006 Dodge Charger SRT-8
2007 Ford Shelby GT500 and 2006 Dodge Charger SRT-8
2007 Ford Shelby GT500 and 2006 Dodge Charger SRT-8. Click image to enlarge

My colleague, Michael Bettencourt of the Globe and Mail newspaper, was leading the way in the Charger SRT8. He had the nav system, and the directions to our as-yet unseen hotel in downtown Phoenix ($109 per night seemed suspiciously low for a downtown hotel). From my vantage point behind it, the SRT8 is a very tidy-looking car, with its fat tires, meaningful spoiler and big dual exhaust. Every once in a while, Michael would put his foot down and you could hear the roar of the 425 horsepower Hemi V8 trying to unshackle the car from the tight confines of surrounding vehicles. But gaps almost instantly closed, because just as nature abhors a vacuum, space between cars in LA traffic is regarded by the locals as simply “unused road,” and it lasts for microseconds.

With so many cars on the road, you get a good look at Californians’ wheels of choice. Many were customized, presumably to create some kind of individuality in this ocean of automobiles. In Canada, you might think the SRT8 looks a little brash, a little “in your face.” But it’s all relative. Here in California, a customized apple-green Charger with tinted windows and 22-inch gold chrome wheels darted in and out of the traffic for a while, and it made the stock SRT8 look positively conservative.

2007 Ford Shelby GT500
2006 Dodge Charger SRT-8
2007 Ford Shelby GT500 (top) and 2006 Dodge Charger SRT-8. Click image to enlarge

The Ford Shelby GT500, on the other hand, isn’t shy about its appearance at all. Dual heat extractors adorn the hood, under which you’ll find a 5.4-litre, supercharged V8 making 500 horsepower and 480 pounds-feet of torque. The front fascia looks like some predator baring its teeth, 18-inch Y-spoked alloy wheels flash in the sun, and a Cobra adorns the trunk lid, prefaced by the word “SHELBY” in big capital letters. People noticed this car.

No disrespect to Mr. Shelby, but this GT500 is a fully realized design, its visual elements looking at once integrated and purposeful.

Fortunately, gridlock does eventually go away, as the highway changes to Route 10 East, through Palm Springs and into the desert beyond. At night, Orion glows like a beacon, his belt pointing straight up and down, towards Phoenix.

2007 Ford Shelby GT500
2007 Ford Shelby GT500. Click image to enlarge

Now you can turn the electronics off and navigate by the stars. The speed limit on Route 10 is 75 miles per hour, but our modern hot rods were loafing along at 85, sometimes nudging 90, eating up the miles as we blasted by the big trucks that mostly populate this road.

As you might expect, acceleration comes easy in the SRT8 and GT500, and the world of high-speed cruising truly is their domain. The V8s emit a soft rumble and both cars feel completely stable at speed. The SRT8 is the more comfortable car to drive. The seats are a bit more forgiving, the automatic transmission demands nothing of you, visibility is good front and rear, the radio is vastly simpler to use that the Ford’s Shaker 500 (although both feature Sirius satellite radio) and wind noise is minimal. Undulations in the road are taken in stride, even though the SRT8 wears big 20-inch rims that you think might translate into a harsh driving experience.

Top, Michael Bettencourt, uh, really, really likes the Shelby GT500; sadly, his Raptors couldn’t pull out a win against the Phoenix Suns. Click image to enlarge

In contrast, the Shelby GT500 readily amplifies road imperfections and transfers them through to the driver. The seat is very firm, visibility is restricted front and rear (due to the huge hood bulge and low header rail, and small rear window in the convertible top), although the large rear view mirrors are appreciated. The radio is a pain to use (strange, because Ford has always offered very good audio controls). Unlike the extra touches, like contrasting stitching, found in the SRT8 interior, the Shelby GT500’s interior is unexpectedly plain. Wind noise is evident at higher speeds.

That being said, it’s the Shelby GT500 that attracts the crowds. Park it anywhere, and people arrive, knowing full well what it is. True, the Charger has been on the market for a while, but the Shelby is today’s star.

And speaking of stars, as I was saying to Steve Nash this morning (he and
I quickly became friends; well, maybe not friends. Okay, he doesn’t
actually know me), “So what do you think about cars? Not too much, it turns out. He has a Mercedes-Benz SL55 in his garage, “gathering dust,” and favours a Toyota Prius.

Morris Peterson (Mo Pete) of the Toronto Raptors
Morris Peterson (Mo Pete) of the Toronto Raptors. Click image to enlarge

Next time, we’ll bring hybrids, rather than hot rods. The Toronto Raptors’ Morris Peterson, however, is all about horsepower, and team mate Kris Humphries is looking for a classic Chevelle with a 454 cubic inch V8.

But we’ve brought fast cars as an homage to the fast Phoenix Suns, even though Mr. Bettencourt is clearly conflicted by his support for the Raptors. Tuesday night’s game is an opportunity for the Suns to extend its fourteen-game winning streak, and break the team’s all-time record for consecutive wins. The Raptors, after winning three in a row, are looking good, and won’t be underestimated by Suns coach Brian D’Antoni But they have a challenge against the Suns at the best of times, and will suffer without the injured Chris Bosh.

Unfortunately for the Toronto Raptors, they couldn’t prevail against the
superior Suns, now possessing a 15-game win streak. Final score: Suns 115,
Raptors 98.

Up next: our trip back to Los Angeles along the old Route 66.


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