Saturday, July 19, 2008

Dutch Mandel Remembers Lessons of Being a Chapter President

Dutch Mandel--How does AutoWeek celebrate a half-century birthday?
We visit the place of our conception, toast with Colt 45 and eat fried pickles. Perfect!
By DUTCH MANDEL

There are more than a few schools of thought when it comes to party planning and execution. I know this from my well-financed college tenure as president of the Oregon Gamma chapter, Sigma Phi Epsilon (now defunct). That was where we held the first--and still champion--Jim Jones Kool-Aid Blow Out and Mixer.

No one said it had to be in good taste, just that it taste good. It did.

Of course, this kind of adolescent whimsy would not do for the magazine's 50th-anniversary celebration. We are professionals, after all, with a two-hour window of opportunity and no Everclear, clean garbage cans or coeds, we had to be creative.

Besides, we had corporate responsibility tugging at our collective conscience.So we loaded about seven cars--among them our long-term Chrysler minivan ("the Norge"), a Lincoln MKX and a Lotus Elise piloted by news editor Bob Gritzinger--and off we schlepped on a road trip.

Road trips are cool. They're invigorating and cathartic. And when you don't exactly know where you're going, it makes the adventure even more exciting.

I did know our destinations, as I had to play Ponce de León. The first stop was the inner-city Detroit address where Don Stewart and Thomas Sawantek, two local advertising executives, had started Competition Press-The Twice Monthly Journal of Motor Sports.

Were it not for this special occasion, I don't reckon I would have found myself on this bit of real estate. But there it was, hallowed and hollow, as the address (gleaned from that first issue of Comp Press) is now just a vacant lot.

You should have seen us all arrive at the spot and leap from the cars. Now, I will put our staff up against any other in the business; all are sharp, entertaining and charming (in a certain car-geek kind of way). When there are 20-some-odd number climbing from seven cars, it becomes a blur. I cannot imagine what the neighbors, lounging on porches in the late morning and the rising heat and humidity, must have thought. A ragtag group if there ever was one.

We had to wait for Digital Dale to show up. He had three or four of us held hostage as he played chauffeur. The good news is that he did show and brought a chilled brown bag of Colt 45. Obviously, he didn't want to raise suspicion.

So the question: Do we pull a Dan Gurney and spray beer like Formula One champagne, and in so doing watch our neighbors weep? Or do we pass the bag as though we're at a wake, each taking a sip that would not elicit a blip from a breathalyzer.We went with the latter. Everyone shared the chilled brew until it was gone, and I said a few words. It was not the way you'd mark too many occasions, but it was somehow appropriate.

Eddie's Drive-In. Roller-skating waitresses and fried pickles.Where do the fried pickles come in? Well, we had to have lunch, didn't we? We were in these cars, and a road trip is not complete without the full effect. That was achieved by going to Eddie's Drive-In on Jefferson Avenue in Harrison Township, Michigan, a local eatery where the waitresses work on roller skates to serve you better. (It is one of the hot-rod hangouts on a summer's evening.)

Let me just say that if you haven't had the barbecued pulled-pork sandwich, a Vernor's ginger-ale float and fried pickles on the side, you haven't lived. And you haven't been a candidate for a coronary bypass, either. Heart-smart and tasty!We all had a great time, including Gritz in the Lotus. Of course, he was so low to the pavement, with the window tray for his food so high off the ground, that he would ask passersby to hand him some food.