POSTED ON JUNE 23, 2010:
On the Open Mother Road
McConville and Barfield prepare to make green journey on Route 66
Pit Stop on the Way. Along the more than 2,000 mile road trip, A 1966 GTO, refitted and powered by a CNG-burning engine, will carry Mark McConville and his friend Keith Barfield more than 2,000 miles including a stop in Tulsa on July 2 before heading to the final destination in Chicago on Independence Day.
With his planned epic drive across Route 66 in a compressed natural gas vehicle quickly approaching, Mark McConville indicated last week he was experiencing the normal pre-vacation jitters.
"I have a little bit of anxiousness," he said via phone from Birmingham, Ala., where he runs an airport shuttle service. "On one side, I have some angst, because I'm not sure I have all my ducks in a row. But on the other side, I'm feeling like, 'Man, I've been waiting for this.'"
McConville and his friend Keith Barfield plan on making history with their so-called "Drive to Inspire," a nine-day, 2,200-mile excursion in McConville's 1966 GTO that he recently refitted with a CNG-burning engine. If they are successful, they will be the first motorists to ever cover the length of the legendary Mother Road in a vehicle that didn't burn a drop of petroleum.
They'll leave the Santa Monica Pier in California on Saturday, June 26, and plan on pulling into Chicago on the Fourth of July after driving approximately 300 miles a day. They'll be making stops in cities and towns along the way, encouraging Americans to use CNG and other alternative fuels in an effort to break the country's dependence on foreign oil.
McConville and Barfield are due in Tulsa on Friday, July 2 and will be holding a press conference at 10:30am at the Blue Dome at East 2nd Street and Elgin Avenue. The event will be led by Tulsa author Michael Wallis, co-director of the Route 66 Alliance, a new national organization based in Tulsa that works to promote and preserve the historic roadway.
It certainly hasn't been an easy trip to put together, McConville said, likening the task to herding cats. Even last week, he said, there remained huge gaps in his map of CNG refueling stations along the trip -- mostly between Flagstaff, Ariz., and Albuquerque, and again from Albuquerque to Elk City. The GTO will have a range of only about 150 miles before it needs to be refueled, meaning McConville and Barfield will have to have some help if they don't want to find themselves stranded by the side of the road.
Fortunately, McConville said, that help has materialized as their plans have drawn media attention, including a feature on Wired.com. A man from St. George, Utah, has agreed to meet the GTO in Kingman, Ariz., with a CNG refueling truck, while Tom Sewell, president of Tulsa Gas Technologies -- a local firm that offers CNG dispensers, parts and service -- has offered to do the same if the vehicle runs dry somewhere on this leg of the trip.
"I've built probably 80 percent of the (CNG) stations across the state, so we need to support this guy," said Sewell, who has told McConville he'll meet him with fuel anywhere between Amarillo and Springfield if he needs to.
Other companies have offered their help, as well. McConville said executives at Bridgestone tires saw the Wired.com article and offered to outfit his GTO with their new green-friendly EP100 tires, as well as the services of their retail establishments along the way, if needed.
Clean Energy Fuels, a Seal Beach, Calif.-based company founded by T. Boone Pickens that is North America's largest provider of CNG and liquefied natural gas, has offered McConville and Barfield free CNG at its fueling stations in Santa Monica, Barstow, Calif., and Henderson, Nev.
And Oklahoma's Chesapeake Energy is sponsoring a celebration of the trip at Arcadia's Pops restaurant, a Route 66 landmark just outside Oklahoma City, at 6pm on Thursday, July 1.
McConville is among those who have recently come to embrace the use of CNG as an automobile fuel. He has converted part of his fleet of Airport Express vans to run on it, and his main purpose in making the trip is to promote its use to Americans all along the roadway.
"I hope we can educate some people, convince some people to get involved in alternative fuels," he said.
He has acknowledged that the 1966 GTO is not the most fuel-efficient vehicle in which to be trying something like this. The car is a CNG-dedicated vehicle, with no gasoline backup system in place. It has two cylinders that hold a total of 14 gallons between them, and it gets only about 10 miles per gallon, leaving little -- if any -- margin between fill-ups.
But McConville views the vehicle as a quintessential muscle car, and a trip across half of America on Route 66 just wouldn't be the same in some pint-sized, fuel-efficient model, he said. McConville knows that if he hopes to change the way Americans think about alternative fuels, it won't hurt to capture their imagination first.
"I would like to put a face on (the alternative fuels movement) and give it a real grassroots feel," he told Urban Tulsa Weekly in December.
That grassroots feel likely will be enhanced by McConville's choice of Route 66 as his conduit. Wallis and the other leaders of the Route 66 Alliance were already at work on a plan to reinvent the highway as an alternative fuels-friendly road when they learned of McConville's trip. Now, they're all working together to get their message out.
"I've just volunteered my services from the Route 66 Alliance to help them out," Wallis said, adding that the event in Tulsa will feature a question-and-answer session, along with local dignitaries and other CNG enthusiasts. "It will be mostly to have the GTO in the flesh there and allow them to give their impassioned pitch for alternative fuels. Certainly, that's going to be what I'm talking about."
The Tulsa event is being put together by local architect Lauren Wagner, another recent convert to alternative fuels. She said she and her husband just bought a Honda Civic that runs on CNG. When she learned of McConville's plans, she decided to get involved.
"I'm a Tulsa native, and I've always been interested in Route 66," she said. "The combination of those things just got us excited."
Sewell is another Tulsan who is excited about the possibilities, though he's been a longtime proponent of CNG. He believes it makes more sense than ever, given the environmental and economic disaster that has unfolded in the Gulf of Mexico this summer. And he points out that CNG has been selling for $1.45 a gallon since Dec. 1, with the price expected to drop even further in July.
"We need to be on a domestic fuel, whatever it is," he said, adding that he's seen more interest in natural gas throughout the past two years than he did in the first 18 years he was in business. "Inherently, natural gas is clean. And that's what I'm a big pusher of."
Sewell's company at 4809 S. 101st E. Ave. will be playing host to a meeting of Tulsa Clean Cities at 11:30am on Thursday, June 24, a gathering of clean energy proponents that is being put together by the Indian Nations Council of Governments. He said anyone interested in attending can make a reservation by calling INCOG, which will be serving a box lunch.
McConville and Barfield won't be traveling alone. Their families -- "A sort of green Joad family," as Wallis described them jokingly -- will be tagging along in several chase vehicles, including a 2007 Chevrolet Silverado pickup that also runs on CNG. It will be driven by McConville's father-in-law, and the vehicle will be towing a 50-foot white trailer that is destined to serve a political purpose.
"I'll have a box of Sharpies, and we'll be letting everybody write something on it (related to alternative fuels)," McConville said, adding that he hopes to eventually haul the trailer to Washington, D.C., and park it as close to the Capitol as he can to get the attention of members of Congress.
McConville said the trip will be documented by a film crew out of Florida, and he'll be posting daily updates on the team's progress on his Web site at route66goatgas.com. He's also had conversations with officials at CNN about the network covering the excursion.
All the momentum the trip has been generating has got McConville itching to finally get on the road. He hopes those he meets along the way are willing to give his message about alternative fuels careful consideration, but his primary goal is a little more simple.
"I have to be careful about my expectations," he said. "Selfishly, I just want my family and I to have a great vacation."
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