The Road to Indy
On the old highway maps of America, the main routes were red and the back roads blue. Now even the colors are changing. But in those brevities just before dawn and a little after dusk-times neither day nor night-the old roads return to the sky some of its color. Then, in truth, they carry a mysterious cast of blue, and that’s the time when the pull of the blue highway is strongest, when the open road is a beckoning, a strangeness, a place where a man can lose himself." – William Least-Heat Moon.
Working I-85 north on the seventh anniversary of 9/11, the leaden sky hangs low above us, the clouds so swollen with rain, they might burst at any moment. Mist fills the air. Turning onto the secondary roads that will take us to Indianapolis, the land we travel through seems as if it is in mourning. Hand-painted signs of commemoration punctuate the dull, colorless countryside. The ground is saturated to the point of overflow from the last day’s rain.
With tour leader Bill Kniegge up front on point, I am hunkered down behind the fairing of my Suzuki V-Strom and cannot shake the sense of melancholy that invades my soul. Small towns seem lost and lonely in the fog. Splashing along the cold, wet road, I couldn’t feel farther from Least-Heat Moon’s magical highways.
As Falston becomes Casar, and Golden gives way to Marion, the weather starts to clear over these small mountain towns and the sun starts poking through the gloom. My mood begins to change. With thoughts of the upcoming MotoGP round at Indianapolis Motor Speedway burning off the mental fog, and Kniegge picking up the pace on the rapidly drying roads, the first bursts of sunshine remove the mist-shrouded chrysalis that has wrapped our world for the past few hours.
Green fields stretch lazily away to wooden barns on the horizon, farm animals graze, and the ribbon of road dissecting the farmland that will accompany us through Middle America is delightfully smooth. Firing us into a long series of technical bends, before swooping over minor rises and down dips into small valleys, the tour has begun.
Kniegge’s a lifer-the sort of motorcyclist who just cannot quit. From the time he was an 11-year-old boy in the ’50s sitting on his Uncle’s BMW, to leading tours in his home state of North Carolina a half-century later, he has been on or around two wheels. With a vision to conduct luxury tours in the beautiful state of North Carolina that he has adopted as home, Blue Strada Tours and the VIP Red Bull Indianapolis GP tour are natural extensions of this dream.
A short hop west on Interstate 40 pulls us up through the Pisgah Forest, over Black Mountain, and leads to the two-lane that takes us to the mountain town of Marshall for lunch. Here, Kniegge has an added treat for us; we are joined by 1989 AMA Superbike Champion Jamie James. Living not far from Marshall, who better to sit and chat with about the upcoming race as we eat? With historic Marshall offering some warm sunshine after our cold, wet start, it gives us an opportunity to stretch our legs a little after lunch and enjoy this quirky town.
Full bellies and mountain charm could have easily sabotaged our afternoon ride, had Kniegge not saddled us up and led us north through Tennessee and into Virginia on the most challenging of roads. Following every contour and curve of the landscape, it gives our small team a chance to find a comfortable pace. Riding with the father-son team of Mike and Tim Ogles from California and North Carolina resident Rich Lubbers, our group moves easily together.
Passing through small towns, economic hardships are evident. Too many small businesses are closed, working limited hours, or up for sale. The Lonesome Pine Trading Post has fallen victim to circumstances, and we miss our chance to go Frog Giggin, one of the many activities and curiosities that had once been offered along this route.
By now, we were closing in on the Cumberland Gap, and Kniegge heads us west toward Kentucky. Deep in the Appalachian Mountains, we work our way through Daniel Boone country as we pass a number of small towns and, finally, Cumberland Gap Village, which boasts a population of 204. No time to stop as we cross I-75, I take a quick, deep breath to celebrate not being stuck with the commuting herds, and dive into the next set of divine bends running through the countryside.
Finally, we call a halt in Somerset with close to 400 miles on the tripmeter. We easily find the Doolin House, our accommodation for the night, and head in for a drink. A fully rehabilitated Manor House modeled on an 1850s home, it is owned and operated by professional chefs Charles and Allison Sobieck. Responsible for tightening a few sets of riding pants with their fabulous cuisine, we enjoyed a private dinner on site, with more of the same for breakfast.
Fueled by strong coffee and a sun-filled morning’s enthusiasm, we pick up the Daniel Boone Parkway west, before hopping onto some more curvy, lightly trafficked state roads. The sky is growing heavier with clouds as we pass tobacco barns and corn silos. After a quick break, we cross an old metal bridge that takes us across the Ohio River and into our next state.
The terrain has flattened significantly and all signs of blue sky have abandoned us. With the rain holding off, we ride into the small historic Indianan town of Corydon for lunch. Blue Strada Tours has done its homework, and we are soon inhaling the most delicious white bean chili at Magdalena’s as the grand tour continues. Strolling for a while after lunch, the historic town center makes for a perfect break and a chance to meet a few of the locals, who seemed very interested in the small group of motorcycle travelers passing through.
Working north, it is corn and tobacco for as far as the eye can see. The road runs straight through the middle of farmland for the next few hours. After pausing in Medora at the longest covered bridge in America, we pick up the pace some as we enter the great Indiana Hill country of Brown County.
Throwing long series of challenging curves at us, we positively fly by the cornfields, enjoying the chance to put the V-Stroms through their paces for a while. These tight, nimble machines have an upright riding position that has comfortably carried us along. Sitting tall provides great visibility, and the wide bars allow matching maneuverability as we perform our own Indy GP for a time.
Waiting to make a turn in the one-horse town of Story, a chance look left from Kniegge spots the Story Inn, and the spirit of curiosity leads us to an unscheduled stop. Finding the rusted structure packed to the gunnels with memorabilia, and a staff willing to share the building and town’s fascinating history with us, we had a cold drink while we listened. Kniegge plans to add in a night here on future tours, as it is just too interesting a place to ride by. It’s not on our agenda today, though, as Indy calls.
We saddle up and make our last miles to the Mecca of Motorsports. Thankfully, the rain holds off as the first part of our pilgrimage ends at the beautifully restored Hampton Inn and base camp for our MotoGP weekend operations. There, we meet Kniegge and his lovely wife Debbie in the lobby for transport to Dunaway’s Palazzo.
This fantastic five-star restaurant in the restored Indiana Oxygen building is an old haunt of Kniegge’s, and we do a little celebrity spotting over our fabulous cuisine. Owned and operated by chef Jeff Dunaway, we re-ride our route over dinner as the excitement builds for the spectacle awaiting us at The Brickyard.
Awaking to find the streets packed with motorcycles, the mood is friendly and there are no riders out saving lives with their exhaust pipes as we board the Red Bull charter bus to the Speedway. Credentials in hand, there are no lines for our group as we are whisked through town to the track and a full day of activities.
A private tour of the track museum is followed by lunch at the Red Bull energy station, just 50 feet from the practicing MotoGP bikes in turn 10. Feeling as if we could reach out and offer our racing heroes a sandwich, there is nothing like the smell of spent race fuel and a cold Red Bull in hand for raising the adrenaline level to new highs.
Under kind skies, we watch the American boys show the world a thing or two, and marvel at the incredible cornering speeds of the 250s. We enjoy listening to the music of the big four-strokes coming off the throttle, then lighting the rear tires up as power is reapplied.
Finding ourselves at the lively Claddagh Irish Pub for an early dinner, it is time to catch our breath. Quickly re-energized, we follow Kniegge out to the Fairgrounds for dirt track racing at the world famous Lucas Oil Indy Mile. We have prime seating on the inside of turn one, and enjoy the AMA Pro Flat Track Grand National battle up close and personal. The gladiators roar sideways at seemingly insane speeds, inches from the metal barrier, and inches from each other. The unmuffled V-twins roar late into the night as the energetic crowd cheers them on and we are hoarse from shouting at each other in excitement.
No coffee was needed to get us moving onto the Red Bull bus the morning of the race. The weathermen are predicting gloom and doom, but living in the bliss of race day denial, we enjoy a lightning ride through the crowds with our police escort.
Back at the energy station, it’s game-on before we know it, and under the most threatening of skies the battle commences. Racing through the seemingly impenetrable spray, the battle wages right in front of our eyes. Nicky Hayden keeps the dream alive lap after lap before we see the God of motorcycle racing himself, Valentino Rossi, make the pass that puts him in the history book as winner of the inaugural Red Bull Indianapolis GP.
With the race ending as the wind and rain came down in howling torrents, we make our way back to the bus. A quiet evening at P.F. Chang’s means rubbing shoulders with the race teams, and an opportunity to relive a day that is forever burnt into our motorcycling souls.
Home is calling as we saddle up into a clear but cool morning. There is the constant threat of rain as we drop south of the Ohio River and the pervasive damage from yesterday’s storm tells us we are lucky to be traveling today. Oldenburg becomes Peppertown before Batesville and Hubble’s Corner disappear in our mirrors. A bellyful of authentic Mexican cuisine carries us south for the afternoon as the ride returns us to the Cumberland Gap Village.
Hitting US 421, the sun is hanging low over the surrounding mountains, painting the hillsides and farm buildings with rich golden color. It will be a while before the light on the highway fades to blue. By then, we will be settled in at the fabulous, historic Old Mill Inn. In the saddle of the Suzuki V-Strom, swinging through the bends with my newfound friends for company, Bill Kniegge’s Blue Strada Tours has breathed new life into Least Heat Moon’s words with his extraordinary tour through the heart of America to the Indianapolis GP.