Roads To Moscow
"Welcome to the evil empire," he said thrusting out his hand to greet me. The routine is pretty much the same at almost any airport: get off the plane, go through passport control, find your bags, go through customs, etc. In my case, the script was slightly altered. I had an invite from Porsche to come to Moscow for the start of the Transsyberia Rally, and Russia, being the former USSR, meant getting a visa. One of those quickie turnaround passport and visa services was suggested and I should be set to go. Well, almost. My bag was checked through from LAX to Moscow via Frankfurt. I handed over my passport with the funky attachment and was told by a stern-faced man in a uniform, "Sorry, this date is not correct, you can't board this flight, please step over there." Uh oh, das is not good. A rather animated conversation took place, however there was no question that a hat trick of stupidity had taken place-the Russian consulate entered the wrong entry and exit dates, the visa service didn't bother checking before returning my passport, and I wrongly assumed all was fine with the world. A call to Fred Hammond, PCNA's outside PR flak in Moscow, was met with annoyance and then resignation over the events and he told me to get there when I could. A stroll over to the Lufthansa ticket counter to change my ticket was reasonable. The next problem was all I had was my backpack and a business class kit that consisted of basically a toothbrush, eyeshades, and a comb since my luggage was on the way to Russia. Hearing that news, off I was to the rent-a-car counter to sample whatever small diesel was in vogue for the week and visit some racing friends near Stuttgart. The rate of exchange shock hit hard at the cost for a couple of plain T-shirts. Whatever happened to the romance of the old European currency?
Flying into Russia conjures up images of the spy novels of the Cold War, Moscow has always been some sort of unattainable goal for military strategists and for years it has been mostly unattainable for tourists. With the activity well underway for the rally, I was the last on the list to arrive and the individual holding the sign with my name misspelled was anxious to get out of the airport and on the road to the heart of Moscow. His car was fairly well used and he kept the conversation going through broken English and his batch of Beatles CDs, including, of course, "Back in the USSR," which he figured correctly that I would want to hear. The crawl began soon enough, since it was evident through all parts of the Moscow area that the rush from communism to limited capitalism has its limits. Far too many cars for an already overburdened system. The party boys at the Kremlin obviously never envisioned this scenario. All of the stories of how expensive Moscow is are true, but for reasons that are against conventional western wisdom. If St. Petersburg is all about the museums and tourism, Moscow is all about business and making the deal. The mix of automotive culture on the road is either old or brand-new, no middle ground. I saw very few Audi A4s but more A6 and A8 models than anywhere else outside of Ingolstadt. Bentley of Moscow does a heady business; new BMW product competes head-on with Mercedes-Benz for supremacy around Red Square. Advertising and hype is a by-product of our culture. Russia, being a new "country" of 16 years, is now blanketed by western companies desperately seeking consumers. Outside my hotel room window was a breathtaking view of Red Square and the Kremlin, but to the right was a huge banner for BMW that featured three fullsize cars mounted as if on a slot car track. I found it nauseating; it didn't have the style that Andr Citron displayed when he lit up the Eiffel Tower. Lenin's tomb now faces Chanel, Hermes, Dior, etc., but where are the Russians? To find them, I went out to their version of a drive-in swap meet miles away from the center of town. Mostly trash and trinkets, a lot of surplus Soviet military gear (I passed on an AK-47), and those wooden Nutcracker-style dolls that are available now with NASCAR drivers, John Lennon, and Scooby Doo. They were out of Stalin but had Vladimir Ilitch. I'm thinking of going back and starting up RUSCAR as a legit national racing series. No shortage of paint swappin' drivers back in the former USSR.