#RoadTripRewind: Rallying to Alaska in a '66 Mustang

Every two years, a group of cars and motorcycles embark on a long road rally, starting in the Seattle area and ending up in Fairbanks, Alaska. Known as the Alcan 5000, it alternates between a summer rally and a winter one. A friend of mine who signed up to do the summer Alcan 5000 (on a motorbike!) in 2018 convinced me to sign up too. It didn’t take much convincing, as driving to Alaska had long been on my bucket list.

Even better, there was a road rally class for vintage cars. I could run my favorite road trip machine, my ’66 Mustang, in the rally with other like-minded fools who eschewed smart Alaska-bound vehicle choices such as Subarus and Jeeps.

I signed up for the road rally in 2016 and had two years to prepare. When I interviewed for a different internal position at Ford at the beginning of 2018, the first thing I told my prospective boss was that I was going to be taking a month off of work for a trip, and that if that wasn’t okay, we could end the interview immediately. Luckily for me, he was cool with it.

After thrashing about preparing the car, with just three weeks to shakedown the car after a 5-speed transmission swap, I had to hit the road and headed west. I would not be shipping my car to Seattle – I was determined to drive it there and see some sights along the way.

I passed into Canada through Portal, North Dakota, and drove through Moosejaw and Calgary to arrive at Banff National Park. I did the touristy thing of hiking around Lake Louise and shooting pictures of the night sky, as well as non-touristy things such as replacing a broken speedometer cable and replacing the rear leaf springs on the car. Thank goodness for the U-Wrench in Calgary, where I was able to rent a lift by the hour, and The Mustang Shop, which had all of the replacement parts I needed.

From Banff National Park, I headed west, crossing the Canadian Rockies. I popped back into the States and headed to Seattle, where I picked up my codriver for the rally, who had flown in from Detroit.

The start of the Alcan 5000 was in Kirkland, Washington. The day of registration, I brought the Mustang to the starting hotel and got a chance to meet my competitors and see what they were driving.

I was not the only one there with a 60’s Ford. There was a beautiful robin’s egg blue Mercury Comet Caliente present, as well as a real-deal Shelby GT350H. The Mercury was well-prepped for over-the-road racing, with a roll cage, twin radio aerials on the rear fenders, a massive 30+ gallon fuel cell, and nearly all of the spares one could ever need for a small block Ford. The Shelby was previously a vintage road race car, now “converted” – massive air quotes necessary – to a road rally car; it still had stiff suspension and was slammed to the ground, and could wake up an entire city block with a crank of the key.

My stock Mustang was nothing special in the company of these two cars. Despite this, us three Ford teams instantly bonded, if nothing for the fact that we could help each other out when the time came.

Another car running vintage was a Triumph TR6, run by a father/son pair that also hailed from Detroit. The pops was also crazy like me and drove his car out instead of having it shipped. Rounding out the vintage class were a pair of classic Minis.

Also representing Ford were also two engineers, who were originally supposed to join us in the vintage class with their engine-swapped Jaguar. However, they didn’t finish their car, so they took a modern SUV to the rally instead. At least they made it to the start; a friend of mine and fellow Ford colleague had tried driving his ’35 Ford pickup from Detroit to Kirkland, only to run into engine problems in Wisconsin, aborting their rally start and nursing the truck back home.

Day 1 of the road rally didn’t go all that well. My codriver and I did fine for the first road rally stage, located south of the Canadian border. We ran into trouble on the transit to the second road rally stage, getting caught in a 1-hour backup at the border crossing. In order to make it to the second rally stage start on time, I tailed an insane Canadian local in a pickup truck towing an empty trailer, the two of us racing up and down the mountains at 80 mph while I nervously watched my temperature gauge. We made it to the rally stage start a mere four minutes before our out time; the adrenaline was rushing so hard that we then proceeded to absolutely botch the second rally stage anyway.

After a disastrous Day 2 where we were once again badly off the ideal time, my codriver and I switched places. He became the driver, and I took over navigation duties. We did much, much better on the rest of the road rally legs. If I had been navigating from the beginning, we could have avoided the fiascos that were the first two days and had an overall rally podium.

The road rally stages were short affairs on each day, with most of the time spent in transit from place to place. We drove north through British Columbia, with one of our overnight stops being the small town of Stewart. The two-lane road leading into Stewart cuts right through a mountain range. The Fords, Mercury, and Triumph had somehow bunched together during the transit section, and we were all racing to the day’s check-in as the sun slowly sank behind the mountains. It’s an experience I will never forget: three V8s and a straight six, exhaust notes echoing through the hills as headlights carved, like laser beams, through the slowly encroaching darkness. We stopped briefly at a glacier to take pictures, where I set up my tripod and took a group picture of the four cars and teams, before we hopped back in and raced to the overnight hotel. We were the last four teams to check in that day.

The rally continued north into the Yukon, with a stop in Watson Lake, home of the famous Sign Post Forest. As someone who had ordered both a front and a rear plate for his Michigan vehicle, I stopped by the Sign Post Forest during the overnight, removed the bug-splattered front plate from my Mustang, and used some spare trim screws I had stashed away in the trunk to fasten the license plate to a post in the Forest. If you spot a Michigan plate reading “SWNGN66” on your own trip to the Sign Post Forest, now you know how it got there.

My Mustang started giving me trouble by the time we had reached Teslin. We pulled into a gas station and filled her up, after which the car refused to start. While pondering my predicament, I decided to buy a Teslin sweatshirt from the gas station gift shop, the souvenir now an eternal reminder of exactly where I broke down. We push started the car, skipping the special rally control in Skagway, Alaska, and headed straight to Whitehorse.

We weren’t the only ones have issues with our old rides. One of the Minis had a transmission failure, resulting in the team abandoning their car and swapping to a rental car, with a plan to tow the Mini back home after the rally finished. The Shelby GT350H was having clutch issues, and the three Ford vehicles caravanned to Whitehorse and we promptly started wrenching upon arrival in the hotel parking lot.

Having had to fiddle with the manual clutch linkage in my Mustang for years before finally replacing it with a hydraulic setup during my transmission swap, I was more than familiar with its weaknesses. One of the linkage bushings had worn out, resulting in a lot of off-axis play, which resulted in the clutch linkage attempting to occupy the same space as the header when pushing the clutch pedal in. I grabbed a hammer and a long pry bar and started hammering away at the header to gain some clearance.

As I reached over the fender of the Shelby, I noticed that there were dozens of little pock marks where gravel thrown up from the front tire had impacted the fender from underneath and broken the paint on top. Then I realized that I was hammering away on a car that was worth more than my house. Still, better to see the world in your Shelby GT350H than to have it sit forlornly in the garage.

My spell was broken when another rallyist strode up and remarked, “Looks like you need a bigger hammer.” We got enough clearance after about 15 minutes of banging and prying.

Suddenly, my starter started working just fine when in the hotel parking lot. Unsure of what had “fixed” it, I took a hammer from my tool kit in the trunk and put it in the glovebox, just in case pounding on the starter was a workable fix for the next time the car failed to crank.

The rally continued north to Dawson City, where the city streets were dirt and the only way to cross the raging river next to it was a ferry. For a town that probably doesn’t typically see more than a dozen vehicles waiting to get across the river, it took nearly two hours for the single ferry to move all 100 rally and rally support vehicles across.

We crossed back into the United States at Little Gold, where we encountered some of the most enthusiastic and dedicated border agents I’ve ever seen. A sign next to the border dutifully notified us that the population of Little Gold at the time was 3.

I pulled into the line behind many of the other rallyists waiting for our turn to show our documents. Outside, a cold wind was blowing, with a heavy drizzle swirling around that made me very pleased that my old Mustang still had an excellent heater. They had one agent manning the single station window, and another agent outside checking documents too.

I was motioned to pull up to the agent standing outside in the miserable cold. I rolled my window down just a crack.

“Come on man,” said the border agent. “I’m out here, at least meet me halfway.”

I looked at him. Dressed in brown shorts, with a formerly pressed but now getting soaked light tan work shirt, a wide brimmed park ranger’s hat on his head, and a wide grin on his face, I couldn’t believe that someone dressed as such could look so upbeat in such terrible weather. He was right. I rolled my window all the way down.

Documents checked, we continued on, driving through the clouds in one of the most beautiful drives I’ve ever done in my life. We were driving along the spine of a massive ridge, with nothing but steep green slopes on either side of the narrow road. Occasionally, you’d see through a break in the clouds and the fog that you were in the middle of a seemingly never ending series of rolling green hills. If you wanted to make a dream sequence for a Hollywood blockbuster, it could very well look and feel like this.

We overnighted at Copper Center, using that as a springboard for driving out to one of the special rally controls, the isolated town of McCarthy. I filled the Mustang’s gas tank at Kenny Lake, hoping to top it off at Chitina, 30 miles up the road. Unfortunately for me, the lone gas pump at Chitina wasn’t working, so I had to make the 190 mile round trip between Kenny Lake and McCarthy on a single tank of gas. Not a problem in any modern car, but potentially a problem with an ancient carbureted V8 and a stock 16 gallon fuel tank.

The road to McCarthy from Chitina follows the path of the railroad that once connected McCarthy and Kennecott to the rest of the world. In fact, the road is simply gravel dumped on top of the railroad ties – that have been left in place! – after the rails were removed. Suffice to say, it’s a very bumpy and very rough ride.

We were the only classic car entry foolish enough to attempt a journey out to McCarthy. In an attempt to save as much fuel as possible, I decided to drive the McCarthy road with the transmission shifted into 5th gear, and tested the theory that if you drive fast enough, you can “skip” over the potholes and the ride won’t be as rough. The ride was still pretty rough. Imagine the worst pothole ridden stretch of Michigan road you can think of, drive 45 mph over it, and do that for a full hour and a half. It was hell on the car and hell on our spines. But I didn’t lose a tire or a wheel, and nothing in the suspension or steering broke or bent. Thank goodness for 14” wheels and very tall sidewall tires…

We made it to McCarthy, leaving the Mustang in the visitor lot and taking a shuttle bus up to see the ruins of the Kennecott Mines. After exploring for the better part of a day, we returned to the Mustang for another hour and a half of spine crushing punishment to return to smooth pavement.

On the way out, we found a white 15-passenger van and trailer laying on its side in a ditch. About a dozen people, thankfully unhurt, were waiting by the side of the road for help. I volunteered to pull their van out of the ditch, saying “I’ve got a V8.” They laughed and politely refused my offer.

Arriving back at the lodge in Copper Center, we were treated to an amazing night sky. Everywhere else around us was blanketed by clouds, yet miraculously, we had clear skies above, giving us a perfect view of the northern lights as they danced above a faraway mountain range.

I grabbed my camera and spent two hours photographing the aurora above the landscape. Suddenly, I was inspired to do a self-portrait with the northern lights, and I wanted my car to be in the picture. I ran back to my hotel room, grabbed the keys to the Mustang, and left the hotel parking lot, taking the Mustang into the rocky trails surrounding the lodge in search of a good place to take the photo.

I found a suitable place out in a forest clearing and set my camera up. I kept shooting for another 30 minutes before exhaustion finally took over and I had to retire for the night. We were still running a road rally, after all, and there were still rally stages that I had to be fully awake and prepared for.

From Copper Center, the rally continued on to Fairbanks. The final special rally checkpoint that I was absolutely determined to hit was the Arctic Circle sign 200 miles north of the city.

With a full tank of gas, we left Fairbanks and headed north on the Dalton Highway. As it was a 400-mile round trip, we absolutely had to get fuel at the Yukon River Camp, in between Fairbanks and the Arctic Circle. If we couldn’t get fuel there, we’d be stuck, with not enough fuel to get to and return from the Arctic Circle sign, or have enough fuel to return back to Fairbanks.

Naturally, right before we arrived, some dolt had accidentally ripped the gas nozzle from the pump. Some of the rally bikes had to wait around for the gas nozzle to be replaced, and it was replaced right before we arrived in the Mustang. Whew, we almost go stranded on the banks of the Yukon River!

Then we did get stranded. I decided to park the Mustang next to the oil pipeline and take a picture, after which the Mustang refused to start. Damn. No amount of hitting the starter with the hammer would get the starter to turn. Embarrassingly, I had to ask some tourists at the nearby ranger shack to help me push the car up the slight hill to level ground, then push start the car.

We continued on to the Arctic Circle sign, arriving there without any mishaps. Before shutting off the car, I made sure to point the car downhill so I could pop the clutch and start the car again. We took silly pictures at the sign and chatted it up with the other rallyists that made it there.

Before we left, me and my codriver took a group picture with the crazy motorbike friend that convinced us to go on this crazy adventure in the first place.

I drove the Mustang back to the Yukon River Camp, and without shutting the car off, filled the tank and continued on. I parked the car in the hotel parking lot, where it would not move for several hours, as I went back and forth between the parking lot and a local auto parts store trying to get the right replacement starter for the car. But I finally got a new starter in, and the car was ready to rock once more.

Rally over, my friends and I spent half a week camping and hiking in Denali National Park. Another quartet of friends flew in to Fairbanks to join us, resulting in a 7-person strong group, with three of us crammed into the Mustang, and the rest in a rental car. I booked campgrounds at the Teklanika RV campground, allowing us to drive directly into the park, which is otherwise not allowed. We spent a couple of days hiking and camping, finishing out the camping trip with a soak at the nearby Chena Hot Springs.

Everyone, save for two people, flew out from Fairbanks back home to the Lower 48. I handed the keys to the Mustang to my two Canadian friends, who then proceeded to spend another week and a half with the car, driving it back from Fairbanks to Detroit. After five weeks on the road, my Mustang finally pulled into my driveway, having added 10k miles to the odometer.

Check one item off the bucket list. It was an experience with friends and a beloved car that I will never forget.

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