’50 Philanthropists, 3 Charities, 1 Reason.” That is the tagline on the home page of the ELK Charity Challenge, a 7-day, 1,000-mile automotive adventure held last week.
The E L K in the event’s name is shorthand for Everyone Loves Kids, and the reason for the event was to help make a better life for children, primarily through those three charities but also by aiding a couple of local efforts in towns along the route.
Ah, the route: From Ventura, California, to Santa Barbara, then north to San Luis Obispo and up the coast, that spectacular coast, via the PCH to Monterey. Then inland, to Madera and up to Oakhurst and Fish Camp and the edges of Yosemite. And then back to Madera and north along the East Bay to wine country. From there, over the Golden Gate to San Francisco and then across the Bay Bridge to Oakland
But what I’ll remember most from my days on that route are those 50 or more participants, plus some of the locals we met along the way, because they were among the most-friendly, fascinating and generous people I’ve ever met.
I cannot mention everyone here, but I’ll start with Andy Stone because he was the one who invited me in the first place. He called me a couple months ago about the event and mentioned that it would benefit St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Texas EquuSearch and Shriners Hospitals for Children. I am able to walk because of the care I received at the Shriners Hospital in a Chicago suburb, first as a toddler receiving treatment for the congenital dislocation of my hips and later, as a sixth grader, when I became one of the oldest of children to develop Perthes disease in my left hip.
On the eve of ELK, Andy put together a memorable dinner table. Sharing the meal were 104-year-old Margaret Dunning, her friends and traveling companions Don and JoAnne Clements, Tom and Colette Souter, Buck Kamphausen, Josh Voss, Lori Gaskill, Phil Skinner and me.
Margaret, of course, was the matriarch of the classic car hobby. She grew up on a farm next door to Henry Ford’s farm. JoAnne’s grandparents lived on the farm across the road, and had hosted Henry Ford’s grandparents when they first arrived as Irish immigrants.
Tom is the well-known “Roundman” of television’s Car Chasers show which stars Tom and Colette’s son and daughter-in-law. Buck owns perhaps the largest commercial deep-water diving and funeral businesses in the country and was among the first to visit the Titanic in a submersible. He also owns a huge car collection, including the last of the Barris-built Batmobiles, which Josh, who was part of a Great Race team while still in high school, drove on parts of the rally while wearing a full Batman suit.
Lori is a story on her own: She’s a former off-road racer and mechanic and fabricator who for 17 years has been driving one of those huge orange Reliable trucks — usually accompanied by her dog, Buddy — and who is so good at that work that she often is assigned to carry the most valuable of vehicles, and frequently those with celebrity ownership.
Phil writes about and tracks classic car values for Kelley Blue Book. Andy is a key member (I think the ranking non-family member) of the leadership team at Leake Auction Company, one of the event’s sponsors.
The rally hasn’t even begun and I’ve already dined with a remarkable group of people!
I was supposed to be teamed in the rally with yet another larger-than-life character, “Cactus” Jack Gartley, but his health kept him in Phoenix. Then I was told I’d most likely be in a car with vintage racer Wes Abendroth, who was bringing his classic 1964 Pontiac GTO convertible for the drive.
Finally, however, I was paired with Tim Colceri, U.S. Marine Corps Vietnam veteran, former pro golfer and Braniff flight attendant, and long-time actor/comedian — Weeds, Babylon 5, Eraser, Who’s the Boss, Silk Stockings, and many more — best known for his role as the door gunner in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.
Tim, verbally and through gesture, and I, through the laptop keyboard, both can tell stories, but we were clueless when it came to solving the questions that would lead us to successfully complete the daily challenges, and thus earn points that would become dollars for Shriners Hospitals. For example, in Santa Barbara we never did “make your way to the world’s largest private holding of important original manuscripts & documents,” and instead of scoring bonus points for finding a particular railroad car we ended up in a farmer’s field miles off the route.
Fortunately, we were pretty much adopted by Nancy Sevenoaks and Audrey Young. Nancy is the daughter of classic car auction company founder Jim Leake Sr. Audrey is Nancy’s daughter and was on the rally because Nancy’s husband, Richard, had just torn the tendons in one of his knees and couldn’t travel after surgery.
Audrey also is highly skilled at solving riddles and Google-searching for information, which she was willing to share with Tim and me since we were on the same team, trying to score points and earn money for Shriners Hospitals. And it didn’t hurt at all that Nancy and Audrey knew the location of an amazing bakery in Monterey and were eager to share boxes of goodies — and not just with Tim and me but with the entire ELK contingent.
Then there was Jim Fleischman, an instructor at Alfred State, AKA the State University of New York College of Technology. Several years ago, another rally traveled through upstate New York and one of the cars needed work. Fleischman heads the automotive department at the school, where his students recently worked on the 1966 Lincoln limousine that served Henry Kissinger when he was U.S. Secretary of State. The limo’s owner is Craig Corbell, founder of the ELK Charity Challenge.
Craig invited Fleischman and two of his students to drive the limo on the rally, “so here we are,” Fleischman said after he and freshmen Ryan Balcerzak and Jacob Macken drove the Lincoln from New York to Ventura and then on the rally route.
Craig not only founded the ELK Charity Challenge and owns the Kissinger limo but also supplied the 2015 Cadillac Escalade that Tim and I shared, as well as several other vehicles, including a 1976 Cadillac convertible with a set of Texas longhorn antlers on its hood.
Craig and his teammate, Kyle Pacek, started the rally in the big behorned Caddy, but midway through the trip transmission troubles put that car into Lori’s Reliable rig and put Craig and Kyle in to the Escalade with Tim and me, where, among other things, I learned that Craig’s heart is a big as he is — and he’s a Texas-sized guy.
Craig’s company, Houston-based Continental Production Services, supplies oilfield workers to drilling companies, and even though that business is suffering with the slump in oil prices, Craig was committed to do the inaugural ELK Charity Challenge this year. Planning started less than four months ago and when there wasn’t time to find a major corporate sponsor, Craig personally underwrote much of the cost of staging the event simply because he truly believes in the need to support the three benefiting charities.
Ask him about why he’s putting his money where his mouth is and he talks passionately about the history of the charities, about the people who do what he calls “heart-wrenching” work and the “great stories” of the children and families they have helped.
He noted that while insurance companies stop benefits once there is physical healing, Shriners’ burn center continues to do surgeries to reduce any scarring.
“It’s more than physical healing,” he said. “There’s mental healing to take away any disadvantage.”
Or as another ELK challenger, Kelly Kaminski, explained it during the drive, “Everyone needs to feel worthy.”
In December, Craig bought a 1937 Cord 812 Phaeton at Leake’s Dallas auction. Next month, he’ll offer that car at Leake’s Tulsa sale with all proceeds going to the ELK Charity Challenge.
Kelly Kaminski was half of one of three all-women teams on the ELK Charity Challenge. The others were the Sevenoaks-Young tandem and the “Cycle Sisters” — sisters-in-law Vivian and Mona Kenderdine and their friend Linda Anderson, whom the Kenderdines first met 15 years ago while all three were riding in a women’s motorcycle event in North Dakota.
There may have been four all-women teams, except that twins Alexandra and Catie Agro seemed constantly accompanied by guys, often guys with cameras. Two years ago, Alexandra was part of the America’s Top Model cast.
Kelly’s teammate was Melissa Kibby. They met several years ago at a rodeo where Kelly recognized Melissa’s horse as one Kelly used to own.
It said “Cycle Sisters” on the back of the Kenderdine-Anderson pickup. The words on the back of the Kaminski-Kibby pickup were “Gypsy Cowgirls.” Kelly and Melissa both ride in rodeos. Kelly, a former school teacher, is a multi-time world women’s champion who started doing road rallies on behalf of the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association to spread the word that pro rodeo isn’t just a men’s sport.
She has continued to do such driving events, she said, because, “Everybody loves a road trip, and this one is like a family reunion, and we get to have fun, and to learn things.” And in the case of the ELK Charity Challenge, all the while we’re traveling and enjoying and learning we also were raising tens of thousands of dollars for children’s charities, both nationally and in towns along the route.
Along the route for the inaugural ELK Charity Challenge we stopped to help a couple of local programs. In Oakland, we donated school supplies to Girls Inc. and in Oakmont we gave sports equipment and prom clothes to Yosemite High School, where we met a couple of other generous people, students Ryan Losee and Evan Parker.
For the last eight years, the school has hosted a classic car show, but when it looked like the show wouldn’t go on this spring, Losee and Parker put one together to coincide with the arrival in town of the ELK Charity Challenge. While they knew we were coming, what they didn’t know was that the Batmobile would be part of the parade.
Losee admitted that he tends to lose patience quickly with things but found the school’s auto shop to have a calming influence on him and wanted to give back. So he convinced the local Mountain Road Rattlers club and its members to bring their cars to the school’s parking lot for a show that raised $1,261 to buy needed equipment for the auto shop.
Not that long ago, Kyle Pacek also was an enterprising student. He was in grade school in Vermont when he started a yard-care service. He quickly realized it was a lot of work so he hired his friends from school to help. By the time he was in high school he was working for a company that sold parts for motorcycles and when he learned that last year’s parts were discounted, he took his yard money and started Parts Gone Wild, selling motorcycle and snowmobile parts and accessories.
He was working his booth at a motorsports trade show in Anaheim, California, when he was approached by a talent scout from Disney, who asked if Kyle had done any acting. He hadn’t, but some 100 roles in movies and television shows later, he’s very much in demand yet still an entrepreneur. He’s spent the past couple of years devising a way to weave fiber-optic thread into cloth and has launched a line of illuminated table cloths, pillows and draperies, and is working on illuminated clothing as well.
And Kyle and Kelly and Craig and Tim and the rest are just some of the memorable folks who became like family in the course of the drive. But I also have to issue a word of warning: If you find yourself at a stoplight next to a Shelby GT500 Mustang Super Snake with Alberta license plates, do not roll down your window: John and Linda Garden carry a loaded squirt gun and are not afraid to use it.
At the conclusion of the ELK Charity Challenge, Andy Stone reminded everyone of the last 17 days of Margaret Dunning’s life. How she’d been honored at the Keels and Wheels concours, joked about voting for Abraham Lincoln, teased a car rental clerk because they didn’t have a Model T in the fleet, filmed an episode of the new Car Time television show (to debut July 3), visited Jay Leno’s garage, sat in the Batmobile, and been part of the inaugural ELK event.
He noted that in her lifetime, Margaret had given millions to various charities and several of her automobiles to museums. She’d even built a museum to preserve the history of her hometown, Plymouth, Michigan. Tentative plans include launching the second annual ELK Charity Challenge from Margaret’s museum.
“She did more in 17 days than some people do in a lifetime,” Andy said.
I sort of feel the same away after a week on the road with my fellow Elk challengers. We all went home with a lifetime of memories.