Still on the road

DOVER — You might have seen a minivan speed past you on the highway at 80 mph, but you’ve probably never seen one on a racetrack before.

And you’ve surely never seen a U.S. senator do his best imitation of a NASCAR driver in said van, waving a checkered flag out the window as he zooms by.

That was the scene Monday morning at Dover International Speedway, where Sen. Tom Carper, at the wheel of his 2001 Chrysler Town & Country minivan, drove past an assembled crowd of a few dozen cheering onlookers.

Pretty impressive for an 18-year-old vehicle with 500,000 miles on the odometer.

To celebrate the old van breaking the half-million-mile mark, Sen. Carper’s staff arranged for a special event. Although it wasn’t the first time Sen. Carper has driven on the track — he’s challenged the Monster Mile both in a racecar and an electric minivan before — it was quite an experience.

“When you go out on this track right down this end and you go up that (bank), I felt like I was going to roll over, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, at least I made it to half a million miles before it crashed and burned,’” he said with a laugh.

Throughout Sen. Carper’s entire 18 years in Congress’ upper chamber, the minivan has been there, one of the few constants in a busy and often challenging job.

Purchased shortly after he was elected, the van has stuck around ever since, despite urgings from Sen. Carper’s wife, Martha, to dump it 250,000 miles ago.

Even at 500,000 miles it continues to run remarkably well.

“This is the best car,” Sen. Carper proclaimed.

One can only imagine the number of times it’s gone from Wilmington to Washington and back, and it’s certainly contributed more than its fair share to auto shops and car washes. It’s also gone on a cross-country trip, with Sen. Carper’s son borrowing it for a summer internship in California about a decade ago.

Sen. Carper attributed his van’s longevity to regular maintenance, while joking that the secret to 500,000 miles is getting the vehicle washed every other week.

Monday’s event was a mini-reunion of sorts, with half a dozen of the van’s former drivers among those gathered on the track for the occasion. A few of them swapped war stories, reminiscing about their time behind the wheel.

C.R. McLeod, who drove the van from 2001 to 2006, recalled a time when Sen. Carper was joined in the vehicle by the other two members of Delaware’s congressional delegation. As he drove over the Bay Bridge, the gravity of the situation hit him — one mistake and Delaware might need to send an entirely new set of officials to Washington.

Sen. Carper estimated that over the past 18 years he’s employed about 20 different drivers. It’s doubtful any of them went as fast as the van’s owner did Monday.

Although he did not make any full laps because the western side of the speedway was being used for harness racing, the senator drove his beloved van up and down a stretch of the track a few times. Starting on pit road, he drove onto the track at turn four, sped down the straightaway and crossed back over onto pit road at turn one to start the “lap” again.

According to Sen. Carper, he hit a top speed of 120 mph. If you’re a bit skeptical of the claim, however, you’re not alone: At least one onlooker expressed doubt at the idea of an 18-year-old minivan hitting that speed.

After making a loop from turn four to turn one a few times, Sen. Carper stopped at the finish line between the two turns, was handed a checkered flag and sped down the track holding it out the window.

“It was exciting,” he said after exiting the vehicle. “Holding the flag coming down here to the finish line, I thought my arm would blow off. But it didn’t. I lived to tell about it.”

One wouldn’t know of the van’s illustrious status to look at it, with only a Carper for Senate bumper sticker distinguishing it from any other silver vehicle of the same make and model (although who knows how many 2001 minivans are still out on the roads in Delaware today).

It may be far from stylish, but it’s proven to be reliable — and, as Sen. Carper proudly noted, it’s American-made.

So, what’s next for the van?

Well, it probably won’t get to 1 million miles: Sen. Carper plans to buy a new vehicle, likely some type of hybrid, later this year.

That blue minivan, however, will be staying with the Carpers.

“We’ll keep this one for quite a while because it’s like new,” the senator said.

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