I awoke just outside of Dzerzhinsk, about 20 kilometers west of Nizhni Novgorod. I was sitting in the exact same place where I had fallen asleep some 10 minutes earlier, in the back of a fuel-injection Suburban heading east at 110 per (as in miles per, not kilometers). Taibbi, sitting to my immediate left, casually informed me that we had very nearly died nine times during my brief snooze. This news did not surprise in the least, nor did I have any cause to think Matt might be exaggerating. Indeed, we had been within millimeters of crashing head-on into oncoming vehicles literally hundreds of times during the 3 hours since we had crossed Moscow's outer ring road.
Ordinarily, I wouldn't be inclined to doze off in an oversized SUV being piloted by a mad Georgian at breakneck speeds in a suicidal bob-and-weave fashion along a provincial Russian highway. But in this case, I had been up all night trying in vain to generate a vocal-free version of "My Sharona" and so my desire to be awake for my own demise was eventually overridden by the need for sleep. Besides, I was more or less resigned to my fate by that point. For one thing the driver, a Person Closely Related to the Organization of the Zaporozhets Road Rally, appeared to know what he was doing. More importantly, he was not the kind of person you complain to about his driving. For reasons that will soon become obvious, we came to refer to him as O.G., Original Georgian.
It was only when I heard him muttering "Hmm, seven minutes behind" when we stopped for lunch that I realized his insane speed and suicidal passing technique were part of a desire to beat some internally dictated time. Not counting the three hours we spent waiting for the car that was supposed to be following to catch up, we made the trip to Arzamas in about four and a half hours. Which is very good time indeed.
Even more impressive than this, however, was the fact that Original Georgian was stopped just three times by the highway patrol in all their variously acronymed incarnations. The first violation was a simple speeding offense that resulted in a 200 ruble "fine." The second stop actually led the officer to say "Nelzya pugat sotrudnikov militsii!" (see "Zap Rally Quotes," page 3), although the "fine" in this case was a mere 100 rubles. Taibbi had told me that O.G. keeps a loaded Magnum in his office desk. It was during this stop that we noticed the gun sitting in plain view in the driver-side door pocket. So I guess the cops were right to be frightened.
The third and final stop was a real tour de force. Caught red-handed sailing along at 167 kph into oncoming traffic in a no passing zone, O.G. waved his hands in mock surrender at the officers as they waved him to the side of the road. We had crossed into Nizhegorodskaya oblast by now; the "fine" for this multiple, quite serious offense was 300 rubles.
Not long after, we passed the GIBDD post marking the Arzamas city limits, where Rally co-organizer Alexei Dyndykin was standing on the road shoulder alongside the garishly decorated eXile Zaporozhets. Now that I was finally seeing the glorious car in the flesh it occurred to me that, after today's countless near-death experiences, the 2-day trip back to Moscow would perhaps not be so grueling after all. I'm sure my fellow passengers were thinking similar thoughts.
Alexei, a hard-drinking member of Moscow's Durova Clown Theater and Arzamas native, had been rushed to the hospital the day before with what turned out to be a heart murmur. Still, his skin was much less of a pinkish hue than I had expected. The look of pride on his face as he stood next to the eXile Zap was sufficient to remind me why we were all there.
Alexei Fomin, Jonas Bernstein, and Mike Ross on Saturday a.m. hangover detail