Micron exec and his daughter race, bond across continents

Brian and Chantal Shields motored from Asia to Europe (7,600 miles) in a 1965 Mustang.

broberts@idahostatesman.comOctober 21, 2013 

Daphne, as the 48-year-old Ford Mustang came to be called, sat in storage for 25 years.

She had traveled only 50,000 miles, was missing a part or two and needed $28,000 worth of work for the journey that lay ahead.

But she was the car that Brian Shields, Micron Technology Inc. vice president of operations, settled on to fulfill a dream he’d carried for nearly 40 years: to run the Peking to Paris Motor Challenge, an odyssey between May and June over roadless desert; down steep, brake-melting mountain passes; and over miles of Russian roads that would occasionally and unexpectedly disappear.

The Endurance Rally Association, a British group that organized the event, called it the “longest and toughest challenge anyone can drive in a vintage or classic car.” Since 1907, it had been staged only four times. Shields would be part of the fifth.

“It’s not a vacation,” said Shields, 51, who first read about the rally as a 12-year-old.

A CREW OF TWO

Brian needed a co-pilot — someone who could spell him at the wheel, but whose primary job would be to navigate long stretches with no road signs, using just topographical maps, a trip computer and a GPS.

He chose his daughter, Chantal, then 22.

“(If) I am going to do it with somebody and be with them for 33 days, there are not many people on that list,” Shields said. “You go first to your family. My close friends probably couldn’t hold a candle to my daughter when it comes to navigation.”

Chantal now lives in Seattle, but spent much of her childhood in Caldwell, where she graduated from Vallivue High School. She’s studied graphic arts and is considering college in Seattle.

Shields and Shields were a father-daughter team that had not seen a great deal of each other in recent years. Dad lives in Singapore — he does also have a home in Boise — and Chantal lives in the United States. Brian started at Micron in 1986.

It was a team of two strong-willed people, Brian said.

As Chantal laid out navigation plans, she told her father she would brook no questioning of her judgment on directions. “If you ever say, ‘Are you sure?’ I will have to hit you,” she remembers telling him.

He never did.

“I know my personality well enough to keep my mouth shut when I need to,” her father said.

RESURRECTING DAPHNE

More than a year before the race, Brian was looking for a car with which to traipse though China, Mongolia, Siberia and Europe. It had to fall into one of two categories: built before 1941, called vintage; or built before 1975, called classic.

He didn’t have time for a thorough search, so he decided to use the white Mustang that had been a high school graduation present for Chantal’s mother.

It had sat outside for five years, then in closed storage for another two decades.

“We had to rebuild everything on that car,” Brian said. “(It was) missing one fender and one bumper.”

The V-8 engine was rebuilt and the standard 16-gallon gas tank replaced with a 24-gallon tank, which could keep the car going nearly 400 miles.

Chantal nicknamed the Mustang Daphne, after the British physical therapist on the TV sitcom “Frasier.” That added to the British Isles flavor, she said, since her father is Scottish.

The rebuilding by friends in Boise got done just in time for the car to be shipped in April.

By May, Daphne was among 96 cars, including a small crop of Mustangs, ready for the trek — Volvos, MGs, Jaguars and a Russian Moskvitch among them. Older vintage models included a 1913 Model T, a 1929 Chrysler and a 1930 Rolls Royce Phantom.

AND THEY’RE OFF

On a May morning, in the shadow of China’s Great Wall, drivers began their journey.

Daphne carried five gallons of drinkable water, a couple of gas cans and the equivalent of a small Mustang auto parts store as insurance against breakdown in the middle of nowhere.

“It was terrifying at first,” Chantal recalled. “I am part of the generation where our smartphones do everything for us, so you don’t really have to think about maps or anything. So taking this on and learning to use a marine GPS, I was really worried about it.”

Thirty-six hours out of Peking, urban life had given way to a harsh, rural existence. “In some areas of the Great Wall, you could see where they have taken the wall down to build shelter for themselves,” Brian said. “The further north you go, the worse it gets.”

Two days into the trip, the radio broke. Brian had upgraded the radio so it looked like the stock model, but had a USB port. “My daughter was very unhappy because she had downloaded all this stuff. I (was) happy because I didn’t have to listen to her music,” Brian said.

Besides, he said, when the radio is on, “you don’t hear parts break on the car.”

But hearing those sounds eventually wore on Brian. A clunk here or a bang there made him all the more worried about the next one and the next one. The dread was tiring.

MEMORABLE MONGOLIA

When Brian and Chantal talk about their rally experience, they focus heavily on Mongolia and the Gobi Desert — almost as if that was where they proved they were up to the demands of the “longest and toughest” race.

“It was mentally challenging,” said Chantal. “Yet it ended up being my favorite part of the whole trip.”

Mongolia is wild and untamed. “It’s so cool to be one of only so many people who say they have driven all the way across it,” said Chantal.

The Gobi isn’t just sand. It is vast open spaces and sagebrush, Brian said, sort of like an endless Nevada.

So was it like being on one of Idaho’s worst backcountry roads?

“I would have loved to have a road like that,” said Brian.

On Day 7, they encountered one of their toughest obstacles: miles and miles of rock-strewn landscape. Boulders 12 to 14 inches big peppered their route. Daphne’s suspension failed and would require repair once the team got to Russia.

“The front of the car came down so low, I was pushing sand,” Brian said.

They crept along at 10 mph.

“The frustration is so high, but there is nothing you can do,” he said. “If you don’t get to where you are going, there is nowhere else to go. That is where the food is and that is where the gas is.”

Mongolia is also the place where Brian glimpsed how mature and responsible his daughter had become.

As they drove, a car driven by a Japanese team rolled into a ditch. Brian stopped and turned to his daughter to tell her to call a medical team.

“She already had the phone out and was on top of that,” he said. “She was thinking ahead.”

Chantal had been growing up before his eyes, he said later.

THE MONGOLIA HIT PARADE

At night, drivers would stop in the middle of the desert, pitch a tent, and grab a bite of food and some sleep.

There wasn’t a city, a house or another soul around.

Then, suddenly, people would show up, many packing cellphones with cameras.

Horses are revered in Mongolia. Daphne was popular because of the Mustang’s horse insignias.

The visitors took pictures and asked Chantal for autographs.

“The kids loved it,” Brian said.

In Ulan Bator, Mongolia’s capital, Daphne needed oil. Chantal had no idea where to find it. She went to her hotel and asked. The hotel employee didn’t just get her a taxi, but called a relative who came and took Chantal around to three auto shops to get the oil.

“It was really cool,” she said.

GROUNDHOG DAY, AND DEATH

Brian and Chantal left Mongolia and soon found themselves in Russian farmland — miles of it, for days. Brian likened the repetitive experience to the movie ”Groundhog Day.” Drive through farmland all day. Get up the next morning and repeat.

June 12 was Chantal’s 23rd birthday. She and her father were driving down a Russian highway. An English couple — driving the rally in a Chevy pickup — was just ahead.

In the oncoming lane was a semi, Brian said. Behind it was a car with three people inside. The car pulled out from behind the semi to pass and collided head-on with the Chevy, killing the Englishwoman who was driving and the three people in the Russian car, Brian said.

The accident cast a pall on the race, Chantal said. “I liked her a lot,” she said of the driver.

That evening at dinner, two racers who knew her offered impromptu eulogies.

Arriving in Europe put Brian and Chantal in more familiar territory, but the road still posed problems.

Coming down the Swiss Alps, Daphne’s brakes overheated. Brian would push the pedal to the floor, literally grinding to a halt. He’d get off the road and wait for the brakes to cool.

“The brakes weren’t set up for that,” Brian said. “They are built for a boulevard in Los Angeles.”

THE END IS NEAR — THIS TIME

Paris was finally in sight, the finish line not far down the road.

Brian, who had driven most of the way, turned Daphne’s wheel over to his daughter for the final stretch.

He hadn’t planned to have her drive across the finish line. “But by the time we got to Paris, I felt she deserved the opportunity after a job well done,” Brian said.

The team was 19th in its class, 33rd overall.

The accomplishment left Chantal feeling “awesome.”

“I am so proud of that car,” she said.

After Daphne crossed the finish line, Brian had had enough. He walked away from the car. “I didn’t want to sit in it again,” he said.

Five months later, Daphne is back in the shop, getting another rebuild. Brian saw Daphne when he was back in Boise. He got behind the wheel and turned over the engine. “It felt just the same,” he said.

Daphne ran a hard race. That 7,600 miles was like 200,000 miles for most cars, Brian said, and “she deserves to be retired.”

Once she’s rebuilt, she could become Chantal’s car.

Brian, however, is already thinking of the next rally. In 2017, a race goes over the Himalayas and through Nepal, ending at the Taj Mahal.

“That’s a whole new country I have never seen before,” he said.

If he decides to go, his navigator is ready to travel.

“Yeah, definitely,” Chantal said.

Bill Roberts: 377-6408, Twitter: @IDS_BillRoberts

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