Buttonwillow Raceway in Southern California is in the middle of nowhere. Hotels nearby have been charitably described to me as "not great," uncharitably as "a bit murdery." But the biggest issue is that all of these not-so-great hotels were either too expensive or booked solid during my visit to the Vintage Auto Racing Association's annual VARA University at the track.
That meant I needed alternative accommodations, like a cargo van.
Once, a few years ago, I went to a race at Virginia International Raceway where coworkers and I . It was one of the coldest and worst nights of my life. So bad that I ended up getting out and sleeping in a BMW 320i with the heat on full blast. I also didn't bring any supplies to take a shower at the track. It was my version of hell. With a second night in the van on the horizon, I made up some lie about having to go home and booked a hotel an hour or so from the track just so I could take a hot shower and sleep in a bed.
But something about that VIR weekend stuck with me. Sleeping in a van wasn't the problem; it was the way we did it that was the issue. I decided that for Buttonwillow I'd once again sleep in a van, but this time I'd do it properly, and for less than the price of a hotel room in the area.
The van I chose was a Mercedes Metris Cargo, which means it had no rear seats, no rear windows, and no windshield-mounted rearview mirror. How does it drive? The same as the Metris Cargo we had in the office last year, which is to say as good or better than any other van in its class. If this were Van & Truck, I'd be able to give a more definitive take.
Years before, in the Sprinter, I massively underestimated how cold it could get at night. I only had a sleeping bag and nothing under it, so I was absorbing cold from the freezing floor of the van at night. It was also a diesel which meant it wouldn't generate much heat if it was running unless it had some revs. The Metris was gas powered, which got rid of that issue.
To avoid the general awfulness of the last adventure, I took some precautions before I left home. I packed thermal socks and warmer pajamas, brought a towel so I'd be able to take a shower, made sure my phone could work as a hotspot so I could go online with my laptop, and brought a DC-to-USB converter because you can never have too many USB ports. Then I bought the rest of my supplies on the way to the track at a Walmart Supercenter in Bakersfield, California that was the size of Massachusetts. My goal? Create a hotel room to rival any Super 8 or Howard Johnson's for half the price.
Here's what I bought:
Sleeping Bag - $14.44
Sure, I could have spent a lot more money, but , looked plenty comfortable, and was rated to keep a person warm in cooler temperatures (the one linked above is $8.97 and designed for warmer temps). It was all that I needed. The zipper was a bit finicky, but, again, it was $14.44. If your comforter costs $14.44, you're willing to put up with a crummy zipper.
Air Mattress - $7.97
For $7.97, I got a bed. A legitimate twin-size air mattress that would tuck cozily into the back of the Metris. Of course, it also needed . In the night, the mattress would squeak against the metal of the van every time I rolled over, and I roll over a lot. That isn't ideal, but it could be rectified by popping an additional sleeping bag under it, insulating the bed from the metal.
Pillow - $5.88
It was a $5.88 pillow. I'm not sure what else to say other than it was new in a plastic bag, so I was confident that I was the first and only person to lay a sweaty, disgusting head on it.
Water - $2.00
Hotels tend to give you one bottle of water free, then you're forced to do the rest of your drinking from the sink or spend $2.50 per bottle at a vending machine. The other, better solution? Buy 12 bottles at a Walmart for $2. Can't lose.
Starbucks Doubleshot® Espresso 4-Pack - $5.68
Hotel coffee is usually garbage, particularly for those of us who prefer iced coffee or cold brew in the morning. In a pinch, these Starbucks Doubleshot drinks work just fine. Don't expect the greatest gourmet experience; do expect a small shot of espresso that'll get you going.
During this trip I came down with a nasty cold. Instead of wheezing and coughing in a van all night and hacking and sniffling all day, I decided I'd tackle it head on. I got Dayquil, Airborne, and tissues, all of which worked wonders to keep up the facade that I was in A-OK health.
My total? $67.61. But the feeling of having my own hotel at the track without buying an RV? Priceless.
When it was time to get some shut eye, I was fairly satisfied with my setup. I wasn't planning to run the heat all night, so I figured I'd have it warm when I fell asleep and it'd get cooler through the night. I parked close–but not too close–to the bathroom for obvious reasons.
I was able to watch inane YouTube videos before going to sleep. The interior lights in the cargo area can be turned on independently, a big help in the morning. Thanks to the magic of Bluetooth, the whole van doubled as a giant speakerphone.
But there were problems. There was the aforementioned squeaking of the air mattress. It got colder inside a lot quicker than I thought it would. The Metris has a low roof, so standing up was not an option. There was no way to charge my laptop. I also woke up to blow my nose a gazillion times, but that wasn't really the van's fault.
Next time, I'd leave the heat on all night to stay warm. I'd to charge my laptop; it'd also let me buy more things to power, like a lantern, coffee maker, or some sort of heated mattress pad. I'd put a blanket under the air mattress to make sure it squeaked less. I'd also not have a cold, but, again, not the van's fault.
The best part? I didn't have to abandon the van for a car in the middle of the night. I didn't have to stay in the hotels that I had been warned about. When I woke up, I was already at the track. When I took a shower, I brought my room with me. And when I left, I was able to donate my supplies to make other teams more comfortable as they slept in vans, trailers, or garages. You can't do that with a regular hotel.