Record-setting road trip included Palm Springs tech executive

Peter Loforte of Palm Springs (far left) was part of a team of three that recently drove this Mercedes into each of the 48 contiguous United States in record time. (Photo courtesy Peter Loforte)

Ask most people about their summer road trip and you’re likely to hear tales of questionable gas station snacks, daylong stretches of driving, and motel beds that did more harm than good. Ask Peter Loforte about his and you’ll learn about deploying multiple “countermeasures” to combat police radar, how big a fuel cell you can fit in a trunk, and how best to sleep on a mattress stuffed into a back seat.

Loforte, a recent Palm Springs transplant from Seattle, was one of three drivers who completed what can only be described as an epic road trip earlier this month. Starting in Vermont on July 8, they navigated a 2012 Mercedes-Benz S-Class through every one of the contiguous 48 states in 86 hours and 19 minutes.

Yes, there is a record for such a feat. Yes, the trio shattered it by more than eight hours. And yes, it was a life-changing experience.

“I’ve been doing a lot of long-distance travel during COVID,” Loforte said Monday by phone. “I’ve found out how stunningly beautiful the country is. You hear a lot about how everything is going to hell. When you’re out on the road, it’s truly a beautiful country.”

Loforte and his fellow travelers, Todd Heckel of Seattle and Grady Leno of Philadelphia, are all software executives. Loforte is a Microsoft vice president; Heckel is a senior director at Adobe; and Leno is VP of product management at Gopuff, a consumer goods and food delivery service. The three met at Microsoft in 1995 and have stayed in touch, despite taking different career paths. When Heckel and Leno called Loforte this year and asked if he wanted to assist in breaking the record, he hesitated. The trip was not going to be your average guys weekend.

“It seemed a bit dangerous,” Loforte said. “But I talked to Sally, my spouse, and she said you should absolutely do this.”

The trio’s experience managing large teams and projects, as well as their technical acumen, appeared to make all the difference in breaking a record that had stood since 2015.

“At Microsoft, we built strong relationships,” Loforte recalled. “We’re used to working together under pressure. That’s easy to slide back into.”

It also didn’t hurt to have a few connections.

“I was able to call a professor at [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] and ask about how astronauts function in a small capsule,” Loforte said, recalling how the team was able to make the best use of the Mercedes’ ample space that got tighter as more equipment was added. “I asked about the food they ate, how to sleep, how to use the bathroom. We stole some best practices from astronauts.”

The accomplishment wasn’t the first of its type for Heckel and Leno. Earlier this year they completed a point-to-point cross-country run — known as a Cannonball Run — driving between New York City and Redondo Beach in just over 36 hours.

“I give Grady all the credit for this trip,” Loforte said. “It was his car. He did all the original analysis and 95 percent of the planning. He really handed us something ready to go and just asked us to poke holes in it.”

That poking came in the form of plotting and replotting the route for maximum efficiency. But the team also spent time prepping the car. They installed a light bar for better nighttime visibility, a trunk-mounted fuel cell, and facilities for sleeping and other activities usually reserved for home.

Peter Loforte of Palm Springs sleeps in the back of the vehicle he and two friends used to shatter a driving record earlier this month. (Photo courtesy Peter Loforte)

All of those amenities competed for space with multiple radar detectors, laser detectors, and GPS units that not only helped them avoid police detection but also stay on course and in touch with judges who could verify their accomplishment.

“There wasn’t really that many surprises because of the amount of planning that went into it,” said Loforte. “We didn’t miss a turn the entire trip.”

The exact route the team drove is a bit of a closely guarded secret involving more than a few unconventional maneuvers. To check Florida off their list, for example, the Mercedes pulled only briefly into a driveway at a home just across the state line.

Only once did the trio think they might be headed for trouble.

“Forty hours in, the air conditioning flaked out a bit and we were heading toward Death Valley at a time when the temperatures were above 130 degrees,” Loforte said. “We got on the web and troubleshot the issue. It turns out when an AC has been running consecutively for so many hours it tends to start to ice up. Simply turning it off for a while helped.”

Has spending nearly four consecutive days in close quarters under stress quenched the team’s quest for adventure? Not exactly.

“We’re evaluating what’s next,” Loforte said. “We’re maybe a little coy about it. There are not that many bigger drives left.”

What is left, he said, is taking those drives in different vehicles.

“What type of electric car record can be set?” asked Loforte, whose regular ride is a Tesla Model S. “I’m a big fan of helping accelerate sustainable energy. The next [record attempt] will likely be in an electric car.”

Still, there may be little that ever compares to this month’s journey for Loforte.

“I have to mention my mom and dad,” Loforte said, recalling that it was his father’s love of Corvette racing that sparked his lifelong love of cars. “My dad died earlier in the year. He was a Marine, and we put Marine stickers on the car. The fact we didn’t have any problems, I’m sure it’s luck, but it felt great to honor him.”

While his father was along in spirit, Loforte said his mother is responsible for what may be his best memory of the trip.

“The route took me through Chicago, where she lives,” he said. “She went out and found an overpass over Interstate 90. As we were passing by, she was there waving.”

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Want to know what’s happening in your city and at agencies that make decisions affecting your neighborhood? The following links should help:

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