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Two Alabama Men Hope Drive on Route 66 Raises Alternative Fuel Awareness

By Murray Evans, Associated Press

Arcadia, Oklahoma – A drive along old U.S. Highway 66 can provoke nostalgic memories of a bygone era, of two-lane roads winding through small towns dotted with mom-and-pop stores, full-service gas stations and tourist stops, such as the famed red Round Barn of Arcadia.

Two Birmingham men hope their trip down The Mother Road causes others to look to the future, at least when it comes to vehicle fuel. Mark McConville and Keith Barfield are making the 2,450-mile journey from Santa Monica, Calif., to Chicago in a candy-apple red 1966 GTO that's been converted to run on compressed natural gas, or CNG.

The men started what they dubbed as the "Drive to Inspire" on June 27, passed through Oklahoma on Thursday and Friday and plan to finish their trip on July 4. Their ultimate goal is to win converts to the cause of using CNG as a vehicle fuel in the U.S., where it has yet to significantly catch on as an alternative to gasoline.

Supporters of expanded CNG use say the fuel produces less greenhouse gases than oil, is found in massive quantities in the U.S. and is less expensive at the pump than gasoline or diesel fuel.

"We heard (President Barack Obama) speak on June 15 and he said he wants to unleash American innovation. That's just what we've brought here today," McConville said after a stop at Pops, a Route 66 restaurant featuring a 66-foot-tall sculptural rendition of a pop bottle with a straw. "It's just an example to show if natural gas can be used in American muscle cars ... then you can certainly use it in today's higher-technology cars.

"This is a great way to energy independence and it meets the environmental criteria. ... It seems like we get the best of both worlds here."

McConville, 51, owns a company that provides van shuttle service from Birmingham to Atlanta airports. When gasoline prices spiked two years ago, his bottom line took a major hit. Barfield, an accountant, had heard billionaire energy magnate T. Boone Pickens tout CNG use as part of the "Pickens Plan" for U.S. energy independence. The two friends discussed the possibility of using CNG vehicles for the shuttle service.

McConville started using CNG vans a year ago and aid the change saves the company $25 per round trip in fuel costs, which essentially paid for the cost of the vans within a year. That gave him another idea-to convert his GTO to run on CNG. They did that last October, at a cost of about $3,500.

They started planning their Route 66 trip about that time, knowing the major challenge would be finding enough CNG fueling stations along the route. According to the Washington, D.C.-based group Natural Gas Vehicles for America, while there are more than 1,100 natural gas vehicle fueling stations in the U.S., only about half of them are open to the public.

Aware of that lack of infrastructure, Barfield and McConville are being accompanied on the trip by a vehicle that carries extra CNG, just in case. They've made alternative fueling arrangements for so-called "holes" along Route 66 where they said CNG stations aren't readily available, most notably Flagstaff, Ariz., and Amarillo, Texas.

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