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After Hours: Simon Keymer’s cross-country clunker adventure

By Linda Segall   

Crisis management is serious business. So is public affairs and corporate team breakdown.smallcommunications consulting. So, when Simon Keymer, founder and CEO of the Keymer Group, a Jacksonville-based public relations agency, had an opportunity to take a week off and have some fun last summer, he jumped at the opportunity—which was to buy a $500 clunker and drive it, with a team of friends, from New York to New Orleans, in the 2009 BABE (Big Apple to Big Easy) Rally.

“My company is a public relations agency,” he explained. “But, our specialty is at the serious end of the PR spectrum. Though we’d jump at the chance to handle Britney Spears’ publicity, that’s not where our strengths lie.”  

That “serious end” includes helping companies to manage political and regulatory issues, building and protecting positive corporate reputations and handling business crises of all kind.

The gravity of his work finally got to him: It was time to do something fun, and last summer’s BABE Rally (www.baberally.com) provided the perfect opportunity, he said.

“Actually, I had three reasons to do it,” Keymer admitted, in a way that clearly identifies his British origins. “First and probably most important: I wanted to have a good time with my mates [friends]. Second, I wanted to raise some money for charity. And third, I wanted to raise our profile in the local community.

“We have a national client base,”,” he said, adding that his firm has a Washington, D.C. office in addition to its Jacksonville headquarters. “We actually have few north Florida clients; so we fly a bit beneath the radar here. The BABE Rally was in part intended to help us begin to change that.”

Keymer moved to Jacksonville when his wife, Dr. Tannahill Glen Keymer,took a position as clinical professor of neuropsychology with the University of Florida at Shands Hospital. “I’ve lived in Jacksonville longer than anywhere else,” he said, indicating that he has planted firm roots here. “It was time to give back. So, I thought I could use the BABE Rally as a way to raise money for a local charity and connect to our own community.” He chose the daniel Foundation (www.danielkids.org) as the recipient of his charity drive.

Having a good time was high on his agenda, however. “I’m nearly 40. I thought this would be a kind of last hurrah, to spend a week with my male friends,” he said. “That said, I seriously overrated the ‘fun factor’ of sitting in a car with my friends for nine hours a day!”

That “fun factor” was tested several times throughout the rally—beginning a couple of days before it even started.

The rally had one strict rule: The value of the clunker could not exceed $500. “I looked for weeks and test drove a number of vehicles, even one in which possums had been living ,” said Keymer. “I was getting desperate as the date approached. But finally I found a 1995 Dodge Stratus whose condition seemed OK and whose interior was clean. I talked the owner into selling it to me for $500 because this was a charity event.” Jim at Cedar Hills Tire & Auto Care gave the car a thumbs-up once it had new tires and brakes.

The evening before they were to put the car on the auto train, Keymer decided to have his mechanic take one last look at the electrical system. “There was an intermittent electrical problem I couldn’t find,” he said. “Sometimes when you turned the engine on, the car would drive, but it wouldn’t have any electrics—no radio, lights, wipers. You could drive for miles without noticing. It was worrisome.”

It was actually more than worrisome; it was almost catastrophic. On the way to the mechanic, in Friday evening rush-hour traffic, the car caught on fire. Thanks to the help of Good Samaritan motorists who stopped and poured water and soda on the fire until it was extinguished, the car did not die a complete death. But its new paint job was semi-ruined, and the pristine interior was smoke-damaged.

“I must admit, I felt quite glum,” said Keymer. However, an hour later his mechanic found the cause of the problem—a loose wire that was sparking—and fixed it. The next day, the car was on the auto train, enroute to Staten Island, N.Y., the start of the 1,500 mile drive to New Orleans.

Keymer and his local pal Holland Johnson were joined by Justin Doherty, an old army buddy of Keymer’s, who flew in from Abu Dhabi, where he resides. On Sunday they and 70 other clunker-driving teams started their five-day adventure, which was to include a kind of photo treasure hunt. Participants were to take pictures of specific things, such as a hot-air balloon or a Ferrari, to earn points. The team that earned the highest number of points—and finished the race—would win a cash prize at the end.

The first two days of the rally, Keymer and his team considered the rally a serious contest—and they came in first each day. “We made a big deal of it. Then we realized something: Everyone else was having fun and we weren’t! We were approaching this like a job to be done.” The third day, they decided to live it up and detour to Knoxville for a night on the town. A good time, however, was not to be.

“We broke down in the fast lane of the interstate,” he said. “The engine overheated. Smoke started pouring out. I had a bit of post-traumatic stress disorder considering my previous fire experience four days earlier. But when the engine cooled down and we turned the car on, the electrics came on, and I suddenly had an epiphany: It’s like a locked-up computer. You have to reboot it occasionally. We didn’t have any more problems after that.”

No more electrical problems, that is. On the morning of the last leg, from Birmingham to New Orleans, they were the last car out of the parking lot. “I was driving,” he said. “Suddenly I heard this massive bang, as if someone had hit a fragile part of the engine with a sledge hammer.” We got out of the car and found that one of the wheels had come off its ball joint.”

That was it; the race for Keymer and his Team Preteen Spirit was over. Keymer signed the title of the clunker to the tow-truck driver and the team flew to New Orleans for the end of rally party.

The rally was a bust, but the week was not. Keymer said, “We achieved our objectives: We raised some money for charity; we had a good time; and we drew attention to our business in our home community. All in all, a job well done.”

Simon Keymer is founder and CEO of the Keymer Group, www.keymergroup.com He can be reached at 904-383-4834 or simon.keymer@keymergroup.com

 

SIDEBAR

What is the BABE Rally?

BABE Rally stands for Big Apple to Big Easy: The Great American Banger Rally. It is a 1,500 mile rally, which the organizers stress is not a race, starting on Staten Island, N.Y., and ending in New Orleans, La.

“Banger” is the British word for “clunker,” explained Simon Keymer, founder of Keymer Group, a Jacksonville-based public relations firm. “Banger rallies are quite popular in Europe.”

The first BABE Rally was in 2006. Founded by StreetSafari (www.streetsafari.com), the main purpose is to have fun through “a unique motoring experience.” BABE’s Web site says it is easy to join the fun. “Just get yourself the worst looking vehicle you can for $500 or less and enter the rally.”

According to Keymer, the cars are environmental disasters. Some seem to be held together with duct tape and wire. But the participants really get “into” the event. “One team was dressed like clowns,” he said. “They did everything in their clown costumes and red noses—eating breakfast, working on their car. Every time you saw them, the funnier it was.”

To enter the BABE Rally participants had to agree to a few rules. Among them:

• The car cannot be valued at more than $500.

• It must carry insurance.

• The clunker must pass the safety inspection of the state in which it is licensed.

• All drivers must have a valid license.

• Basic safety rules must be followed.

• The team is responsible for disposing of the vehicle.

Throughout the five-day drive, the teams are challenged to do certain tasks, such as photograph specific sites. The team that comes in first with the most points earned from these tasks can win a prize: $1,500, first prize; $350, second; and $150, third. Only teams that finish with their clunker are eligible for the prizes. Keymer did not win, since his banger broke down before they could even start the last leg of the journey.

The rally is a fun event, but teams, like Keymer’s may participate as a money-making event for charity. Keymer’s team raised about $5,000 for daniel Foundation. The team kept the spirit alive by taking photos and posting them and commentary on Facebook and Twitter each day.

Before.small

Keymer's clunker--before its BABE paint job

Keymer's clunker--after its BABE paint job.

Keymer's clunker--after its BABE paint job.

BABE Rally clowns

BABE Rally clowns

Clunker alley

Clunker alley

The Keymer team with its broken down banger. From left: Justin Doherty, Simon Keymer, and Todd Johnson

The Keymer team with its broken down banger. From left: Justin Doherty, Simon Keymer, and Todd Johnson


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