Pepperoni and peepers: Wandering wild, wonderful West Virginia in the Polaris Slingshot
"Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." I doubt Mike Tyson knew he was paraphrasing 19th century Prussian general Helmuth von Moltke the Elder when he said it, but still, it's a great sentiment that perfectly describes the trip I had behind the wheel of a 2020 Polaris Slingshot SL.
The plan was to enjoy the open-topped nature of the Slingshot while winding my way from my home in Ohio through the vibrant leaves and majestic mountain vistas of West Virginia. Due to the pandemic, I still refuse to eat in restaurants – so I planned on sampling the unique cuisine of the region while driving the two-lanes.
The two-seater Slingshot SL is currently on the market for around $26,000.Photo by Chris Tonn
My first day of driving was magnificent, with cool temperatures and great roads delivering smooth asphalt to eat up. My return trip punched me in the mouth with a steady, frigid rain, paired with accidents on the interstate that kept me at a standstill while rainwater pooled on my lap.
That's I found out the hard way that you can't nosh on a pepperoni roll while wearing a full-faced helmet.
For the uninitiated, the pepperoni roll is a West Virginia delicacy - somewhat reminiscent of a Hot Pocket - developed by migrant Italian miners looking for a hardy lunch that could be carried down into the shafts without need for refrigeration. It's exactly what it sounds like – pepperoni (either in stick form or sliced as one might find on pizza) baked into a pocketable bread roll. The oils from the cured meat ooze into the dough, creating a layer of soft, slick bun that glistens with the color of a setting sun.
Pepperoni rolls are ultimately filled with carbohydrates, a touch of protein, salt, and all of the essential spiced greases that I need to at least maintain my lingering obesity. Indeed, pepperoni rolls aren't the healthiest snack in the world – but they're marvelous in moderation. After all, you don't ever read clickbait-y stories shadow-written by chambers of commerce and placed on sites listing the twenty-five best salads, do you? Nope. You read about guilty indulgences.
The Polaris Slingshot SL served as a chariot for an autumn drive.Photo by Chris Tonn
Like the pepperoni roll, the Polaris Slingshot isn't meant for daily consumption. It's an acquired taste, something that isn't seen everyday. Heck, depending on the jurisdiction, it isn't even considered a car.
To find the best rolls in the state, I reached out to Candace Nelson. She literally wrote the book on the pepperoni roll. She pointed me to a couple of towns southwest of Morgantown, Clarksburg and Fairmont. As one might expect from small family-run businesses peddling a regional niche product, there are arguments among the proprietors about who was "first." Partisan patrons will further argue about which is best. But, really, it's meat and bread. What's not to like?
In Clarksburg, I sampled D'Annunzio's and Tomaro's bakeries. It was a Sunday morning when I rolled up to D'Annunzio's, a small shop nestled in what feels like an old residential area on the western side of town. Cars parked on both sides of the one-way street as people picked up bags of rolls and loaves of bread. One gentleman rolled up in a beautifully restored 1952 Buick, which grabbed the attention of passersby.
The pepperoni roll has been a staple of West Virginia cuisine for decades.Photo by Chris Tonn
The proprietor of crosstown rival Tomaro's, when I told him that I'd driven from Ohio just to sample his wares, walked to the back of his shop and returned with two rolls that were straight from the oven. And warned me to grab napkins – which I heeded. Still, sizzling orange grease streamed down my right arm as I bit in.
I tried to continue munching as I pulled away, only to remember that I'd strapped on a helmet. All but two states classify the Slingshot as an autocycle - New York and Massachusetts call it a motorcycle, meaning a motorcycle license is required. One helpful gent, noticing me struggle with a helmeted bite, told me that I didn't need to wear a helmet in West Virginia (laws vary by state). Whether true, Polaris made me sign a number of documents before handing over the key fob requiring me to wear a helmet. I really don't want my insurance claim denied should a bird decide to fly into my face as I'm negotiating a mountain switchback at speed, so I dutifully tossed the remainder of my roll in the glove compartment and wiped the orange grease from my face shield.
I stopped for fuel and a soda, and encountered the pepperoni roll with which I'm most familiar. Home Industry Bakery of Clarksburg sells rolls throughout the state in gas stations and other convenience stores – I've even found them just across the river in Ohio when we visit the in-laws in Marietta. Home Industry sells a variety of rolls – some baked with cheese alongside the pepperoni. Yes, I bought a few of these for the glovebox, and pointed my three-wheeled chariot east. The next morning, I drove to Country Club Bakery in Fairmont, some twenty miles northeast of Clarksburg, to find a historical marker claiming they were the home of the original pepperoni roll.
The Slingshot is the perfect leaf-peeping-mobile, unless it rains.Photo by Chris Tonn
While the roads in the Clarksburg/Fairmont area are quite hilly, proceeding east on US 50 brings you into the heart of the Appalachian Mountains. Up and down, through the trees, the road invites you to push the limits of your vehicle and your nerve. The Slingshot was a mostly faithful companion on these twisties, gripping beautifully and turning in with verve. Further, Polaris has replaced the old Chevrolet Ecotec engine that had powered previous Slingshots with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder of their own design. Getting 178 horsepower at 8500 rpm in this SL trim is plenty to, yes, slingshot the three-wheeler out of switchbacks with alacrity. The upmarket Slingshot R delivers even more power, with 203 horses at the ready.
My gripe comes with the new AutoDrive automated manual five-speed transmission, which is standard on the SL trim. The more powerful Slingshot R offers a standard five-speed manual or buyers can upgrade to the AutoDrive transmission. In some ways, the AutoDrive is quite like a traditional manual – there's no torque converter, so releasing the brake while on a hill allows the car to roll. It doesn't creep forward at a light.
Unfortunately, those tendencies are overshadowed by the lack of refinement in the driving experience. It can be a challenge to pull away from a traffic light smoothly, as the transition from brake to throttle seemingly confuses the automated clutch and yields a chirp to the big rear tire that will surely grab the attention of passerby. Further, when trying to drive quickly in the mountains, I found the transmission painfully slow to shift. I'd send a size-12 request for a downshift via a stomp on the right pedal, only to be met with what seemed like an eternity while the transmission decided what to do. A downshift would then come with a clunk.
The Polaris Slingshot SL rides on two 17-inch front wheels and an 18-inch back wheel.Photo by Chris Tonn
Polaris tells me that the AutoDrive opens the Slingshot up to more drivers who don't want to (or can't) drive a manual – and I get that. It's mostly decent in the type of driving where I've typically seen the Slingshot – cruising the strip with music blasting, much as one might do on a warm summers' night. But when the rest of the car practically invites enthusiastic driving, the transmission really needs to play along, and the AutoDrive is not quite ready for prime time.
The interior is surprisingly roomy. I'm six feet, four inches tall, and I had leg room to spare. Head room, naturally, isn't an issue in a vehicle without a top. The seat looks quite basic, covered in a waterproof vinyl – but it's supportive and comfortable for two long days of driving. The 7.0-inch touchscreen is reasonably clear and bright, syncing easily to my phone via Bluetooth. I can't imagine trying to take a call at speed, however – but I played my Spotify playlists with ease.
The placement of the speakers is less than ideal, being placed in the footwells right where one might put a knee. The speakers pushed legs inboard, keeping my foot from reaching a frame tube that might be used as a dead pedal. GPS is available, but was not fitted to my tester. I'd have LOVED, considering the rain, the optional heated/cooled seats – those run $1199.00 each. As it sits, the Slingshot SL I tested with no options rings up at $26,499.
The interior of the Slingshot proved comfortable, even after hours on the road at a time.Photo by Chris Tonn
One of those lurching downshifts from the AutoDrive came as I encountered one of many slow crossovers meandering Route 50. Am I wrong in expecting people to attempt to maintain something close to the speed limit on rural two-lanes? A short passing zone opened where I did make my pass, but not without annoyance from the gearbox. But then another family, gawking at the magnificent leaves, appeared in my windscreen. And another.
I turned south, working my way toward the town of Davis. An old friend, a West Virginia native, had told me years ago of this town where he frequently vacationed with his family. Ski resorts certainly help bring visitors to the area in the colder months. Paired with Thomas, another town just a few miles north on WV 32, the two towns give a funky, bohemian coastal vibe that one doesn't expect if mining towns and Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty are all you know of Appalachia. Artisans and craftspeople dot the land, inspired by the spectacular scenery.
The scenery of West Virginia is underrated.Photo by Chris Tonn
I too was inspired. This is not a land that has remained untouched by human hands – after all, some of the wonder of these magnificent vistas is that they exist at all. The Appalachian Mountains have been scarred by energy extraction for over a century, and yet the land and the people thrive. From the laborers down in the mines to the painters selling their wares at a flea market to the families gawking at the leaves, the people of West Virginia are fiercely proud of their land and their traditions. The scars left by the mines simply show us where West Virginia once was – they don't define the future.
For most of my drive, the 2020 Polaris Slingshot SL was a great companion for exploring this little corner of West Virginia. I found myself closer to the road, to the scenery, and to the people as I drove along. I cracked open my face shield, and inhaled the clean autumn air that I recall from my youth – bonfires with piles of leaves burning. I could smell the yeast from the bakeries making their pepperoni rolls from a mile away. I spoke to pedestrians when stopped in towns. I wasn't walled off from the world with two tons of steel and glass. I was part of that world. I experienced it. I lived it.
The Polaris Slingshot SL comes well-equipped.Photo by Chris Tonn
And then it rained. And I experienced that a bit more intimately than I'd have preferred. I loved driving the Slingshot, but my next trip through the area will come in a car with a roof of some sorts.
And a trunk to bring home scores of rolls.