What started as an excuse to go out and play with other people's cars has grown into something huge. More than a race. More than a road trip. More than a show. It's all those combined, plus some magazine-induced torture testing and a week's worth of adventure. Only 33 hot rods have ever competed in this event. This is the story of seven of them.

The Asphalt Ego-Rama finalists for 2005 consisted of:Corey and Judy Cummings' '47 Ford coupeRich Guasco's '29 Ford roadster, accompanied by Jim BellJerry and Cheryl Krob's '59 Chevy Jack Parker's '41 Ford coupe, accompanied by Bob KlessigDenise Sheldon's '47 Olds convertibleJim and Eleanor Sheldon's '56 OldsJim Shelton's '32 Ford roadster, accompanied by Scott Gafforini

Asphalt Ego-Rama contestants were judged in nine categories. Craftsmanship evaluated workmanship, design, and detail. Ride and Drive (determined by riding in or driving every vehicle) included comfort, ergonomics, practicality, and passing power. Budget rewarded lower cost. Fuel Economy was calculated between gas stops. People's Choice was based on spectator voting at the Twilight Cruise at the NHRA Museum. Acceleration, Handling, and Braking tests took place at California Speedway. Style points (to promote sportsmanship and discourage whining) were evaluated throughout the event.

From our starting point in Lake Tahoe, we cruised through California's historic gold country. Sequoia National Park provided the opportunity for sightseeing as well as for putting the cars through the paces. Radical altitude changes and twisty switchbacks gave us the chance to see how each of these cars handled challenging real-road conditions.

We dropped out of the Sequoia's into California's flat central valley, and rode state Highway 99 into Bakersfield. The best scenery now was our column of cars running down the four-lane. At Ironworks Speed & Custom in Bakersfield, Rodger Lee hosted a get-together for Asphalt Ego-Rama participants and local rodders.

The drive from Bakersfield to L.A. was our final long leg of the road trip. We stopped at the Big Dog Garage in Burbank, where Jay Leno stores his 89 cars and almost as many motorcycles, for a rare private tour conducted by Bob Sales, who helps maintain Leno's fleet. We agreed not to publish any photos (sorry), but ask any of the Asphalt Ego-Rama participants and they'll be glad to share a few shots of Jay's Stanley Steamers, Duesenbergs, Bentleys, and Bugattis.

After lunch, we headed to the Justice Brothers Racing Museum in Duarte. We were fortunate to find Ed Justice there and he was happy to give us a personal tour to show off his collection of iron-from the Kurtis-Kraft racers that helped the J. Bros make their name in racing, to Midgets, Sprint Cars, Top Fuelers, and Indy cars.

Although Ride and Drive, and Craftsmanship make up a big portion of the Asphalt Ego-Rama, it's the track testing that everybody looks forward to. People want immediate results, hard numbers, and objective ranking. They got all that at the California Speedway in Fontana.

Acceleration time trials were first. Everybody got to make numerous passes down the dragstrip, but Rich Guasco's Model A finished far ahead of the rest of the pack once he figured out he wasn't behind the wheel of his Pure Hell Altered and eased the roadster out of the hole.

From the dragstrip we moved on to 60-0 mph brake testing. It's tougher than it sounds, but fun to watch-especially when participants start locking up the tires for big smoke (Corey and Jack), busting brake lines (Denise), and sliding toward the R&C photog (no names to protect the guilty). Jim's '56 Olds, with 13-inch Baer Racing discs at all corners, dominated, halting the black and silver Olds from 60 in a short 133 ft.

In the Handling competition, drivers took shots at slaloming through seven cones set 75 ft apart, as quickly as possible without knocking any over. It takes a well-tuned suspension and some driving skill to do it fast. It's not about horsepower here-a smooth constant run nets the best times. Even a lifetime of drag racing experience is no guarantee that your Model A roadster (for example) isn't going to break loose and find you pointing the wrong direction. Corey Cummings got a chance to show off his Corvette-suspended '47, which zipped through the pylons in 6.68 seconds at 42.8 mph.