In early September of 1985, the MTV Video Music Awards were coming up, and David Lee Roth was planning on attending. After all, his Crazy From The Heat solo EP had come out in January, and his music videos for “California Girls” and “Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody” were in huge rotation on MTV that year.
Van Halen and David Lee Roth producer Ted Templeman bet Dave that he couldn’t drive his red 1951 Mercury lowrider from Los Angeles to to New York City in three days, driving no faster than 55 mph, and arrive in time for the 1985 MTV Video Music Awards. To Templeman’s surprise, Roth took the bet.
David Lee Roth tells what happened just before and during this date in 1985 (Sept 13th), in his autobiography, Crazy From The Heat:
The Race Across America in ’85. Manager and I set it up beautifully. Pee Wee’s Big Adventure movie party is happening and all of the MTV VJs and people are there. So we set it up that I’m in the men’s room when some of the VJs are in the men’s room. [The MTV VJ’s overhear Dave’s manager saying] “I can’t fuckin’ believe it.”
[Dave;] “Oh, no, man, somebody told you?”
[Manager:] “Yeah, man, somebody told me. Jesus Christ.”
All the VJs are yelling, “What’s going on?”
[Manager:] “Goddamn it, he bet his producer that he could drive his ’51 Mercury low-rider convertible across the United States in three days or less in time for the MTV awards.”
[VJs:] “No, really?”
[Dave;] “Well, you know, I like a good bet.”
[VJs:] “It’s a permanent convertible?”
[Dave:] “Yeah, well, makes it like a Bruce Springsteen song, you know.”
[VJs:] “Hey, we got to cover this. We got to check this out. Jesus.”
Me and Big Ed load into the car, big good-bye to the very well-attended press. Drive about six miles, pull into the side street, load the Mercury up onto a flatbed, put it under a tarp, guy drives it across country. I don’t shave. Get on a bad airline, last class, wearing a hat and glasses. Fly to Baltimore. We get in the car. This is the dawn before the big arrival. We drive up around Jersey City, pull in, a little sleep in a motel, promptly lose the key to the car. Can’t find the key to the car. Meanwhile, I’m in the bathroom on my knees rubbing dirt on my face so I have that weathered look. The maid just then walks through the door. We’re frantic, there’s a panic, because what is about to transpire is big time. We finally find the key.
As we’re driving over the George Washington Bridge, there’s a helicopter following us. We pull up in front of the Parker Meridian Hotel, which is all blocked off, blaring “New York, New York” on the car stereo, covered with grime except for the goggle marks. Pull up victorious, stagger out of the car, hug each other. That night lost fourteen awards in a row. Stole the show. Spent the night in the bathroom with the Go-Go’s, doing everything you can imagine and then some.
When Dave and Big Ed pulled up to Radio City Music Hall, Dave stuck out his hand to a surprised Templeman and said, “Pay up!”
At the end of the night, Dave was very surprised that his videos didn’t win any awards. After all, his singles were huge hits (“California Girls” reached #3 on Billboard, and “Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody” reached #12), and their videos were arguably the funniest and most entertaining videos on MTV that year. In fact, it turned out that he was the most nominated artist of the entire awards show, receiving eight nominations his two videos: five for “Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody” and three for “California Girls.” Nevertheless, Roth came out of the ceremony empty-handed. You can’t win them all, Dave.
On top of that, it was at that very awards show that MTV announced Sammy Hagar as Van Halen’s new lead vocalist.
The Go-Go’s, whom Dave spent that night in the bathroom with, “doing everything you can imagine and then some.”
David Lee Roth later with Pee Wee Herman—the very night that Dave and his manager told MTV about the bet.