MANATEE -- Jay Leno fans will still have plenty of fond memories of the late-night TV funny man after he steps down Thursday from his gig as host of "The Tonight Show."
Most of them won't be able to top southern Manatee resident and author Sal Santoro, who got to hang out for a day with Leno at his California garage last year.
"I'm probably the only one in the world to have destroyed his pepper mill," said Santoro, 62.
More on that story in a bit.
The adventure started when Santoro and Bob Walton, retired longtime pals and self-described car guys from New Jersey, spent 38 days travel
ing the country back in 2010 on famed Route 66 in Walton's 1968 Cadillac Deville convertible. They later got the idea to turn their "bucket list" trip into a book about their experiences, "Route 66, The People-The Places-The Dream," published in 2012.
The book caught the attention of Leno, a noted car enthusiast, who selected it for his book club on his "Jay Leno's Garage" website and invited the two out to meet him.
"It was such an honor," said Walton.
Leno spent the better part of a Saturday with them, interviewing them about the book for an eight-minute segment posted on jaylenosgarage.com. They also got to check out Leno's private collection of more than 100 cars and 80 motorcycles, and he treated them to a pizza lunch. That's when Santoro broke Leno's pepper mill after furiously trying to grind some black pepper onto a slice.
"It's electric -- there's a button at the top," Leno pointed out after an embarrassed Santoro was left holding the broken mill in two pieces.
Santoro gave Leno a replacement a few days later when they were invited back into the green room following a taping of "The Tonight Show."
"He was wonderful to us," Santoro said. "A real regular guy. A true car guy."
Santoro, who moved to Manatee full time six months ago, and Walton, 65, who still lives in Wyckoff, N.J., aren't too shabby themselves.
They met in northern New Jersey in 1991 when Walton was forming a Cadillac club. They've gone on several road trips together to the Cadillac & LaSalle Club Grand Nationals.
But there was one trip they had always wanted to take. They had grown up watching the old "Route 66" TV show, and when Walton retired, they finally had the time and the motivation -- plus their wives' blessing -- to take their own cross-country trek along the famed stretch of highway.
The trip began in Jersey and took them out to Chicago, where they picked up Route 66, which stretches more than 2,400 miles through eight states, all the way to Santa Monica, Calif.
Along the way they stopped at 15 major car museums or collections, plus odd roadside attractions (the World's Largest Rocking Chair in Cuba, Mo.) and landmarks such as the Grand Canyon, Abraham Lincoln's tomb and the Oklahoma City bombing memorial.
They didn't intend to write a book about the journey -- "we kept journals, only because we're old guys and we were worrying about forgetting stuff," Walton jokes -- but they did take more than 8,300 pictures of their journey, more than 500 of which are in the book. It includes a list of their 100 favorite attractions along the way.
"Almost every other book (about Route 66) is by experts," Walton said. "This book is us seeing everything for the first time."
The biggest surprise, the two said, was the friendly and unforgettable people they encountered along the way. Most were eager to point out town landmarks or chat about the history of Route 66 when they spotted Walton's Cadillac, dubbed "Big Red," rolling into town.
"It's like a brotherhood," Santoro said. "We just felt like that the whole way."
The book captures the spirit of their once-in-a-lifetime trip and carries a message for everyone, Santoro said: "If you want to do something, why wait?"
"So many retired guys are in rocking chairs drinking a beer," Walton said.
While out on the open road, they sure didn't feel retired.
"When we were on the trip, we were 18," Santoro said.
The two buddies now relive their odyssey through the book, which sells for $34.95 and is available on route66guys.com. They also do book signings, including one scheduled Feb. 15 in Englewood at the Dearborn Street Book Festival.
Walton is visiting Santoro at his Manatee home this week, and the two are attending Leno's show Friday at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall in Sarasota, his first appearance after his final "Tonight Show" episode. They have tickets to a black-tie reception, where the two friends hope to say hello to the comedian once again.
As for anyone who wants to follow in their footsteps and see the "real" America on Route 66, they have one piece of advice.
"You have to have adventure in your soul," Walton said.
Jason Bartolone, East Manatee Editor, can be reached at 941-745-7011. Follow him on Twitter @JasonBartolone.