Viva La Carrera Panamericana

Over the last fifty-five years, seasoned drivers from around the world (most reveling in glorious male menopauses) have gathered in Tuxtla Gutierrez on the southern boarder of Mexico to race “vintage” cars.

Not just any cars; not just any race.

La Carrera Panamericana is a hard driving 2,200 mile seven-day rally, taking drivers up through the center of Mexico to Nuevo Laredo on the Texas border. The race covers some of the most spectacular country and switchback roads on earth.

2,200 mile race course for the 2005 La Carrera Panamericana

Race cars have been clocked at 190+ mph – all shepparded by a wonderful contingent of Federale police that protect the drivers and the public from each other during the event.

The cars are pre-1955 sports and saloon cars with wickedly fast engines and six pot disc brakes that could stop a 747 on an aircraft carrier.  “Historic” cars (1995-1965) also participate.

These cars are driven (and overdriven) by some of the finest men and women mankind has produced. Fortune 500 CEO’s, YPO Presidents, wealthy entrepreneurs and self-funded salt of the earth characters. The camaraderie among the racers and their teams is awesome. However, something insane happens to the driver’s sense of reason in their quest to win this event. The term “red mist” doesn’t do it justice…….

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I remember the admonition during the initial navigator’s meeting before the race started. Fifty percent of all accidents in La Carrera Panamericana happen during day one in the morning speed trials along the winding and treacherous “Rizo de Oro” from Tuxtla Gutierrez to Oaxaca. I’m sad to report that we added to this statistic.

I am the “co-piloto” for one of the race’s great characters – Rusty Ward. Rusty has attended the race for eleven years and brought the car home in all six years that he has competed. His chariot of choice is a late model Studebaker, painted to resemble a Mexican Federale Police car, siren and light included. The thing is built like a tank. Magnificent roll cage. 500 bhp short block Chevy engine. Lovingly prepared and supported by the greatest unpaid “Tin Cup” race team on the planet – Al, Glen and Roland. The car is fast as lightening.

Car #141, a 1965 Studebaker
Piloto Rusty Ward
Co-piloto Stephen Page 

Day one - we made it through the first four sections unscathed. We’re passing cars. Candidly, we’re going like the clappers. The scene of the crime is a sweeping, slippery downhill left hander, culminating in a sharp left turn onto a fragile looking bridge, spanning a ravine.

We skidded coming into the turn. We took out the majority of the bridge‘s guardrail, somehow preventing us from taking a closer look at the ravine, 100 feet below.

The car was shot. Two blown rims and tires. The chassis at the rear of the car shifted left 2-3 inches. Bent half shaft. The front fender compressed to the width of a pimento sandwich. A really good whack.

Helmets in hands on the side of the road, we resign ourselves to the fact that we’re out of the race. At the pit of our day, the magic of La Carrera Panamericana begins.

The Federale police stop and take the damaged front end of our car in their truck to their hotel. Every car following offers assistance. Our support team arrives and loads our car for transport and repair to Oaxaca.

Francisco, the Ford dealership service manager in Oaxaca (bless him) lets us use their repair bays until 4am the next morning as we re-assemble the car. Other team mechanics (including the world’s best English panel beater - Terry) beat our car’s bodywork into some semblance of its former beauty.

One of the race organizers, Victor, recruits four friends to transport the front bodywork of our car from the Federale police hotel. They travel across town with the bodywork hanging from the rear of a SUV on their laps. Strangers procure impossible to find parts.

We are still missing a few vital pieces and travel on day two from Oaxaca to Puebla via our team’s trailer. The countryside is breathtaking. Subtle lone trees dot rolling mountains. We pass through fields of Blue Aguave – mescal fodder for the uninitiated. One of the world’s last legal hallucinogenics.

A Studebaker built like a tank for the grueling racing conditions.

We arrive in Puebla and begin our search for missing and broken parts to get us back in the race. We succeed on all counts save two wheel rims. An odd 16 inch variety found only on Crown Victoria’s – coincidently the car of choice for the Federale police escorting us on our collective journey.

We trailer again during day three from Puebla, through the 24 million citizens of Mexico City to Morelia. In route, we have one of the best meals of our lives at a roadside restaurant. We stop at twenty plus wrecking yards trying to find the rare 16 inch wheel rims. Our magnificent team efforts that have resulted in the return of our car to race condition appear for naught. In the middle of the night we experience another La Carrera miracle. Two 16 inch rims appear. A beaming police chief is averting his eyes from a jacked up patrol saloon somewhere in Morelia. A tire shop owner is roused at 11pm to fit and balance the tires. He refuses payment for his work – “Viva La Carrera Panamericana”.

 

We’re back in the race!

I have tied a proverbial piece of string to Rusty’s most private place. Any overdriving will cause a sharp response. Magic happens. Rusty drives like a champion. I become a fearless and competent navigator. Two men bond in the harmony of great racing execution. We are a prime example of “the odd couple”.

Somehow it really works. Our “Tin Cup” team embraces the moment and cheers our every completed stage with wild enthusiasm and pride.

We compete in days four, five, six and seven. We race from Morelia through Leon to Aguascalientes. Each night, we pass through cheering crowds around the Corona finishing arch and receive our stage medals and endless bottles of Corona. The car is too compromised to be really competitive. We do not place in any of the speed trials during our daily timed stages.

Every evening, huge crowds welcome each team as they pass under the Corona Arch

Day five finds us traveling from Aguascalientes to Zacatecas, a truly beautiful town that reminds me of Santa Fe. The people of Zacatecas pour into the village square to welcome our arrival. We have a splendid dinner in the 500 year old stone bull ring. The “walk with the donkey” begins. An old tradition where race participants follow a donkey loaded with two wooden kegs filled with mescal through town. Villager’s give us pottery cups to hang around our necks for speedy refills.

The organizers wisely start the race next day at 12pm. Most of us could have safely missed the next day…………………………

Day six involves speed sections around some of the most dangerous terrain we cover, a stage called La Bufa.

 

La Bufa – gone wrong. A beautifully prepared Porsche takes a leap.

La Bufa is a twisty road around a mountain, just outside Zacatecas. Spectacular ravines and drop offs. Really hairy turns, bravely taken at speed by many – unsuccessfully by some………………….

One of our most competent racing teams goes out early. They are leading their class and elect to switch drivers. A spectacular 150+mph crash. Fourteen barrel rolls, a totally destroyed car. Miraculously, a few broken bones but no permanent injuries.

 

 

 

La Bufa - gone spectacularly wrong. A high speed slide causes a fourteen barrel-roll spin. Driver Asay and co-pilot Bledsoe survive without serious injury.

This is not for the faint-hearted – and therein lays its appeal. Where else in the world can you race flat out on public roads, encouraged by the Federale police to go faster? Where else will fellow racers stay up all night to help you compete against them the next day?

The navigation book is flawless in its guidance. The race officials are happy and get potted with the teams each night. Everyone helps each other overcome every obstacle. Children gather to wave and cheer us on in every village we pass through. This is truly a unique race experience.

Day seven is fast and long. A four-hundred mile shunt from Zacatecas to the Texas border. As we reach Nuevo Laredo, we are guided at speed through downtown to the cheers of thousands.

 

Peyton Feltus’ jet propelled” Mustang.

Burn-outs, sirens and spectacular downtown speed shatter the senses. We gather in an arena on the outskirts of the city. We pass under the final Corona arch of the race.

More medals. Endless Corona’s. Celebratory cigars. Cuddles with fellow racers. Explosions of team joy with the “Tropical Gangsters”, “Jade Pigs” and “Guacamole”.  Collective euphoria at finishing in one piece.

The attrition has been substantial. Thirty percent of the entrants do not finish the race. A riveting and costly car fire. Many breathtaking crashes – mercifully all without major injury. Thank God!

 

 

 

A beautifully prepared Tropical Gangster team Cobra Daytona Exhibition car - a very sad and expensive fire.

The event culminates in a splendid awards banquet. Shiny trophies are given to worthy winners. Those unfortunate enough to have broken or crashed are already devising next years winning strategy.

The winners are rightly smug in their fantastic accomplishment.

If you feel the need to live on the edge, there is no experience like La Carrera Panamericana – www.lacarrerapanamericana.com.mx . I’ll see you there in 2006

Stephen Page is Chairman & CEO of BPMX – spage@bpmx.com . He lives in Dallas with his patient and loving wife, Kathi. In saner moments, he races vintage open wheel formula cars with CVAR in the Southwest.

 

           

         A magnificent leap by Jerry Churchill                               A spectacular high speed “off” by Jorge

Copyright: Stephen J. L. Page 2005©

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