LA CARRERA PANAMERICANA IN A 912
We decided on a Porsche 912 after our first try at La Carrera in a 356 in 2001. The 356 turned out to be, at the same time, too much and not enough race car for this race. It was too much in that had been gutted and was unmuffled. It was cramped, noisy and hot. Not enough, because of the very mildly tuned engine. The rules require running on pump gas purchased from the normal Pemex gas stations. Thus 93 octane is the best that can be found, although additives are allowed. Thus a fairly low 9.5-1 compression ratio was used. We ran in the “Sports Menor” class. This class is for cars under 2000 cc that have the appearance of entrants in the original 1950-54 Pan Am races. The rules allow wide latitude in modifications and we were definitely out modified by the other entrants. We did manage to finish 6/8 in class and 56/85 overall. Scott Harvey, a well known American rally driver for almost fifty years won the “Historic A” class, which is for four cylinder cars up to 1965 and does not allow major modifications, in a 912 that year. We talked to him at length about his car and thought if we were to try again it would be in a 912.
We call ourselves “Los Tres Viejos Locos” (The three crazy old men). Ed Diamond and I have been friends for over forty years. I began crewing for him in 1963 and although we have had long breaks in our racing we have always stayed in contact. John Simonson has been codriving/navigating for me since 1998 in our local club rallies. I have been involved with auto sport since 1959 but had not driven as a race driver until the summer of 2001 when circumstances finally allowed me to fulfill that life long ambition. La Carrera Panamericana is a recreation of the original Mexican road race as it was known in the states, held five times between 1950-54. The first one was to celebrate the completion of Mexico’s portion of the Panamerican highway between Central America and the US. The first event ran from Ciudad Juarez on the Texas border south to Guatemala. It was for stock American cars and was a great success. However,the next four races allowed European cars to enter and were run from Tuxtla Gutirrez, about seventy five miles from Guatemala, north to Ciudad Juarez. It was finally stopped in 1954 as too many people both competitors and spectators were being killed and the expense of maintaining the road in raceable condition was more than the Mexican government wished to bear. It had achieved major international status with factory teams from Mercedes Benz, Porsche, Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, and Lancia from Europe. Lincoln, Chrysler, Hudson, Packard and Nash had factory teams from the US. Porsche’s class win in 1953 is the reason that Carrera is a Porsche model name to this day.
The recreation of La Carrera began in 1988. Some of the new founders were participants in the original race and others were sons of the originators. It is now a seven day stage rally for cars 1930-65. It is all run on paved roads, although some can be very rough. The start is once again in Tuxtla Gutirrez but the finish is now at Nuevo Laredo on the Texas border. The distance varies from year to year but is always about two thousand miles. While penalties can be asessed for being early or late at controls or for actions the organizers don’t approve of the rally is won or lost by one’s cumulative time on the special stages. There will be usually six to eight special stages per day in which the road is closed and driven flat out. Also, although the organizers contend there is “ample” time between the special stages one must drive very quickly between them in order to avoid lateness penalties. However, now, trucks, busses, burros, ox carts and other cars provide mobile chicanes as you try to maintain the required average.
Logistically La Carrera presents quite a challenge for us. We all live in the northeastern United States. Ed lives in the New York City area, John and I are from Rochester, NY, about three hundred miles northwest of New York City. The race cars and tow vehicles are kept here. From Rochester to the start in Tuxtla is almost four thousand miles. Which to put it in Eurpean terms would be like starting in London and driving to Siberia to start a race. Driving in Mexico is an almost constant challenge. The toll roads are usually in good condition, if expensive but many of the secondary roads are not. Traffic is heavy and varies greatly between very fast vehicles and slow farm trucks and animal drawn carts. Farm animals also will wander into the road. In the deserts the road may be built eighteen inches above the surface but with no shoulder. If you drop a wheel off it could result in a bad accident. It will take about thirty two hours to drive from the border to Tuxtla. Exclusive of stopping to sleep. Last race Juan, our “Servicio” driver and I crossed the border around 9 AM and were in Tuxtla about 9 PM the following day having stopped for about four hours sleep and breakfast. Any competitor will tell you that driving the race is the easy part, it is getting to Tuxtla that is tough. We tow the race car on an open trailer with a Jeep Cherokee. The rear seat of the Jeep is folded and the Jeep is completely packed with plastic tubs containing, spares, tools, bottled water, personal gear etc. Normally two of us drive the rig down and two fly down to meet in Tuxtla.
Usually a crew consists of driver and codriver and whatever support personnel they bring. As Ed and I both want to drive we alternate days driving the race car. John is always the codriver. On the driver’s off day he rides in the service vehicle navigating for the service driver.
In 2001, Peter, Ed’s son drove the Jeep. In 2002 Al Costich, a racing friend from Rochester was with us and in 2003, Juan Stanglmaier, a Mexican friend, took over. Having a native Spaish speaker familiar with Mexico City was a tremendous help. Mexico city is seventy five miles across and home to twenty two million people. There are no thru expressways or peripheal routes. Unfortunatey, the fasest ways north or south in Mexico all require going throgh the city. Juan’s knowledge and ability made what had been a nightmare in previous years very easy. Once we decided to return in 2002 we began looking for a decent 912. Ed found one on the internet located in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Coming from the south it promised to be rust free. It was a ‘66 (allowed under the rules as being identical to ‘65s) and had been owned by the same person for over twenty five years. Over time the owner had made allowances and compensated as the car wore out. Cosmetically it was quite atractive, although the refrigerator white paint was non-standard. The driver’s footwell had rusted out but had been skillfully repaired. The other worn items were not of great concern as they would all be relaced anyway in the process of turning a “family pet” into a race car.
During the summer of 2002 working around a ten vintage race season for the 356 we built the 912 ino a La Carrera contender. Having earned our lesson with the 356 the 912 was not gutted. However all the mandatory safety equipment had to be installed: 17 gallon fuel cell, 6 point roll cage, Corbeau rally seats, fire extinguisher, 6 point belt/harnesses and a Timewise rally clock/odometer. Chassis prep consisted of new Koni shocks all the way around, (set 1/2 hard), poly pro bushngs in the rear suspension, new front wheel bearings, a 22mm sway bar on the front, 19mm on the rear, new brake master cylinder and all four calipers. A skid plate was bolted under the engine and another under the fuel cell. We used 15 x 6 Panasport wheels with Nokian NRV 195/60-15 tires. The engine was rebuilt using 86 mm barrels and pistons to increase displacement to 1720 cc. A 285 degree duration cam was installed along with a Bursch exhaust system. A full flow oil filter was installed, mounted in the engine compartment and an auxilliary oil cooler inside the rear grille. (This would come back to haunt us.) The clutch and all bushings in the shift linkage were also replaced.
We decided to add stripes to the car to make it more distinctive. When the first piece of masking tape was pulled off the white paint came with it. The repaint had never bonded to the primer and with a week to go before departure the whole car had to be taken down to bare metal and repainted.
Part Two Mid September to mid October 2002 blurred by as we frantically tried to get the car ready. It was running too rich, fouling spark plugs and we were unable to determine the cause.
A call to Vic Skirmants the mid west Porsche guru resulted in an invitation to come to his place in Warren, Michigan on the day we were to leave for Mexico so he could have a try at sorting it out. So at four AM on the 14th, Al Costich and I left for Mexico by way of Canada! A look at a map of North America will show that the fastest way between western New York state and Michigan is across lower Ontario province.
We arrived at Vic’s place around 10 AM and he immediately set to work to straighten out the carburetors. After about four hours he had it about 90 % right (It took a total rebuild of the carburetors after we returned to finally sort them out). The car ran well from half throttle to wide open but was still rough and rich below that. Although we couldn’t tell that at the time as Vic’s test was a mostly flat out blast down his local streets and expressways with some handling tests on the on and off ramps.
We left Vic’s about 2 PM and got as far as Indiana before stopping for the night. The next day we made my brother’s place in western Kentucky and stayed there for a day. The following day we spent the night in a motel south of Dallas, Texas. We arrived in Laredo, Texas on the 18th. procured liability insurance for Mexico for both cars, changed our dollars for pesos and spent the night in the Rio Grande Plaza hotel right on the river.
Our adventures really began on the 19th as we attempted to cross the border. We went to Bridge #1 as it was closest to the hotel. The US supervisor there advised us not to cross there but rather at #3 or #4 as “The Mexicans are ready for you La Carrera guys there. We went to Bridge #3 the International Trade Bridge and saw the traffic was almost all trucks. As we crossed the border I noticed the usual customs offices were absent. We drove for a mile and came to a huge truck parking lot and warehouse area. After parking the rig we went i search of some one to process into the country. After about an hour the Mexican supervisor determined that we were at the wrong bridge and would have to go back to the US. The line of trucks waiting to get into the US was four lanes wide and a mile long. Finally, when we got to US Customs they didn’t buy our story of having inadvertently crossed at the wrong bridge and required that we have the rig X-rayed before we could proceed. Another our of waiting in a long line of trucks before we were passed through a gigantic X-ray machine and cleared to go. Eventually we got to Bridge #2 and into the normal flow of automobile traffic into Mexico. We went to the “Aduana” or Mexican customs building for the importation of cars and the fun began again. It seems that Ed, when he drove the rig out of Mexico the year before had neglected to turn in the necessary documents. The customs clerk discovered this as soon as she typed the VIN of the Cherokee into her computer.Now, we had to spend another hour filling out forms and getting the chief of customs to OK it before we could bring the Cherokee back into Mexico. After several more hours of dealing with the bureaucracy we had the necessary documents and were on our way. We arrived at our hotel in Nuevo Laredo abut 3:45 PM. It had taken us almost seven hours to advance four or five hundred yards south.
At the hotel we met the first of our companions and new friends that would make up the convoy to Tuxtla Gutirrez. It had been organized by the new US La Carrera representative, Gerie Bledsoe. Geri won Historic C (8 cylinder cars) in 2002. Over the next day more cars and crews continued to arrive including a group from Car & Driver magazine with a ‘53 Ford.
We left at 7 AM from Nuevo Laredo in a twelve car convoy escorted by “Federales”, the Mexican Federal Highway Police. The Federales seem to be similar to US state police in their functions but are a national police force. They were uniformly professional and competent in all our dealings with them. After driving all day we arrived at a truck stop about fifty miles north of Mexico City where we waited until 11 PM to cross the city. Even at night with a police escort crossing Mexico City is difficult. Some teams will drive hundreds of miles out of their way to avoid it. Around 2 AM we arrived at our hotel in Puebla. We were up at 5, after three hours sleep, ready for another long day. We left at 6:30 and arrived in Tuxtla Gutirrez at 9 PM that evening, having driven almost 2000 miles in thirty eight hours. There were only three of us left of the original convoy of 12. The others having dropped out with mechanical problems, fatigue or disagreement over the route.
John Simonson, our co-driver, had flown in that afternoon and reserved two rooms. However, the lobby was full of old friends from last year and as tired as we were bed was not an option until we had dinner with Bobby and Zoya Johnson who come all the way from the Aleutian Islands to race in La Carrera. Bobby finished in 2001 on three cylinders (out of 6) in his ‘53 Hudson Hornet coupe.
The next morning we took the car out to the fairgrounds and secured a garage. All the processig for the race takes place there. We got the car and our gear through Tech Inspection, had our physicals and received our Mexican competition licenses. That afternoon Ed Diamond flew in completing the team.
There were large teams from Germany and Italy entered in 2002. The Italian team had such notables as former F1 drivers Clay Regazzoni and Arturo Merzario. Also driving an Alfa in the Original Pan Am class was Prisca Taruffi the daughter of Piero Taruffi. As it turned out Regazzoni crashed but Merzario and Taruffi both won their classes. The Germans didn’t do as well with three 300SLs being wrecked before the race was over.
Friday, October 25th was the start of the race with Ed driving and John, as usual, in the right hand seat. Alan and I left with the Cherokee abut two hours before the start in order to be set up and waiting at the service area. It was about 150 miles down the road at La Ventosa. We were held up by a truck burning in the road. There was no fire equipment available and we just had to wait till it burned out and was pushed to one side. However, we made La Ventosa with plenty of time to spare.
When Ed and John arrived they complained of overheating. The placement of the oil filter and cooler was obviously wrong. We bungeed the deck lid up and ran the rest of the race in that configuration. It was ugly but effective. The oil temperature was fine for the rest of the event. That night in Oaxaca (Pronouced Whahaca) we had some other minor problems to work on but nothing serious. John and Ed were 4/12 in class and 50/79 overall.
Saturday, Oaxaca to Puebla found me in the driver’s seat. I can’t remember much about the day except I coudn’t find any rhythm as a driver and dropped us down to 8th in class. Sunday, Puebla to Morelia through Mexico City was Ed’s turn again. Alan and I got lost crossing Mexico City and again in Morelia but finally found our hotel by hiring a taxi to lead us there. I was standing at the entrance driveway chatting wth a Brit who was crewing on a Mini. He had no sooner finished saying “Porsches, bloody good cars, mate, dead reliable” when our car came in on a flat bed. The throttle linkage had broken on he first special section costing them the whole day. We jacked the car up and I crawled under to find the rubber buffer in the throttle linkage had broken. It had never been replaced with one of the new metal jacketed types. Alan, ever resourceful, found a crew with machine shop capabilities and in few minutes made a steel relacement. Meanwhile, a Mexican friend, Luis Unikel (Who is shown in the Pink Floyd La Carrera video putting his helmet and gloves on before the ‘91 race.) came by to see what the problem was. His chief mechanic looked at the pieces and said “I can fix that” and half an hour later came back with the part as good as new. He had revulcanized the rubber in a hotel parking lot! Amazing….it could only happen in a country where people have had to be very resourceful for years to keep their cars on the road. Luis Unikel went on to finish 3rd overall in his ‘54 Ford.
The next morning Andy Prill helped me to repolarize the generator which had gotten its polarity reversed when the voltage regulator had been shorted out as I had been, clumsily, attempting to attach a 12v. trouble light to it the night before. Andy has always been very generous with help and advice to all of us Porsche folks in La Carrera. He is a very nice guy, albeit opinionated, and a real credit to the sport. It is always a pleasure to see him again.
I was back in the car for the leg Morelia to Aguascalientes. We were driving the “Mil Cumbres” or 1000 Peaks section, a marvelously twisty mountain road that I enjoy very much. We did three special sections and then it started to rain. It poured off and on for the rest of the day. All the afternoon stages were cancelled. We moved up 20 places overall and back into 5th in class. The 912 had been running perfectly although the front skid plate had come loose and had to be refastened also there was some small concern (soon to be justified) over the shift linkage as second gear was becoming harder to find.
Day five, Aguascalientes to Zacatecas and it was Ed’s turn to drive again. It was to be a noon start from the mall parking lot where we finished the night before. The racers were to go to the race track at Aguascalientes for six hot laps and then proceed to Zacatecas for the first run over La Bufa. La Bufa is a mountain outside of Zacatecas with a long, smooth, sinuous and fast road over it. There are few guard rails and many long drop offs. La Bufa is taken seriously by everyone. (Alan deCadenet crashed heavily there in a “C” Jaguar in ‘91). Alan Costich and I were waiting at the service stop near the finish of that stage.
The cars would be serviced and then run back over La Bufa into Zacatecas for the ceremonial finish. (A digression: every day begins and ends with a ceremonial start and finish. You drive through a huge cheering crowd to an arch where you turn in your time card and a pretty Corona girl leans in the car and hangs a Finisher’s medal around your neck. At the end of the last day they hand you a cold Corona beer too.) While we were waiting Bobby Johnson drove up and said the Porsche had broken its crankshaft and was being trailered down to us. An hour or so later another team, who had gone to the track to spectate, brought our car in on their trailer. Our second try at La Carrera was over. Ed had missed a shift to 3rd pulling the car from 2nd to 1st at about 6500 rpm. It spun the flywheel right off the crankshaft.
We loaded the car on to our trailer and went to the hotel in Zacatecas. The next morning we adjusted the load so all for of us could ride in the Cherokee. That evening we crossed the border after stopping this time to do the correct custom’s procedures for taking the car out of Mexico. Ed drove the rig back home while Alan, John and I flew back to Rochester from Laredo, Texas the next day.
Part Three Over the winter we had rebuilt the engine, added a 1-1/2 qt deep sump, reinstalled a stock type oil cooler in the shroud, relocated the oil filter to the left rear fender and the auxiliary oil cooler to the left front fender both protected with stainless steel screen. On a more frivolous note, (so to speak) air horns were installed.
However, this time we seemed doomed from the start. The troubles began when the 912 blew off three oil filters and lost all oil pressure in a week. This, after the car was raced at Watkins Glen in June with no problems and a flawless 600 mile shake down run in August. That problem was resolved when it was discovered the auxiliary oil lines had been reversed and the top of the oil filters could not stand the increased pressure. It was an easy fix but now there were gnawing suspicions about the engine and no time for a rebuild.
Meanwhile, my partner Ed informed me he wouldn’t be able to make the start in Tuxtla but would join us in Puebla two days later.
Three days before I was to leave on the 12th of October, John and I decided to do a test run to calibrate the Timewise rally box for kilometers. Two bad things occurred simultaneously. The 912 began running hot which it had not done since the oil cooler was relocated and the rally box began to produce Chinese ideograms rather than numbers. At this point we couldn’t do much about the hot running. It wasn’t in the red so we figured we nurse the engie as much as we could. As far as the rally box was concerned. I called the vendor only to be told he didn’t have another one like ours. He could send us another brand, whch would require fabricating a different bracket and minor rewiring. It arrived the next day and was installed in a few hours but it didn’t work. I couldn’t even set the clock. None of the instructions in the owner’s manual seemed to apply. John came over that night and immediately pointed out that we hadn’t received the unit we ordered but a much more capable one albeit with the wrong owner’s manual. He downloaded the correct manual from the internet and we were in business.
The old Aztec gods were not finished with us yet. We had made arrangements with a man we met in Mexico last year, Juan Stanglmaier to drive our Jeep Cherokee service/tow vehicle. Juan had been driving “Servicio” for the German Mercedes team. He is a Mexican of German extraction, speaks Spanish, English, German and French fluently and has a smattering of Italian and Portuguese. A mechanical engineer by profession and a highly regarded racing driver in Mexico he was an excellent companion and a very important part of our team. The plan was for me to meet him in McAllen, Texas on the 18thof October so we could take our time driving the 2000 miles to Tuxtla and have a day or so of rest before the race started on the 24th. On the 10th Juan e-mailed me that he could not be in McAllen until the afternoon of the 20th. This meant changing a few dates, plans and reservations for the US part of the trip as I was going to stay with my brother in Kentucky and with friends in Dallas, Texas.
With the Jeep finally and fully packed and loaded I left Rochester on the afternoon of the 13th and arrived at my brother’s about twenty four hours later. My brother Phil and his wife Sherrye live in a small town, Arlington, KY just six miles from the Mississippi River. After spending a week gaining weight on Sherrye’s fine southern cooking I left for Dallas on the 18th. I stayed overnight with my friends and left early the next morning for McAllen. Juan and contacted each other via our cell phones and arranged to meet the next day. We were not able to leave McAllen until about 6 PM on the 20th.
A digression about Mexican customs regulations. Mexican regulations permit the owner of an automobile to import it (singular) into Mexico for a period of six months. There are no provisions in the regulations for race team members importing multiple cars they do not own.
At the first border crossing we were told we could not proceed, as Mexican customs regulations did not permit us to bring vehicles we did not own into Mexico. Even though, we had notarized letters of permission from Ed, in Spanish and had done this exact sme thing the two previous years.The customs officials were adamant. They did allow us to transit to another border crossing from McAllen while staying in Mexico to see a supervisor. The supervisor was just as firm as the first group. “No way Jose”. We decided to cross back into the US and drive the 150 miles that night to Laredo, Texas and attempt to cross there as I knew many LaCarrera entrants did. We crossed about 1:30 AM on the 21st and received the same reception. “You cannot bring these cars in. The rules do not allow it.” They did throw us a bone, telling us to come back in the morning when the chiefs are on duty and maybe they will OK it. Juan and I found a hotel near the bridge on the US side of the border an spent a restless night waiting. If we couldn’t cross by noon we were finished as there wouldn’t be time to get to Tuxtla and do all the usual pre race things that are necessary. I called John and Ed and alerted them that we were in trouble. Around 9 AM we crossed the bridge again and went to the Customs building. This time we were met by a cheery lady in a grey uiformthat said, “What can I do for you boys?” Juan explained what we had been going through. It was wonderful tohave a native Spanish speaker to deal with all these problems although the lady spoke quite good English too. She said “That’s not a problem. Go to the cafe and have a cup of coffee and I’ll meet you there in ten minutes.” It wasn’t even ten minutes when she bustled in, told us she would take care of everything, gathered up our documents, left for another ten minutes and when she came back everything was in order. We just had to cross when there was a supervisior present of high enough rank to OK our documents. We had to pay the usual fees and get ourwindshield stickers and that was it. Of course we gave her a couple of “Los Tres Vijos Locos! shirts for being so nice and helpful.
Juan was curiously ambivalent about this whole process. He vehemently agreed that it had been a major pain in the rear but at the same time, as a Mexican, was proud of the customs officers for sticking to the rules as they were in the book and not even hinting that a bribe would make our troubles go away. As he said “They are acting like a first world country”.
With the help of the customs lady it was the easiest crossing I had ever made and we were on ou way out of Nuevo Laredo by 10:30. Only 2000 mles to go to Tuxtla.
The drive from the border to Mexico City is fairly easy. We were mostly on well maintained but expensive toll roads. Juan and I alternated drving until we got close to Mexico City. After that he was the man. Being a native he was able to negotiate the horrendous traffic with ease. We arrived at his apartment arond 10:30. Evelyn, his wife ade us some snacks and coffee and after a quick pit stop we were on the road again. Juan drove us out of the city and past Puebla and then I took over. All went well until we began to cross the mountain range between Puebla and Vera Cruz. The warm , moist air from the Gulf of Mexico hit the mountains, rises, cools and turns into very thick fog. At one point I was feeling my way down this moutain highway from one center strip dash to the next. Arriving at Orizaba around 3 AM we went to Juan’s favorite hotel there and got their last room. By now we were in the tropics having crossedthe Tropic of Cncer and the very noisy birds woke us early the next morning. After breakfast we were on our way again.
We intended to drive down the east coast highway which was a very good road last year. Ths year, due to heavy rains it was potholed and badly deteriorated. This did not bode well for our next turn off onto Highway 185 the main southern road that crosses Mexico from east to west. It was bad last year and worse this year. There were potholes that threatened to swallow the Jeep. We finally made it across to La Ventosa and now had only 150 miles or so of not too bad mountain road to go to get to Tuxtla. (The same road we will be racing on, only the other way, in two days.) We got to the hotel about 9:30 PM. John was there having flown in that afternoon.
As last year we had dinner with friends. The arrival night is very much like a school reunion but finally had to pull away and go to bed. The next morning we drove the rig to the Convention Center where registration and tech inspection were being held this year. Juan hired some kids to wash the 912 and it went through tech with no problems. Registration and licensing also went easily. Then we had to wait for the Navigator’s meeting. We sat in the shade and with other copetitors making new friends and enjoying old ones. John and I both aended the meeting and on the way out he noticed a lot of puzzled faces among the newbies. So he held a series of impromptu seminars to help them out. He has since writtena La Carrera Copiloto’s Handbookwhich can be accessed on our web site.
Laer that afternoon we suited up and drove the Pre Qualification run on a special stage just outside of town. It sets the starting order for the first day. After that, each day’s finishing order does the same thing. We qualifies 56/76, not as good as I wanted but we were nursing the engine. Remember the engine?
Up early the next morning to load the gear in the Jeep and do the last minute checks on the 912. Our start time was 08:34:30 and we got to downtown Tuxtla and the starting arch about 07:30. John went to the starting line to get our time card and I chatted with the other drivers and specators.
In La Carrera the flag isn’t dropped but rather raised as it is draped across he windshield of your car until it is time to go. We were off, accelerating hard down a narrow lane of waving and cheering spectators. Flashing the lights, blasting the air horns and the loud exhaust really doesn’t have much effect and all you can do is hope that they will move back as you come through. For the first mile or so the city streets are closed but after that normal traffic is allowed. Busses, taxis and other cars do their best to stay out of the way as the race cars come through. It is an amazing feeling to be driving 55-75 mph down city streets and have the police just wave you through the intersections.
The first day, Tuxtla to Oaxaca, went well for us. Tuxtla is truly in the tropics and the ambient temperatures are high and it is very humid. The 912 ran hot but not excessively so. John’s navigation was spot on and his corner calling on the special stages perfect. The 912 is perfectly suited to this kind of event and I was really enjoying myself on the same mountain roads I had been cursing two days before.
Unfortunately some of our friends had trouble. Frank and Evelyn Curry hit a puddle of oil in their GT 350 Mustang and went off the road into a parking area, hitting an ambulance and injuring the two attendents. The Currys were OK though. Later we saw Bobby and Zoya Johnson by the side of the road with the hood (bonnet) of their “53 Hudson up. Bobby had been worried about overheating too. We never saw them again so I don’t know what happened to them for sure.
The heat was taking its toll. The first day is the hardest and is when 70% of all the accidents occur, before people get in the groove. It is a very tricky balancing act; to drive as fast as you can but always leaving a safety margin to deal with the unexpected. The Mexicans do a great job of clearing the roads but there is always the threat of an errant ox cart, burro, cow, rocks or another racecar crosswise in the road around the next curve.
That night in Oaxaca, John was feeling sick and went to bed early. Another digression: Digestive problems are a common problem for tourists in Mexico. Ranging from feeling uncomfortable to requiring hospitalization. Follow the recommendations in the guide books, be careful of what you eat and drink only bottled water unless the tap is placarded that the water is “Purificado”. None of us have ever been incapacitated by “Montezuma’s revenge” but we have been damned uncomfortable. Keep a supply of Pepto Bismol and Immodium AD handy and you should be alright. Juan came in with our rig with a 911 that he had picked up on the trailer. Two German ladies were driving it and a clutch cable connector had broken. It took a couple of hours in the parking lot but we got it fixed and they were ready to race the next day. This is one of the great things about La Carrera. It is such a grueling event and disaster can strike any competitor at any time so we all try to help each other as much we can because you may be the one needing help tomorrow. We were in good shape though. the car having used only 1/2 qt of oil for the day.
The next morning we hired a cab to lead us to the Zocalo (city square) where the start was. Hiring a cab to lead you to where you want to go is pretty much standard procedure in Mexican cities as it is inexpensive and saves a lot of time. We were parked next to a friend from last year, Bob O’Hara from Frostproof, Florida who races a ‘63 Falcon. After the start we followed a motorcycle cop at high speed through traffic to the outskirts of town. The day was going well. Oaxaca is about 6000 feet above sea level so it was cooler and the 912 was running well with the oil temperature in the high normal range. We ran four special stages in the morning gaining on the ‘53 Buick V-8 ahead of us but getting blown away by a Mini Cooper in our class that started a minute behind us and would pass about six miles into a stage. In the afternoon we ran two special stages without incident and had two to go. On the third the run in was on the worst road we had ever encountered in Mexico and the topes (speed bumps) in the villages were higher and steeper than we had ever seen before. The car was barely scraping over them plus being shaken to pieces by the washboard road. Well, we figured that special stage would have to be better. They are usually quite smooth. Wrong, wrong, wrong! I went into a corner at the normal speed for that severe a turn and the bumps were so bad the car went airborne and landed in the other lane. The rest of the stage was as bad. We finished and were perhps five hundred yards fown the road when the oil pressure went to zero and our La Carreera 2003 was over. We were out in the middle of nowhere and didn’t know if Juan was ahead or behind us. The cell phone wouldn’t work. We accepted a flat bed ride to the next town, Tehuacan. On the way we saw Juan with Don Piccard’s Morris 1000 Traveler on our trailer. He had damaged his sump also. In Tehuacan we rolled his car off and ours on and went on to Puebla. Juan discovered that the oil drain plug was missing but the sump did not appear to be cracked. The drain plug had been safety wired and the sump protected by a skid plate but something had reached up and knocked it loose. Upon sober reflection, it would appear that the deep sump was a mistake and the engine will be rebuilt with a normal sump and a Super 90 shuttle valve to ensure oil at the pickup. We installed another drain plug and refilled the engine with oil. Poor Ed had just arrived in Puebla to find his La Carrera was over before he ever got into the car. We started the engine but there was no oil pressure and an ominous clatter. So that was that. Done for another year.
The next morning I was talking to Luis Unikel, he said that he had told the organizers three weeks previously that particular stage was too rough to race on but they had paid no attention. We saw seven other cars wrecked or parked on that section.
We drove into Mexico city to a shopping mall where the cars were exhibited. Juan ran around town to find brake lines for the trailer which had also been damaged by the rough roads. After we made the repairs, Juan led us out of the city and we started home. It is a very long drive when you haven’t done well.
One could reasonably ask “Why do these guys keep doing this?” in light of the grueling nature of the drive to Tuxtla and the event itself. Well, “Los tres viejos locos!” was not lightly chosen as a team name. It is partly the sheer challenge of the event, to take part in something so much larger in scope than our normal club rallies and races, that relatively few other Americans even know about. It is to be a small part of the great history of La Carrera Panamericana that I read about in magazines when I was a schoolboy. It is to be able to drive as fast as possible on public roads lined with cheering, waving spectators, to be mobbed at lunch stops and at the daily finishes by autograph seekers. Finally it is Mexico itself, large, beautiful, historic and the Mexican people warm, friendly and enthusiastic. It all keeps us coming back.
If anyone would like more details on any aspect of our experiences I’d be glad to exchange e-mail. There are many photos on our web site. The Pink Floyd La Carrera video gives an excellent picture of what the race is like. It is packed with truthful statements except when some one infers that the Mexican organizers intentionally put misleading instructions in the English section of the route book. It is a funny joke but is not true. Also I am sure Andy Prill could give you all the information necessary to enter and compete in what I truly believe is the greatest race in the world.
Brian Fallon “Los Tres Viejos Locos”