On this page, Sue and I may post things now and again that have nothing to do with sailing, but that we find prescient, interesting, or maybe simply funny and worth sharing.
I’m going to start with an article I wrote about participating in the 1989 La Carrera Panamericana.
Beyond the fast lane at the 1989 La Carrera Panamericana
It’s hard to know where to begin relating one of the most bizarre, yet fulfilling experiences that I’ve ever had in just a few words, but here goes nothing…
After nine months of preparing an almost completely restored ’54 Jaguar XK120 for the race, and watching both the transmission and engine let go just before leaving, I thought the race was over before it had even begun. I had prepped the cylinder head, but the owner had been told upon purchase that the engine and tranny had been freshly rebuilt, so I was instructed to leave them alone. OOPS!!!
Following the most hectic rebuild and swap sessions imaginable, we were finally ready to go, with eight days before the beginning of the rallye, and over 3,000 miles of driving just to get to the starting line in Tuxtla Guiterrez, about 60 miles from Guatemala! We started the car, literally for the first time since the rebuild, drove it up the trailer, and we were off. I had been awake for the past 56 hours, so I slept a little in the truck. Had I known what was in store, I would have slept more. A lot more!
In Texas, we bought our Mexican auto insurance, and after a very stern warning about not driving at night, no matter what,we entered Mexico at Nuevo Laredo, bought some good dark Mexican beer (Negra Modelo, my all-time favorite brew), and headed south as fast as we could (no, we weren’t drinking while driving!).
Driving through the night, we soon learned about the warning received, as we were pulled over at about 3:00 a.m. by a group of well-armed people of dubious military affiliation. They let us pass without incident, and we proceeded south, only to discover a couple of other reasons never to drive at night in Mexico. The first was turn signals. A left turn signal means that it’s o.k. for traffic to pass you, while a right turn signal means that it’s not safe to do so. You NEVER EVER signal turns!!! And brake lights. All vehicles are required to have them, but apparently color and quantity are left up to the owner of the vehicle. We saw multi-colored crucifixes, Christmas trees, Aztec symbols, and advertisements, sometimes made up of hundreds of multi-colored lights, flashing in sequence. Amazing. Don’t ever drive there at night. Trust me.
Six days later, we were about 50 miles from the Oaxaca-Chiapas border, and we decided to send the Jag the rest of the way to Tuxtla on it’s own (o.k., there was a driver in it…) to get a little high speed running before the start.
An hour passed before I made it to the border, where I was stopped by some form of uniformed adolescents with M-16s, who held me at gunpoint for about an hour while the searched my truck and it’s contents. After relieving me of my wits, and half of my money, they laughingly sent me on my way.
Just about 20 miles short of my destination, I rounded a corner and almost ended my adventure permanently. The road ahead had washed out, Leaving a 200+ foot drop at my feet. I jumped out and went to the edge, looking for a splattered XK120, but they must have been watching out (for once), because they made it past, somehow. After a few moments, I found the bypass and crawled through in 4-wheel drive. I’m still amazed that all the cars had passed through here without incident, and even more amazed that the Mexican army showed up and fixed the road in the 18 hours that elapsed before I passed this way again.
Arriving in Tuxtla Guiterrez, I found the hotel, my driver, his wife and her brother, who were to drive back with me so I could get some rest (ha!), and 25,000 natives who wanted my autograph, my driving gloves, and anything else that I could be persuaded to part with! This went on until I let on that I was a mechanic, not a driver. Mechanics in Mexico, you see, have about the same all-encompassing glory and respect as, say, toilet scrubbers.
My identity out of the way, I grabbed a quick bite to eat, and set out to tune up the car, which was sounding a bit like an old Ford Pinto with bad plugs. Since the logic cells in my brain had abandoned me while we were still in Florida, it took me until 3:00a.m. to get the carbs synched and the timing set so that they would function well from 300 to 3000 feet above sea level (the biggest altitude change would be 8,800 feet, later in the week). Taking the car out on a road test was very memorable. Blasting back and forth infront of the local police station, in excess of 100MPH, at night, in a straight-piped Jag, while waving at the officers was really a high point of the trip! When I got back, I went to my room and slept for the next 45 minutes, and then it was time to get to the starting line for the first day of the Rallye.
The scene at the starting grid was simply beyond belief, with the road lined with people 10 deep for miles out of town, a military brass band, hundreds of soldiers in full dress, politicians waving frantically, and 174 sleep-deprived drivers, navigators, and their crews all parading north on the Panamerican Highway to Oaxaca. I can’t begin to really describe it, but this is when the full weight of the history of the Carrera Panamericana really hit me, and I was happy to be there.
Oaxaca was an easy run, and for the only time during the rallye, we got to the mid-day service checkpoint before the jag did. It was also the only time the car needed absolutely no attention.
We ended up in the town square, around which cars the cars paraded twice before parking, and I then commenced what would become a nightly ritual of bleeding the brakes, changing the oil, clearing the tire treads, and tightening the 2 or 3 hundred things that came loose during the day’s run.
The first bad news arrived in Oaxaca before we did. A Mercury in the sedan division had left the road, falling about 200 feet while rolling repeatedly, and had come to rest upside-down, next to a cow. They drove in about midnight, and finished the rallye, minus the doors and with a radically lowered roofline. The cow was unscathed, as were the occupants.
While doing the required maintenance, a young local lad with decent English assisted me with everything from washing the car, to bleeding the brakes, to checking me into my hotel (for my 3 hours of sleep), to explaining that the local police were picking up our empty soda bottles to make Molotov cocktails as their ammunition supply was low! All for the equivalent of $5.00 US and a magazine that shall remain nameless. I seriously thought about kidnapping him. (He is to the left of me in the top picture.)
The next day’s run brought the first serious accident, as a Porsche 356 left the road, totalling the car. In addition, a few others hit cliffs and rocks, although they were able to continue. The seriousness of what we were doing was beginning to sink in.
That night marked the beginning of an alliance with the mechanics of a team running an Alfa Romeo that probably allowed both cars to finish. We assisted each other in doing maintenance, sharing cabs to hotels, and drinking copious amounts of adult beverages.
Leaving the pristine beauty of southern Mexico behind, we next traveled through Mexico City to Queretaro, losing a few more cars along the way. Watching the heavy-duty partying that the drivers were doing each night, not a few mechanics were expecting fatalities before it was all over. A prediction that fortunately, unlike the original Carrera Panamericanas, didn’t come true.
Very few of the mechanics got any sleep that night, as the combination of extreme altitude changes, very fast and EXTREMELY slow driving, and the longest run of the event really took their toll on the cars. Not to mention us.
From there it was on to San Luis Potosi and a one day layover. While the drivers enjoyed the bullfights, the cars were virtually dissected and rebuilt. Our cars’ brakes, it’s weak link, were getting worse, so I rebuilt the master and both rear wheel cylinders, along with all the usual stuff. The driver of the Alfa helped bleed the brakes, and when we were done, it was like a different car. I sometimes think that his method of pumping the pedal somehow made more difference than all the work I had done (there is no master cylinder tougher to rebuild than an early Jaguar’s), but at least they worked. I actually got 6 hours of sleep that night!
The next day, on the short run to Zacatecas, disaster struck. Entering a decreasing radius turn, the Jaguar departed from the road, swapped ends, and introduced itself to a tree at about 50 MPH. We had arrived before the rallye cars, as they had a long speed run outside of town, so we listened with growing apprehension to the stories of the wreck. When they limped into town, the relief was palpable.
But, what a mess! The body from the rear axle back was demolished, the axle itself was offset 3 inches to the right, and the auxiliary fuel tank was smashed to the size of a football. Upon inspection, it was evident that the tank, along with the tightly packed baggage in the trunk had absorbed the impact, and probably saved their lives.
Seeing the amount of damage, we were convinced that nothing could be done, and we began to think of ways to get the car home when a rallye official came up to us and said that he thought he knew a place that could fix the damage. Scarcely willing to hope, we followed him to a repair yard (literally a yard as the only shed in sight held the tools deemed to valuable to leave in one of the wrecks outside), where they were willing to give it a try. We returned to the car, attached the tow bar, and dragged it to them, not really believing that anything could be done.
Were we ever wrong! It seemed that all their friends and relatives had heard what they were going to do, and they all showed up to help. With only hand tools,and an old hydraulic ram, they did what would amount to an automotive miracle, unfolding crumpled metal, straightening the frame,and re-welding the broken spring mounts. They even washed and waxed the car! When I got the call to get the car at 3:00am, I had figured that they had given up, so when I got there, I almost passed out from shocked delight! And all this cost us was $300.00(U.S. please, and no travelers checks!), and a bunch of autographs. During the time they were fixing the car, I went exploring Zacatecas, and discovered that it is probably one of the most beautiful, and yet undervisited, cities in the world. Old Spanish architecture, with relief-sculpting sometimes three feet deep, covered entire buildings. Even the sidewalks and cisterns were highly ornamental. The people were very friendly, and the food was the best Ihad anywhere in Mexico. I’d love to go back again. Only next time, I’d prefer to be wide awake.
The next day, and it was on to Monterrey. Everybody was amazed that we made it to the starting grid, and that we still had the nerve to go all out, actually having one of our best days on the speed sections. I still maintain that it was lack of sleep that made us so eager to continue!
The Alfa team I was working with was beginning to have a lot of problems with their car, due mostly to the fact that the cylinder head hadn’t been removed from the car since 1953, when it had run in the original Carrera Panamericana! I kid you not, the driver/owner of the car felt it would be bad luck to disturb the engine! We put colder plugs in, retarded the timing, and added extra octane boost to the fuel to try and keep combustion temperatures down, and hoped for the best. Meanwhile, I found that both the front and rear crankshaft seals on the Jaguar were leaking. Thinking quickly, I drank a few beers (to get the aluminum from the cans, you see…), and fabricated an additional shield in the bellhousing to help keep oil off the clutch. I then proceeded to fall asleep while changing the oil, but the Alfa guys kindly woke me up. They very effectively used a hammer on the dumpster next to my head. Believe me, I shot up like a rocket, thinking that fireworks were going off right next to me! Unfortunately, I was still under the car at the time.
Monterrey to Nuevo Laredo was the last leg of the rallye, and it was a good thing, too as none of us had any idea how we had held on so long without sleep, and the drivers parties every night had certainly taken their toll on the pilots and navigators. In fact, although I abstained from putting down any money myself, hundreds of dollars were being exchanged nightly between pit crews as they wagered on crashes (and, unfortunately, injuries and fatalities), mostly based on the previous night’s activities.
The best part of this last leg was that the pit crews arrived a couple of hours ahead of the first cars, so that we could set up areas for the arriving vehicles. With over five hundred thousand people there to watch the finish, this was no easy feat. But we all managed, with the help of the local authorities, to find space in the town square within a mile or so from the finish line.
Since the actual finish was a few miles out of town, and from there the cars would be paraded into the square for the ceremonial end of the rallye, we had some time to kill. A few of the guys from the Alfa team, some press types, and myself set out to find some deals in the local open-air market, a good spot to observe the arriving cars, and maybe have a beer.
As it happened, once we entered the crowd, all bets were off. With that many people milling about, we were repeatedly seperated and pushed back together as we aimed for some bleachers to sit on. When we finally got there, we were told that they were reserved for local dignitaries, rallye officials, and employees. As I mentioned before, mechanics were apparently no more than neccessary evils, and no seats were available for us.
Seeing locals climbing into trees and onto the ornate lamp-posts that surrounded the square, we decided to do the same, and headed through the packed-in crowd to the closest streetlight. As we approached, a gap about three feet wide split the crowd apart. Looking to my left, I saw the dusty, red bonnet of the Jaguar I had worked on so long and hard, nosing it’s way through the crowd towards us, and that the finish line was almost directly in front of us!
I barely had time to raise my camera as the crowd opened up a little, and the car picked up a little speed and passed through the arch just as I made it there, in time for a perfect photo finish, and the best possible end to an experience that I will never forget.
In the end, we took 37th place out of some sixty finishers. We logged barely less than 6,000 miles in 17 day and nights. During those miles, we broke in the motor after the rebuild, while managing to navigate (sort of) most of Mexico after six days of our own private race, and arrived in Tuxtla Guiterrez less than twelve hours before the start of the Carrera Panamericana 1989. I took about 600 pictures (half of them seem to be of the same cactus…), slept and average of 3.5 hours each night, met many amazing and entertaining people, passed an officially estimated 5 million (!!!) spectators, and had the greatest motoring experience that I could ever imagine! However, I do think that some things are best experienced but once.
Well, maaaybe twice….
All photos and text © 1994, 1999, 2002, and forevermore… by Michael A. Barnett. All rights reserved. First published in the April/May 1994 “Alfa Notizia”, of the Florida Alfa Club.