La Carrera 2018 - Stage 7 - Durango
Stage 7: Zacatecas - Durango
Finish: 5th in Historic A+ / 46th Overall
Stage 7 of La Carrera Panamericana, Zacatecas to Durango, was the final day. But, it was no cruise to the finish. It was the longest stage of the rally, a massive 678km, with 112km of speed sections which were some of the toughest of the race. The speed section Espinazo del Diablo, Spine of the Devil, was the queen of the stage. Also called The Road of 3,000 Curves, we felt a mix of cautious excitement and outright fear at the prospect of racing it. For me as the co-driver, El Espinazo pushed me to my limit and was more difficult than I could have ever imagined.
Though the stage was tough, the day also had its beauty. During the afternoon transit we passed over El Baluarte Bicentenario, the highest suspension bridge in the world. At an altitude of 3,000 meters, it’s 400m above the ground, with a span of 520m, and a total length 1124m. Built in 2012, the contemporary bridge is beautiful to cross.
Of course the finish in Durango was also a beautiful sight after seven days of rally racing. The streets were filled with fans, the race teams, and all of the Carrera crew. It was the biggest party of the rally and it was fueled by the joy and relief of all of us having raced and finished La Carrera. It was also fueled by a generous supply of mezcal, beer, and laughs.
The Spirit of La Carrera
There is a wonderful and intense camaraderie amongst the racing teams. The veterans call it the spirit of the carrera. I believe it exists because every person in the race, drivers and crew, recognize in others the effort, commitment, endurance, and bravery it takes to race La Carrera. No matter where they finish, everyone has sacrificed something to be there and that is respected. Of course racers love racing and that shared joy brings everyone together.
The stage began with a pre-dawn drive out of old-town Zacatecas to the starting arch on the edge of town. It was still dark when we passed through the arch and began the 280km transit to Durango. On the dark highway we almost immediately made a wrong turn, but were able to quickly recover and catch a small group of other carrera cars.
On highway transits we drive as fast as we can, usually 150-180 kph. You cannot complete the transits in the allowed time without speeding. Sometimes local Mexican drivers want to race you on the highways and get in between the cars in a carrera group. For some locals it seems to be good natured fun, for others it seems to be motivated by machismo. Whatever the reason, it gets dangerous very quickly. Modern cars are generally faster than a historic rally car, but don’t handle as well at speed, and are driven by unskilled drivers. We delt with this situation several times during the rally, the most severe was on the transit to Durango. It thankfully ended when the local driver reached their exit and before my angry driver decide to run the guy into the ditch.
The morning speed stages of Rio Chico and El Soldado were on open, rolling roads with a rough, grippy surface that we had learned to drive fast. We were running third in our class. On the first stage after service, El Palmito, we were fast again and building our pace for the next section, El Espinazo del Diablo.
El Espinazo del Diablo
The Espinazo speed section is 33.860 km. We ran it in 15.35 min. Fifteen minutes of intense focus and effort. It was so intense that at one point I wasn’t sure I could keep delivering the pace notes at the speed required. The turns were coming so fast. My brain was well past overload. With the turn of every pace note page I was praying to see the flying finish.
Chris was having his own, no less intense, battle to try and hit every apex, be fast out of every turn, set up for the next one, and keep the car on the road. I vividly remember looking up from the pace notes to see the guardrail getting closer and closer to my door as the Volvo drifted across the road on the exit of a tightening left 3. Despite the consequences I put my head down to read the next pace note because there was a turn in 50 meters. Chris had his job, I had mine, and we were both on the limit.
I don’t remember the next speed section, Las Rusias, or the afternoon service that followed. Both are lost to the emotional drop and adrenaline fatigue that followed Espinazo. Our time on La Rusias was slow, the worst of the day, and we weren’t much better on the reverse run of Mimbres that followed the service.
I don’t know if I wasn’t pushing the pace, Chris was spent, or if he had backed off to assure we’d finish. In the end, the time lost on those two sections cost us a third place on the day. Oh well. We had done all we could at that moment. On the final speed section of the day, and the rally, a reverse run through Rio Chico, we woke up and got ourselves back on winning pace.
Looking back I’m proud of our recovery on that section. I believe it’s a testament to all we learned about ourselves during the 3,000km of rallying that came before it. Fast is a choice. If you’ve got driving skills and a capable car, all you need is the desire to be fast.
The Final Arch
Coming into Durango, crowds lined the streets all the way to the finish arch. It was a great feeling to roll up the finish line ramp, receive our final medal, and give my brother a hug of congratulations. It was at that moment we both knew we had reached our goal, we had raced and finished La Carrera Panamericana. For two rookies who had never rallied, much less raced a car before, it felt like a huge achievement.
Of course we hadn’t gotten there alone. Our crew—Tim, James, and Alberto—had worked tirelessly to get the Volvo and us to the finish line. We had become a team and we drove for them as much as we drove for ourselves.
We rolled down the ramp, parked along the boulevard, and joined the party. Among the teams there was a feeling of relief. We had all survived and the only thing left to do was celebrate our luck.
There was mezcal and music, autographs and handshakes, cigars and congratulations for everyone. For those few minutes, amongst everything that makes La Carrera special—the cars, the drivers, the fans, the teams, and the place—time stood still, the universe stopped moving, and the finish line was the only place to be.
As the party was ending and we were finally able to drive out of the finish line crowd, we brought the Volvo back to the crew and to the trailer waiting to take it home. Back in Oaxaca we’d opened a bottle of mezcal and Alberto had saved the last few shots to share tonight.
Standing in a strip-mall parking lot we told stories from the week, toasted La Carrera, toasted our team, and made promises to return. When the mezcal was gone, we loaded the Volvo into the trailer. James would be leaving at 4am for the long drive back to Connecticut. I knew it would be months before I’d see the car again and I felt an immediate sadness. The Volvo had been our world for seven days. Racing it through each day was our sole focus. It was a strange idea to imagine waking up tomorrow without it.
That’s when I knew I would be back at La Carrera in 2019.