La Carrera 2018 - Stage 2 - Mexico City

Our Volvo Amazon stage heading to Mexico City in La Carrera Panamericana | Photo by  Godet Studio

Our Volvo Amazon stage heading to Mexico City in La Carrera Panamericana | Photo by Godet Studio

Stage 2: Oaxaca - Mexico City

Finish: 5th in Historic A+ / 64 Overall

Today’s stage was an early start and we were up and out before dawn. We met the crew at the car and drove off to the starting arch with the headlights on. Little did we know today’s stage would, more than anything else, determine our finishing place. 

Having finished Stage 1, we had a small, glowing flame of confidence that we could handle what lay ahead. Everything in front of the windshield was an unseen challenge, but yesterday we had raced into that unknown and thrived. Today, we believed we could do the same. 

In hindsight your own mistakes always pinch the most. But you’ve got to learn somehow. One of the cruel truths of La Carrera is this: if you let your focus drift for even a minute you will pay a price. I suppose that’s true in all racing. But, in a 3000km race where places are divided by seconds, perhaps the price you pay is steeper. 

The Stage

Map of Stage 2 Oaxaca to Mexico City

Stage 2 of La Carrera Panamericana left the lush green valley city of Oaxaca and sped north 565km to the mega-metropolis of Mexico City. The stage was made up of seven speed sections totaling 100km. The transit sections were a long 465km total, including an epic 255km blast into CDMX. It was a long day of racing, from 7AM to 7PM. The road was the opposite of the previous day’s slick, wet glasphalt. It was rough, dry, open, and fast—wide curves through low hills of scrub oak and cactus.

I don’t remember a lot of details about Stage 2. Rally racing narrows your focus. As the driver, perhaps my brother Chris remembers what that part of Mexico looks like. As the navigator I was still striving to get up to speed with my responsibilities and give my driver the pace note information he needed to be fast, on route, and on time. 

What I do remember are the two mistakes we made on Stage 2 that cost us 2 minutes and 30 seconds. One mistake was mine, the other was Chris’s. Both of them were rookie errors we were bound to make eventually.  The time we lost would be the difference between 4th and 5th place in our class six days later.

Also, I remember the town of Tehuacán where we stopped for a Carrera-organized fiesta after the last speed section of the day. The small plaza was packed with so many Carrera fans, asking for tarjetas, autographs, and pictures we literally could not open the car doors to get out. It was overwhelming at first and I thought, “oh, this is what it’s like to be famous.” Of course, we weren’t famous, we were just the drivers of a Carrera car. Over the next six days we would become accustomed to fans mobbing the car and asking for a souvenir. It became great fun. We loved sharing the race with fans and being apart of the Mexican culture.

The most vivid memory of the day was the incredible finish in the heart of Mexico City. A little more than half way through the 255km transit from Tehuacán, 100km outside of CDMX, all the Carrera cars gathered on the side of the highway to meet up with the police escort that would take us all the way to the finishing arch. Cruising at 200kph down the highway in a pack of race cars with a police escort was amazing. Only in Mexico we would say. But better still was parading down the closed streets of the city center, driving a lap around Zócalo Square and finishing in front of the Palacio de Bellas Artes. It was an unbelievable experience. Cheering Carrera fans lined the route, packed the square, and finish. Though many great moments would come later in the race, the finish in Mexico City was the highlight for me. 

Rookie Mistakes

At the drivers’ meeting the Carrera chiefs will say you should not speed on the transit stages. This is a practical impossibility. If you do not drive the transit stages as fast as you reasonably can on open roads shared with the public, you leave your team at risk of arriving late at the time control.  A rule to remember: in the La Carrera you are never not racing. 

When we finished the short 9.7km speed section of La Herradura we still had 38+ minutes to reach the next time control. We were managing our fuel tank carefully to avoid carrying extra weight and made a fuel stop on this transit. Leaving the PexMex and looking at the kilometers to go I realized we had been much too slow on the first half of the transit and had little chance of arriving on time at the control. As the co-driver this was my fault.

Though the recommended average speed for the section was 75kph, we now needed to do 120kph to arrive on time. Between the deadly topes (speed bumps) and the traffic on the local roads of Mexico, 120kph is an impossibility. We were doomed. Chris drove the fastest he could, but we still arrived late and were penalized. As a co-pilot, it was a hard lesson I vowed to never repeat. 

The stress of transit and the disappointment of the penalty unsettled us both. Chris compounded our misery with yet one more mistake. At the starting line for speed section 4, Yanhuitlán, Chris jumped the start, blasting off as soon as the official handed back our timecard back, instead of waiting for the 5-4-3-2-1 countdown. That earned us yet another penalty.

As rallying rookies we were bound to make mistakes. We knew this. We had bitten off a lot by racing La Carrera and today we choked a little. At the end of the day we talked it over then put it behind us. I’m proud to say those were the last mistakes we made. 

I’ve Lost My A.C.

The inside of race cars are hot. Rallying in Mexico makes them even hotter. To cool the interior of the car you need good airflow through the cockpit. On our front doors we have quarter glass, those small triangle windows that swing open. We use them to direct cooling air into the car. At the back we have side vent windows we leave open to let the air flow out. That’s our air conditioning system.

Somewhere along today’s stage a rock popped up off the road and shattered Chris’s quarter glass. It happened on a speed stage and because Chris was so focused he didn’t notice until at the time control I hear through the intercom, “I’ve lost my a.c.” We stopped to cleaned the shattered glass out of his seat and floor, and kept going. Oh, well. Stuff happens.

That Sounds Terrible

La Carrera is hard on cars. Everyone knows this. The mantra of the race is “preserve the car.” While that’s a noble idea, you are still driving as fast as possible over 3000km of Mexican roads and asking the car to endure it all. 

Arriving in Mexico City our clutch told us it would not endure La Carrera much longer. When changing gears it made a horrible squealing sound that foreshadowed its imminent failure. This is why you need a capable crew and a healthy supply of spare parts. After handing the car back to Tim, the diagnosis was given and a long night of clutch replacement lay ahead for the crew. 

Volvo Parts in Mexico

If you decide to race La Carrera in a Volvo Amazon, you should know that Amazons were never imported into Mexico and there is no ready supply of vintage parts. You’ll to need have a ready spare for whatever part you break or your Carrera will be over before the finish line.

Happy to be Racing

Stage 2 was a day of extremes for our team. The low of our mistakes and the penalties they brought us, and the high of blazing down the highway to an amazing Mexico City finish. The day taught us some hard lessons and gave us some unforgettable moments. Still the overwhelming feeling was our happiness to be there, to be racing La Carrera and challenging our ourselves in one of the world’s great rallies. 

The challenge would soon push our whole team to it’s limits but, that’s a story for different post. 

Happy to be racing La Carrera