La Carrera 2018 - Stage 4 - Morelia

Our 1965 Volvo Amazon rally car on the Mil Cumbres section of Stage 4, La Carrera Panamericana 2018. | Photo by  Godet Studio

Our 1965 Volvo Amazon rally car on the Mil Cumbres section of Stage 4, La Carrera Panamericana 2018. | Photo by Godet Studio

Stage 4: Queretaro - Morelia

Finish: 4th in Historic A+ / 50 Overall

It was a grey, cloudy day with all but the finish in Morelia driven in a persistent fog and mist. The queen of the stage was the famous Mil Cumbres section, part of a loop we would run twice. Overnight rain and the morning’s mist had soaked the road making the wooded, twisting loop feel humid and close. Being two kids from New Jersey, we felt right at home on these roads. 

But, Queretaro to Morelia was a stage that would test our team to its limits. Mechanical problems forced us to adapt our driving style. Which, at the end of the day, put us within touching distance of a podium.

The Stage

Map of Stage 4 Queretaro to Morelia

The stage began with a 40km transit out of Queretaro to the first speed section in Huimilpan. After the previous day’s stage we handed the Volvo off to the crew with ominous sounds coming from the drivetrain. Tim, James, and Alberto worked through the night to replace the clutch, flywheel, and gearbox. When we arrived at the car in the morning it was already warmed up and tested. After a big thanks to the crew we headed off to the starting arch. 

As we blasted out of Queretaro and down the highway, pleased with the car and proud of our crew our problems began. ”Jeff, I have no clutch!” said Chris. Well, not exactly no clutch. The clutch was there but it would come and go with out rhyme or reason. The unpredictability made driving very challenging as sometimes Chris could shift and sometimes he couldn’t. The stress level started to rise. Because of the problem we were late arriving to the starting arch and only just made our start time. 

Once on the first transit section I contacted the crew to report our clutch problem. Having replaced half the drive train the night before, they couldn’t explain problem. “Just get the car to service” was our crew chief’s instruction. Trouble was, service was 185KM and four speed sections away. Chris did his best to drive around the unpredictable clutch, I did my best to navigate in a calm and reassuring manner. Our stress level was now through the roof. 

On the first 13km speed section through Huimilpan our time was desperately slow. Not knowing what the problem with the clutch was Chris was reluctant to push the car. The rally mantra of “preserve the car” was ringing in his ears. The 148km Huimilpan transit that followed could have been a desperate two hours, but 70km in, from out of nowhere our crew was there to help us. As the road made right toward Tarandacuao, parked in the traffic island, was Tim, James, and Alberto ready to diagnosis our ailing Amazon. Getting out of the car was a welcome relief, though I knew time was short. 

Tim determined the problem was hydraulic and most likely the clutch master cylinder. They could fix it in service but not now. We still had another 70km to transit to make our start time for the next speed section and avoid a penalty. As we pulled away back onto the transit Tim sent us a text with his best advice, “Drive it like you stole it” and that’s what we did. 

The next speed section, Haujumbaro, was a short warm-up for the queen of the stage, Mil Cumbres. Knowing the clutch problem was just hydraulic Chris knew he could race at speed. Not guaranteed of a downshift from 3rd back to 2nd, Chris pushed the our speed so he could stay in 3rd gear and discovered he could confidently drive the Volvo faster. It was a turning point for our stage times and our rally. The added speed was putting us within touching distance of the podium places.

The final speed section before service was canceled due to a crash. Luckily no one was hurt but the lost time put our crew under pressure. While we ate Pb & J’s and decompressed in the trailer, the boys worked as fast as they could. With 30 seconds to spare, they had swapped out the cylinder, bled the system and bled the brakes. Hell, yea! We were ready to race again.

We roared through a second pass of the morning’s speed sections, Huajumbaro and Mil Cumbres, fighting for a third place finish on the day. As a racing team we’d finally come alive. It was a great feeling. 

In the final transit into Morelia we picked up another beautiful police escort roared into town to finish at the arch beside an 18th century aqueduct. What a day it had been. By far the most stressful of our Carrera up to that point, but also our most successful as a team. We kept it all together, we kept on the road, and found the speed to race like hell. We were now in the hunt for a podium.