La Carrera Panamericana Race

The La Carrera Panamerica race celebrates the original race that ran from 1950 to 1954 to commemorate the opening of the Panamerican Highway. Guest contributor Dean Mericas drove more than 7,000 miles in 16 days from Ann Arbor down to the start line, and then back up through Mexico and home.

The La Carrera Panamericana race is part rock tour, part traveling carnival, and part Marine boot camp. The event celebrates the original race that ran from 1950 to 1954 to commemorate the opening of the Panamerican Highway. Today, it is a vintage race/rally limited to cars built no more recently than 1965. We drove more than 7,000 miles in 16 days from Ann Arbor down to the start line, and then back up through Mexico and home.

Ann Arbor to Tuxtla-Gutierrez. We departed Ann Arbor on Friday October 18th with Aaron Robinson (Car and Driver magazine) and Paul Wright (Roush Engineering). Paul built an engine for another team, and needed a ride to Mexico. We recruited him as a team member in return for providing all travel, lodging, and meals on the trip. It was the first of a series of strokes of good luck.

We drove 25 hours straight through to Austin, Texas, where Aaron and I spent the night with my brother Alex, and Paul stayed with his brother Steve. We departed Sunday morning for the border crossing at Laredo.

We crossed into Nuevo-Laredo with no problems at all and found the Hilton Garden Inn to meet up with the caravan of other racers who would travel together to Tuxtla. Seeing other teams represented a milestone transition from our solitary efforts to prepare the car and remote communications with the organizers to tangible proof that we were not alone. We discovered that we needed to go through immigration and get our vehicle tourist permits at the customs house. We spent two hours cycling through different clerks before we finally got all of the papers.

Start of the Carrera Panamericana Race
Start of the Carrera Panamericana Race

A group of approximately 18 teams, ranging from full truck and trailer rigs like ours to race cars being driven on the road, left Nuevo Laredo on Monday morning at 7:00 a.m. with a federal police escort. This escort was the first of many on this trip, and would remain with us until Puebla, two hours on the other side of Mexico City. On leaving town, we quickly found ourselves driving at breakneck speeds to keep up with the federales, a situation that would be common to all police escorts. To make it more challenging, the other teams were racing each other along the route. Periodically, we would stop and regroup at toll plazas to keep everyone together. We stopped outside of Mexico City at 9:00 p.m. to wait for our 10:30 p.m. escort though the largest city in the world.

Crossing Mexico City was the most terrifying experience of my life. We had been on the road for 16 hours, and now found ourselves in a torrents of traffic racing on six-lane highways through the mountains, in the dark and a driving rainstorm. The trailers fishtailed frequently as we negotiated tight turns at high speeds. One trailer that we had nick-named “the scud launcher” for its inelegant appearance did a “tank slapper,” coming around almost completely on one side of its tow vehicle, and then swinging all of the way around to the other. They barely recovered it. Buses towering over us passed at 60-70 MPH with a foot of space between us. Lumbering trucks appeared around bends in the dark, barely moving along at 5 MPH. We came within inches of plowing into one of them. The federales seemed intent on losing us. Then we hit the construction detour, and were plunged into the streets of Mexico City. It was all were could do to keep up with the teams ahead of us as they tried to keep up with the federales. We started running red lights to keep up. A Ford Falcon Sprint race car being driven down hit a local in a VW microbus coming around a tight street corner. About a block down, we were passing through a very tight knot of traffic when a VW bug taxi eased out from a side street to cut into traffic. He saw us coming, but seemed to think we could and would stop. We could not, and his front bumper was peeled off as we passed, astonishment was plain on his face. The caravan pulled over some blocks later to regroup, and as we were waiting for the federales to take off again, two local policemen came up to our truck. I rolled down the passenger window and one of them spoke to me. I know enough Spanish to understand that he was telling me that we had run two red lights. I feigned ignorance of the language, and he just kept repeating himself. We had heard stories of racers being extorted by Mexico City policemen for minor infractions, and it seemed like we were moving down that path. We saw that the federales and the cars ahead were taking off again, so I turned to the cop and said “we have to go,” and Aaron hit the gas. Paul, who was sitting in the back seat, said the policeman’s jaw dropped as we pulled away. We held our breaths for the next hour as we drove out of Mexico City, expecting at any minute to be pulled over by legions of city policeman.

We arrived at our hotel in Puebla at 2:30 in the morning. The caravan leader indicated that they would be leaving at 7:00 a.m. for the next day’s drive to Tuxtla. We quickly agreed amongst ourselves that the previous day’s run was stupid and dangerous. It was time to get off the crazy bus and set our own pace for the remainder of the drive down.

Sharing the road along the Carrera Panamericana Race
Sharing the road along the Carrera Panamericana Race

Tuesday morning we hooked up with Jeff Dworin, Car and Driver’s art director, who had flown into Mexico City the night before, and who would serve as the team’s photographer for the rest of the trip. We plotted an alternate course for Tuxtla based on information from some other teams, and headed south, roughly parallel to the Gulf Coast shoreline. The roads deteriorated noticeably as we moved southward. We passed near Veracruz, and evening found us in Villahermosa, a city whose hotels are not rated by AAA because it is “in an area of political instability.” We encountered no problems, other than getting the truck and trailer slightly stuck in the hotel parking lot.

Wednesday morning we headed south for the mountains and Tuxtla. We passed through lush flat areas of huge banana plantations, and then began our ascent into the mountains. It took seven hours to cover 180 miles as we struggled up and down mountain passes in our heavily laden rig, dodging buses and heavy trucks at nearly every bend. The scenery was spectacular, and we stopped several times for pictures. We arrived in Tuxtla-Gutierrez at 2:00 p.m. on Wednesday. My wife, Elizabeth, flew in that afternoon, and met us at the hotel.

The fairgrounds in Tuxtla-Gutierrez
The fairgrounds in Tuxtla-Gutierrez

Tuxtla-Gutierrez. The fairgrounds in Tuxtla-Gutierrez serve as the focal point of race activities in Tuxtla-Gutierrez. Each team staked out a covered area for finishing preparation of their cars. Locals strolled among the cars, talking with the teams, taking pictures and asking for autographs. Itinerant sign painters offered to add script and maps to the race cars. We had “La Carrera Panamericana” painted along both roof rails for $20. We got our race registration packages, and Aaron, Paul, and I went though physicals (just rigorous enough to ensure that we had a pulse and were breathing).

Then we took the car through the tech inspection, which consisted of a 10 year old boy confirming roughly every other item on a pre-race checklist. We passed with flying colors. The rest of the time was spent taking care of last minute details in sweltering heat. Because the drive down had been so rough, the race car had taken quite a beating and we wanted to make sure everything was tight and in good order. Elizabeth provided support by translating when we needed it, and helping with logistics.
Looking around at the other cars, we quickly realized that there was a lot of money in evidence everywhere, and our Ford would be out-powered by most of the field.

Main Street in Tuxtla-Guitierez Mexico
Main Street in Tuxtla-Guitierez Mexico

Day 1 – Tuxtla-Guitierez to Oaxaca. The race started on October 25th at 8:00 a.m. on the main street in Tuxtla-Gutierrez. Each team was given a starting order and time, and the cars were lined up in that order. We were responsible for setting our clock to the official race time and getting our time sheet for the day. We soon learned that neither is obvious, and it took a lot of hunting around in the swelling crowd and asking other racers for us to figure it out.

It was our turn to start. The streets were packed with people. Helmets on, door nets up, we rolled up onto a raised platform under an inflatable arch. As navigator for the day, I handed our time sheet to the official, and reset the odometer on the rally computer (all route instructions are indexed to distances from the start line to the nearest 1/1000th of a kilometer). The official handed me back our time sheet and began to count down from 15 in Spanish. At “zero”, the green flag dropped and we were off. We built speed as we began to drive through a canyon of cheering people, many of them reaching out to touch the car as it passed. The sound of many slapping hands on the sides of the car was unexpected. Aaron began to tap out a staccato beat the air horn to show our appreciation. As we passed intersections, policemen who had halted traffic waved us though, urging us to go faster, faster. Both of us began to laugh uncontrollably. This was the coolest thing either of us had ever done. Every day started with a variation on this theme.

A complete day-by-day recounting of the race is almost impossible. My lasting impressions are summarized below.

The race. The race consists of two different types of stages: transit and special. In any given day there may be up to nine stages. The transit stages are run on open public roads, with a specified time to be met from the start to the finish. Arriving early or late results in penalty points, expressed in minutes and seconds. The primary purpose of the transit stages is to get the cars to and from the special stages. Special stages are run on closed public roads; primarily very twisty narrow mountain roads during the first part of the race, and more open roads and highways in the last two days. The goal in the special stages is to complete them in the shortest possible time. Each car’s time for the special stages is added to any penalties in the transit stages to get their total score for each day. The lowest score wins. Most teams are pretty good at timing and the penalty system is forgiving, so speed ends up being the deciding factor (See “Our Car” below).

The days officially started at 7:30 a.m. when the cars muster at the starting line, and ended between 10:00 p.m. and midnight after the cars were serviced and prepared for the next day. It is rare to find a restaurant that opens before 7:00 a.m., and lunch could only be had at gas stations along the route, so some days went by with a single meal. We were in Nomex racing suits all of the time, and wearing helmets during all special stages. Temperatures were in the mid-90s during the first three days. One particularly exhausting evening, Aaron fell asleep while brushing his teeth (sadly, I did not take a picture). This was no sightseeing vacation.

Racers. La Carrera attracts pretty well-heeled participants. Although there were some regular folks like us, obviously operating on a budget, the majority of participants appeared to be wealthy. Asking around, we heard that many own their own companies; one driver is the CEO of Proctor and Gamble. In addition to the Mexican entrants, there was a significant number of Europeans entered, including a large contingent of Italians driving a group of really nicely prepared Alfa Romeos, several German teams in various models of Mercedes, and some Swedes running Volvo P544 and P1800 cars. Among the Italians, there were several professional race car drivers. It seemed like most of the people we spoke with were veterans of the race, having run it as many as six or eight times before. More than one operation consisted of a wealthy driver accompanied by a hired a crew that took care of all the logistical, maintenance, and repair details. Some of these operations were very elaborate, with air-conditioned trailers outfitted with full workshops, and even kitchens. The Italian contingent brought a parts and repair van over from Italy with their cars (it broke down during the race). We estimated that the average team spent $50,000 on their week-long effort. A couple of the better prepared, but not particularly exotic cars must have cost in excess of $100,000 alone.

Blown engine in mid-1950s Chevy
Ouch! Another Mercedes abused 300SL going out on a stretcher.

Wrecks. We had heard that most wrecks occur on the first two days, when the mountain driving is very tough and the drivers’ emotions are highest and skills least honed. Not 10 miles into the race we passed through the cloud of smoke and steam of a blown engine in a mid-50s Chevy. We saw a Mercedes 300SL, a $200-300,000 car, right after it had run off the road, it’s tube frame showing through torn aluminum skin, out of the race after less than a day. That image set the bar for defining a really bad day. All three of the 300s entered were wrecked by the end of the race – only one was able to cross the finish line (one of the 300SL teams passed around a piece of torn fender for all of the teams to sign at the end-of-race party). We figured that 17 cars out of the 79 that started could not finish. Many cars came across the finish line with battered bodywork and jury-rigged mechanicals. A beautifully prepared early 1950’s Alfa 1900 sedan was rolled into a ball. In Aquascalientes, the owner of a 1949 Cadillac was rumored to be looking for an engine to buy that evening to replace the one he blew up that day. A Porsche 356 team spent the evening in Morlelia hammering out their dented bodywork and fabricating a windshield out of hardware store plastic sheeting.

That same evening, another team used a come-along hooked to a lamp post to pull out the bent frame of their Alfa spider. We saw a Mercedes 300SE go off a mountain road in La Bufa outside of Zacatecas twice, the last time sending up a huge dust cloud and ending up in the shrubs in a ravine. Remarkably, he drove out of the ravine and came across the line that day, with dirt and grass poking out under his bumpers and sporting a bashed in rocker panel. Several drivers and navigators were wearing neck braces by the last day.

Local people cheering the Carrera Panamericana racers
Local people cheering the
Carrera Panamericana racers

Race fans. The Mexican people are absolutely nuts about the race. The starting ceremonies drew large crowds every morning. Thousands of people packed the streets at the end of each day, asking for driver’s and navigator’s autographs on calendars, photos, posters, scraps of paper, shorts, and even a young woman’s spandex halter top. Everywhere we went in the race cars, fans in small villages and cities alike yelled and cheered, gave us thumbs up approvals, and urged us to drive faster. A young child in Tuxlatan approached me at a gas station and handed me a home-made wooden noisemaker as a gift, just because I was a racer. Huge traffic back-ups were created wherever the roads were closed for the special stages. The people in these traffic jams waved and cheered as we passed them. We’d expect different gestures from Americans in a similar situation. We were celebrities; conquering gladiators. We acquired very swelled heads.

Local people asking for autographs
Local people asking for autographs

Police escorts. Words cannot fully capture the experience of a full “French Connection” police escort through the narrow streets of a Mexican town during La Carrera Panamericana. Police were everywhere serving to control traffic and give us the right of way throughout the race. Because our car was the slowest, we were always at the back of the pack, and often the last to arrive at the finish line at the end of the day. On two occasions, we arrived in the town during evening rush hour and were quickly spotted by a local policeman who instructed us to follow him. In both cases, we found ourselves driving like mad to keep up with the police car, light bar flashing and siren wailing as he escorted us to the finish line. We raced through crowded streets, the traffic parting ahead of the police car. We had to stay right on his tail to keep from being cut off by cars flowing back into his wake. We roared through intersections, through red lights, down narrow cobblestone streets, around slower cars and corners, horn blaring and laughing out loud. The police and locals could not have encouraged us more. Hundreds of policemen must have participated in the traffic control for the race.

Our 1953 Ford coupe with flathead V-8
Our 1953 Ford coupe with flathead V-8

Our car. Our car was a 1953 Ford coupe with a flathead V-8. We chose the car for it’s historical significance (last flathead V-8, 50th anniversary car for Ford), simplicity, and low cost. The car was prepared for durability and safety, and on a tight budget. We entered it in the Original Panam class, which we understood to be for cars that were essentially unmodified. The car turned out to be very reliable, and we only had two problems of any note: persistent overheating that was traced to a failed head gasket, and a failed overdrive solenoid that had been rebuilt for us prior to leaving Ann Arbor. We replaced the head gasket in an hour on a street across from the cathedral in Zacatecas, and hard-wired the solenoid to be engaged all the time. Everything else worked great, and we never needed any of the many spares that we brought along. However, our adherence to originality really hurt us because the car was desperately underpowered, especially at the high altitudes at which most of the race was run. Everyone passed us and we were barely able to keep up with the rest of the racers during most of the event. Only when we got to lower elevations on the last day did the car begin to show some power, but by then it was too late. We really needed a couple of more carburetors and an additional 50 horsepower to be competitive.

Mexican organizers. An oxymoron. Everything was confused and contradictory, although the officials were very pleasant and friendly about it all. One of the funnier aspects of the event was the constant presence of “Corona girls” clad in tight bare mid-drift outfits and serving as garnish at each and every ceremony.

The end. The last day was characterized by fast special stages on open superhighway in heavy fog and rain. The Ford ran well with more oxygen at the lower altitudes, and our tires never lost their grip on the very wet roads. We arrived on the outskirts of Nuevo Laredo at dusk in a steady rain and flooding roads. The racers were gathered at a Pemex gas station, and escorted by police into the center of town. It took nearly an hour to make the 10 mile trip through grid-locked traffic. We arrived downtown, and passed through throngs of cheering fans to the finishing arch. Upon arriving at the arch, we were greeted by the president of the race who congratulated us on our accomplishment of finishing. Past the arch, we went through another 50 feet of cheering fans, and suddenly found ourselves on an empty side street. The race was over. We were ordinary people again. We went to our hotel to clean up and prepare for the evening’s festivities and the long drive home.

Near the end of the Carrera Panamericana Race
Near the end of the Carrera Panamericana Race

In the end, we finished 58th out of a field of 79 cars that started. We took third in our class on the fifth and last days, in part because of technical problems that a BMW in our class encountered. Just finishing the race was a tremendous accomplishment – we drove every one of the 2,000 miles, never hit anything or ran off the road, and the car we built ourselves never failed us.

All photos by Dean Mericas.

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