Seven days and seven nights of racing down to Mazatlan
BY MARK VAUGHN
Listen, amigo, and I shall tell you how it came to be
that at midnight on New Year's Eve I found myself on the pitching, rolling
deck of a Mexican ferryboat filled with race cars crossing the Sea of Cortez
under the star-filled Mexican sky in the arms of a beautiful young senorita.
But first, amigo, first I must tell you of the great race that brought me here, and explain to you why I was struggling along in second-to-last place, my co-piloto exhaling equal parts unbelievable tales and choking gray smoke from a never-ending supply of filterless Camels.
I must tell you also, my friend, of the inner drive for freedom that was just as much a part of why one comes here, of the need to remove oneself from that which is routine, from that which is safe and predict~able, where every day you know what you are having for lunch, and every night you know what you will watch on the 900 channels of your American television set.
This is the story of want~ing desperately to throw off that safe predictability and to howl across the border to a place where the conclusion is not foregone, where speed limits are merely suggestions, a place where nothing slows you down but the miserable lameness of your race car, bought days before for as much money as might cost a handful of nice kitchen appliances. This is the story of Mexican road racing, the last place on Earth where one can weld in a roll bar and drive across an entire continent at what you call full wallop and fear neither death nor speeding tickets.
But first to the story, amigo. It begins in the Ciudad de Los Angeles, itself once a part of the grand republic of Mexico until it was stolen by los gringos in the Mexican-American war. It was in this ciudad that I first received in el correo the little 3|x|5 postcard that lured me to this adventure.
"Where are you going to be New Year's Eve?" the card asked.
Indeed, where? Watching Streisand in Vegas? Rather I would stick needles into my eyes. "I have just been notified that we can run Historic and Touring cars with the Millennium Rally event on just the legs from Las Vegas to Mazatlan," said the postcard.
That was Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, to Mazatlan, Mexico, a distance of some several thousand miles. The Millennium Rally was put on by a group of Mexican racers. It would consist of transit stages of several hundred miles between cities, with timed races on tracks and closed roads once we got to those cities. Most of the cars would be compacts and subcompacts in 1.6- and 2.0-liter classes, but the race was open to almost anything. Some manufacturers, Renault and Peugeot, supported the race with cars, treating it like in America you might treat NASCAR.
"It will be fast, as the leg from Ensenada to La Paz is 854 miles of Mexican two-lane blacktop," the card read. "We have the support of the Mexican Federal Highway Patrol."
What more would any racer aspirant need to hear-"We have the support of the Mexican Federal Highway Patrol"?
I sent notice to Lacarrera@earthlink.net, to Senor Loyal Truesdale, race driver, race promoter, man of whose words you can believe perhaps 50 percent, perhaps as much as 65 percent in una emergencia, he who could lift me from the misery of safe routine and send me hurtling across all of Mexico in any number of wonderful old coche de carreras.
Truesdale's and the Mexican organizers' other race, La Carrera Panamericana, is a historic road race that runs each October the length of the country, from the Guatemalan border to the Rio Grande in Texas, a race strictly for historic cars that ran in the original Panamericana. It, too, has the full support of the Mexican Federal Police, and I have heard it is marvelous.
Two days later I received word from amigo Loyal. "We are on schedule. Got a few ride
options for you. Call tomorrow."
Truly, this was good news. Carrera Panamericana cars included powerful Hud-son Hornets, hurtling Packards and even Porsche 550 Spyders. What had Truesdale acquired for me to drive? I crossed my
fingers and silently hoped for the Spyder. But I must tell you, when he arrived to
pick me up days later, my heart slid to the bottom of my estomago. Truesdale arrived not in the Porsche I secretly longed for, not even a Hudson or Packard, but in a 1998 Hyundai Accent.
"It's really something, ain't it?"
I cannot convey to you, amigo, the depths of my despair. It was dark red and utterly unremarkable. I had seen such a
car before, as it is my daily job to write about cars of all kinds. It had under its hood a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine making 92 horsepower. I tell you, in all honesty, it felt more like 92 hamsters. Do not get me wrong, amigo, or think me unappreciative of the Accent's true worth; it is
a fine entry-level coche for those seeking
to repair their credit. It achieves 36 mpg
highway, for instance, and came new with a reassuring warranty for the buyer to whom each paycheck was a gift from Dios. But as a race car, particularly one for so grand a spectacle as we were about to under- take, was this not a wheeled insult?
Senor Loyal laughed in a way that would come to be most familiar in the next seven days.
"Kee-huck, kee-huck, kee-huck," he laughed, followed by nasal sounds which
I can't accurately reproduce for you here. Suffice it to say they combined for a strange sound, indeed, and several times during our week together I thought, certainly, he was dying. But he was not. He was laughing, enjoying life even in this car in which we now hurtled over the American desert toward Las Vegas, Nevada.
Yes, Las Vegas, the city of so many light bulbs. The city where, in only days, Senora Streisand would begin her audi-tory abuse of the blue hairs. But we would have nothing of the one they call "Babs." No, we racers were to meet at Las Vegas Motor Speedway the next day for time trials. The officials of the track had set up the AMA course, using the straights of the oval and the entire interior road course. This was to be ours from 12 to four o'clock.
I love this country.
We drove first to a fine and pleasant shop outside the speedway called Valley Racing, where a helpful young man named Glen welded in our roll bar, taken from Senor Loyal's BMW 2002, for only $100. As he welded, Glen wondered at the technology of our car.
"What's this car made out of? It sure as hell ain't steel," Senor Glen said between strikes of the arc. "Where did they make
We arrived at the track at 3:35. A race was underway that was to end at four o'clock. This was not a problem for Senor Loyal."Go, go, get out on the track, go," he commanded. But the race-there is a race going on right now.
I was not to argue with this high-ranking race official. We joined the fray and soon found ourselves on the banking with the others, Truesdale in the passenger seat, laughing that laugh.
"Kee-huck, kee-huck, kee-huck!"
The Hyundai was abysmal as a race car. The steering lacked any sense of direct connection with the road, the springs and shocks, especially those in the rear, were unable to keep the car in control, and the wheels-the wheels and tires were as skinny as uncared-for mules.
"I think you may need new shocks," said Juan Carlos Sarmiento, a racer who had observed us as we cornered. He, like others on the track, spoke out of genuine concern. Indeed, the racers were all of the same mind. They showed a genuine concern for the safety and enjoyment of their fellows. They were almost all from Mexico, and spoke and acted with a dignity and politeness that was nothing short of noble. I felt, for the duration of the week, that I was in the midst of a squadron of racing Ricardo Montalbans. I did not want to leave.
They all knew my co-piloto Loyal Truesdale. They called him "Tio Loyal," Uncle Loyal. They were either endeared or amused by him. I think, perhaps, both. Who could help but be?
The next day, a 492-mile transit stage from Las Vegas to Ensenada, I learned something more of Tio Loyal-his endless storytelling. It never stopped. His stories were grand, lengthy and terribly, terribly involved. They were impossible to follow. If you do not believe me, I have provided excerpts below from what notes I was able to take, so that you may get the gist of the long days through which I endured in El Accent.
"Oh, hell yeah, prison was fun, or at least it was in Vera Cruz. See, my lawyer was the son of the warden and every night I'd get this steak delivered like fast food in one of those plastic take-home trays you get in restaurants.|.The afternoon of the second day we crossed the border into Mexico. The change was compelling.
"You cross the border and within a few feet everything's different," said racer Mike Sharp from Pasadena, co-piloto of a Toyota Supra.
The police escorted all the cars to the main square of the town, which was shut down while we ate lunch. We were introduced, each of us, to the people of Tecate. Then, 45 minutes after we rolled in, the road out of town was blocked off and we raced south toward Ensenada.
I love this country, too.
But it was here on the road to Ensenada that the difference in driving cultures hit hard. In America the roads are easily capable of handling 150-mph cars but no one dares drive them that fast. In Mexico, the roads are capable of perhaps 50 mph, but no one drives that speed, either. The two countries should swap.
Passing by the racers on the skinny two-lane to Ensenada was done with the thinnest of margins. Tio Loyal wheeled El Accent around trucks with a manner that, I am not ashamed to tell you, was frightening. But he was no dif~ferent from the other drivers, and the passed cars seemed to accept it without protest.
"There's a mind-set in Mexico that you have to get used to," said Sharp.
"It's totally different," said racer Ramon de Zulueta, driving one of the first Peugeot 406s imported into Mexico. "You have to be totally awake. You never know if someone is coming, or a dog is crossing. You have to figure out what is happening in front of you."
It is a form of racing that is completely dif~fer~ent from anything else, and not all American racers are comfortable with it. Many have rejected the Panamericana and other Mexican road races as too dangerous. But race director Eduardo Leon points out that in the 12 years since the Panamericana was revived, there have been only two serious accidents, resulting in three deaths. That's in 12 races with 100 cars driven 2400 miles each. It is a far better record than F1, CART or most other racing series, Leon said.
And there is a challenge here that does not come from lapping a closed circuit.
"Every curve is a challenge; you don't know what's next," said Frederico Zam-brano, who has driven in all 12 Panameri-cana revivals, and as a boy saw the original. "In Mexico we add an extra challenge: a dog, a burro, a farmer. And even though the special stages are supposed to be closed, you never know what you are going to meet. That's the challenge. On a closed circuit, racing is routine."
On a closed circuit there are also usually no more than 10 or 11 turns, Zambrano said. This event will have perhaps 3000.But the risks of open-road racing are not taken lightly, especially in this community where everyone knows one another so well.
"A very good friend of mine was killed three months ago [in La Carrera Panamericana]," Zambrano said. "I was very sad. The co-driver was killed, too.| But that happens. I think all sports can be dangerous. My co-driver, a great friend, was killed crossing the street. He was hit by a motorcycle."
At this moment Zambrano stopped speaking. "It makes me very sad to think about this. It's a sad part of racing."
For another moment, he said nothing, looking at the table in front of him. His eyes welled up. Then he took a deep breath. "But you go up into the mountains, 7000 feet up. You find the forest. Then down into the desert and along the sea.
You see everything. You are with your friends, with your family. That's part of the fun of this racing."
The next day, we set off for La Paz, 854 miles south. Tio Loyal and I found the top speed of El Accent had risen inexplicably from 106 mph to 114 mph. We found on this road every-thing Frederico Zambrano had described-mountains, desert, oceans from the Pacific to the Sea of Cortez. And on New Year's Eve, race cars loaded into the hold of the Sematours Azteca ferry to Mazatlan, under the warm starry sky, we found camaraderie. At midnight, the ship's crew launched flares into the night to celebrate the new millennium. A passing ship sounded its horn. The next day I would have to leave the race at Mazatlan and fly back to Los Angeles. The racers were to go another six days to Cancun. They are still on their way as I write this. I tell you, my friend, I wish I was with them.
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