7 days, 100 cars, 3,000 km, one crazy race
Most people travel to Mexico to soak up the sun and enjoy some fruity umbrella drinks at an all-inclusive resort. A few others, though, come for the treacherous roads, day after day of high-speed driving followed by intense fatigue and, sometimes, the odd broken bone. And, if they’re really lucky, a trophy and a cold beer when it’s all over.
Those are the people who take part in races like Mexico’s La Carrera Panamericana, which during its heyday from 1950 to 1954, was a five-day, 2,000-mile race on public highways that was considered one of the most difficult and dangerous auto races in the world – right up there with the Mille Miglia and Le Mans.
It was intended as a way for the Mexican government to promote the completion of the Pan American highway, which was seen as a gateway to the country’s interior and its famous beaches. Over the course of five years, the list of drivers who competed in the race reads like a Who’s Who of racing legends: Juan Manuel Fangio, the five-time Formula One world champion, won the 1953 Pan Am driving a Lancia D-24; American F1 star Phil Hill placed second in the last event in 1954 with his co-driver, fellow F1 competitor Richie Ginther, driving a Ferrari 340 MM; racer turned car builder Carroll Shelby also took part, driving an Austin Healey. Porsche, whose cars raced in the 1952 and 1953 events, gave the Carrera name to many of its 911s following its success in Mexico. And the first race in 1950 was won by Hershel McGriff, driving an Oldsmobile 88. McGriff would go on to enjoy a long career in NASCAR, after pocketing $17,533 for his Pan Am win.
The Mexican government cancelled the race in 1955 – partly because it was expensive to operate and partly because it had achieved its goal of promoting road travel to Mexico. As well, as the race progressed and the cars went faster, fatalities rose. A total of 26 people – drivers and spectators – were killed in the five events from 1950 to 1954.
But, after a group of American and Mexican car enthusiasts got together in 1988, they revived La Carrera Panamericana as a staged rally for vintage cars in which drivers race against the clock for a week.
The cars don’t race at full speed for the entire time. Each of the seven days (or legs) are divided into driving stages: transit stages, which will take cars through regular traffic in cities and towns, and speed stages, which involves racing on closed highways.
The cars are timed as they compete in the stages. The winner (or winners) take home a trophy, but no prize money. This year, the race takes place from Oct. 21-27. It begins in Huatulco in the south of the country and ends in Zacateca, near the centre of Mexico and will cover a total of 3,000 km. There are about 100 entries to the race in 10 classes, according to North American co-ordinator Gerie Bledsoe. The race attracts a mix of professional race car drivers and adventurous amateur racers, people like the husband and wife racing team Tony and Lee-Ann Strelzow of Vancouver. The Strelzows – and four other Canadians – will once again tackle the gruelling course that nearly cost them their lives in 2009.
“We had a bad accident in ’09,” says Lee-Ann, matter of factly. “Our car was demolished when we went off a 100-foot cliff.”
The Strelzows were spared any major injuries, but their car, a 1965 Corvette, was badly damaged and their race was over. This year, they’ll race the same car, repaired and rebuilt, in the Historic C class, for cars made from 1955-1965 with V-8 or V-12 engines. So, why do it again? Both Tony and Lee-Ann say it’s a combination of the fast driving, racing competition, the welcoming Mexican people and the festival atmosphere that envelops the event.
“The people in Mexico are just really, really friendly,” says Lee-Ann. “When we get to some of the larger cities, thousands of people flock to the streets to the see the cars.”
The Strelzows both have substantial amateur racing and endurance driving experience – they’ve also taken part in the Targa Newfoundland, the Chihuaha Express race (in Northern Mexico) and recently returned from Paris where they bought a 1936 Bentley convertible to race in the 2013 Paris to Peking endurance race.
And while they are physically and mentally prepared, they know the Pan Am can be especially tough. “In the Chihuahua, you come back to the same hotel every night,” says Tony. “But in the Carerra you can arrive at the (end of the stage) at one or two in the morning, and you’ve been going 160 km/h all day. Then you can be back at six in the morning to start all over again.”
Competitors will typically drive eight to 12 legs of the total route during each of the seven days. A leg is about 35 km, but can take drivers up and down twisting mountain roads, past tiny villages or through crowded city streets. Still, the Strelzows have some good memories from the 2009 event. Tony recalls how during one stage their car overheated near a mountain peak and they coasted into a small town. The car was almost immediately surrounded by people who were eager to help and several ran off and happily returned with buckets of water.
“That kind of stuff happens all the time,” says Tony. “In the smaller towns and villages, it’s really a party atmosphere.”
The couple have blogged about their racing exploits as a way of keeping family and friends up to date on their whereabouts – and their safety. “A lot of people follow our blog,” says Lee-Ann. “But our friends, they think we’re crazy.”
To follow the Strelzows’ adventure online, click here
Published in The Globe and Mail’s Globe Drive on Oct. 19, 2011