Sorry for the delay. This was originally published on 0-60.com as a five part series. There were some delays in getting it posted so I was just waiting for it to run in full. Photos can be found on Bret’s photo blog. Ignore any unflattering pictures. It was hot as hell and I think tired doesn’t even begin to express how I felt at the end of most days.
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My journey began by driving my race ready 2006 Lotus Elise from Detroit to Chicago to get my truck and trailer. From there I drove to Emory, Texas to pick up crew member Cade Wilson, and then on to San Antonio to pick up my navigator Steve Warwick. Next was Laredo to meet up with the convoy — we hadn’t even entered the country the race was being held in and had already driven 1,773 miles. Although the race is officially seven days, the endurance aspect starts well before you cross the starting arch.
Gerie Bledsoe, the US contact for the La Carrera Panamericana and our trusty guide to the start of the race was waiting with about twenty other trucks and trailers ready to cross into Mexico — in our case using a forged registration. Because one person can only import one vehicle at a time and I own both the truck and the Lotus, Cade soon found himself the proud but temporary owner of a well worn Dodge Ram. Two hours of sleep, import permits in order, tourist visas stamped, and we hit the road.
From Laredo Nuevo we drove almost seven hundred miles that day to San Miguel de Allende where we were welcomed with an escort to our hotel and a charity dinner. The next morning the cars were set up in the Jardin (town square) to benefit Feed the Hungry which builds kitchens onto schools in Mexico. After spending hours posing for photos and giving autographs we made our way to Puebla, passing through Mexico City on the way. What most people don’t know is that you’re never allowed to drive a truck and trailer through the city, and the closed circuit monitored highways that dissect the city are only about three Beetles wide. Within minutes we were swarmed with “killer bees” — the tiny black and yellow striped cars that the Mexican highway patrol uses. While we had special permission to use the highways, that never seemed to make its way down to the killer bees. After some negotiations we were back our way to Puebla, and then the next morning finished the last two hundred miles into Veracruz.
It was still two days before the race and we’d already driven three thousand miles — fifty percent more than the race length itself — and that doesn’t count all the U-turns, bad directions, and detours around raw sewage floods. But who cares about minor details! So far it felt like an exotic road trip, but the moment we were handed our stickers and car number it started to sink in that I was about to race. Sure, I’ve put in plenty of hours at the track, I’ve been to Skip Barber Racing School, and had my fair share of fast rides, but this was my first race. This was the first time I could officially say, “I am a race car driver.”
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Peligroso! Chica Loca!
In Veracruz the Lotus was hand painted to give it some old fashioned charm. I’d originally planned on painting “Caution: Female Driver” across the back, but everyone began referring to me as “Chica Loca” (“Crazy Girl”) so we went with that instead, as well as adding our names, blood type, and the traditional Mexican and American flags. After a few more last minute decorations thanks to Coop, my crew and I headed to the pool to relax. The next morning was qualifying and we needed some rest.
Qualifying started out in a small town in the mountains where we lined up along a cobblestone road surrounded by small Mexican homes. Children and grandmothers lined the streets watching the cars launch from the starting line, beginning what we’d been told was going to be a very dangerous race. We didn’t want to wipe out before it even began, but unfortunately a few cars disagreed — first Carlos Castillo and Carlos Ramierez’s Studebaker went out of the race, and then a vintage Mini rolled as well… We were definitely spooked when we saw those totaled cars on the side of the road — it felt like running the Gauntlet!
I was ecstatic to find the results placed us sixteenth overall.
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Day 1: Veracruz – Veracruz
Novices like me mixed in with former F1 drivers and pro-rally champions from around the world, and I shook hands with the Governor of Veracruz before climbing into the drivers seat. With navigator Steve at my side, we made our way back to the mountains to race, although some stages had been canceled due to poor road condition… I would definitely consider three foot wide, half foot deep potholes a poor choice of road for speeds over a hundred miles an hour! Even transiting them at sixty miles an hour was nearly impossible so we took our time through what proved to be our second most difficult day. We ran three speed sections in each direction, and the second speed stage had been freshly patched with loose asphalt. It’s true that Lotus’s lightweight philosophy is almost always a good thing, but here it became a severe disadvantage. Normal gravel would have been fine, but every time we hit the loose asphalt we lost steering and braking capabilities — it felt like we were flying. After coming across Jerry Churchill’s car pointed the wrong way out of the weeds, we decided there was no reason to lose on the first day of the race. Unfortunately Rusty Ward didn’t agree, taking his Police Car Studebaker off of a bridge to go fishing instead. Sadly, by the end of day several other cars also bit the dust, and we were barely in the top twenty-five.
Day 2: Veracruz – Puebla
From sea level to lush foggy mountains.
The trip to Puebla was amazing — some of the most beautiful roads I’ve ever seen, with wonderful views topped only by the celebrations at every city we stopped at. Today’s stages included an insane eight mile hill climb that left the Lotus’s engine control unit aching for a proper tune. While the ECU learns and makes adjustments, it was certainly taking its sweet time as we crawled up the hill, switching back and forth between first and second as we listened to the engine screaming. The sounds of tires squealing through tight hairpin after hairpin — so tight that some of the larger cars had to reverse through them to make it around — was thoroughly enjoyable. By the end of the day we’d crept up a few spots and had nearly made it back into the top twenty.
Day 3: Puebla – Querétaro
The need for speed.
Before the day’s Champ Car races we ran an exhibition race at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguezin Mexico City, a track that’s also seen F1 drivers such as Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher and the NASCAR Busch Series. When we got there, twenty cars were already on the track, and it was pouring rain.
Others stayed out on the track enjoying it (and numerous penalties), and we launched into action. We entered at a different position than planned, so our route book no longer matched the upcoming corners, the first being a right sweeper. On the straight a Studebaker blew past us at over a hundred and fifty miles per hour, but we easily out-braked him into the next turn and left him behind in a hurricane of rain. Watching one car after another unable to hold a proper line, we squeezed past each onto the straight. Those 3.8 laps felt more like an obstacle course because the poor weather made it very difficult for the heavy high horsepower cars to perform well through all the tight curves, giving us the advantage — by day’s end we’d made our way into the top twenty.
Although we suffered from four yellow flags during this short experience, the track was so amazing that when the final lap came around, we wondered if we should just keep going and enjoy a few more laps… After all, when’s the next time we’d be on an F1 track?
Day 4: Querétaro – Morelia
The dangers of Mil Cumbres.
I woke up this morning feeling incredibly nervous as we were about to enter the most talked about section of the race. The “old timers” all had the same warning — “Go slow and BE CAREFUL!” I don’t know if they were trying to psyche me out, or if I was psyching myself out, but by the time it was our turn to run, I was definitely psyched out. However, once we sped off into the lush forest, I immediately felt a sense of calm come over me and we got into our rhythm. Steve began calling out, “Left 2 into Right 3”, and we were well on our way into Mil Cumbres when it started to rain again. When I flicked on the wipers, oil that had been sprayed on the windshield in an earlier transit section smeared across my view, slowing us to about sixty-five through the wet, windy, mountain roads.
Once the rain began to clear we nailed the gas, passing both the Triumph and a Porsche 356 — which had somehow managed to break down next to the only restaurant in the area. After some hairy debating on how to pass the big wide Quaker Oats Hudson on a road with no straights, we went for the inside line in a Left 2 and made it. Not long after, I heard Steve yell “STAY RIGHT!” at the top of his lungs — the entire left lane and then some had washed down the mountain, and we squeezed along the mountain face hoping it wouldn’t get worse or collapse beneath us. The right lane reappeared, but as we tore around the next corner we were immediately faced with a cow in each lane. The last thing we needed was livestock taking the Lotus out of the race early, and I managed to swerve between them without scrubbing off too much speed.
The warnings of the more experienced drivers had been heeded throughout the day, but three cars were ultimately retired from the race on this day, sadly one of which saw its drivers sent to the ICU. Today the Lotus’s weight and handling had been an advantage, making up huge time on the other competitors, and we climbed into the top fifteen.
Day 5: Morelia – Aguascalientes
More danger and the looming threat of Pierre de Thoisy.
On day five we repeated the previous day’s course, but in the opposite, downhill direction. The past six year’s overall champion, Pierre de Thoisy, was in position behind us due to some clutch problems outside Morelia that had penalized him — and there is nothing more frightening than knowing Pierre is behind you on Mil Cumbres! The threat of being passed is worse than having to pass a slower car, so we were constantly checking our mirrors. The last thing I wanted to see was Pierre’s Studebaker bearing down on us, but something about Mil Cumbres must have been keeping an eye on us. We passed a Corvette in two of the speed stages, but never saw Pierre in our rear view mirror. By the end of the day we were approaching the top ten.
Day 6: Aguascalientes – Zacatecas
Treacherous, unpredictable, and fast.
Most of day six saw the pedal floored, with Steve yelling in the background to “Mat it!”, only to have me reply that it already was. This section was known as La Bufa, a treacherous high speed route which favored the faster cars. The Lotus Elise just isn’t any fun over 130 miles an hour, and doesn’t give the smooth ride you’d prefer on rough pavement. I could feel the car tracking along the grooves in the road, and even if you’re not a religious person, you hope that some magical force will keep you out of a dip that could easily toss you off the side of the road.
We had some more problems with the ECU adjusting for the altitude which kept us to not much over 110 miles an hour, forcing us to drop into third gear at the slightest incline. I think if we weren’t belted into our seats so tightly we’d have been rocking back and forth to get the car going! But, even though it felt like we’d just been crawling along, we managed to squeeze into tenth place.
Day 7: Zacatecas – Monterrey
Starting to smell bad.
I woke to the last day of racing with both excitement and sadness. While I never wanted to wear the same racing suit for seven days straight in hundred degree weather again, I was sad knowing that this would probably be the last time for at least a year before I could (legally) drive four to ten times the speed limit. The race back through La Bufa was the scene of a major accident a few years before (which can be seen in the French Documentary). The high speed cars were at an advantage again, and we watched our place in the top ten fade away.
But, after coming over a hill we spotted a car that had been seventy seconds ahead of us — as it turns out, their co-pilot had knocked a switch which had disabled the car for about ninety seconds, allowing us to recoup a lot of the time we’d lost due to our lack of horsepower. The ECU recovered through the lower altitude speed sections, and we average about 120 miles an hour most of the way, and regularly managed 135. The word “DIP!!!” has never been as frightening as it was today — our rear end came loose, and we thought we’d just eliminated ourselves from the race right before the end. Luckily, a smooth recovery, and we dashed across the finish line thanking our lucky stars.
We headed to the final speed section of the day, a race track in Monterrey that the Lotus would perform well on. Unfortunately, after crossing the toll booth we saw a line of cars on the side of the road. The last segment of the race had been canceled, and a police escort was going to take us to the finish line… A bit anti-climactic for what had been such an amazing adventure.
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Even though we lost the opportunity to shave off a few more seconds off our overall time, we’d still made up time on the last day and ultimately placed eighth — more than I’d ever expected, since the average first time driver doesn’t even finish the race due to error or mechanical failure. A few of the cars didn’t even make it to the starting line. So when we broke top twenty in the first day’s starting order, we were enthusiastic to say the least, and when we finished in the top ten, we were ecstatic.
This was one of the most exciting events of my entire live, albeit drama filled at times — being a twenty-six year old woman breaking in a new class of racing in a largely male dominated event ruffled some feathers. I hope to race again in Mexico, as well as in the many European rallies that my fellow drivers and I talked about well into the night.
If you told me six months ago that I would enter a 3,050 kilometer seven day endurance race across Mexico, I would have laughed. If you told me I would spend seven days in a car with less interior space than a vintage Mini sweating alongside my brave co-pilot, I would have probably stopped laughing and walked away. Nowhere in my wildest dreams would I have imagined myself sitting in front of my fireplace reminiscing about this incredible experience.
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