La Carrera Panamericana Throws Down a Weeklong Gauntlet of Vintage Rally Racing on Mexico’s Most Dangerous Roads
By Rich Taylor, photography as credited
The route: 2000 miles and 10,000 curves over seven days. The action: 120 cars, 50,000 horsepower, 200 mph, dozens of accidents and a few fatalities. The perks: hundreds of scenic mountain views, a million spectators, drives through many historic Spanish towns, and all the cerveza in Mexico.
La Carrera Panamericana isn’t just a race; it’s a nationwide obsession, a wild party as challenging and dangerous as a dive off an Acapulco cliff. There’s nothing else like it on the face of the earth—by comparison, the famous Mille Miglia Storica is a genteel drive in the country.
Racers come from all over the world to participate. At one end of the spectrum are unschooled amateur Mexican drivers out to prove they’ve got cojones grandes. For them, it’s the automotive equivalent of Pamplona’s running of the bulls.
There are always a few dozen norteamericanos as well. These are mostly graying baby boomers with varying degrees of experience, and a number of them bring their significant others to navigate.
Unexpectedly, many semiprofessional race teams come in from Germany, Belgium, Sweden and Holland with television crews and sponsorship from multinational corporations. At the top of the ladder are a handful of experienced pro rally drivers, a few well-known U.S. vintage racers like Doug Mockett, Bud Feldkamp and Murray Smith, plus former Formula 1 star Jochen Mass.
The cars are something else. There are 10 different classes, ranging from Exhibition to Turismo Mayor. In theory, you can drive virtually any car built between 1950 and 1972. In practical fact, by the time you add the required safety equipment, massive skidplates and allowed mechanical upgrades, you’ve got a race car with so many modifications that it’s no longer legal or practical for FIA Historic racing or even the SCCA.
A full tubular chassis is prohibited, though tech inspection is as porous as the U.S.-Mexico border. If you speak the right language, you can get away with almost anything. Of course, any decent race shop can engineer the required roll cage so that it functions like a tubular chassis, making this an academic point. The roads are mostly smooth asphalt; everyone adds a modern full-race suspension and giant racing disc brakes.
Even in mid-October, Mexico’s weather is blisteringly hot and dry, so it’s normal to add extra oil coolers and radiators; run duplicate ignition systems and batteries; bring cool suits for the driver and navigator; and spring for heavy-duty everything. Essentially, you end up with a NASCAR Sprint Cup racer masquerading as anything from a 1950 Oldsmobile to a 1972 Mercedes-Benz. The hot setup, of all things, is an aerodynamic 1953-’54 Studebaker body cloaking a full-race Chevy V8 with 600 horsepower or so, a 9-inch Ford rear and a Tremec five-speed transmission.
Classes are arranged by top speed, and tech inspectors attempt to enforce regulations that juggle tire size, differential ratio and engine redline. It’s kind of like NHRA bracket racing: Break out of your assigned speed and you’re either penalized or forced to move up to the next group.
La Carrera is not like racing 10 laps at Lime Rock. Not only does it spread out over seven days, but it’s a crazy quilt of transit stages on public streets, timed stages on roads that have been closed by the Federales, and short time trials on various race tracks scattered along the route. Some daily schedules run from dawn till dusk, and then entrants are required to show up for seemingly endless nightly banquets hosted by local politicians making jokes that aren’t funny—even in Spanish.
Since the cars start at 30- or 60-second intervals depending on the length of the stage, in theory they’re racing against the clock. But since there’s a huge disparity in speed between the fast cars and the slow cars, in practice drivers are always overtaking or being overtaken, just like in an endurance race on a circuit. Unlike real racing, however, not all the drivers are at a similar skill level. In La Carrera, just to spice things up, you also have audacious spectators trying to race you on the transit stages.
The entry fee is roughly $6000, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s possible to run La Carrera on a shoestring, but that’s not very wise. Teams that finish even mid-pack typically bring a crew of professional mechanics with tools, spares and a truck big enough to live and work out of for the week. Winning crews disassemble their cars every night and replace anything that seems suspect. To facilitate this, the leading cars are built like Le Mans prototypes, with quick-release body panels, quick-release electronic connections and designs that allow fast swaps of major components. None of this comes cheap.
Ah, but there are rewards. Try blasting over a blind crest in the mountains near Oaxaca, a 500-foot drop on one side and a stone wall on the other, then catching fourth at 120 mph, accelerating downhill with telephone poles flashing past like slats on a picket fence, and feeling so full of adrenaline that your heart feels like it will burst.
Ray Crawford, a wealthy amateur who, among other things, raced in the Indy 500 three times and won the 1954 Carrera Panamericana in a Lincoln Capri built by Bill Stroppe, summed up the sensation of the race many years ago. He said, “Billy Vukovich once told me, ‘Crawford, if I had your money, I wouldn’t go near a damn race car.’
“But the money had nothing to do with it. It’s the feeling. You feel like you’re challenging God, or the world, or yourself. There’s no pettiness, no smallness, no meanness at that point. At the end of La Carrera, the skies are bluer, the women are prettier and the steaks taste better.”
The Mexican section of the Pan-American Highway was finished in 1949. In an attempt to attract international attention and business, the Asociación Mexicana de Caminos and the Mexican government collaborated to organize a five-day endurance race over their fine new road. This was officially known as La Carrera Panamericana Mexico de Frontera a Frontera. To everyone else, it was simply The Mexican Road Race.
The course came out to 2135 miles. Mostly a narrow two-laner, the tirebusting road—paved with abrasive volcanic rock—featured an altitude change from 300 feet above sea level to 10,482 feet. There were also dozens of straights more than 10 miles in length, yet literally thousands of mountainous curves. One 256-mile stage between Oaxaca and Puebla contained 3800 turns. That’s a corner every 100 yards.
The inaugural run in 1950 hosted a whopping field of 132 cars that started from Ciudad Juárez, across the river from El Paso, Texas, and drove south in five days to El Ocotal, near the border of Guatemala. For the following year, organizers wisely decided that La Carrera would garner a lot more international publicity if it started in the South and ran north. The start moved to Tuxtla Gutiérrez, shortening the course to 1932 miles.
Enzo Ferrari sent the first factory team to that race, with Alberto Ascari and Piero Taruffi piloting the two Vignale-bodied long-wheelbase 212 Export Mexico Berlinettas. Taruffi and Ascari placed predictably first and second.
For 1952, cars were split into two classes and the route stretched to 2093 miles. In the company’s first racing effort since the 1935 Indy 500, Ford entered seven Lincoln coupes and swept the podium in the Touring class. Mercedes-Benz, campaigning the all-conquering 300 SL, took first and second in the Sports Car class.
By 1954, La Carrera had grown from a low-key event run by and for amateurs to the most demanding and dangerous race in the world. In five years, the event had claimed 27 lives and showed no signs of letting up. But then, at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1955, the worst racing accident in history killed more than 80 spectators, prompting countries to ban racing, and drivers, manufacturers and organizing bodies to flee the sport. Mexican President Adolfo Ruiz Cortines took the opportunity to cancel La Carrera Panamericana.
The race wouldn’t return until 1988, when Mexican enthusiast Eduardo de Leon Camargo got government permission to close some sections of La Carretera Panamericana and run a weeklong event.
For the first decade, the retrospective ran the classic route from Tuxtla Gutiérrez to Ciudad Juárez. The route changed several times during the 2000s. In 2010 and 2011, to avoid the drug wars—yes, the race used to end in that Juárez—the route started at Huatulco on the Pacific coast and ended at Zacatecas in central Mexico.
Q&A WITH A LA CARRERA VETERAN
Kent Bain directs Stratford, Connecticut, based Vintage Racing Services Inc., the vintage racing arm of Automotive Restorations Inc. Vintage Racing Services has prepared/ supported cars and drivers in every Carrera Pan Americana event save one since 1992, from Aston Martin DB2s and Swallow Dorettis to Volvo 444s and classic Corvettes. He brings a unique perspective as a driver, mechanic and team owner.
Classic Motorsports: Our impression is that La Carrera is absolutely wide open.
Kent Bain: Well, they give you what they call an FIA license when you get there, but you don’t have to prove you have much experience. I don’t think you can go to a real FIA event and get by with this Mexican license.
CMS: In other words, there are a lot of wonkers on the course.
CMS: What about the cars? How stringent is tech inspection?
KB: They actually do a pretty thorough job at tech. It takes two days. And then at the end of the event, they hold a real inspection and do things like remove cylinder heads.
CMS: To what purpose?
KB: Well, they don’t want people cheating.
CMS: But all the cars are totally bogus.
KB: Welcome to Mexico! Twenty years ago, the cars were all supposed to be from 1955 or earlier. “You have an LT1 V8 in a flathead Ford? No problem.” “Too big an engine? Well, you can have a bored and stroked small block, but not a big block.” Later on, they expanded to cars up to 1965. That means you can use disc brakes, etc. Now they’ve expanded to 1972. And actually, they’ll let you bring a 2011.
Nowadays, they let drivers run as a “course sweeper” in something like a Ferrari 430, a Z06, a Subaru WRX. The new cars are supposed to “clear” the course ahead of the racers. They’re not officially part of La Carrera, but they do get timed and they do receive prizes.
CMS: How long are the stages?
KB: A typical day is about 300 miles. They try to get you out at 7 a.m. and have everyone in by 3:30 p.m. or so. There are a couple of days that are just 120 miles, but that will be divided into five speed stages, so they have to leave a lot of waiting time for the whole group to clear each stage.
CMS: What about the race organization?
KB: It’s all very well organized. The government must spend a fortune on it. Timing and scoring is done with computers, for example, but then, of course, there’s always some dispute about it!
CMS: What about security? You hear so much about Mexican drug wars and corruption.
KB: Well, there is a large police presence. The Federales are all over this event, closing roads, directing traffic, providing security. That part is very well done. Last year the Mexican president’s brother participated in the race, so there was lots of extra security. The only time you get into trouble is if you’re too far behind the group and they’ve opened the roads again. In 2008, we got 2 hours behind because of a breakdown leaving Mexico City, and the cops shook us down for $5000. That’s happened to us twice over the years.
CMS: How fast is fast?
KB: People are driving as fast as the cars can go, 170 mph or more. That’s very fast in a 1950 Oldsmobile with drum brakes! They even drive hard on the transit stages, which never made any sense to me. We’ve brought and supported a lot of cars and drivers at La Carrera in the last 20 years. The drivers who had the most casual fun are the ones who took it easy and were simply pleased to be a part of this magical event. Our most rewarding events saw our prepared and supported cars earn several class wins with top-10 overall finishes.
Driver Bill Shanahan, with navigators Daniele Vettoretti and Murray Smith, have, over almost 20 Carreras, done a superb job of getting our work to the finish line up front. Sponsors such as MTV, Pepsi Mexico, Colgate Palmolive and MSD—among others—have allowed us to do our best to build cars that can win. Bill has been absolutely superb, getting us involved from the onset and making our participation wonderfully rewarding.
Especially in colonial Mexico, the towns themselves are beautiful and the people are welcoming. All the townspeople come to the town square to celebrate your arrival. It’s a matter of civic pride. The police park all the cars in the town square to make a nice display, and they have a party.
When we first started doing this in 1992, the rural hotels were pretty rough. But now, there are some first class places to stay. Mexico City, on the other hand, is a place to avoid, and the event has not gone there in the last two years.
In addition, because of the drug wars in northern Mexico, the event now ends at Zacatecas, a beautiful colonial city with lots of things to see and do. There have been problems with revolutionary forces near the Guatemala border in the South and the drug gangs fighting each other and the army in the North, but so far it has never really affected us much.
CMS: Do you get hassled by officials a lot?
KB: No, I’ve never heard of anyone getting a speeding ticket. Except for the corrupt local police, everyone is pretty welcoming.
Of course, you don’t want to roll into a military checkpoint filled with guys in black pajamas holding automatic weapons and start mouthing off. Some competitors from Texas made a stupid joke about drugs at a checkpoint last year, and the army stripped not only them, but their transporter. Well, duh!
CMS: Is crossing the border a problem?
KB: We always plan on taking about 4 hours for customs into Mexico at Nuevo Laredo. We always hire a customs broker to help us. Driving from Laredo to Mexico City is okay. From Mexico City to Tuxtla is mountainous two-lane. Our first year we brought our 18-wheeler, and we got shaken down by the cops. If you’re driving a truck, you’re an obvious target. We’ve learned and now we use shorter, more maneuverable fifth-wheel rigs that can hold the spares, park easily at overnights, allow quick paddock set-up and hold the car and spares while keeping up with the race.
CMS: So overall, is La Carrera a good thing to do?
KB: Well, it does have a magical quality about it. I haven’t found any other classic motorsports event that combines the same levels of adrenalin and romance with the road magic that La Carrera embodies.
ADVICE POR LOS GRINGOS
¡Hola, amigo! So you think you want to try racing in La Carrera? Here’s some expert advice, compiled from a variety of Americans who’ve been there and done it.
- Go to lacarrerapanamericana.com.mx. The event’s excellent bilingual website will give you a great feel for what it’s all about. Download a copy of the rules. Have a look at the kind of people and cars that have done well in previous years. Don’t miss the pre-race ceremony video of a Mexican official casually upending a wine bottle and pouring out the cremated remains of two racers who were killed the year before. If you still think La Carrera is for you, swallow hard and move on.
- La Carrera is so specialized that it makes absolutely no sense to build your own car. There are dozens for sale on the event’s site. Start with a car that’s been successful in the recent past. You’ll save more than $100,000 and years of trying to figure out the right setup. Rent-a-rides are also advertised on La Carrera’s website; rent a ride with an established team and you’ll save money and have a shallower learning curve.
- It’s pretty much impossible to do well on a seven-day event without a lot of expert logistical support. Unless you already have your own professional race team that’s used to rebuilding a car overnight, every night, hook up with some pros bringing other cars and have them service your car as well. Since gasoline, water and food quality in Mexico can vary wildly, experienced teams have learned to bring their own supplies. By the end of the week, even well-prepared cars may require lots of new components. Engine swaps, rewelded frames and total rebuilds are nothing unusual.
- It’s possible to do La Carrera in English, but you really need a bilingual navigator or at least one bilingual crewmember to even know what’s happening. Schedules or routes often get changed at the last minute. You’ll also need bilingual help—and maybe a fistful of pesos, but you didn’t hear that from us—to get your car and transporter across the border.
- If you can afford it, arrive early to get acclimated to the heat and altitude and to pre-run the route. Serious teams have been making their own route notes during the pre-run ever since the Mercedes-Benz team began doing it in 1952.
- Which car to pick? Unless you’re used to racing for hours at a time in a poor-handling, 3500-pound Studebaker with drum brakes and a top speed near 200 mph, it makes a lot of sense to start with something more benign. Porsche literally made a name for itself in La Carrera Panamericana back in the early ’50s, easily running rings around cars with much bigger engines, much bigger reputations and much bigger egos. That’s why Porsche still uses the Carrera badge today. These giant-killers are by far the most popular, reliable and cost-effective cars.
- In a typical year, about 40 of the 120 starters never reach the finish. Breakdowns are common, sometimes with outsized results. It’s also perfectly possible to not only make a mistake yourself, but to get caught up in somebody else’s accident and tumble hundreds of feet down a Mexican mountainside. Rule one: Drive to survive.
- Rural Mexico is much more sanitary than it used to be, and most hotels and restaurants that cater to tourists have installed water purification systems. That being said, it’s still possible to wind up with the dreaded Montezuma’s Revenge. As a general rule, don’t drink the water and be wary of local eateries not frequented by tourists. Kent Bain’s stories about wearing adult diapers under his racing suit are funny, but they’re funnier when they’re somebody else’s stories, diapers and ruined Nomex.
- Take care of yourself. Sleep whenever you get the chance and stay hydrated. Have your doctor prescribe some useful things to bring with you, like a Z-Pak and naproxen. Even the most iron-stomached navigator will need the occasional Aleve or Dramamine. A personal first-aid kit, your prescription medicines, antibacterial hand cleaner, eye drops, 100 SPF sunblock and other hard-to-find personal items can make you feel at home in a foreign land.
- Shrugging into the same driving suit you’ve worn for the past two days is like diving into a stagnant pond covered in disgusting green algae. And you still have four days to go. You’ll want multiple sets of Nomex underwear, multiple driving suits, multiple helmets, etc. Bring at least three of everything, even if you have a washer/dryer in the motorhome.
- Raise the limit on your credit card. Transporting your car, spares, mechanics and navigator to the Guatemala border, keeping them housed and fed, and safely transporting them back to the States can easily absorb $50,000.
- This is not tiddlywinks. For seven days, you’ll be hot, tired, sunburned, dirty and often lost and/or confused. Don’t expect to finish well. Timing and scoring may be computerized, but it’s often a corrupt joke favoring officials’ relatives and sponsor stockholders.
As a gringo novicio, you’ll have a lot more fun if you relax and enjoy the experience rather than try to prove to the world that you’re the next Kyle Busch. Think of La Carrera as a high-speed guided tour of the most scenic and historic parts of Mexico, areas that few tourists ever see. Most of the route is incredibly lovely, and the Mexican people you meet along the way are typically friendly, eager to help you out, and enthusiastic about cars.
The route goes past fabulous Baroque churches and over the mountainous American Cordillera. You’ll encounter everything from deserts to pine forests to lonely volcanoes. You’ll store up enough memories for a lifetime, or at least enough to lure you back again next year. ¡Vaya con Dios!