Let me start by saying that I believe cars were meant to be driven. Hard. And what better way to do this than by running your classic through 2,200 miles of Mexico's finest roads. I first read about "The Mexican Road Race" while in my first year of university in 1989. Race your classic car through Mexico. Unbelievable! I told myself that one day I must do this race.
The La Carrera Panamericana is a classic-cars-only, 2,200-mile, 7-day road rally that starts just north of the Guatemala border and runs the entire length of Mexico to the Texas border. It consists of transit sections run on open roads with traffic and special stages run on closed-road sections for full-out racing. There are several different classes depending on what kind of car you have and its modifications. The bonus is stopping in a different city every night for a fiesta!
My car of choice was, of course, a Corvette. What other car from the '60s has American V-8 power plus four-wheel independent suspension and four-wheel disc brakes? My '67 Corvette is licensed for the street, but it had to be modified for road racing. To start, I contracted with Steve and Rick's Racing in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, to build the engine. The engine consists of a four-bolt main small-block, an Eagle 4340 steel crank and "H" connecting rods, forged JE pistons, ported and polished Dart heads, a solid roller cam with roller rockers and stud girdles, an Edelbrock aluminum Victor Jr. intake, a Holley carb, a MSD ignition and billet distributor, Hooker full-length headers, and a 3-inch exhaust to the back. A Griffin aluminum radiator with electric fans keeps things cool. This setup netted 515 horsepower at 7,000 rpm on the engine dyno.
My good friend Lee Monson rebuilt my stock Muncie M20. I retained the stock 3.55:1 gears. A full VB&P suspension, including heavy-duty upper and lower control arms, a fiberglass front spring, a rear dual-mounted fiberglass spring, and huge front and rear anti-roll bars, was installed. The brakes, which were donated by Noble Precision Tooling, are power-assist with SSBC Force 10 aluminum front calipers and slotted discs all around. For safety, a six-point roll cage, race seats, and five-point harness belts were installed. Corbett Signs donated the logos for the car.
This whole setup had proven to be very reliable as the car had just finished the 1,500-mile 2003 Targa Newfoundland Rally in eastern Canada three weeks before the Mexican Road Race and, other than an oil change and a few adjustments, was ready to go.
Borrowing a service/tow vehicle to drive from Canada to Mexico was another matter. The only way I was going to convince my good friend Aldo Mauro to lend me his loaded '03 GMC Yukon Denali and put over 8,000 miles through three countries was to offer him my daily-driver Corvette--an '02, Z51/six-speed coupe. He agreed to the exchange.
After hooking up the car hauler with the '67 and loading and packing the Denali with a lot of spares and tools, my sponsor/navigator Kyle Pickering, service vehicle driver Steve Parent, and I were on our way. We left Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, on October 17th, and after a 4,000-mile, 62-hour drive (not including hotel stops and customs inspections), we were at the starting point of the race in Tuxtla Gutierrez, Mexico--about an hour's drive from the Guatemala border.
After three relaxing days to catch up on sleep and hang out with the other racers, we were ready to start the rally.
With approximately 85 cars starting--beginning at 8:00 a.m. on October 24th--and with what must have been the entire population of the city waving us on, we were off to Oaxaca City. The first day consisted of the usual transit sections and five great speed sections through tight winding mountain roads. Several cars blew engines in the first speed section, and a few cars crashed badly enough that they were out of the rally. We were fortunate enough to arrive without incident later that day in Oaxaca to huge cheering crowds. The Mexican people love this race! After downing the mandatory Corona beer given to us by beautiful Corona girls, we signed autographs and had our pictures taken with fans for over an hour. Afterwards, a lot of teams had servicing and repairs to do on their race vehicles before the next morning's start. I checked the tires and oil on the Vette and was ready to go racing, again.
Day 2, from Oaxaca to Puebla, was fairly straightforward. Day 3 was another matter. Driving from Puebla to Morelia requires going right through the center of Mexico City. To say this city of 22 million people is huge is an understatement. It was a real challenge just following the route book, but my navigator Karl did not miss one turn. The Vette was proving to be very reliable and had not missed a beat. We arrived in Morelia very tired.
Day 4 was Morelia to Aguascalientes. A number of cars were starting to have problems. The hard running of mostly 40-plus-year-old cars was taking its toll. This was also the day we were going to get to run on a closed racetrack. The Vette's power and suspension were great, but the tires were not. Most teams had a much larger budget than I and multiple sets of race compound tires. I was running more of a touring tire that would last the whole race. This kept expenses down but made times suffer. I was still in the race, and approximately 17 cars were out by this point. Just finishing the rally is an accomplishment. Plus, I still hadn't made any repairs to the Vette at all. Almost. During this day, we were in a mountain pass at a very high altitude. Clouds and fog rolled in. Hurricane-like rain came down. At this point, Murphy's Law took over, and my wipers failed. Imagine trying to drive through a tight mountain pass for 30 minutes at 5 mph with your head stuck out the window and you can still barely see the front of your car! This cost us major time and penalties.
Day 5 was a short one. After another run on a track, it was on to Zacatecas for the best party during the whole race. We were welcomed with open arms. It was a very late night. Luckily, the organizers of the event know what goes on every year in Zacatecas, and we were not scheduled to start until noon the next day.
Day 6 was another short day. It's the day we race around the famously dangerous "La Bufa." La Bufa is a mountain within the city, and its roads (which run very close to sharp drop-offs with no guardrails) have claimed many lives. Knowing this in advance, I drove very conservatively. Two competitors died here in the 1999 race. At the end of the day, it was time for a party at the Corona beer brewery. Corona, the main sponsor of the event, holds a party every year for the competitors. It was a good thing that it was at the end of the day since it's an all-you-can-drink free Corona!
As we left the Corona party, the Vette experienced its only engine failure when the bronze distributor gear finally "went." My service vehicle took us to the hotel parking lot where Doug Asay, Jr., a good friend from another team, helped me install a replacement so I could be ready for the final day.
The last day of the rally was also the longest. Running from Zacatecas to Nuevo Laredo at the Texas border is over 400 miles in a day, and with the speed sections and mandatory stops added in, it took its toll on many drivers. One speed section on this day was almost straight and flat for 15 miles--so we could see who got bragging rights for top speed. The Open Class cars are allowed many more modifications, are restricted to pre-'54 cars only, and were really fast. Imagine a '53 Studebaker coupe being clocked on radar at over 190 mph!
After a long and relatively conservative drive to make sure we finished, huge crowds once again greeted us as we arrived at the finish line in the border city. It was a great feeling! The "touring" tires, wiper failure incident, and my conservative driving on La Bufa cost us a lot of time, but we still finished Sixth out of 16 very fast cars in the V-8 class. Then, after a good night's sleep, it was only a 28-hour drive to get home.
EDITOR'S NOTE: If you want more find more information about La Carrera Panamericana, visit the official Web site, www.lacarrerapanamericana.com.mx/. The site is in Spanish, but an English version is offered.