Last night was a late night and when my dad let me in the house he told me that Rene and I were driving in the morning. I wasn’t sure if that was such a good idea since we were the two who were out very late! I never did hook up with Rene last night but figured he was out partying with his hometown friends. I couldn't get him on the cell phone and I was bummed not to be celebrating our 3rd place in Zacatecas but que será, será.
It was a very short night and I awoke in the morning to puppy lickies and couldn’t help but smile. Geezer, Stewie and I drove across Guadalupe to the TumbaBurros shop where the car slept for the night.
TBZ Racing in front of the TumbaBurros de Zacatecas shop
We had to get a decent start because we had to drive the race car across Guadalupe and halfway across Zacatecas in rush hour to the start line, where we finished yesterday. The car was ready to go so I dressed in my suit and wondered where Rene was. I hoped he wasn’t still out partying, knowing that this morning we had our last run up La Bufa. Everyone talks about Mil Cumbres being the defining speed stage of La Carrera, but I think La Bufa is more challenging and more dangerous.
Rene showed up in a dust storm in front of the TBZ shop, getting out of the little taxi with a smile on his face. He pulled me aside, said good morning and pulled something out of his pocket to show me. Remembering that yesterday George had teased me about the young fans on the road chopping off his fingertips, Rene brought two rubber fingertips to give to George. I don’t know who randomly has fake fingertips at their house, but it was great to start the day off with such a laugh. We couldn’t wait to find George and Tom on the road and present his new fingertips.
Trying out the rubber fingertips
Rene and I were off, heading down the road, supercharged for our last day of racing. He told me he was out late last night with his friends and looking everywhere for me. He was totally shocked to hear that we got 3rd place yesterday and was smiling ear to ear. We stopped at a nearby gas station, filled up and when he fired up the car to leave, it backfired like a mother! The car is loud on its own and when it backfires it startles everyone on the block. Rene looked at me with a puzzled look and we pulled the car out of the way and popped the hood.
While I was calling Geezer to tell him to pick up a new set of points when the auto parts store opened, Rene was timing the car by ear and before I knew it, we were on the road again. We had a great ride across town, especially because I could enjoy the view and not worry about navigating since Rene was in his hood. We arrived downtown near the cathedral at the start line and the vibe was relaxed and joyful. I am sure that other racers felt a similar mix of excitement to be finishing today, but also sadness that the race would soon be over.
Shining up the Oldsmobile at the start line of the last day's run
We mingled with our fellow racers, enjoyed the beautiful morning light in one of the most beautiful town centers in Mexico (yes, I am biased) and soon we were on the road on a quick transit back to the exact same starting spot on the La Bufa from yesterday.
We were calm and organized at the start and I chuckled, thinking that it took us 6 days of racing to get the hang of it. We said our pre-race blessing to be safe and fast, sang a little more Bob Marley and the green flag waved.
Yesterday on La Bufa I lost my place navigating, but was able to get myself back on track. There are so many fast turns that it is something that can happen pretty easily. Sometimes the only way to get back on track is to spot a mile marker, but even that can be difficult. Today I lost my place about halfway through and was unable to find it again. Luckily we had run the same course before and I don’t know what Rene was thinking to hear silence from me instead of my normal incessant shouting of the severity of the next turn. At one point he shouted, “WHAT TURN IS THIS?” and I felt terrible telling him I didn’t know.
I tried to help out by shouting, “GAS GAS GAS!!!” in a Spanish accent (goss goss goss), which is what my brother would do to anyone driving with him to get them to go faster. It became a joke with our crew along with saying, “Smokie smokie” whenever my dad would light up a cigarette, and saying, “Shhhst shhhst” with an aerosol spray motion to show that we needed to do a quick repair to the car, like spraying the slipping clutch with the magic spray. We joked that while some other teams were switching out their trannies, we would do a little “Shhhst shhhst” and be back on the road.
Rene must have switched to full instinct mode on La Bufa because I seriously felt like he was racing it faster than yesterday. You might think that because he drove it yesterday he’d remember the course, but when you are racing it is such a blur and so I didn’t count on the familiarity of the course. Just like the washout on Mil Cumbres – we drove right by it and had no idea it was there.
There was always a lot of laughing and Woo Hooing at the end of speed stages, and then a slow dissipation of the adrenaline. What a rush! We laughed and I felt a sense of accomplishment because ahead of us was a 240 km easy transit, then a switch of driver and navigator at the service stop, which meant that Rene and I were pretty much done.
We got into our groove on the highway and pointed El Jefe north. We settled into a convoy with a bunch of other race cars and kept an eye out for Tom and fingertipless George in the Volvo. We saw them behind us and thought we’d let them pass and wave a hand out the window with the rubber fingertips but the opportunity didn’t present itself, so we decided to wait to see them at the service stop.
We ran out of GO FAST and had to drink Red Bull
It was a beautiful day and I was fascinated by the endless scenery of desert mountains and miles and miles of yucca. Many scenes reminded me of the north end of Death Valley with the only difference being the power lines here. The ribbon of highway wound its way north and we could see for miles.
The high desert landscape
The service station was full of school children asking for autographs, race cars jockeying for position to get gas and get back on the road, and two mangy dogs fighting to the death that were luckily broken apart by a couple of guys, one with an orange construction cone. I was disturbed by the fight because I love dogs and it looked for sure like one of them would be mortally wounded. The underdog struggled while the bully dog had him by the throat. One guy got a hold of a tail and pulled backwards while the other guy pushed the dogs apart with the cone.
Rene grabbed me and took me over to where Tom and George were gassing up the Volvo. I got my camera ready and when George got a break from signing autographs Rene told him he had a gift for him and presented the rubber fingertips. George was laughing so hard, Rene was doubled over and Tom came over to see what was going on. It was hysterical! George wanted to know where he could get two more!
Rene presents the rubber fingertips to George
(photo courtesy of George Sullivan)
We sent Geezer and Stewie off for the final leg of La Carrera Panamericana, 3 speed stages and almost 300 km of transit which would bring them into Monterrey. Rene and I followed in the service truck, enjoying the high mountain desert and listening over and over to our one album of Bob Marley.
Kristin y su hermanito, finished for the day
We transitioned from following the flat desert floor to climbing up into the mountains. We crossed a small pass and were in the thick of the towering mountains on the outskirts of Monterrey. We talked about stopping for lunch, as again another day had passed without a meal, but decided to continue on. We did make a quick stop for ice, beer and snacks and were on our way again quickly.
Descending the mountain pass, Monterrey sat spread out before us in a thick cloud of smog. The landscape reminded me of Phoenix, with more dramatic mountains dotted through the city. The smog was oppressive in this highly industrial town and obscured our view of the nearby mountains once we were in the city limits.
The cell phone rang and it was Geezer telling us that they were at the tollbooth in Monterrey and the car wouldn’t start. Luckily Rene and I were within minutes where they were. They told us that the last speed stage at the race track outside of Monterrey had been cancelled so all that was left was a transit to the heart of town and the grand finale of La Carrera Panamericana. All the race cars were lined up outside of the tollbooth, under the backdrop of magnificent mountains.
A break on the outskirts of Monterrey before the final transit and race finish
Dale and I, letting our hair down
As we arrived the cars were getting ready to roll but El Jefe wouldn’t start. Rene jumped out and immediately went to work, pinpointing that we had lost 3 of the 4 nuts holding the carburetor on, and the gasket was shot. He quickly used some silicone glue to repair the gasket and we searched for 5/8” nuts from the interior of the car to bolt it back down. With a flash of his hands and some more magic, El Jefe was running again. All the other race cars had left but the Federales had waited and said they’d give us a personal escort into Monterrey.
Rene, the Miracle Mechanic
El Jefe under the backdrop of a Monterrey mountain
Geezer put the pedal to the medal and we assumed the car was running well again, but about 5 miles later as we exited the highway and got on a busy main artery through town, El Jefe broke down. It was about 3:30 pm on a Friday and it didn’t seem like it would be rush hour yet, but the traffic was unimaginable, and the Mexico City traffic we encountered didn’t even come close.
Our personal Federale escort
By now I was used to standing in the road with cars and trucks whizzing by and not worrying about my mortality. We put out the orange safety triangles, which you don’t often see in Mexico and even though we were completely blocking the right lane, Rene got to work. Again, within 10 minutes we were off and running again. Back in the truck we followed El Jefe as close as possible through the snare of traffic and Stewie called when a turn was coming. I think it took us over an hour to go 3 or 4 miles. Rene and I cracked a beer and began to wind down, knowing that we were going to make it and the finish was just ahead.
Finally, after an afternoon that seemed to last forever, El Jefe rolled through the red arch marking the end of La Carrera Panamericana. Receiving their finish medals for the day we grabbed the beer from the back of the truck and began to celebrate.
Geezer and Stewie finish Day 7 and......La Carrera is over!
TBZ Racing's triumphant finish!
An informal ceremony began and we learned that the official overall winners were Gabriel Perez and Angelica Fuentes of the 1952 Ford! The car was displayed high on a rack and the winners celebrated with huge smiles and sprays of champagne. I loved that a Ford, and especially a model like ours, won the race. I also loved seeing a woman on the podium. I had met Angelica in the restroom at the service stop at Querétaro and she was a real sweetheart. She asked me how many times I had run and I was thoroughly impressed to hear this was her 13th run.
Sprays of champagne for the 2006 La Carrera Panamericana winners!
A fantastic overall win for the 1952 Ford, #1
Big smiles on the faces of finishers Jorge and Juan in their LT
Rene being attacked by the Lucha Libre Racing crazies
Kristin and Christian of the original PanAm Lincoln (one of my favorite cars)
Jorge dumps Juan for a new co-piloto!
One last smokie smokie
This car went exactly as far as it needed to!
Team Mini from Cancun rocks!
The party was fun and we stayed pretty late, sharing beers, posing for photos and congratulating all of our new friends. When it was time to think about getting to the hotel for a shower, hopefully dinner and then the final ceremony, we fired up El Jefe and he sounded terrible. We laughed knowing that it didn’t matter that we had limped to the finish this afternoon, but that we had finished La Carrera! Geezer drove up the ramps to the trailer and Rene asked me to record the sound because it sounded awful and we knew it wasn’t running on all cylinders.
We cleaned up the Excursion, got El Jefe strapped in and once again got in the thick of Monterrey traffic, but this time in the dark. Again I think it took us another hour to go 4 miles and Geezer fell asleep in the back seat and I smiled knowing that the exhaustion he was feeling was a result of all the joy we had experienced in the last two weeks.
At the hotel we sat down to what I am pretty sure was the 4th meal of the last 10 days. I’m not talking about the 4th sit down meal, but the 4th actual meal! I dreamt about real Mexican food while I inhaled a steak sandwich with fries and we took a taxi to another hotel for the closing ceremony.
After a quick drink in the hotel bar we made our way upstairs to the chaos of the closing ceremony. A band played in the corner and we sat down to rest our exhausted bodies. The ceremony was fairly short, even after thanking and acknowledging all of the support staff, medical crew, federales and everyone who helped the race run as well as it did. I stood in front when they asked all women drivers and navigators to come forward and be honored. Out of 88 starting cars I counted 13 women drivers and/or navigators.
Women drivers and navigators
To our complete surprise, once again we were on the podium for being 3rd in our class today! We all jumped up and there was a bit of confusion about who would go to the podium, and in the end Stewie stayed in the crowd taking pictures while Rene, Geezer and I shared the limelight. I was ecstatic as the only time I was on the podium was when my team was back at the shop fixing the car, so this was the first night that we were all there to share in the joy. We were presented with our plates and we couldn’t have been happier.
On the podium for our 3rd place in class finish for Day 7
After the ceremony the final results were handed out and were were ecstatic to see we were 20th overall for the combined Turismo Mayor and Turismo Producion classes. Not bad for a rookie finish!
I’m writing this last entry two weeks after the official finish. In the week following my return home, I woke up a number of times in the middle of the night in a bit of a panic, thinking I was still in the race, wondering where the race car was and thinking that I had somehow messed up our logistics. Right now I feel I am still riding the high of all of the joy I experienced.
The value of the race to me was the time spent with my dad. Following my own dreams is rewarding and fulfilling, but supporting my dad in his own quest was just as joyful. I seriously think that my dad had the best time of his life. We will be on the starting line again next year and I won’t look to top this year’s experience. I know they will all be fantastic.
I have dear friends from Ohio who have been coming to Colorado for 10 years to ski with me 2 or 3 times each winter. We make such unbelievable memories and the ski days are epic no matter the weather, and we always say, “We’ll never top this trip!” But the next time they return, we do it again. I believe that is the beauty of living in the moment and understanding that it’s not about the racing or the skiing, but rather the relationships we have and build and the memories we make. The best time we can have together is the time we are having at the present.
My mom said to me last night that she couldn’t believe all the pictures and stories of people I met along the journey and was wondering how I remembered all their names. Well, it helps to have nametags on our suits and numbers on our race cars but after 8 straight days of racing, all the faces are friendly and the names don’t matter as much as the handshake, hug or stories shared.
We’ll be back on the starting line with El Jefe next year, a little smarter, a little older, with our foot on the GAS GAS GAS and ready to roll!