23 February 2007

2006: Article in my local Evergreen, Colorado Newspaper

Stephen Knapp did a fantastic job capturing the spirit of the race in the Canyon Courier; check it out.

Evergreen woman spends Mexican vacation at 100 mph
By Stephen Knapp

It’s no wonder so many Americans high-tail it south of the border when vacation time rolls around. Blessed with endless sun-kissed beaches, balmy days and mild nights, exotic sights, sounds and smells, and a relentless manana atmosphere that demands nothing but surrender and sloth, Mexico is a cool tonic for millions of overheated, workaday gringos desperate to step off the fast track for a minute and indulge their inner goldbricks.

A busy high-tech engineer and project manager, Kristin Stewart could benefit from a little R&R as much as anyone, yet the 37-year-old Evergreen resident spent her last Mexican vacation in the eye of a hurricane, a perfect storm of smoke and noise and motion. Last November, while countless of her countrymen lounged beneath oceanside palapas, Kristin raced nearly 2,000 miles across the map of Mexico during La Carrera Panamericana 2006. You call that a vacation? Kristin calls it a gas.

The Pan Am, as it’s known to intimates, was launched in 1950 to promote the freshly minted Pan-American Highway and followed the storied transcontinental ribbon from Tuxla, in the south, to Nuevo Laredo on the Texas border. After five years and sufficient publicity, the race quietly exited from history’s highway until a diverse group of Mexican and North American car enthusiasts resurrected the contest in 1988. It’s been gaining fame and fans ever since.

Truth be told, Kristin’s never really been a cabana-and-coconut-oil tourist to begin with, preferring the grueling pleasures of Colorado’s own cordillera to sand and surf. For that matter, she’s never had more than a purely utilitarian interest in cars, either. So how did a NASCAR-free Rocky Mountain girl find herself speeding up the spine of Mexico? "Geezer" asked her to.

"My brother and I have been calling dad ‘Geezer’ since he turned gray when he was 40," Kristin necessarily explains.

American expatriate Vance "Geezer" Stewart is a 67-year-old engineer specializing in aluminum can manufacture who took a contract to build a plant in Zacatecas, Mexico, and never came home. A colonial-flavored city in the geographical center of the country, Zacatecas is also a major stop on the Pan Am route and a hotbed of La Carrera activity.

"He’d go to the race parties and send us pictures of all the cool cars," Kristin says. "Last year he bought a 1952 Ford Victoria that had already run the Pan Am seven times and completely rebuilt it. Then he called me and asked if I wanted to be on his crew, and I could see he was serious. He doesn’t really do much for himself, and I’m always on board with whatever adventure comes my way, so I said, ‘Let’s go for it.’ "

Kristin’s brother, Vance "Stewie" Stewart, a 42-year-old lieutenant colonel stationed at the Pentagon, also agreed to the mission and, on Nov. 9, the two joined more than 50 other teams from Mexico, America and Europe at the starting line — Veracruz, a steamy slice of Latin America on Mexico’s Gulf Coast. Why not Tuxla? The Pan Am’s starting point and finish line have changed numerous times over the last 20 years to accommodate Mexico’s occasionally turbulent political landscape. In 2006, thanks to civil unrest along the Rio Grande, the Stewarts were bound for Monterrey in central Nuevo Leon.

Of all the world’s epic rallies, the Pan Am is renowned for savaging man and machine because of the widely diverse climates and topographies it encompasses. From the torrid jungle lowlands of Veracruz, the route quickly climbs into the high, cold crown of the Sierra Madre Occidental. Engines finely tuned to purr at sea level gasp for breath above 9,000 feet, where an instant of inattention on a narrow mountain lane can send car and crew plunging into oblivion.

Even in these enlightened times, racing is still largely a man’s game, though a small sisterhood of the wheel lent needed grace to an inherently vulgar affair.

"There were 13 women either driving or navigating, and two all-woman teams," Kristin says. "Two Swedish women were racing a Volvo, and there were two German women with a pink Ford Mustang hatchback."

Because the Pan Am bills itself as a historical enterprise, only cars that rolled off the production line before 1965 can play. Incredibly, a handful of contestants fielded sharp-looking Detroit survivors that had competed in the inaugural 1950 race. When new, all the cars assembled in Veracruz had been comfortable vehicles, even posh. By the time they’re ready to rock the Pan Am, however, they’ve been stripped down to the bare essentials and beefed up as far as the antique chassis will permit. The Stewarts’ Ford was officially designated No. 11 and unofficially dubbed El Jefe.

La Carrera Pan Americana is a time-to-distance, pro-rally event, meaning that instead of simply applying pedal to metal and letting the hubcaps fall where they may, racers must follow specific routes over the course of seven days, alternating between timed "special" stages and "transit" segments. Cumulative times on the "special" stages determine the winners in several categories ranging from Turismo Produccion — dabblers and neophytes who mostly want an excuse to speed around in muscle cars and not worry about Smokey — to Sport Mayor — the smallest group consisting exclusively of serious racers who’ve invested dinero grande in the venture and expect to win. Though eager competitors, the Stewarts fit easily into the dilettante Turismo class.

"We’re pretty low-budget for this race," Kristin admits. "I’d say, besides the $5,000 entrance fee, we had less than $20,000 in it. Some of these guys were driving cherry Oldsmobiles and Packards worth $200,000 or more and had real crews. One guy blew an engine and dropped in a new one that night."

On the evening of Thursday, Nov. 9, the Stewart team sat down to a very good meal. It would be their last for a solid week. Kristin remembers the next seven days as a dizzying blur of speed and confusion and whatever horrible snack food happened to be available at the nearest Pemex station. And if she and Stewie were neglectful of their nutritional requirements, Geezer existed on pure adrenaline.

"He was always so busy and having so much fun, I think he just forgot to eat," Kristin laughs. "Stewie and I finally told him that before we could start, he had to sit down and eat a full breakfast. If we hadn’t, he wouldn’t have eaten anything."

And so they raced, up each day before the sun for another long battle against central Mexico’s winding roads and the remorseless clock … Veracruz to Puebla, Puebla to Queretaro, Queretaro to Morelia and on and on and on. Each day’s itinerary consisted of six or seven drive-like-the-wind-and-let-the-devil-take-the-hindmost timed stages blocked around a like number of transit stages intended to give drivers ample time to safely situate themselves for the next timed round.

"In theory, you were supposed to follow the speed limit during transit stages," Kristin says, "but the fact is you have to haul ass. Drivers start at 30-second intervals in the timed stages, and if you don’t make your start time, it counts against you."

As El Jefe’s captain, Geezer took most of the driving onto himself, leaving Kristin and Stewie to share navigational duties. At the Pan Am, "navigator" is definitely not an empty honorific. Tearing around on Mexico’s often poorly marked urban ways and consistently hazard-rich rural byways, the pilots (as drivers like to be called) have exactly no time to worry about where they’re going. It’s the co-pilot’s duty to do all the thinking and bark commands over the throaty roar of red-lined V-8 engines. With a nod to the 21st century, Geezer installed a navigational computer programmed with every inch of their seven-day odyssey.

As Murphy could have predicted, the device turned turtle during qualifying rounds on the 9th, leaving Kristin madly flipping through the 2-inch-thick route log and screaming directions at the top of her lungs.

"It was unbelievably intense. I was hoarse pretty much from day one."

A young Zacatecan friend of Geezer’s named Rene Rodriguez rounded out El Jefe’s crew, shadowing the Victoria in a Ford Explorer with a small trailer full of tools and spare parts in tow. Rene, who quickly became Kristin’s "little brother," proved to be a triage mechanic of rare talent. Every day the Victoria developed some new, terrible and race-ending complaint, and every night Rene managed to patch it together with chewing gum and baling wire, barely ready for another day’s punishment.

"The car didn’t have a speedometer, but we were usually going about 100 mph, and we probably went over about a thousand speed bumps. Mexico’s full of speed bumps for some reason."

The first three days were accident-heavy, though no one was seriously injured and few cars actually sustained hors de combat. In one instance, Kristin ceded the No. 2 seat to Stewie and went ahead to find a likely vantage where she could get a dramatic portrait of El Jefe at work. No sooner had she settled herself above a sweeping mountain curve than a Mini Cooper came screaming around the corner, lost control and tumbled fender-over-teakettle a half-dozen times.

"They pounded out the dents and were back in the race the next morning," she says.

Another time, she and Geezer came upon a battered vehicle crashed in deep vegetation a couple of hundred feet off the road. The occupants had extricated themselves from the wreckage and simply stood there, disconsolate.

"They were OK, but the driver looked so bummed," Kristin says. Unable to offer any meaningful help, Kristin hugged him, instead. "I know, it was a completely female response, but I didn’t know what else to do."

La Carrera Panamerica’s top purse wouldn’t begin to cover the tab of even discount newbies like the Stewarts. So why do so many people stake their health and fortunes on the adventure?

"It’s incredibly exciting," Kristin says, "and I think the most fun I’ve ever had."

In every one of the hundreds of towns, villages and hamlets along the route, Kristin says, the whole population lined the way. Little kids crowded in for autographs, bands played and a carnival atmosphere prevailed.

"Most Americans have probably never heard of the Pan Am, but it’s a huge deal in Mexico. At the end of every day’s race, the racers parade around the main plaza and the mayor and officials are all there for an official ceremony. In towns, it’s the navigator’s job to smile and wave."

And for the men, Pan Am’s corporate sponsors thoughtfully supplied a lovely assortment of bikini-clad girls — Tecate girls, Corona girls, STP girls, Go Fast energy-drink girls …

"What is it about racing and girls in bikinis?" Kristin laughs.

Exhilaration, pomp and festivity aside, Kristin’s favorite part of each day began after she’d hung up her racing coveralls for the night. As hard-pressed mechanics set about their long night’s labor, cockpit crews repaired to local watering holes to hoist a few and compare war stories.

"I’d race all day and then go to a bar and talk to the other crews until midnight or 1 o’clock," Kristin says. "There’s a great spirit in the Pan Am, and a great bunch of people. There were very few serious racers. Most of them were just doing it for the fun."

Bright and early on Thursday, Nov. 16, Kristin and Geezer lit out from the temperate splendor of lofty Zacatecas ("It looks just like Golden") and, by nightfall, had descended several thousand feet into parched Monterrey’s infernal heat ("It reminds me of Pheonix, but really smoggy.") The Victoria rattled into town on just six cylinders, and its clutch was shot — again — but none of that mattered. The Stewarts had completed the Pan Am. What’s more, they’d done so with distinction.

"We took third place in our class on three different days," Kristin says. "We got silver plates in Puebla, Zacatecas and Monterrey, and we were 20th overall in the ‘race cars’ group."

Not bad for three neophytes on a lark, but inconsequential compared to the Pan Am’s other rewards.

"I got to know a lot of really wonderful people, I got to see the real Mexico that most tourists never do, and I’m definitely going to do it again," Kristin says. "It’s pure adventure."

For a complete, illustrated account of Kristin’s La Carrera Panamericana exploits, visit her web log at http://funksterwtf.blogspot.com.