Today in the afternoon we ran the prequalification speed stage outside of Oaxaca. The times don't count towards the official finish of the race and are run to determine a starting order for tomorrow, the official race start. This places the cars in a rough order of relative speed so that fast cars are not constantly overtaking the slower cars during speed stages as it is very dangerous. It's good to get out there and test El Jefe again and get ready for tomorrow. Last year in Veracruz the race field had 3 rollovers on Day 0 - an unprecedented number of crashes. Only the Mini was able to get back on the road and finish the race. We all heard the warnings at the meeting last night to be extra careful.
There are approximately 96 cars in the field and some 80 showed up for the optional run today. El Jefe put out a decent showing in the middle of the pack at 41st place. Our class (Turismo de Producion) is tough this year....small but tough. There are a ton of Studebakers here plus a good showing of Mustangs which should make for a fast field this year.
Historically 50% of all PanAm crashes happen on Day 0 of racing, which is unfortunate as some of these cars never make it to the starting line after that. Racers are eager, tension is high, there are rookies in the field and most cars still have kinks in them. The altitude fluctuates greatly through the race and in Oaxaca we were at 5,000 feet in altitude which is a lot more than many hometowns where the race cars were built, affecting both the performance of the cars and the people. We were told many times to take it easy on Day 0 and today we didn't have any crashes. There were some mechanical problems so not everyone finished, but all in all it was a good showing and of course, mechanical problems are inevitable at the legendary La Carrera because we push the cars so hard.
We spent the morning at the baseball park downtown getting everything finalized to race. The park was overflowing for the third day with locals and fans and school children wanting autographs. El Jefe was ready to go but we needed to organize our gear, review the route and how to calculate transit times, and figure out our new Leatt Braces, which are similar to Hans devices to protect your head from separating from your neck in a crash. Ralph "Crash" Carungi was talking to his wife back in Phoenix and handed the phone to me. We met once earlier this year and today she told me to keep "Crash" safe and I said, "I would if I could but that's Bill's job."
There was a buzz of excitement in the air. All drivers and copilots posed for a group picture and then race cars began transiting across Oaxaca at staggered times to arrive at the beginning of the speed stage on time.
Geezer drove today with Stewie copiloting. Rene and I drove the service truck to the outskirts of Oaxaca to find the speed stage. Along the way in traffic we saw one of the PanAm sag wagons with staff we recognized from last year and they passed us two Modelos! We drove the Excursion up the mountainous and curvy speed stage course and parked near the end of the stage and hung out on top of a cliff with several members of the press and some local muchachos who brought a picnic of chips and booze to watch the races. After about 45 minutes of waiting the race began. I got some great footage of most of the cars ripping through an S-curve.
It was so exciting to see all of the cars in such close proximity, and I loved being on the top of a cliff looking down, knowing that if they crashed, I wouldn't be in the way. It still amazes me to see the dangerous places spectators and sometimes the press stand during speed stages like this. The cars began roaring up the valley and we had a long view of them coming so we could recognize our friends and the cars we knew from last year.
It looked like the course was a lot of fun and we knew that there was some fine tuning to be done to the cars. Some cars smoked, some were gassy and some expelled smells that would cause me to turn around and ask Rene what it was. "Clutch" he'd say, or "That popping sound was the turbos." We moved to a better spot for filming and then we could only hear the cars approach until they were right in front of us. Rene said he'd recognize his baby by the sound and sure enough he yelled, "Here comes El Jefe!" I got just as excited as I did last year when I saw El Jefe racing for the first time on Day 0. Geezer was significantly faster this year with a cleaner line. I was jumping up and down with adrenaline coursing through my body, which didn't make for a very good video clip, and I controlled the volume of my voice because last year on film all you hear is an earth shattering "GOOOO GEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEZERRRRRRRR!!!!!" coming out of my mouth.
Geezer was looking good and just where we wanted him. Stewie said later that he drove a lot faster than he thought he would. In the middle of the speed stage Geezer lost power steering. He said it wasn't a problem, just a little harder to turn and that he didn't even mention it to Stewie during the stage. We all laughed because there is no time for the driver to talk during a speed stage and they were having trouble with the intercom system anyway. It's incredibly loud in the car while racing with the noise of the engine and the wind coming through the open windows, and because we are wearing helmets. The car started to heat up and the alternator light went on but they were able to finish the stage.
After all the runs were complete and the race staff , policia and medics swept the course, we got into the truck to return. When we got to the race starting point, the cars were just beginning their transit back to the hotel. They had held all the race cars at the top of the mountain until everyone was done, but now they were coming down. We stood on top of a bridge to have a view of all the cars - what an amazing sight to see - much better than a static car show!
We spotted El Jefe just before they pulled over on the side of the road. We ran down there and they told us that when they came back down the mountain the car was overheating again and Rene found they had thrown a fan belt, which meant we lost the alternator, controls, water pump and power steering. The car got hot so we lost some coolant but once Rene filled it back up with water we were good to go. Geezer also said that when he had to make a U-turn at the end of the speed stage it was a real bear to turn the car without power steering and he was laughing about it, saying he could barely do it.
We drove in tandem back to the hotel, passing a few race cars on trailers, a few on the side of the road, and a team pushing theirs through the toll boot, and then roll starting it.
Later in the evening about 25 of us boarded a shuttle bus that took us to the 9pm driver's meeting in downtown Oaxaca. On the bus a blonde girl was sitting behind me and she asked me if I was with the Zacatecas Ford. She said she had been signing autographs as me today, when the kids would hand her our postcard! Once we arrive downtown Oaxaca, in the town square a party was going on with a band under the full moon. Oaxaca is the capital and largest city in the state of Oaxaca with about a half million people in the metro area. It is home to the oldest ruins in Mexico - Monte Albán which date back to 500 B.C.
In a beautiful atrium of a historic building the mayor of Oaxaca welcomed us. Eduardo Leon, the Race Director, said tonight the moon is the closest to the earth it has been in a long time. I haven't watched or heard any news in 7 days and was grateful to hear that.
After the Day 0 race results were announced we ate from a 30 foot long buffet. I was starving and as I walked back to find Geezer, Stewie and Rene in the crowd, I was cramming tiny corn tortillas with goat cheese into my mouth. I adore Mexican food and could eat it every day. I took a bite of a fried dumpling with some reddish meat inside. As I walked up to my crew, Stewie looked at me with a look of horror on his face and said, "That's grasshopper!!!" My tastebuds came alive and realized from their burned memory of two nights ago that they did not want to eat GRASSHOPPA again! I dramatically spit the bite out into the napkins while my team laughed. I'm done with grasshoppers. End of story.
It is after midnight now and we have an 8am OFFICIAL PANAM 2007 START in the zocolo (town square) tomorrow morning, which means we get up at 6am and start hustling. Geezer and Stewie will kick off a short morning with 2 speed stages, and Rene and I will finish out the afternoon with 4 long speed stages. We hope to represent!
I'm sorry not to be more creative or descriptive with my writing but this race is exhausting and I know I need to sleep! Buena Suerte to everyone racing manana!