26 October 2007

2007: Day 1 - So This is Racing.......Over a Cliff!

In front of the beautiful cathedral in downtown Oaxaca at the official start of the race

>>>>>Original Post>>>>>>>>>>
It's been two days since I've posted and we think we have a good excuse. Rene and I put the car over a cliff in a speed stage in the mountains yesterday. We both came out unscathed and the car was amazingly fine. The pictures don't do it justice and I am at a loss of words to explain due to a lack of sleep, nonexistent diet, inhaling too many gas fumes, cigarette smoke and maybe one extra mezcal. And this is just Day 1.

In lieu of words, here are some pictures from yesterday. We heard that 9 cars went off the road in the mountain stages between Oaxaca and Tehuacan. Those mountains were humbling.....unlike any mountains I have experienced in the US, Canada or Europe and in the top 3 of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.

The good news and the only important news is that as far as we know, there were no injuries from today's crashes.

And so, todos vaya con dios!

>>>>>End of Original Post>>>>>>>>>>

I'm back, after the fact, here to flesh out some of the details of Day 1 of the race. Our crash could easily be classified as a very minor one, especially since both occupants and the car were not harmed. On the drama scale I give it a 7, but hey, that's my scale and everything is relative. It did take some time for me to process what happened, and I guess that's why it's two months later and I am just sitting down to write.

It changed the face of the race for me in a good way. I have a much more realistic view of the danger, and know that indeed, this can (and did) happen to me. Before I would have readily admitted the real dangers of this race and even cited historic fatalities, a solid car, the importance of safety equipment and safe driving, but a part of me thought that the crashes largely happened to the "other guys" - the professional racers, the guys who do this all year long, the guys who push their limits. I felt we were not in that class of racing - we were just here to have fun, not push our limits, smile and cross the finish line.

The morning started out smoothly with Geezer driving and Stewie navigating the same course they ran yesterday in the Day 0 qualification. Rene and I waited at the clogged and bustling Oxxo station for El Jefe's arrival. We heard that Rolf's Falcon went off the road, but was back racing again. It is always alarming to hear someone went off the road and I am always uneasy until I hear that the driver and copilot were okay. Rene was full of energy this morning and I too had anxiety and nervousness leading to our first time in the car for the 2007 race. It seemed like it took forever for El Jefe to get there, and we were happy to hear that everything went well in the morning.

Rene and I suited up and I was pretty nervous, now that I look back at it. The afternoon's speed sections included some very dangerous mountain roads, with sketchy road surfaces and numerous cliffs. As the copilot I normally preview at noon the sections we will run in the afternoon. I highlight any turns that are a 3 or higher (on a scale of 4), any rough road sections and any cliffs. My highlighter was about worn out after doing this for the pages for the afternoon of Day 1 - there were many, many dangerous curves, cliffs and rough roads. I took Rene aside and showed him all the highlights and stressed to him the importance and driving safely. I also asked my brother to talk to him and maybe calm him down a bit. I watched Stewie pull Rene aside and tell him to take it easy, that we weren't going to win anything this year, to keep the car on the road and drive steady.

We put on our Leatt Braces which on me was pretty big and cumbersome. I couldn't see how I was going to last all afternoon wearing it. It felt like it was stretching my neck upwards and holding my head too high. Turning my head was almost impossible. But I would wear the brace, I knew that. We headed off down the road, full of excitement and a bit relieved to get going. We had a very short transit before our first speed stage, which is why we suited up at the gas station.

Rene ran the first stage very well and very fast but the car overheated. After the speed stage he pulled off the road in front of a shack and hollered at the people watching to get us some water. I stayed in the car, strapped in, because I knew that he didn't need my help and that it would take me 5 more minutes to get strapped in. I had messed up the calculations for our arrival time at the next speed stage - I was rusty and couldn't remember how to calculate the numbers on the card. Rene put water in the radiator and jumped back in the car but El Jefe wouldn't start. He whistled at a truck going by and got them to jump us. We were now late for the next speed stage, but being late is a lot better than being early as the penalties for being early are much greater. The truck took off and we waved in thanks and Rene jumped back in just as the car died. It was very frustrating but he tried the ignition one more time and the car started!

We hopped back down the road with a lot of nervous and hyper energy. We were shouting over the roar of the car and Rene was asking me which was to go. I shouted and told him to keep going until he saw the line-up of cars at the 2nd speed stage. He was going too fast through the village and the line-up of the speed stage and I told him to slow down! We were already 10 minutes late for our designated start, but that was only a 10 second penalty and that absolutely did not matter to us. Rene shouted that he wasn't going to wear the Leatt Brace and we went back and forth on that one a bit. He said it wasn't comfortable and I said I didn't care because we didn't have our other braces with us and we couldn't race without them. I made him pull over to the side of the road and take a minute to properly put on his race gear. The whole thing was nerve-wracking. It really didn't matter that we were late, but it felt like it mattered. Finally we got in the queue to race and we were off on a very long speed stage, close to 30 km and the longest speed stage we'd ever done.

We were in some serious mountain terrain and the turns were back-to-back in quick succession. It was very intense driving and Rene was driving as fast as he did back on Day 6 of last year. About 21km into the speed stage we came around a left hand turn and the back end wiggled and threatened to spin. I am pretty sure that if I could have seen Rene eyes, they would have been wide open. I wasn't scared and the skid scrubbed off most of our speed and Rene kept us on track, but I remember thinking, "That is the first time we've almost spun out." I knew that Rene was surprised - maybe he looked at me - I can't remember, but I told him in the intercom, "Don't worry about it, just get back on track and go, you're fine." About 3 turns later we came through a cut in the mountain going right, hit a small downhill straightaway that led into a sharp left (3) and he slammed on the brakes and braced.

I know my brain didn't know what was happening as we skidded straight for the edge of the road. To our left was a steep cliff to the valley below and to our right was an uphill mountainside covered in jungle. But before that mountain went up, it went down.

I remember quiet and peacefulness as we slid in slow motion towards the edge of the road and the unknown. The car dipped steeply down and crashed over small trees and thick brush until we came to rest bout 15 feet down the incline. El Jefe was almost resting on the passenger side of the car, but also tipped downhill towards the front of the car. From our resting position we looked to be hanging in the air.

I have had moments after near misses where I knew I was okay, and moments where my brain needed to catch up to what had happened. I totalled my Audi wagon last March when I hit a 900 pound elk while going 70mph on the Colorado Interstate at night. The elk hit the hood and my side of the windshield and after getting sprayed with glass but not feeling any impact I didn't know if I was okay or not. I was literally terrified that I would look over at my passenger and see that she was bloody and/or dead. We shouted at each other at the same time, "ARE YOU OKAY? I'M OKAY!" and I reached out blindly to grab her hand because I needed to physically touch her which would be the second step in knowing that she was okay, after hearing her voice.
It took what seemed like a lifetime but was probably only 30 seconds before I had the courage to turn and look at her. We were both fine but I definitely experienced that moment where I didn't know if I was physically okay and I was terrified that my passenger would be covered in blood.

This time with Rene, when the car stopped, it was very quiet and still. We confirmed that the other was okay and my physical position as far as the angle of the car upon the earth became clear. I looked at Rene and said with fear, "Is the car going to move?" I know I had grasped my racing harness with both hands at the sternum and I knew I wouldn't release that harness if there was a chance the car was going to break free and roll. Below us was thick jungle but there was no end to the ravine in sight and to me it was certain that the car would roll many times before stopping. Rene, with full confidence, said the car was stopped and he climbed out his door, which was literally above me. Once he got both feet on the ground his face showed fear and he looked down on me and said, "Walk very softly!"

For the first time I was really scared. I did not want to go for a ride in that car, but I was scared to unbuckle the harness for fear that my movement would cause the car to break free. I probably asked him if he was sure, which was a stupid question, but I wasn't ready to make my move. I grabbed my cell phone which was velcroed to the dash and handed Rene the Route Book, then unbuckled my harness and crawled as fast and gently as I could up and out of El Jefe.

To be continued......

The Hot Rod Lincoln at the official race start in Oaxaca

El Jefe in front of the the cathedral in Oaxaca

Stewie in the morning

Suited up and ready to go!

Geezer in his underwear....again

The Mats Hammarlund team works on the speedy yellow Volvo

The Corona Ford

Rene immediately after our crash - note the skid marks

Yep, everything is OK

The view looking back up the road. Picture courtesy of Bret Haller and TheUnlimitedClass.com

No comments: