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2005 La Carrera Panamericana Vintage Car Race

No bikes, Just Speed And The World’s Most Dangerous Road Race

Photos and Text By K. Randall Ball
6/14/2010 2:29:27 PM


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I don’t know where to start. A riding buddy shows up at the Bikernet Headquarters with a modified ’54 Lincoln and asked for some help. So we quit working on bikes and tinkered with the stripped Lincoln with the rebuilt engine and a Carter carb from Highway Patrol Cruisers of the era.

trunk of christians car
Of course, the car is sponsored by Bikernet.com.

Dr. Hamster, or Dr. Chris Reichardt is a Hamster of long standing and we’ve ridden to Sturgis on numerous occasions. In other words we’ve been pals for years, maybe 20 or so. “Lieutenant,” Chris called me, when I was a Hamster, “Check this thing out. I’m going to race it across Mexico.” So the back story behind the stinkin’ Lincoln surfaced. Seems the race began in the early ‘50s as a way for the Mexican government to promote their new highway system from the bottom of the country to the Nuevo Laredo Border in Texas. They invited all the elite race care drivers from the US and let them party from one end of the country to the other. Lincolns dominated the first couple of years against the finest Europeans cars made, including Mercedes, Porche, Ferraris and Mazaritte’s. “They took first through 3rd place with ’53 Linclons,” Chris said. “The next year they took 1st and third. They couldn’t be beat. A couple of years later the race was shut down. It was then labeled the The World’s most Dangerous Road Race.

During one race 28 people were killed, most from cars careening off the road into citizens who lined the small, two-lane thoroughfares.

Some 18 years ago the doors to the Pan Americana were opened once more behind more stringent rules as a Vintage Car rally. Only cars built before 1967 are allowed on the 2,200 mile journey. That’s a dubious ruling since most of the cars are heavily modified. Chris read the rule book thoroughly and took it to heart. It said that Original Panam cars had to be original, so he stood on his intergrity and kept to the guidelines stridently. Although he had an itch for vintage sports cars he hadn’t ever experienced this race first hand. It was a new bag. So we tinkered with an experienced car. It indured mayhem in Mexico twice, in 1999 and 2000 in the hands of a shady racing personality. The car was repossessed and Chris bought it, unknowing of the flim flam man behind its history until he initiated his investigation. I guided Chris and the car to Henry Figuero’s paint shop and refurbishing paint work proceeded. This Stinkin’ Lincoln would race again.

kb co-pilot on door

So how did I stumble into this mess? I delivered the good Doctor to Henry’s San Pedro tin paint shed to pick up the Lincoln just after George, The Wild Brush, pinstriped the beast and noticed that it said, “Piloto,” on the drive’s door and, “Co- Piloto” on the passenger door. Being a reporter by nature I asked, “Whose the ‘co-piloto’?”

“You, Lieutenant,” Chris said indicating that the positioned wasn’t filled.

horsepower mkting on 
trunk
Shit, I forgot one of our esteemed sponsors, Jeff Najar, of Horsepower Marketing. Most helpful.

I thought about it for five minutes. I needed an adventure fix for 2005 and this looked like the hearty makin’s of a good one. Something I’d never done before. The deal was that we would split the expenses of the trip. I would come up with the cash for the entrance fee $5,000, thereabouts, and he would cover the car expenses. Being a starving writer I had to ponder my budget and the time away from Bikernet, two to three weeks.

nicks perf. on side of car
Amsoil and Nick’s Performance supplied with all the lubes we needed.

“Yep,” I said. “I’ll go for it. Maybe we could put together some sponsors to help us with the expenses.” As it turned out Bikernet readers and advertisers stepped up to the plate with over $10,000. Saxon partners had a vested interest in Mexico with their La Palma resorts at Rocky Point. Berry Wardlaw is working with me on the Bikernet Bonneville effort and his Accurate Engineering business stepped up to help. Then longtime reader Richard Roesler threw in along, with Jeff Najar of HorsePower Marketing and Nick Roberts of Nick’s Performance and Amsoil Oils supplied all the lubricants. And of course Lucky Devil’s Metal Works in Houston backed our play.

las palmas on trunk
Las Palmas Resorts are owned by the Saxon Motorcycle Team.

Suddenly the drunken dream began to take shape. After building a bike and riding to Sturgis we spent weekends tinkering and prepping the car. Nyla Olsen backed us up with sticker manufacturing, and made sure all the papers were in order. We hit the Mexican Embassy for documents for the car and for ourselves. We pulled the stock bench seat and replaced it with two, old, used Porche bucket seats and a center counsel out of a T-Bird from Gene Koch.

engine shot
The first ever production V-8.

Chris had the tranny rebuilt, the rear leaf springs re- tempered, new shocks installed, the radiator rebuilt, all the hoses replaced and an electric fuel pump added. He made every effort to maintain the originality about each element, not knowing that most cars, even in our class, were severely modified. We ran stock drum brakes to our chagrin, while every other car team installed state of the art discs. We were harshly hampered, but what the hell. I built a rigid and rode it to Sturgis. What could be more old school. At least this had shocks, windshield wipers and a gas gauge. What more could we possibly require. Gene tossed in a GPS, which was a lifesaver.

token from Elsa
Chris’ girlfriend gave us a patron saint to protect us. It’s hanging from the roll cage.

As I returned from Sturgis, Chris owned the Hot Rod Lincoln for three years and was confident that we were ready to rock. I drove it and if felt uncertain and squeamish. He had it tuned and dyno’d. We worked on the car every weekend, worked with sponsors, hunted parts, collected our Amsoil lubricants, packed, prepared a schedule for the run to the bottom of Mexico to hook up with the other racers in Tuxtla Guitierrez.

We drove out to a hole-in-the-wall joint in North Hollywood and ordered fire suits, grabbed new, state-of-the-art, full face bike helmets, bought flame retardant gloves and checked the rule book. We made plans to meet with two other cars and caravan to Mexico from Califa. Our initial plan called for driving in shifts per gas stop. He would drive for a tank, then the Co- Piloto took over. When we hit the race he would Pilot one day and I would pilot the next. The more we read about the rally the more the pressure was on the Navigator to follow rules, be the guide, track all the aspects of the car and make sure everything happened right on time.

car being trailored

At 5:30 a.m. on October 14th, Friday, we pulled out of the Bikernet Headquarters and rumbled toward the Arizona Border. The Linclon was stripped on the interior, but Chris lined the deck and firewall with a protective insulation to keep the rattling noise down and exhaust fumes from killing us. We had four point racing harnesses and a complete roll cage. The Lincoln was powered by a 317-inch V-8 purportedly capable of 154 horsepower. It was the first production V-8 built in ’54 and state-of-the-art for the era.

The intake manifold was replaced with a more performance unit and a big 4-barrel Carter, police carb. There were two, two- door models in ’54, the Cosmopolitan and the Capri. The Cosmopolitan had a Black steering wheel and less trim than the Capri. As we pulled out and headed toward the freeway, we were both consumed with anticipation, check lists and that ever- nagging concern about a new/old vehicle. It was just like building a bike and riding to Sturgis—only worse.

gps on dash
The lifesaving Garmin GPS. We needed to keep the batteries fresh. If the cigarette lighter connection vibrated loose, it shut down.

Our mission called for driving 2000 miles, then surviving a race for 2,200 miles and then driving another 1,000 miles home. We listened for every odd sound, watched the gauges for changes or bad indications. Our nostrils were wide open for the wrong smell or too much heat. Our first stop was Billings truck stop in Palm Springs to hook up with two other teams. Little did we know they were both packing ‘53 Lincolns, except their cars were on trailors behind Campers and they had teams. We were two guys in our car with our shit banging around in the back. We quickly discovered how modified our class mate’s cars were. They both had disc brakes, late model transmissions, heavily modified engines and electronic ignitions.

It was September in the desert and the weather was warming up. We had a couple of car oddities to monitor right away, the running temp (160-180 degrees) and the Horn button that let us know how powerful the horn was every time we shifted it into first. Also a couple of quirky elements about the driveline were cumbersome. The tranny had no “park” and we had to pull the parking brake on at every stop and remember to disengage them. The brakes worked so-so. Plus the car didn’t want to idle and died frequently.

As we dodged tumbleweeds and slabs of truck retreads Dr. Chris told me stories of past races. “They stopped the race in 1954 because too many spectators died,” he said. “The average speed of the ’54 Lincoln winner was 97 mph. The race restarted in 1988.” At virtually every stop we checked the oil, water levels and mileage. At Gila bend we clocked 12.4 mpg, which wasn’t bad considering our fuel capacity was in question. It was an old, lined fuel cell that may have held 10 or 15 gallons when installed. We also discovered that we were adding a quart of oil per tank of gas and that was troubling. We discovered an oil leak around the base of the disconnected, mechanical fuel pump. We relied on an electrical fuel pump. We also wanted to check the oil filter and I check the manual full of sharp mechanical drawings for solutions.

rolling road sign
Mexico was packed with speed bumps and boob signs warning of them.

Before the next stop we lost one of the teams. They had a flat and forgot to refuel—ran out of gas. Our car was handling terrifically as we caught Interstate 8 east toward Tuscon, 99 miles ahead.

The gas capacity combined with the miles-per-gallon forced us to stop every 100 miles. That’s as bad as some bikes.

We already pondered a 35-gallon tank for the future. By 5:30 p.m. we were 97 miles east of El Paso. In Deming, New Mexico. Dr. Chris tightened the fuel pump diaphragm and we only added a ½ quart of oil. I sprayed the ignition switch with WD-40 and we made a list for a Walmart store run in El Paso before we crossed the border. We needed a case of oil, a case of water and a case of trail mix.

It was a grizzly stretch of road with dust storms, lightening and a 75 mph speed limit. We were already holding our speed back to conserve fuel. We had maps of Mexico, but no maps of California, Arizona, New Mexico or Texas. We used the GPS compass and interstates. We drank water, ice tea, ate trail mix and drove. We covered 700 miles the first day. As we rolled into Texas it was flat, on a misty gray morning in the New Mexico Plains. Crossing the border into the Lone Star State we met rain, faltering windshield wipers and leaks that dripped water on my feet from cracks in the 50 year old windshield insulation. Another project lay ahead. Also the high-beams were on all the time and that needed to be fixed.

la carrera on front fender

Other than the water dripping on the electrical panel under the dash, the car ran well, except for the alarming incessant slamming of the gears in the hydramatic automatic transmission. As we headed into downtown El Paso and the streets turned from modern western U.S. streets to slovenly border town ghetto strips, we felt a burning desire to ask, “Donde esta el Sol,” We needed some sun as we crept over the border into Mexico.

police getting gas

Biting our nails we rolled up to the customs department, expecting substantial delays and Federales with their hands out. Quickly an officer took a look at our thorough papers and told us to scoot on down the road to another town and another vehicle inspection station. We followed his directions implicitly and the next thing we knew we rolled out of Juarez. We ran through grubby flooded streets for 20 kilometers to Chihuahua. We never saw a damn thing resembling an inspection station, so we peeled the sticker off the paperwork, applied it to the inside of the windshield and kept rolling.

keith by car

We stopped in Aye Chihuahua after 150 miles and filled up, 40 Liters for 366 pesos. The traffic was a mess, jammed, redirected on detours onto little cluttered streets. We endeavored to cover as many miles as possible and find a town and hotel with a secure parking lot, or the engine might be missing the following morning. We made a list of Hot Rod Lincoln items to fix.

white lincoln

women vendors on side of 
road

The rearview mirror vibrated loose and was a pain in the ass. Windshield insulation was cracked from 52 years of sunlight and leaked. It needed caulking. The passenger vent needed to be sealed with duck tape to prevent exhaust fumes from filling the cabin. The high-beam switch, as it turned out, was wired backwards and was on all the time. We noticed that the original disconnected fuel pump continued to leak oil around the diaphragm seal and we were still forced to add oil at almost every gas stop. Plus something quirky about the ignition switch surfaced. Burnin’ daylight we hunted for safe haven. We also needed another Wal Mercado, to find a stopwatch and a hand held calculator, but we weren’t finding shit.

chrome bullhorn mudflaps

Neither the Frommers nor the AAA guide book listed any of the towns we passed through. Frommers didn’t have a chapter on the region we rumbled into south of Chihuahua. We had entered the badlands, Deadman’s cove or death valley of Camargo and Jimenez. “You know,” Chris said staring through the dusty windshield. “There’s bandits who block the road at night and look for unsuspecting touristas.” I drew my blade and sharpened it against the interior roll bar.

cinderblock n metal 
corrigated bldg
Instead of billboards, many of the buildings were painted with Corona theme colors or in Bardhal black and yellow.

Just a half hour before dark we cruised into the small town of Jimenz, and while residents stared at the old Lincoln covered in sponsorship stickers, we stared back looking for a place to stay. We found a the El Herradero (guy who brands animals) Hotel surrounded by cops. A bright yellow top fuel dragsters was parked in the lot as we rolled up to the security gate.

gas filter
We carried spare fuel filters and replaced them regularly.

Day two, in Mexico we checked the oil in the morning (cold) and the tranny fluid. Just 142 miles out of town we ran out of gas and used our 5-gallon reserve in Gomez Palacio to get us going. Another 202 miles and we came face to face with our first breakdown. The car sputtered and died. It had to be crap in the fuel. We replaced the muck filled fuel filter and hunted for a float bowel. Something was wrong and we limped back into town to find a station. No luck. We concluded that we had run out of gas and hit a bump jarring the crap-lined fuel cell. We were running between 11 and 15 miles to the gallon, maybe. It made watching our mileage and gas stops critical.

fruit stand

It was 256 kilometers to Zacatecas ahead. We checked the fuel filter again and the oil and rolled out of town. Rolling hills were covered with green shrubs and Yucca plants. Little block buildings were scattered along the two-lane, cemented to small taco stands. The weather was perfect, warm, sunny, but reports indicated there was flooding in Mexico City and Oaxaca. We were waiting for more reports, but didn’t have a radio and the MP3 player ate batteries too fast to use. I was rapidly learning the Garmin GPS. What a lifesaver, although the map aspect didn’t work inside of Mexico. Hell, some of the maps we had also didn’t work in Mexico. Whole highways were missing.

kids on horse

John, from one of the other teams, shot our hopes to the moon with his comment, “Tequila and Viagra every night of the race.” Where we turned south in El Paso they continued in the comfort of their motorhomes into Laredo before crossing the border. Those words described the nightly race parties ahead. That was enough to keep any two red-blooded Americans rolling across any country. We jammed into Rio Grande, 101 miles and filled up, 30.1 Liters or 12 miles to the gallon. We were right on schedule to make it to the race start city a day ahead of the gun going off.

old door

old green bldg

The Lincoln held it’s own at 7110 feet and Zacatecas at 7,800 feet. In less than a week we were scheduled to run back through Zacatecas during the race. Next stop was 111 miles, and another 30 liters of fuel for 12.9 mpg. I was learning how to figure liters into gallons by dividing 30 by 3.5 and coming up with 8.57 gallons and dividing that into 111 miles.

corona agency
Corona was represented everywhere.

On a serious mission, we missed breakfast, instead drank a Boost drink, and shoveled vitamins. For lunch we kept moving on cocktail mix, salted nuts and water. At Querataro the GPS showed 238 miles. We covered another 127 miles and crashed at a Holiday Inn and enjoyed a tantalizing fish dinner. The rules for eating in Mexico are stringent. Meat could be okay, but not vegetables or anything cooked or washed in the water. That meant only eating fruit with skins and always drinking beer from the bottle and no cocktails including ice.

christian by car
Dr. Chris tweaking the Lincoln behind our hotel.

At 7:15 the next morning we hit the road. We faced a critical obstacle, Mexico City, population 25 million and the country’s Capitol. Snatching pastries and coffee we rolled south, in the cool morning air, on 57D to Hwy 136, divided highways to circumvent city traffic. Toll roads were a constant consideration. We were forced to maintain and active supply of pesos. Watching for Coytopec we hit Texcoco to Los Reyes, then San Martin or Puebla. We stopped for gas in Tepoztlan at 108 miles on the trip gauge at 7,400 elevation. We stopped, gassed and inquired for a secret path around the city. Leaving we still weren’t sure which way to go. Little did we know we were clear of the rubble from the city founded in 1521 on the ruins of the Great Tenochtitlan.

shack

So much of Mexico is broad plains and rural villages, but Mexico City is pure squalor. Thousand of people crowded the toll booths to hit on passing motorists, offer themselves as guides, or sell trinkets. An old toothless, skinny gent approached us, in tattered clothes, with his fly down. He spoke English, “I went to High School in San Diego.”

“Figures,” I said and we rolled on in search of the illusive highway around the city.

“We found Lecuemia,” Chris said. “This is real Mexico, street to street ghettos, and an industrial mayhem.” We were approached by a crisp, uniformed Federalist wearing a hat from Nazi Germany. It arched high, like an evil Colonol’s dress uniform. He wanted to bust us for emissions but was satisfied embezzling our Bikernet ballcap.

graveyard

At every stop we were surrounded by street vendors, hustlers and guys trying to wash our windshield with dry cloths, in the center of a constant dust storm. We studied the maps, but our super highway around the city was a ruse. Even creeping through the heat of the city at slow speeds La Bestia Del Norte maintained 170 degress. Hell my Road King sputters along at over 240 degrees on a cool day. Suddenly we were climbing over a mountain range and out of the city. It was the steep Grapevine of Mexico careening from 7500 feet to 10,414 in 18 miles. We leaned forward in our cracked bucket seats as the old Lincoln pulled it’s massive weight toward the crest. Chris told me that 30 Mexican cars entered the race, 40 from the US and 30 from Europe. The gang wars in Laredo chased some of the entrants off and the total number dropped to 65 or so cars as the race approached.

cross n bust

The climate and atmosphere through the mountains was reminiscent of moderate Colorado with Pine trees and beautiful vistas. So far the Weather Gods were on our side as we pulled south of Mexico City toward Puebla where we wanted to check the plugs. There was one strange idle carb adjustment on the casting of the carburetor next to the manifold, in the front. One for each bank of intake ports. We attempted to adjust it, but the impact on the plugs was uncertain. The exhaust manifold folded its cast arms above the plug inlets, unlike most V-8s and it was virtually impossible to reach the plugs unless the engine was cool and we crawled under the carriage.

fog

We made a deal with a trucker for some pesos when we gassed up and used 42 Liters for 145 miles for 325 pesos, or 12 gallons for 12 mpg which indicated at least a 12 gallon tank. The mystery continued. As we dropped out of the hills we hit a dense fog at 8,046 feet. “It dropped to two-stripe visibility,” Chris said squeezing the stock steering wheel for all is was worth.

“This is the La Cumbre in Maltrada,” Chris muttered staring out the moist windshield. “My girlfriend’s cousin died on this road. It’s the worst fog in the country.” Plus we were headed steeply downhill on wet asphalt. We were nervous for the car’s ability creeping up the hill and scared to death sliding down this narrow wet path hanging dangerously over sheer precipices. As the elevation subsided the car ran better, the weather cooled and the Lincoln loved the damp air.

street incline sign

I’m going to jump ahead to the race, since this ain’t a travel log for Mexico’s Best Western magazine, but I’ll touch on a couple of items. Don’t trust the maps or get the absolute latest printing. The helpful truckers are way more considerate to motorists than stateside. They pull to the right to let you pass. Slow moving trucks signal left to let you know when it’s safe to pass. It’s necessary, since there are so many winding two-lane highways. We ran along the coast for a spell then cut inland on a road to nowhere. Our gas tank problem was our nemesis. We had to constantly be aware of our gas level and distance to the next town. More than once we prayed for surf and bit our nails hoping for a Pemex station (government owned gas franchise) to rise out of a hill and refuel us. Most of the roads are well kept, although, from time to time we would stumble into pothole city.

guard your distance sign

As Americans we have a strange, general attitude toward this south of the border nation. We may think of the people as substandard, but the language is grand steps above American modified and condensed English. Where we say, “Slow Down,” the Spanish language so eloquently announces, “Reducimente Su Velocidade.” Some of the cities of Mexico are picturesque palaces as elegant as any castle in Europe. It’s beautiful, romantic and historic. No Mac Donalds on every corner.

two racers

welcome corona sign
Welcome banner at the El Camino Real Hotel.

Some 14 Kilometer outside of Tuxla we refueled and adjusted the carb idle jets. The left needle was adjusted ½ turn out and the right a full turn out. Tuxla was a happening city in Chiapa, the state capitol. Slick new car dealerships line broad boulevards. Kids in school uniforms filled the streets. At 2571 miles on the GPS we rolled into the massive El Camino Real Hotel parking lot up a dangerously steep driveway. The highrise luxury hotel was planted into the side of a hill, overlooking the city. We checked in and Chris began to meet and greet the other drivers, a wild assortment of various ethnic backgrounds. Our list of to- dos expanded by the minute. Race cars were parked in a party viewing lane with a grass medium behind the hotel, under temporary booth tents. We were afforded electricity and some of the teams crews worked on their cars constantly.

red race car

side of guacamole car

side of red car

sleeperzzz race team

small race car

strap on trunk
There’s those straps again.

This was our first shot and there was much to learn. We went to dinner with a Studebaker team. The driver was the company boss and the navigation a brilliant engineer, who was somber, subservient and sarcastic. He carefully followed the tough-talking boss from place to place like his man-servant. We downed shots of Cazadores and Sangrita mixed with bloody Mary mix, backed with Sol beers in the bottle. The boss spoke of whorehouses and wild times, but we had a list a mile long, one day to prepare and learn every aspect of the 2,200 mile race. Holy shit.

The atmosphere was a mixture of relaxed excitement, between learning about that Carter carb, finding a stop watch, losing the battery, pinstriping the car, finding more supplies, tech inspection, discovering we had inappropriate motorcycle helmets and buying Nomex face shields to make up for them, our plates were packed. We needed to apply for race licenses, undergo medical checks, find Luis the promoter, check the plugs, check the rear end and find a business center for Chris.

kids around black car
Here’s that Cobra before the race.

Between meeting other owners, drivers, navigators and mechanics we discovered that some of the cars were worth well over $200,000 and some were more NASCARS than vintage competitors. Ferd “Fredy” Grauer from Boulder flew out to pilot one of his brother’s cars, a special built Cobra replica. They also brought an all jet black ’57 Chevy with a 550 horsepower Chevy engine. The hotel was beautiful, lined with granite floors and luxurious rooms, but you could hear every adjoining room word. Newbies to the game our ears were peeled wide open for hints, tips, and race information.

guy cleaning car
All work involved negotiations, some good, some bad.

It was hot and mildly humid and a moist haze drifted over the city spread over a narrow valley. It was my job to attend the navigator’s meeting the following day and bone up on the rules, regs and navigating. We were told several times that the navigator’s role was critical. The race wasn’t as simple as beating your competitors to the next stop. We also needed Mexican street smarts. A team of car washers offered to clean the Lincoln for 100 pesos. Later we learned that locals pay 20 pesos, and we shouldn’t pay more than 40. They stole our tire, dice valve caps anyway.

painting on car

We paid a pinstriper 350 pesos to pinstrip Los Angeles- Tuxla 2571 miles on the hood. Not bad considering the 10 to 1 Peso-to-dollar breakdown. It all worked out. One time we scored a terrific deal, the next we were stolen blind.

group of guys
Ford racers in from of the dealership.

Communication was a treat. Dr. Chris was originally from Germany, so he spoke German and English. His girlfriend is Hispanic, so he was picking up Spanish and could also speak some Italian since, as a kid, he vacationed in Italy. I spoke broken biker English and high School Spanish. Communicating with the pinstriper was a trick. I roughed out my thoughts to a blank stare. A girl who worked for the organizer came to my rescue. I told her that the letters needed to be reduced in size. She told the artist, “Mas Grande,” and ran off.

flamed hood of car
Most of the cars were lowered, yet speed bumps were prevelant everywhere.

Mexico is a lesson in patience. Between the kids who constantly want something from every driver and mechanic, to the language barrier, people trying to pull numbers and learning our way around town, we tutored ourselves into being easy going, laid back fools. Everyday we picked up something new or met a helpful race associate like Peyton from Randolf racing who offerer mechanical assistance. Bruno offered navigational advice and Jim Muise from Texas Driver Magazine who covered the event every year, was a font of knowledge and political guru. We were about to enter the second biggest spectator sport in Mexico behind soccer.

cutie
Corona girls everywhere.

cutie close

Right in the center of our to-do list we were requested to deliver our car to the Ford Dealer along with all the other Ford based cars for a PR function. Once more we were given obscure directions and we stumble around town until we found the slick Dealership. Hot Rod Magazine sponsored a convertible Mustang that took two years to build. I discovered the hot-shoe cars of the event were in the Grand Terismo Mejor class with open-class power plants and tubular frames. Other than looking like they were vintage ’67 or older cars, they were state-of-the-art speedsters capable of 200 mph.

christian with mic
Get out of the way Doctor, I want the girl.

Beyond all the rules and navigational skills there was a code defining the race in three survival stages. From Tuxla to Miscombres was stage one. Then the 15 Kilometer Miscombres (the most dangerous speed zone), where the previous year a BMW left the narrow hillside road and would have plunged 300 ft. if it hadn’t wrapped itself around a tree. The final stage is simply (or not) surviving the remaining race days to roll through the finish line.

lincoln in warehouse
The youngest member of the La Carrera staff was an inspector. He busted us for no trunk straps.

We stumbled into the inspection building under an irratic idle. The car wasn’t running properly. We discovered that we needed straps to hold the trunk lid down, even though we were in the Vintage class. Our helmets were M2005, the lastest motorcycle technology. We needed SA2005 for fire protection or Nomex face masks. We went on a search from car to car. The next day we bought two, were signed off and never wore them.

latch by lunk
We shoulda had a set of straps similar to this one. But we made one out of two belts linked together and passed.

Thursday morning, fortunately we were blessed with one more day before the race would begin. Our list contained hooking up the trunk straps. We needed to have the brakes adjusted and the Emergency brake dialed in. We also had a minor exhaust leak that needed to be dealt with.

door w blood type
It’s a requirement to have the team member’s name and blood type on the door, just in case.

The navigators meeting was another example in developing patience. The times changed, we weren’t notified, no one knew, the rooms changed and finally it took place. Everyone was on hand, drives and navigators. The gentleman who taught the class spoke impatient, broken English as if he was in a hurry. At that point we didn’t have our race book to refer to, which was critical especially for a man who had no, zilch, experience at road rallies. I took notes like a mad dog. Many notes that I would never have a minute to look at during the race, but I’m sure it helped.

ceremony
Past winners ready to compete again.

Basically, the race ran in stages, perhaps a half dozen in one day. Each stage was broken into a speed zone and a timed zone. The speed zone ran from 10 Kilimoters to 22. The roads were cleared and the brothers could run at them with all they had. In the second stage we were given times as we left and given a particular amount of time to reach the next stop. You didn’t want to arrive too early or late, but right on the button. Those stages buzzed along from 45 to 145 Kilometers.

instructor
Navigational instructor. I was taking notes like crazy.

The book was a race god on paper and was the size of a major city phone book. It outlined every move, curve, dip, every slope, every signal, Pemex station, every town, speed bump and service station. Our navigational teacher discussed all the rules, the integrity of the scoring, the rituals, the hazards, and danger zones for the entire race. Holy shit. He also pointed out weak or inaccurate race book info.

dash of car

At the last minute, as the sun set, we peeled back across town to the Ford dealer and caught a few mechanics still on the job. They adjusted the brakes, then the emergency brakes and damn we were relieved. The brakes were the weak link aside for the strange idling nature of the car, which forced us to constantly use the emergency brake to hold us at lights so we could keep the car running with the gas pedal.

mechanics
The terrific guys who stayed late to adjust our brakes.

At dinner we were told of a volunteer nurse, Lopita, who was in an accident in 2003, during the race, and lost both legs. The teams pitched in and bought her a home, set up for her handicapped status. We were told that half of all the race accidents happen between Tuxla and Oaxaca. The race originally ran from 1950 until 1954 when it was shut down. It was considered the world’s most dangerous road race. Some 28 people, mostly spectators, died during one race. In 1988 the race was kicked off again.

car on fire close

car on fire far

The next morning we could barely touch breakfast. The speedster drug ran through every mans’ veins as we took our positions. The previous day we made a trial run that set our location in line for the first day. On the first day out, in the first speed run Fredy’s Cobra caught fire and burned to the pavement. The carb system flooded and exploded under the hood. The fire retardant system caught too late. The driver, Fred, and the navigator escaped but the car was a total loss. The builder, who spent two years of his life designing and constructing this one-of-seven cars in the world witnessed the smoldering classic burn to the ground.

cars lining up on road
Grabbing our position for the next stage. There’s that shaky GPS, which jumped off the dash from time to time.

Let me try to explain how the book worked and each stage. There may be six race stages in a day. Each one has an overall length in Kilometers, broken into two sections, timed and transit. The timed is the all-out jam, for say, 7 kilometers, then a transit time for 23 kilometers for an overall 30 kilo length. There is a time given to cover the overall distance, 25 minutes. The design is not to arrive first, but to arrive 25 minutes after you left the initial check out point. The second the timekeeper drops his arm, you’re on for the timed section. The first one, where the Cobra blew up was 7.05 Kilometers. It’s the navigator’s job to set the stop watch, calculate the time, zero the GPS and monitor the mileage against the book while giving the driver life-saving instructions.

keith driving
Madman at the wheel.

That morning, as we peeled away from the gate for the first time, the book indicated that we departed the A zone, that we’d pass a road sign to Ocozocoautla 10 at .170 kilometers, hit a general right curve at .620 K, a 3L (a long hard right) right at 1.2 kilometers, a 3 left, 3 right and 2 left through a dip at 1.6 kilometers, a 3 left at 2.2 kilometers, and a 2 right. At that point we had just traversed a measley 2.4 kilometers. I was rattling directions, referring to the GPS, challenged to stay on track and attempting to ignore a friend’s car sickness omen. “If you’re whipping through curves while staring at a goddamn watch, GPS and reading the rule book, you’re gonna get sick.” I didn’t want to think about it.

guacamole car

Another risk became immediately relevant. Sometimes the slightest bend in a narrow winding road was documented, others it wasn’t. It was too easy to fall out of line with the book. In a timed zone, traveling at high speeds, the difference between a general curve and a 3L right can be fatal. The book also pointed out every goddamn Kilometer marker you passed. I quickly learned to watch for them as confirmation that I was on track, or a panic notice.

emblem on hood

So started the race as we cut through vast Agave fields along winding roads, while the stinking Lincoln, La Beastie Del Norte, coughed and missed on right corners. We passed wild flowers and lush hills, groves of cactus and prayed that no other cars would come the opposite way and meet us, head-on, in a curve. We survived the first race day, although three more cars dropped out.

LIN

One, a Porche, piloted by a woman, was found upside down alongside a speed zone road. Rusty’s black and white (cop car style), with a siren and red light on top, wild Studebaker attemped to eat a winding road guardrail. Chris stared and the temp gauge and we whispered blessings to the fifth dimension and to the soul of the Hot Rod Lincoln.

balloons
Each arrival always held a celebration.

The brakes were better and the skies clear as we rolled through one small village after another. Kids and folks waited beside the road for us to pass. We made it to Oaxaca (446 Kilometers), and incredible historic Mexican town and rolled following the detailed instructions in the race book, to Zocolo park and rolled under a blown-up Corona race arch surrounded by thousands of people who swarmed the cars for souvenirs, trinkets and autographs. I handed out Bikernet stickers, but we needed a postcard of the car.

parade
We didn’t plan to place or win. We were there for the wild experience and to survive. We caught a cab to the restaurant. The drive drove around for a ½ hour completely lost, when we discovered that the banquet was back at the park. I discovered if you miss a party banquet, awards ceremony, you’re fined. The next morning the race would kick off from the Ford Dealership at 8:00 sharp. Mexico is a mix of small rustic, cinderblock towns, terrible, over-run cities and beautiful historic towns that could have been plucked from Europe. We were constantly transitioned from fantastic courtyards, stone buildings and cobblestone streets, into cinderblock ghettos.

christians car in front of old 
bldg

Day II, Saturday, I drove for the first time from Oaxaca to Puebla, 344 Kilometers. We were catching the race buzz. Between the car, fighting the lingering, unpredictable idle, the race rules, the clock, the GPS and the road maps, this was an endurance test of men and machines.

holy guacamole car

Fortunately I spoke to a couple of Germans, an ex- biker and his mechanic, with the Holy Guacamole ’54 Mercury, who knew our car well and the carburetor. The linkage wasn’t hooked up properly, dismantling the choke mechanism. They switched it around and suddenly, the car ran as it should, plus the brakes worked well. We were blessed by the gods of pistons and valve springs.

back of red car w crowd

The Guac owner was unhappy with the rules and wanted to leave. “You can run a performance transmission, just use the original gear shift knob and they don’t know,” he said unhappily. That night we took our first third place for the day. I also decided that instead of making each banquet, that I would have a quiet dinner and study the race book for my navigational duties the following day. Chris went to the banquet, picked up our trophy and any announcements.

KUB2

Sunday we were forced to roll out of the beautiful stone Marriot Hotel in Puebla and blaze back to the center to town to check in, like a poker run. Then we rolled, parade style, through town ceremoniously through the arch once more past the Marriot and out of town toward Mexico City. This was a light day since we needed to traverse the vast Ciudad de Mexico. We scrambled over the Mexican grape vine (10,390 feet) once more heading north into the city. The map book was scattered with hard-to-discern black-and-white photographs of street signs, offramps and tips for making the correct moves to clear the city quick. We made one wrong move, recuperated and lost only 10 minutes.

racer holding girl
The mad men from San Diego and their Nova.

We blazed over the mountains to our first lunch stop at a new mall in Toluca and discovered a serious oil leak under the engine. For some reason the oil filter came loose. Suddenly we were in a panic while surrounded by on-lookers. We checked the oil level, grabbed lunch and scrambled for supplies.

crowds around cars 2
Carrera race cars lined up in downtown Morelia.

We peeled out quick to grab a head start, so we could stop for oil. We tightened the oil filter, relubed and headed toward the dreaded afternoon speed trials. Some of the roads were rough, but the curves were the notorious Mirador Mil Cumbres. Some 16 kilometers of head-snapping, sharp curves, slopes, and water hazards, but once more the stinkin’ Lincoln survived to reach the most gorgeous town of Morelia (419 kilometers for the day), a vast European looking city, that someday I plan to return to visit once more.

cathedral type bldg
Beautiful Morelia.

Day III, Monday and the first leg demanded that we peel back through the Devil’s Pass (Mil Cumbres) heading towards Aquascalientes (460 kilometers). There were rumors of treacherous pine needles in the road ahead dampened by dense morning fog coupled with landslides, dips and water on the hilly winding road. Jim from Texas Driver magazine was pulled over and searched by army troops while in the Hot Rod Magazine Hummer. Jerry Churchill crashed in the morning, crawled out of his car and looked for another ride.

christian n two girls
The Girls of Morelia.

We lost another three cars as we peeled through 11 stages, most with seven speed sections heading toward the last leg, six laps on the Autodromo race track. The dust entering the pits was horrendous like an evil mist blinding drivers and warning them of the Grand Prix track to come. Each car was allowed six laps and our lumbering Lincoln was the slowest one. Remember, we had the only truly original car in the mix. As much as we wanted to push the Northern Beast, our goal was to survive this endeavor. Night after night we took third place in our class.

badge
Bike riding officer who led us through town.

cop bike 1

It was an incredible day. I was beginning to understand the timed sections, figuring out where to refuel and trying not to get lost as we rolled into Acquescalientes a city of one million. They throw a month-long party and four million come to celebrate. Fortunately we met Secuteia de Motorcycle, Club of Cops and business guys who ride. They escorted us across town to our hotel from the huge renovated train depot, made up of two football field sized halls of stone floors packed with vintage cars, a buffet and casino. It’s the only Mexican state allowed to have casinos during Feria or party time. People use packets of play money, dress in turn- of-the-century clothes, watch cock fights, dance and listen to music.

cop bike close
Gotta cover the bike, even if it was a cop bike.

A mid ‘50s Mercedes was down for the count as the whole crew showed up in a truck. My note taking became stunted and limited. There wasn’t a minute left in a day to write, between driving, navigating, car maintenance and trouble shooting. We suspected a gas leak and monitored the fuel pump oil leak. The unused fuel pump needed to be removed and the hole in the engine case capped. Chris had installed a funky fuel pressure regulator from PEP Boys and it began to leak. We shitcanned it and killed the gas leak. We needed to conserve fuel whenever possible. We changed the gauge settings a number of times, but it didn’t seem to make a mpg difference. This dilemma was like running a big tunnel, low capacity, peanut tank on a race bike across Mexico and constantly praying for the next gas station. It was a incessant gamble.

christian signing 
autographs
Always a crowd and signing autographs.

We also discovered that the spin-on oil filter was an accessory replacing the old canister-type oil filtering system. We needed a news gasket between the engine and the adapter for the spin-on oil filter. Just when we thought the Hot Rod Lincoln was running like a dream.

cutie green top

Tuesday, Day V, We rolled toward Zacates (180 kilometers), another terrific old world city, after another six laps on the track and eight times stages. As we entered, perhaps the most notorious speed section of the race, La Bufa, we were told that only 38 cars remained in the race. We survived the dangerous Bufa speed section, the fourth of fifth speed section of the day, but another Porche ate it off a cliff and Chris’s Studebaker blew up. Although Rusty’s cop Studebaker was back in the race and gobbling kilometers with his siren blazing.

scenery shot
The notorious Bufa hills.

Where Mil Cumbre was sheer cliffs and tight curvy mountain roads, with streams meandering over the asphalt, dips and pine needles, Bufa was deceiving. It was made up of soft sultry curves laid out over open, low shrubbery, lumbering hills. It gave the drivers the sense that higher speeds were attainable. The visual openness enhances confidence and gas pedals were depressed, but around too many general curves were declines with tight surprises. We lost more cars.

arch at finish line
The La Carrera Arch in Zacatecas.

ornate old bldg
Zacatecas church. Incredible workmanship.

At a late night post race drinking conversation we heard racers commenting about aftermarket performance parts that didn’t last. They faced plastic distributor gears that sheered. We were running points and another mechanic cringed when I mentioned it to him. “Points,” he said. “You’ve got to be nuts.” But we were still rolling.

front of yellow car

hotel courtyard
Our hotel in Zacatecas.

guys goofing
Roaming the streets of Zacatecas with shots of Tequila.

mariachi band

It was Wednesday and we were afforded a R&R day in historic Zacetacus. Race driver, Peyton, was looking for a navigator. The night before a band led us through the streets with a crowd and little men carrying massive bottles of Teguila and giving us shots. We wandered the old stone streets to a 500-year-old Bull Fighting arena turned into the magnificent Hotel Camino Real with rooms built into stone bull fighting arena arches. A massive buffet was laid out before us in the center ring, for our evening party and banquet. I believe through my Mescal memory that we took a second place that night.

boy w donkey

The next day we faced the treacherous Bufa speed zone and the race leader, and major La Carrera organizer for US drivers, Gerry Bledsoe, in a ’60 Nova went airborne and flipped several times. He was speedong over 145 mph, nearing a number 3 curve, downshifting, hit the brakes suddenly, as his car lifted over a rise in the road. Both the pilot and co-pilot broke arms, but survived.

KUB

One of the hazardous aspects of this race is the unknown truck that mysteriously rolls into a speed zone, a dog or cow. In this case a cow may have come near the edge of the road and distracted the team flying along the narrow two-laner. The race was canceled for the rest of the day. Gerry destroyed the Nova front end and his fuel cell flew 100 yards.

door hinges
Church door in Zacatecas

Back in Zac we were invited on a Corona Plant tour but ditched it. We needed to find a muffler shop. We followed a cab up a stone-padded street. More and more the brake master cylinder was failing. I couldn’t hold my foot on the pedal more than a few seconds before it faded toward the deck. That made driving on steep inclines or declines more treacherous. Many of these streets were terribly narrow and crowded. There was another Hot Rod Lincoln trick bag. If the car died the brake power booster went with it and foot brakes were gone. I needed a split second to factor that terrifying aspect into my feeble brain and reach for the parking brake handle. Did I mention previously that there was no “Park” spot on the shift lever, only neutral?

el conejo on hood

Day 7, I cleaned and checked the points in the morning, we had the exhaust pipe touched with an arch to fix a crack and went back to the hotel. Thursday morning, the final day, we returned to the notorious hills of Bufa once more and a long run into Nuevo Laredo. The last run for 624 Kilometers, and the Lincoln was hanging fast and true. We watched the fuel gauge, stared at the rattling temp instrument as we motored through vast miles of desert, and tried desperately to remember to reset the GPS, which came unplugged from time to time and lost all its memory. The Zacritas Mercury caught fire.

twin cars
Here’s the Tiger team. One caught fire.

We were still fighting the Horn button that honked when we didn’t want it to and didn’t when we did. The ground was bad unless we shifted gears. We ran the entire race without thoroughly understanding the point system, but we were nailing the timed sections. Constantly relying on the Garmin GPS and my massive stopwatch.

older guy with girls
The girls were waiting in Nuevo Laredo.

As we hauled ass across the desert followed by one of the other Lincolns in our class, paying tolls and estimating gas stops we made a list of Stinkin’ Lincoln projects:

school kids on side of road
All across the country school kids came out and stood on the edge of the road while the cars careened past.

Gas Tank had to go
Replace the Carter with a Holley Carb
Look into another intake manifold
Rebuild the mastercylinder and removed the brake booster for another power-brake system.
Replace the dash with proper electronic instrumentation
Replace the headers with a better system
Add front disc brakes at least and vents in the rear brakes.
Maybe a different transmission with “Park” and overdrive.
Need a radio communication system for emergency
Add trunk insulation
Check oil filter bracket
Review the fuel pump system and filtration—critical
Fix the windshield wiper
Move the battery or create a venting system.

inspectors
Inspectors who grabbed our time cards.

We figured the run to Wilmington, California from Nuevo Laredo was 1193 miles. The final race run peeled along like a smooth hard-belly, until we reached Nuevo Laredo and got lost trying to find the final blow-up Corona, La Carrera arch. Cops led us through town over and over until we ran out of gas. Even Chris’s Spanish language didn’t get the word across. We finally found our way and checked in with notes that we were misguided.

christian n two racers
Couple of guys from the Yellow Lincoln team—good people.

Our Original Pan Am class consisted for three ’53 Lincolns, the stars of the race in 1950. One was a yellow monster that a private owner pumped $90,000 into then knocked his neighbors in the head and sequestered them into his motor-home as his team. At one point toward the end they followed our lead. They had lost all navigational reference. We pulled into a gas station and check our oil as we had at all refueling stops like a Nascar Team. We jumped out of the car, and I popped the hood for driveline inspection while Chris negotiated with the men who surrounded every fuel pump, and wheeling and dealing fueling service.

racer w pretty blond

Since we checked our engine our sister team did the same and discovered that the engine was three quarts down. We hit the road.

buicks three
The tres stinkin’ Lincolns.

The other Linclon was owned by an experienced Pan Americana husband and wife team. Their Lincoln was a lowered red and white job with extensive performance upgrades. It ran like a top and they deservedly took first place in our class. The yellow Lincoln was experiencing some difficulties with heating and on this last run into Nuevo Laredo Broke down.

christian n guy
Christian and European journalist celebrating at the final arch. We made it.

The World’s most dangerous road race for 2005, began with 65 competitors and only 30 crossed the finish line. No one died, but there were several injuries. We were the only team who drove our Hot Rod from its place of origin to the race, through the race completely and then home. We generally survived on bottled water and trail mix to avoid the food. Damn, and we came in second in our class overall, with seconds and thirds almost every day of the race.

k c and guys with girls
The race was over, but not the celebration.

We drove home in two days along the Rio Grand rolling out of Texas, through the Arizona desert to the Interstate 10 and into Los Angeles. The points closed up at one stopover and we sanded and adjusted them for the final run to the coast. We’re still not positive of the fuel capacity. Could be 10 gallons, maybe 12.

los vikingos on hood

working on yellow porche

yellow lincoln on trailer
Unfortunately, on the last day this Lincoln ended up on a trailer.

yellow mustang
One of of the last days the Hot Rod Magazine ended up in an accident and the driver was hospitalized.

That constant use of the emergency brake haunted us. It was too easy to drive away with it dragging and a couple of times when we discovered low mileage, we found the parking brake lever was still pulled and the rear drums smokin’. We carried a 5-gallon spare fuel container which was against the rules, but it saved our ass on more than one occasion. The event was covered by a Primedia film crew, six Mexican television stations, Speed Channel, six magazines including Jim from Texas Driver mag.

christian w crazy guys
Rusty’s team (Rusty in black and white) celebrating making it to Nuevo Laredo.

At one point we hit 15.4 mpg and were elated, but still couldn’t trust our gas mileage or capacity. The Lincoln took us home. Goddamnit, if it wasn’t an adventure of a lifetime, two solid weeks of treachery, wild driving, racing, tense action, terror, Tequila and brotherhood. Every team supported one another with parts, help, manpower and info. Sure there was tremendous competition, but survival over-powered the desire to ditch a brother in need. There were disagreements amongst teams, pissed off drivers and disputes with owners from time to time, but it was all a reaction to surviving over 2,200 miles in a strange land.

lincoln red
The winning classic Lincoln.

I can’t thank my longtime brother, Dr. Hamster enough for this opportunity and experience. It will never be forgotten. He’s now apart of our Bikernet Bonneville race effort for 2006 along with Gene Koch of Drag Specialties. May the adventures of life never end.

drive to drink on trunk

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