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October 25, 2009

News & Features

Time to rally: A road race through Mexico provides no shortage of twists and turns

Special to NWautos

Rally team

Navigator Steve Schaeffer and driver Bruce Redding arrive in Nuevo Laredo, the final stop of the 2007 La Carrera Panamericana rally race. (Kevin Ward, Unlimited.com)

"Bruce, I think you'd better be prepared to pull over very shortly," I said.

I soon repeated the request, and Bruce Redding, the car's owner, pulled his dusty 2007 Subaru WRX STI rally car to the side of a barren two-lane road deep in Mexico. I hopped out and proceeded to get sick.

It wasn't the excessive speeds we had been traveling at or the twisty roads we had been driving on that caused my stomach to protest. It was the whirlwind of activity that got us to this point -- the first day of a seven-day rally race covering nearly 1,800 miles, from southern Mexico to the U.S. border. I had found myself navigating in the magnificent La Carrera Panamericana, and my poor mind was racing faster than our car.

La Carrera is a re-creation of a world-famous road race originally run from 1950 to 1954, celebrating the opening of the Pan-American Highway through Mexico. Racing's biggest names participated back then, driving European sports cars and large American sedans. Since its revival in 1988 it has been run as a seven-day rally, with 100 cars vying for a podium finish in several classes.

La Carrera 2009
  • This year's La Carrera Panamericana started Oct. 23 in Huatulco, Mexico, near the Pacific Ocean, and ends Oct. 29 in Nuevo Laredo, across the border from Laredo, Texas.
  • For information on the race and entry requirements, go to lacarrerapanamericana.com.

I heard about an opening for a serviceman in the 2007 race through a posting on an online car digest. How could I, a Seattle track-driving instructor and car enthusiast, pass up the opportunity for "long hours, high excitement, no pay, mean boss?" I contacted Redding, an Arizona man with a large supply of fantastic anecdotes who placed the ad, and we decided to work together.

I helped tow his car 1,800 miles to Oaxaca, the race's starting point. But when Redding's original navigator couldn't participate, suddenly I was drafted into duty.

I had never navigated a rally car before, but I eagerly anticipated the challenge. My main duties were to guide Redding as he ripped through curves, following a course map provided by the race, and to make sure we hit our checkpoints at the correct time. Although these tasks seem basic in nature, performing them felt like getting a drink of water from a fire hose.

On the first day of racing I made a math error, incurring a five-minute penalty, and I wasn't even sure how or why the mistake was made. As we approached another checkpoint, fearful of making the same mistake, anxiety overtook me. The next thing I knew, I was moaning, "Time to pull over, Bruce!"

Rally car

Bruce Redding's trusty Subaru. (Kevin Ward, Unlimited.com)

Eventually, I figured out my error and became comfortable with the complicated timing and scoring rituals. The thrill and beauty of the rally began to open up to me. The entire country gets involved in the race; huge parties are held in each nightly stopover city, complete with children clamoring for swag, and Mexican highway patrol officers travel with the race, allowing hyper-speed entry into the cities.

As a navigator, I experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Fatigue was our greatest enemy as the seven days wore on, and the pressure was relentless. Imagine telling the driver sitting next to you that it's OK to go over that blind crest at 155 mph because the route book says so. It gives new meaning to the word "trust."

We finished second in the Unlimited class that year, a tribute to a wonderful team and careful preparation. Six months later, Bruce and I participated in La Carrera's sister event -- the Chihuahua Express, a three-day rally -- and placed third overall.

The race is an amazing way to see Mexico. And, despite my inglorious start, I'm ready to do it again.

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