WRC Rally Mexico was an extraordinary, mind-bending experience for me and my brother. This event changes your perspective about rally, in that no other event you have run in the past (or could imagine of running in the future) could ever compare to the enormous spectacle of Mexico. Rally just doesn’t get any better that this.
My Rally Mexico adventure actually began two years ago, shortly after Bill Caswell and Ben Slocum completed their epic trip. Every time I would see Ben Slocum at a rally he would tell me that I just had to take my Beetle down to Rally Mexico. He kept stressing that my car would be an instant fan favorite. So after almost two years of nagging, John and I finally decided to make the commitment and put down the huge chunk of cash to run the event.
Knowing that Rally Mexico would be one of the toughest events we’ve ever done, we decided early on that our car preparation would need to be top notch. My methodology to car prep is highly removed from Bill Caswell’s proven chaos-train of all-nighters, still building the car days before the event. Work started on our 1970 Volkswagen Beetle back in November of 2011. Everything in or on the car was removed, inspected and fixed. Several rally-ending problems were discovered during our teardown, such as a broken chromoly head stud, missing two out of four nuts that hold the engine to the transmission, and several melted relays.
We finished work on our car in early February, just in time to shake it down and run it as the course opening Zero car at the Rally in the 100 Acre Wood.
My co-driver in the Zero car was Simon Wright (he also would be running Rally Mexico with his Ford Focus). Everything ran smoothly that weekend, and while Ken Block was spraying champagne on Saturday night, we were loading the car on the trailer to head for Laredo, Texas the next day. Our tow down was not without problems. Somewhere in the middle of Texas we noticed massive amounts of white smoke coming from the trailer. When we stopped to investigate it was discovered that one of the leaf spring clips was missing and a leaf spring was tearing into the inside sidewall of the trailer tire. A sudden blowout at speed could have been disastrous. After acquiring new tires from a Super Wal-Mart we were back underway.
Monday, February 27:
Finally, on Monday morning we arrived in Laredo to hand off the cars to our friend Ponce (who was organizing the shipping through Mexico). Ponce took us across the border into Nuevo Laredo to fill out all of the necessary paperwork and to get our vehicle permits.
Once that was finished we all got into his Bongo Racing Limo and had a late lunch at an amazing Baja style seafood restaurant (the smoked Mackerel fish tacos were excellent). We left our cars at Ponce’s place for the week and headed back home to St. Louis.
Friday, March 2:
Throughout the rest of the week we kept hearing small reports of Cartel violence in Nuevo Laredo. Finally on Friday, just when our cars were scheduled to be brought across the border, a small scale war broke out. Violence erupted, streets were blockaded, and clashes between the Army and the Cartel were everywhere. Phone lines were cut and the only way Ponce could reach the shipper was through satellite cell phone. Things cooled off just long enough the following day for Ponce to transport the cars to the shipping facility, where everything was loaded onto a 53’ trailer for transport to Leon, Mexico.
Sunday, March 4:
We arrived by plane into Leon around noon on Sunday. Our friend and crew guy, Rob Wright, arrived shortly after us. We walked over to the rental car booth and found it looking more like a daycare. Several employees had their toddlers there playing on the floor (it must have been bring your kids to work day in Mexico). Before the rally I had researched which rental car company had the best car for recce. I knew we would beat the crap out of the car during recce, so I wanted something stout. I found out Budget had the new VW Crossfox (a jacked up GTI with tons of ground clearance) so I reserved it. Well, I guess reservations in Mexico don’t mean much. When I asked “Where’s my Crossfox?” the rental guys said “No Crossfox, Scala is better.” So he runs out back and brings a brand new Renault (Samsung) Scala.
Well, at least it had a manual transmission. After getting to the hotel we immediately took the hub caps off so we don’t lose them on recce or get them stolen by locals. In the afternoon we made a supply run to Wal-Mart and found Ken Block standing in front of a stack of Monster drinks (at least cardboard Ken is accessible to the public). That night we had dinner at a cafe in the historic central square outside our hotel and soaked up the atmosphere.
Monday, March 5:
Everyone slept in on Monday morning, since our schedule would get exponentially tighter as the week progressed. The rally campus at the Poliforum was officially open so we went down to register and pick up all of our road books, decals, and information packets for the week. The three rally cars safely arrived sometime around noon.
I immediately went to work on our bug, making final adjustments to the dual Weber carburetors. Rob and John proceeded to apply all of the decals (numbers, sponsor logos, rally plate, etc.). At around 1:00 PM, Rob and John left for McDonalds. What should have been a 2 minute drive turned into 10 minutes of making right turns down one-way streets. When they finally got there they hoped they could order by meal number but no luck. Something got screwed up in translation and they ended up ordering too many meals. By the end of the day the service area was coming together and our car seemed to be running much better with the new carburetor jets.
Tuesday, March 6:
John and I awoke at 5:30 AM to get a jump on the first day of recce and were out at the start of the first stage by 7:15 AM. We got there 15 minutes early and were able to see all of the WRC teams go by us. Our Scala seemed woefully inadequate compared to the fully caged and rally prepped Evos and Volvos. The first run of the stage went well, but by the second run we were getting passed by the WRC teams in full drift, kicking rocks all over our car. After making our two passes of Stage 2 we ended up getting lost while transiting to Stage 3. Either the route book was wrong or our car’s ODO was off (we weren’t the only team that got lost). Rather than double back, we used our GPS to guide us out to the highway towards the next stage. On our way there, we got lost a second time in the city of Salio. For some reason our GPS doesn’t have one-way streets and it had us going the wrong way. After thirty minutes of snaking through very narrow city streets, we finally got back on track.
The whole process of making your own notes from scratch is very tedious and slow. Most of the WRC teams have notes from previous years to build from. With the sun getting lower on the horizon, John and I decided to make two passes of the short stages and only one pass of the long stage. We finally got back to Leon around 7:30 PM, made another supply run and joined Simon Wright and his team for dinner out on the plaza, where we found out that he had just as many problems as us during recce.
Wednesday, March 7:
We were up again early and left the hotel at 6:30 AM. We were the first Rally America team in line at the stage start. Due to the schedule we can’t start the stage until 7:30, so we sat there, ate our breakfast, and watched the WRC cars scream past us.
All of the stages that we recce are north of Leon and a bit less remote than the previous day. It was absolutely shocking to see people out on the roads watching and cheering as the recce cars went by. At almost every stage start we were mobbed by kids wanting stickers and autographs. I could tell that my system of creating notes was getting much better and the notes were much more consistent over the second pass. However, the process of creating them still took massive amounts of time. Just one pass of the super long 55 kilometer stage took 1 hour and 45 minutes.
While we were out on recce our crew guy, Rob Wright, was getting our car prepared to pass technical inspection. My biggest fear was that the car might not pass a full blown FIA inspection and we couldn’t run the rally. But Rob told me that when he pulled into tech almost every inspector was admiring the car. Either we were lucky, or well prepared, because our car passed with zero issues. Others had to do things like last minute welding on their cage to get approval.
Once our car was back in our service stall, we headed over to the Monster Energy party with several other teams. Block was there with his car and a million camera crews. He and Chris Atkinson were watching the Chicas de Monster make several passes down a makeshift runway. The Chicas clothing seemed to disappear every time they came out to make a new pass. They had fireworks at the end, which were nice, but overall the party had too much of a marketing vibe. The teams left early and headed back to the hotel for dinner.
Thursday, March 8: The craziness begins
The day started off just fine, but once I got to the service parc I felt like I was going to collapse. John and I were drinking copious amounts of water the day before, but it must have been too little. I must have been severely dehydrated. It’s so incredibly hot and dry there that you must constantly drink water. After drinking two liters of water I felt much better and we headed out to the shakedown stage. While driving out I had John monitor our wide-band O2 sensor to see if the changes to the jets were working. For the most part the fuel ratio was fine, but it was a bit too rich in the higher RPM range.
The WRC cars had already run shakedown several times for practice and qualifying, so the road was destroyed in most corners. The Rally America teams were only given one pass. My goal for shakedown was to confirm that my note making wasn’t crap (so I could trust them on the real stages) and that the carbs were tuned properly. Overall the shakedown stage went well and the carbs only needed minor adjustments we when got back into service.
Around 6:00 PM we left the service parc in Leon for the first of many ceremonial starts. Traffic getting out of Leon was horrendous. We were given 40 minutes to get to Silao, but after 20 we were still sitting in traffic. Once we finally reached the highway, John told me to haul ass so we could make our assigned time. I jumped into the fast lane and gunned it. Yet for some reason it turned into an off ramp and suddenly we were off the highway and back in traffic. Both of us were starting to panic that we would be late. Earlier in the week, I had been told by several teams that “traffic laws don’t apply to rally cars.” I took that sage advice, mounted the curb, drove down the shoulder, ran two red lights, and cut across traffic to get back to the on-ramp. We then proceeded down the highway at speeds that might get your license revoked in the States and finally pulled into Silao. I can’t adequately describe the vast amount of people lining the street that leads to the Silao central square. I think the entire city came out and lined the street for 3 solid miles. Police had blocked off all side streets, so we proceeded down the road, still at a high rate of speed, trying to make our assigned minute. We finally make it to the square and the police have the entrance blocked off. In the confusion Bill Caswell passes me up and makes a wrong turn down a side street. Thinking that’s the correct way (and not listening to my co-driver) I follow him down one block, make a u-turn, and then back the way we came, all bouncing off the rev limiter in second and third gear. The police finally let the BMW and my Beetle into the square and once we exited our cars we were immediately mobbed by thousands of fans. The flexible barrier barely held them back. Girls, young and old, kept screaming “una foto” waiving their cell phones trying to get a photo with anyone in a driving suit. John and I were more than happy to oblige. It’s absolutely surreal to have your ass grabbed by so many girls, sign thousands of autographs (on paper and flesh) and take countless photos with swooning young women. If you ever want to feel like a rock star or Ken Block, come and enter Rally Mexico.
When we finally arrived in Guanajuato it made the experience in Silao look subdued. The crowd lined the street for miles. People would push past the barrier just to touch the car. Soon enough, we were at the official start ramp which was surrounded by grandstands, banners, and spot lights. Once our car was on the spinning platform, we got out to an enormous cheering crowd. I grabbed a stack of stickers and cards and tossed them into the crowd. John yelled that our minute was approaching and we both rushed back into the car. We pulled up to the start line and blasted off into the tunnels under the city. In the heat of the moment I forgot to turn on my lightbar, but it really didn’t matter. The stage went by in a big blur. Immediately after the finish we had to part people out of our way. Just after the finish line a group of kids rushed the car and rode on top of the fenders and bumper for about a kilometer. After I shook the car and honked the horn they finally got the clue and jumped off. On the transit back we just looked at each other in bewilderment and asked what the hell just happened. Those three hours were a magical experience that I won’t ever forget.
Read the rest of the story on my website.
(Sorry, but it took me a long time to convert only a few days of my story from WordPress code to forum code.)
(C) 2012 / Mark M. Huebbe