Friday, June 19, 2009

Carrera Driver -- Special Edition for Rookies

Special Edition for Rookies
Updated for 2009


Mexico is a wonderful country. The people are warm, friendly, curious, and generous. They love our cars, exhaust noise, and the celebration of La Carrera Panamericana.

Their countryside -- mountains and ravines, forests, and deserts --- is beautiful. Huatulco, our start city this year, must be a beautiful, Pacific resort area.

So try to relax and enjoy the racing and the celebration. This is not just a serious car race. It is a true, profound cultural experience. We are about to experience the heart and soul of Mexico, as reflected in the faces and eyes of the people, especially the children, who come to see our cars and tug at the sleeves of the brave pilotos and co-pilotos. Bring your pen, because they will want your autograph.

Never forget that this is their country and their race. We are there as guests, and we should consider ourselves honored and lucky to be allowed to race across their country at top speed. Just because we paid a hefty entry fee gives us no other special privileges or expectations.

Also do not forget that the event operates on Mexican time. Meetings tend to start late. Printed material often arrives late, and the medical exams may or may not happen at the announced time. Instead of handing out important items like time cards at one pre-designated place, the young official will wander through the crowds looking for navigators. Obviously, some of them will be wandering around looking for him, too.

There are other values in Mexico that transcend punctuality and efficiency. Frankly, it will do you no good at all to show up for a meeting on time and sit there frustrated until it starts. Be fashionably late, be relaxed. Go with the flow!

Carrera veterans know that the race will start sometime after 8 AM on October 24. We know we will race through the mountains that day, and we know we will be timed with a fair degree of accuracy. Electronic timing will be used for the first time, so they may need to work out a few kinks. If you catch a mistake, it is perfectly OK to point it out—but be polite.

We will stop for lunch around mid-day, and an hour later or so, we’ll continue racing in the afternoon. Later on that evening, probably 30 minutes later than the announced time, some of us will attend the driver’s meeting and awards ceremony. Either the driver or co-driver should attend to get the timing results of the day and warnings about the road the next day.

Even on Mexican time, it’s always fun, but it will be more fun when you understand and accept the cultural situation, even before you get there.

Viva la Carrera!


Nomex undies, socks, and head socks are great but not required by the Carrera rules. Much depends on how competitive you intend to be. Last year they were checking for racing shoes, but did not seem to be requiring them. Drivers should wear Nomex gloves, but most navigators ride barehanded, so they can turn the pages. (If you "dog ear" the pages before you start, they are easier to turn.)

Helmets. Open face helmets are OK for rallies. They start at $150 and go up to $700. Closed-face helmets are safer. They also make a hybrid helmet--open with a chin bar.
Any helmet you buy should have the posts already installed for a HANS or other head restraint system, which are required this year. Some helmets, like Peltors, have the intercom system installed. You should use a closed-face helmet in an open car.

Neck Restraint. A HANS or similar device is required this year. Most fatalities in racing come when a collision tears your skull away from your spine. A HANS helps to hold it in place. You can also buy racing seats with lateral head restraints, and/or nets that will help keep your head on your shoulders. Some seats are not compatible with a HANS. Your helmet should not be touching the back of the seat when you are driving, says the HANS brochure.

It you have a fast car and really intend to drive it to the limit, you cannot spend too much on safety equipment.


Get suited up, helmet in hand. Practice getting into your racecar, buckling up, and getting ready to launch into a speed run. Work out a strict routine for everything, including closing the car door, raising the window nets, putting on your harness, helmet, glasses, and gloves. (Did you remember to turn the main power switch on before you got strapped in?) Can you reach the dash switches OK? One year, I had to turn the car on with my toes.

Is your seat adjustable? Sometimes you can put your belts on and them slide the seat forward to tighten them. Always loosen your belts when you get out of the car and move them out of the way. It will make it a lot easier to get strapped back in the next time.

Being able to get in and belted up smoothly will reduce your frustration and anxiety level enormously down in Mexico. Practice before you start racing!

Now prepare for the worse. Fire drill! Practice quick exits from your car, with the door open and closed. Can you get both your helmet and arse out the window in 15 seconds? Practice it with your window nets up.

What will you do if your car turns over and you are hanging upside down like a bat in a belfry? Can you release your seat belts? Or do you need a knife to cut them? Can you turn off the power switch? Tricky to practice this stuff.

Know how to operate your fire suppression system. Make sure its charged, unlocked, and ready to use when you start the race. It’s OK to tape the pin in it, if you are worried about an accidental discharge.

Fire bottles should only be attached with metal straps. No bungee cords or racer's tape.

Check the cabin. Is there anything that will crack open your helmet if you hit it in a collision? The navigator should not use a hard clip board--just the route book on his lap. They do make foam board that will work. Do not install the rally computer near your face, as you may eat it.

Do you have a handy place to store change (coins) for the toll booths? And, yes, you need a couple of “official rally cup holders” for your water bottles. Some guys use a hiker’s hydration pack strapped to the back of their seats.

You might consider a neck pouch for your money (bills), car document, driver’s license, etc. You are expected to wear your FMAD racing license at all times, and there is usually some ID for La Carrera to decorate your neck. If you have special medical needs, wear an ID bracelet or stencil it on the bottom of your right foot.

You will not use your helmets in long transit stages, so you need a place to store or hang them. If possible, install a hook on the back of the seats for this purpose. The same is true if you use a two-piece driving suit. It’s nice to be able to hang the coat on a hook in the back. Some crews will suspend a net in the backseat area to hold their helmets, Jameson bottles, etc.


Intercoms and computers are nice but not essential. A cheap digital watch that can also display military time (24 hours) works fine for timing. And you should learn how to set your watch and to sync it with the official time quickly. (Don’t wait until the first morning of the race to learn how to sync it!) Some racers only use the rally computer to find their place in the speed stages when they get lost. It happens to everyone. The rally computer is not normally used to calculate how much time we have to get to the next checkpoint. You should drive as fast as your safely can.

Subé Sports in Long Beach, California sells a variety of intercoms and rally computers. Terraptrip and Terraphone are the big names.

Even if you do have a collapsible steering column, you might want to install a pad that straps to the center of the steering wheel to protect your chest. Wooden wheels are classy but not as safe as those covered with hard foam and plastic.

Have a place to store pencils, pens, and markers, like Sharpies, for the navigator.

Glue the ball on your shifter, make sure the gas and brake pedals are on tight, and that nothing, like a water bottle, is rolling around on the floor.

It is OK to bolt a small cooler to the floor behind the crew for water and cold drinks. Also, as noted, some guys install a net in the back seat area to hold stuff.

GPS does not help much, but many people buy a Garmin and get the Mexican map software from I recommend that you take a AAA map of Mexico in your race car, at least.


Many of you have towed your car to the race track or a car show. How many of you have towed it 3000+ miles one-way? Be prepared.

Make sure you have good tires, properly inflated. Two spares are a good idea. Lube the axles or bearings. Bring a spare set of wheel bearings. (Make sure the spare set will fit.) Be able to change a trailer tire quickly. Check the wiring and lights. Put a tag on it and have a title or registration in the truck owner’s name. Make sure the trailer brakes are working. A winch is a good thing.

When towing, check the trailer’s tires for excessive heat build up. Balance the load properly. (The trailer’s tires should be equally warm.) Too much weight on the tongue will make your truck’s steering sloppy. Mark the right spot on the deck for future reference. You may want to tie your car down by frame to limit suspension travel. Some people think it is more stable bounching around. Bring an extra set of tie downs. Check them regularly. Make sure you used hardened steel attachment clamps. “If it can shake lose, it will” on this long tow. Get a hitch lock. Use hood locks on your racecar even when on the trailer. Be able to lock your racecar’s doors. And do not leave the removable steering wheel on the seat, or it will become a souvenir.

What about your car's external power switch? If the key is removable, remove it when you stop, especially when crowds are around. Also bring a spare key for driver and co-driver. Do you have a regular ignition key? Both driver and co-driver should carry a spare.

Lock your hood at night. Pull your hood pins and use small padlocks. That’s right--have two sets of keys.

Bring an extra set of valve stems and chrome valve covers, with a key to change valves. Metal valve stems are recommended, but not required.


The race has two medical crews, both with doctors, who accompany the race, and a crash truck. In most crash situations, where someone can see you, help comes quickly. Injured crew members will be transported by the doctors to the nearest suitable medical facility. In some areas, medical evac choppers are available. Most larger cities in Mexico have excellent doctors and medical facilities.

If there are serious injuries, the race will probably be stopped so the medical crews can attend to the injured.

If you have a “no-injury” wreck or if your car is disabled, it is your responsibility to recover your car and have it towed. Assistance will not be provided by the race organization. About the most they will do is to notify the police or a wrecker where they last saw you.

It is imperative that you have a plan to recover your car, especially on the first day in the remote parts of the state of Oaxaca. If you have no support crew, make a deal with another crew that is following the race to pick you up, or help you get a tow truck.

Be able to communicate with your service crew. If you wreck, call them immediately, so they can come back for you. Use cells phones or sat phones.

Normally, several service or support trucks with trailers drive though the speed stages immediately after racing has concluded. Some may stop to help or pick up a disabled vehicle, others will keep going. There may also be local Mexican tow trucks parked on the course. In remote areas, however, it may take a while to obtain the proper type of wrecker to recover your car from a ravine.

Someone must stay with your car if wrecked, as roadside wrecks are fair game in Mexico. Put up your emergency markers on the side of the road where you went off.

Most service crews will team up with other crews during the race. Two-ways radios help. One or more trucks in the “team” will go ahead to meet the racecars at the mid-day service area, while another truck and trailer in the cooperative group will ”sweep” (follows the race) to pick up disabled cars. Make plans the night before for which trucks go ahead and which sweeps.

Decide your team’s policy about picking up disabled cars. Will your trailer pick up a disabled car or a wreck? Under what conditions?

If you break down, get your car to the next town on the Carrera's route. In most of these cities, local shops will stay open all night to help straighten out damaged cars. Cars that miss a day because of serious body/suspension repairs may rejoin the race later, but they are subject to technical inspection. No, your AAA+ card does not work. Expect to pay a Mexican tow truck a buck or two a mile for a tow. Recovery from a shallow ravine runs around $200; I know. (You are not in a strong bargaining position, dude.)

Warning. If your car breaks down during a transit stage immediately prior to a speed stage, the official race crews, including the medical crews, will NOT stop and provide assistance. They have responsibilities up the road for the next speed stages and must be on time. In effect, they cannot stop and keep to their tight schedule.

If your car becomes disabled at any point or you wreck, you should QUICKLY deploy your warning triangles or wave flags energetically. This is especially important around blind corners. Remember, in a speed stage, the next car will reach you at full speed in about 30 seconds! There’s no time to discuss your actions. (A red T-shirt makes a good flag you can wear.)

If you simply lose power, get the car off the road. Push it or use the starter. If you cannot get the car off the pavement, the navigator should jump out and run back around the corner to warn approaching cars. Make a quick decision.

When you are stopped on the side of the road, a thumbs up signal or OK sign (provided) means that you and the driver are OK. Hood up if you have a mechanical problem.

Be aware that the crew of the next approaching car may be so focused on the road surface that they may not see you standing by the side of the road waving a red rag. Standing in a safe place, wave your flag, arms, or helmet to get their attention. Try to indicate to them clearly to stop or just slow down, depending on the location of your disabled car. If you can, indicate the side of the road they should pass on, if they can get by it.

Expect the worse if you surprise them. Your warning may cause them to lose control. (Yes, it has happened. )

Whatever you do, you must act quickly--to protect your car and their lives.


This is a topic that is much discussed, and there is no official Carrera rule on the topic.

If you see a bad wreck in front of you, what should you do? It is situational, and at 80 MPH, you must decide quickly. The navigator should call it, assuming he/she has a more time to consider the options.

Assuming the wreck is off the road, normally it is better to continue your speed run so you can notify the officials at the next timing station where you are allowed to stop (Control C). (Never stop at the Control B -- the checkered flag.)

If there is fire or it is a serious crash and the crew is still in the car, normally you should stop--off the road--and try to help. Deploy your red flags or emergency signs. Take your fire extinguisher and first aid kit. You are not expected to place your life at risk, and you should always be extremely careful when touching someone who has been injured badly. You are under no legal obligation to render assistance, however.

If the car in front of you goes off into a steep ravine or dense brush, you should pull over in a safe place and go back to mark the spot with a flag and render necessary assistance.


Radios. You may use any CBs, two-way, or hand-held two-way radios in Mexico. Most do not work well, however, in the mountains. The Carrera race organization uses VHF radio 144-148 Mhz for emergency transmissions only. I have been told this is similar to ship-to-shore radio in the U.S.

GPS. You may purchase GPS software for most of Mexico for a Garmin unit. The Garmin is pretty good for getting around the cities. Good news: the cars will probably be outfitted with GPS transponders through Globalstar. Bad news is--your wife can track you from her computer at home. Try

Cell phones. Work pretty well in much of Mexico. You need a tri- or quad-mode phone. You can also rent cell phones or SIM cards in Mexico. Sat phones are the more expensive option, of course, but the Irridium systems seems to work well down there, even in the mountains.

Computers. Internet hookup is available in most hotels. Most also have a business center where you can rent a PC by the minute.

Water. Each car should carry at least two liters of drinking water at all times. You should have a hat in the trunk or some way to cover your head should you have to stand out in the sun for long. At high altitudes, the air temperature should be moderate during the day, but the sun is very hot at 8000 feet up in the thin air.

Please remember the “Spirit of La Carrera.” True, we are down in Mexico as competitors. Some of us want to win. Most of us want to do the best we can. But more importantly, we want everyone to finish the race and be safe. Thus we should help each other when necessary, even people in our class.

Does this mean you loan your only spare tire to your nearest competitor before the last speed run when you are 10 seconds behind? It’s up to you. But this question too may be a decided by the actual situation.


Many small teams will find that $2500 USD in cash is enough for out of pocket expenses while in Mexico and during the race. Some teams need twice this much. You need cash primarily for gasoline and tolls for the racecar and the tow truck. You will also need cash for food and drink, as well as lap dances. (Ha! Just checking to see if you are paying attention!) Cash works best in repair and parts shops, too.

Change your money in Mexico for the best rate: at the border, hotel, or bank. The hotels sometimes run short of pesos for exchange, and banks have a limit. The exchange rate is currently around 13 pesos to one dollar.

Gas stations in the north of Mexico will usually take dollars and more are accepting credit cards.

You can charge meals at the hotels and better restaurants on your credit card.

If you want to charge meals to your room, however, you must give your credit card to the hotel’s front desk when you check in. They will run an open voucher for such charges.

Normally it is not necessary to check out at the front desk in the morning if you have no charges to your room. Just leave the key in the room or at the desk.


La Mordida is the Mexican word for “bite.” If a local cop stops you for an infraction, real or imagined, you often have a choice: pay him mordida, or get a ticket and go to the police station and pay the fine. He will take your driver's to guarantee that you will show up.

Do you have time to visit the police station during the race?

The mordida is always negotiable, especially for us, because they charge gringos more than the locals. Usually you can get a half-price sale if you are polite but persistent. Drag the negotiations out. A $400 asking price can be reduced to $200. Usually, the sight of a crisp $100 bill will bring the negotiations to an end. But do not offer the bill until you are certain that the cop is going to accept it. Yes, they will accept mordida in pesos or US dollars.

If you surrender your driver’s license, they will keep it until you pay mordida or the fine at the police station. Consider getting a duplicate license to carry for such occasions.

Most norteamericanos do not like the mordida system because the money goes into the pockets of the cops. Mexico is making a major effort to stop the system, too. But, like most things, is not all bad. It does offer a way to settle things outside of court. And you don’t get points on your license. Ha!

Local cops are not authorized to enforce the regulations about the importation of your vehicles into Mexico.

Is there a way to prevent the “bite?” The best way is to obey the traffic laws. Most of the police are supportive and helpful, but others see us as a big payday.


Just about anything you can buy in the USA is found in Mexico. Wal-Mart, Costco, Sears, etc. are all there, at least in the larger towns, along with McD.’s, Subway, KFC, etc. Bring your Costco or Sam’s Club card, too.

Many medical drugs are available without prescriptions. However, you should carry your personal medications with you and the prescriptions.

Car dealers for GM, Ford, and Chrysler are also found in most cities, and they pretty much operate like former dealers in the US.
As I am fond of saying, the Carrera is an adventure. It's a long, tough race, but if you are able to relax a little and enjoy the event, it is more likely that you will have fond memories and want to return.

My job as North American coordinator is to explain what you are about to experience and to a degree, de-mystify it, plus give you the tools to endure it. But even 10,000 words of the most descriptive prose cannot capture the true significance of this event, or the depth of your feelings when you roll across the start line, and, hopefully, seven days later, the finish line.

There is nothing like it in the world, and it may not last much longer.

Copyright © 2009 Gerie Bledsoe