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.
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.
Friday, March 9:
We moved up in the start order for the first real day of competition. Our time from the Guanajuato street stage was a respectable 4th in 2WD and 7th overall. The first real test of the rally was the very challenging El Cubilete stage. It starts off fast in a valley at an elevation of 6200 feet, but after a few kilometers it crosses a bridge and quickly ascends into the mountains to a maximum of 7900 feet. One of my biggest fears with running an aircooled motor is overheating it on extended climbs. Once we got to the very steep section I had to down shift to second and then first gear to make it up the road. Some spots on the stage are at an 18% grade. On one of the straight sections I glanced over and saw that the heads were only running 350 degrees. Perfect, I thought to myself, but then half way up the mountain our oil temperature warning light came on. It didn’t help that the outside air temp was close to 90 degrees. Since I had to keep the engine between 5000 and 6000 rpm just to climb the road our oil temperature quickly passed 260 degrees. John told me not to worry about it and just keep going. Once we reached the halfway point the road leveled off a bit and the oil temp stabilized. At around 5 kilometers from the finish, the road descends into a valley. I began to use the brakes more and on one very tight hairpin the pedal almost went to the floor. For the last part of the stage I had to pump the pedal several times and down shift an extra gear to safely slow down.
While driving the transit section to the Las Minas stage the brakes seemed to improve some. I didn’t know if I had a leak, brake fade, or a loose wheel bearing causing the caliper pistons to move back into the bore. We found a flat section of road just before the stage start and quickly jacked up the car. John looked for leaks and I proceeded to add brake fluid to the system. One of the reservoirs was low but nothing too bad. John and I belted in and swiftly made it to the stage control on our assigned minute. The next two stages, Las Minas and Los Mexicanos, were run in the mountains above the city of Guanajuato. The road is technically challenging, with lots of switchbacks and blind turns, and the surface is very loose and rocky compared to the first stage of the day. The brakes improved some with the new fluid but were still mushy by the end of each stage. Luckily, we only had to transit back to Leon and run a short 1.2k street super special before we could fix it during our 45 minute service break. Ron Erickson and Rob Wright rushed in to work on the car while John went to look at scores. Mechanically everything was fine, except for a loose right front wheel bearing. John came back holding provisional scores and told me that we had moved into 3rd place in 2WD.
The final two stages of the day were held at the Leon Autodromo. It was a heads up, side-by-side super special, run on an asphalt track with sections of gravel and three jumps. Our competition for each run was the Team of Sanchez and Scott in their Mitsubishi Lancer. At the start of each run, we pulled away and had a few car lengths on them by the first turn. John strongly advised me to take it easy over all the jumps for fear of breaking the car, but the excitement of the moment was too much, and I carried too much speed through each one. Every time we went over the crossover jump we bottomed out the rear suspension very hard. We handily won both our heats and every time we crossed the finish line we could hear the crowd chanting Vocho, Vocho, Vocho (which is the Mexican nickname for the Beetle). At the end of the day we sat 2nd in 2WD and 5th overall.
Saturday, March 10:
The third day of the rally started with two very long and punishing stages, Ibarrilla and Otates. Throughout the first stage there were sections so chewed up by the WRC cars it seemed as if we were driving on a river bed. Softball sized stones were pulled into the road by all of the cars ahead of us cutting each corner. Half way through the stage we passed up the Lancer of Sanchez and Scott on the side of the road with a punctured radiator. The rest of the stage consisted of me wrestling with the car, trying to control it through deep silt and extremely rough portions of the road.
Just outside the quaint village of San Juan de Otates is the start to the second longest stage of the rally. The stage road is 42 kilometers long, very narrow, and quickly climbs in elevation leading up to several fresh water mountain reservoirs. During the first part of the stage I became extremely focused and carried good speed through most of the turns, but around 15 kilometers from the finish I found myself drenched in sweat and feeling very exhausted. The last section of road literally clings to the side of a mountain at 8500 feet in elevation. It seems that the only pace notes John calls are hairpins, tight turns, and the occasional blind crest with extreme exposure. I purposely keep the car tidy on several turns due to the genuine risk of plummeting to our deaths. After 44 minutes and 8 seconds of bliss mixed with terror we finally reach the stage finish line. Both of us were extremely fatigued and downed several bottles of water on the way back to the service parc.
The last stage of the day takes place again at the Leon Autodromo. The format is slightly different, with cars running heads up over four laps instead of two. Our matchup is against Jason Wong and Yuji Otsuki in their Volkswagen GTI. As we’re making our way around the track to the start line, it’s very obvious that the crowd is much larger than the previous night. The VIP tents are packed and there isn’t an empty seat in the grand stands.
As we line up in the left lane, I notice everyone standing to get a better view of the start. I bring the revs to 5000, slip the clutch just enough not to bog it, and we’re easily a half car ahead before the first turn.
John screams in my ear as we approach the crossover jump to take it easy and not bottom out again like we did the day before. We tear past the VIP tents on the back stretch on the rev limiter in third gear and we enter the S-turns just a bit too fast. The track is wet and I half spin mid corner.
The grip level is slightly different from the night before and I make adjustments to my driving on the next two laps. As we cross the start-finish line for our final lap I can tell it’s going to be a close finish. I blast down the straightaway, shift into third on the limiter and then quickly dive on the brakes for the two tight turns before the crossover.
Approaching the final turn I quickly spot Jason Wong next to us on our right side. Our lane is on loose wet gravel and his on asphalt. I downshift to second, toss the car and punch the gas into the final turn. John yells “GO GO GO… we got him” all while I execute what feels like the most amazing drift the whole way around and cross the finish line 2.1 seconds ahead of the GTI.
Sunday, March 11:
The final day of the rally started early in the morning with a super special and then we hurriedly set off to run Guanajuatito, the longest stage on the WRC calendar. The stage is a massive 54 kilometers long and covers much of the same roads used on previous days.
As we pull up to the start line I tell John that it’s been a crazy rally and I don’t care where we finish, but just that we finish. The road surface over the first few kilometers is in surprisingly better condition than I expect and we make good time on the descent into the village of Barbosa. I play it safe through most of the blind turns, but for ones that are smooth with good visibility I push it and let the car hang out. Ten minutes go by and John calls out “40 K to go.” The road levels off and the speed of the stage increases. Every now and then I glance to the side of the road and am utterly astonished by the number of people watching from what seems like the middle of nowhere. John calls out “35 K to go” as we enter a spectator point with a series of decreasing radius turns that snake down into a creek crossing. Thousands of people completely line the side of the road. Twenty five minutes into the stage my mind wanders for only a moment and I narrowly miss putting the car into the outside ditch. Sometimes I need a good scare on stage because in a flash my adrenalin kicks in and I regain focus on my driving.
With 20 kilometers remaining in the stage, John calls “Left 4, 100, Left 1 bump” just as we come into a spectator area. I pitch the car sideways entering the left hairpin and just as I unwind the steering wheel we hit the bump. It wasn’t a very hard bump, as we hit nastier stuff earlier in the rally. But as soon as we exit the turn I tell John that the steering is screwed. Making even slight turns require more than double the steering input. In an instant the thought of placing on the podium is vanished by the terrifying fear of crashing on stage and being unable to finish the rally. I slow my pace and leave plenty of braking distance on hairpin turns just in case the steering would suddenly fail. After a few more kilometers, we enter a downhill hairpin turn and catch a Production World Rally Car re-entering the stage. Driving behind the car is almost impossible due to the thick cloud of dust. Several times we almost drive off the road just going in a straight line. At first his slow speed didn’t bother me, considering our own problems, but eventually it became maddening when his pace slowed even more going up hills. After trailing him for several kilometers we finally found a spot in the road to narrowly pass him. I constantly check the rear view mirror over the last 5 kilometers just waiting for a car to blast by us but it never happens. John and I make it to the finish in 59 minutes and 36 seconds.
As we leave the finish line John informs me we have plenty of time on the transit to the next stage due to a mid-point fuel stop. I cautiously drive the next few kilometers wondering what could have gone wrong with the car. Just before the fuel depot we stop and quickly get out of the car to investigate the problem. I remove the spare tire and am amazed at what I find. The bracket that holds both tie rods to the end of the steering rack has cracked in half. The tie rods are scraping against the frame and are held together by the thin upper half of the bracket. I have John move the steering wheel and can see that the tie rods shift and twist several inches before they end up moving in the desired direction. The only spare items I carry in the car are duct tape and ratchet straps, so I use one of the later to wrap around the whole mess to try and stiffen things up.
Painfully slow is the only way I can describe our pace for the last two stages. I keep my speed up for most of the straights and easy turns, but I’m constrained to take it slow in the tight twisty sections. My main goal is to get the car back to Leon and finish the rally. Several times I feel so embarrassed to be seen driving the car due to our slow pace. People were screaming and waving flags as we limp down the road. If only the spectators knew of our debilitating problem. Yet through some miracle we finally make it to the finish and all the way back to Leon.
As we enter the service parc at the Poliforum our service crew are giving us thumbs. John rushes off to get scores and comes back with a sly smirk on his face. He hands me the sheet and yells “FIRST PLACE.” Apparently Bill Caswell had problems of his own on the long stage and could only make up a little bit of time on the last two short stages. Our final time was 3:24:20.8 and Bill’s was 3:24:41.2. We finished first place in two-wheel drive and second place overall in the Rally America category.
Our rally could not have been as successful if it wasn’t for the immense help we received from Ron Erickson and Rob Wright. Both were awesome as service crew. Also our team would like to thank our sponsors, Off Road Warehouse, Car Shop Inc, and Archway Import Autoparts, for their generous support.
If I had to describe Rally Mexico I would probably use two words, total insanity. The roads are crazy tough, harsh and dangerous, and even when you have problems and hate your car you’re foolish enough to want to do it all over again.
(C) 2012 / Mark M. Huebbe