We control the horizontal. We control the vertical

Post Pan Am: A wrap up of La Carrera Panamericana 2016

Yes, there is a car down there. And yes, this is the route we took to park it.

La Carrera Panamericana runs through Thursday. I’ve been home since Monday night.

Our run at the 2016 Pan Am ended early due to a hard excursion off of the road. Until that point the team was getting accustomed to the car, myself, and the event.


The Carrera is unlike any rally I’ve participated in; it’s more akin to a week long adventure, with days broken up by stages, than by a true competition. Transits are interrupted for parc exposes in small towns along the course, the competition ends each evening with a party in the host city, and each night is ended with a banquet for the day’s awards.

Transit through Mexico City.

Buddy, as my Day 0 & Day 1 wrap ups explained, did quite well. Day 2 was Don’s turn in the car. He took the day as a learning opportunity, growing accustomed to how notes work in general, and how they work at the Pan Am in particular. Day 2 stages were significantly more open than Day 1, giving us the expectation of losing some positions to the big block powerhouses in other classes. We took small risks and pushed through the eight stages in short order, finishing the racing portion of the day around noon. We had a four hour transit back to Mexico City to check in to our final control.

Mexico City zocolo.

At the banquet the results put us 4th in class, 15th overall for the day. While this may seem like a drop off the previous day we were in tight battles, only 7.1 seconds separated us from 2nd in class, 11th overall, allowing us to retain our positions for the total event. Buddy and Don decided that the best method to maintain our pace was to alternate every two days, building on the previous day’s speed. As Buddy had Day 0 and Day 1, Don’s finish on Day 2 would keep him in the car with me for Day 3, a run from Mexico City to Toluca through a set of seven stages.

The tranisit to stage one did not go as smooth as I would like. Transits in and out of cities tend to be 200+ KM, and my odo at best has about a 1% error rate. We hit an instruction for a turn that matched up with my route book and took an off ramp that revealed another turn within a 1/10 of a kilometer of our turn that was the correct instruction. We were on a divided toll road with barriers making a u-turn impossible. A quick bit of map reading and dead reckoning got me a route back to where we needed to be but with a loss of twenty minutes in detours. I would normally beat myself up for a navigation error, but during our charge back to course we saw several dozen other competitors, course workers, and service vehicles take the same route, assuaging my ego and assuring me that it was a poorly written instruction over a navigational error.


The long nature of the transit allowed us to make up time and reach our control with ten minutes to spare. We suited up, briefly discussed the stage, and checked in on our minute. When the clock hit zero we were off.

Puente Calderón was one of my favorite stages from previous years. It’s a twisty technical run that weaves up and down hill sides, cutting over rivers on narrow bridges, and back up the other side of the valley before finishing in Ixtapan, a beautiful little town we regroup in during the afternoon return.

We started off on a tear, with the 7.1 second gap from the prior day in our heads. For the first 6.5km we had our rythm; diving into corners and exiting on the far lane. We were setting a good pace when the harbinger of bad notes struck again. Pan Am does not use the Stage Notes we’re familiar with in the U.S., nor do they use true Pace Notes. Instead it’s a subjective system written by the organizers months in advance. Sometimes the notes are a little off.


We were in the middle of a Right 2, erring on the side of the note being conservative. As I called out the next corner, a Right 1, we found that the notes instead went the other way, erring on the fast side. The front pushed for a split second before biting, causing the rear of the car to break. As we crossed the center line I called out “we’re off.”

We passed just left of a dirt berm, sliding off the shoulder. I saw the sky rotate down and felt the first impact. Within a few seconds we caught several major hits before coming to a rest.

Don poses with the car in it’s final position.

The car, with us in it, finished rolling several hundred feet off the road, well below grade. I asked if Don was OK, and when he replied in the affirmative, I did what I could to get out of the car to determine our position. The roof had collapsed enough to force me to remove my helmet and HANS in order to squeeze out of my window. Once out I checked for stability, making sure we wouldn’t break further down the hill, and scrambled up the hill to warn fellow competitors of our off.

Safety equipment may seem like a waste of money to some, but at the moment it’s needed it becomes the cheapest dollars ever spent.

Once the final competitor passed I had a chance to survey the damage. On our way down we impacted a brick retaining wall, which initiated the first roll. We took out two trees, both about 10-12" in diameter, ripped out a water cistern, clipped the wall and roof to a house set back in the hill, and landed at the edge of a yard. I think we rolled three times, possible four, before finishing.

As the final course workers and federal police came by the work of digging the car out and sorting damage with the homeowner began. A tow truck arrived and started pulling warped vehicle up while the “cleaner” for the event started negotiations with the home owner. The Pan Am carries insurance that would fully fix and improve his home, which is a procedure he apparently went through last year as a car nudged into his original water cistern. We had gone much further and done quite a bit more damage. In addition to the Pan Am making him whole for the damage they negotiated a $250USD fee to be paid to the home owner for his trouble. The Federal Police and the cleaner insisted we not pay any more, and being in their country, we had to listen to their authority.

After being removed from the hillside.

As our car made it to the top of the hill another accident occurred as cars passed on the now open road. A rubber necking taxi rear ended a family, totaling his car and damaging theirs. Luckily they had no injuries, but had to also sort out the insurance with the event. The tow truck helped load our car onto our just arrived service trailer, and a parade of dejected souls headed to the local Federale precinct to fill out accident reports.

It was the last ride for a car I had gotten to know well after three Pan Ams and three Chihuahua Expresses.

We spent two hours at the station while the insurance adjuster arrived to take stock of our damaged car (not covered), the family’s SUV (covered), and the Taxi (possibly covered, but as the at fault driver for his portion of the accident the cleaner couldn’t assure me that it was). The cleaner, police officer in charge of the reports, and the homeowner then left for about forty minutes to inspect the home. Don, myself, and our crew waited for their return as I started feeling the stiffness and bruising set in.


When they returned we signed a few documents and parted ways with the other parties. The cleaner drove Don and I to our hotel for the night in Toluca while our service truck followed. We were lucky, mostly due to being in a Ray Stephen’s built car, a vehicle I would trust my life in at any moment. Things could have been worse for us, and on the drive into Toluca we heard that for another participant it was.

The information coming through wasn’t clear, but what was known was that one of the moto riders had collided with a truck on course and did not survive. It was a very sobering drive into town, thinking about what could have been for us, and what had happened for Gunther Wilfinger, the rider who lost his life.

With the change from the highs of the previous day to the lows of the moment, we decided to head home from Toluca.

The passing of a competitor is a hard note to end on. It’s something that’s happened at three events for me now, and something that always gives me pause, thinking if this is something I want to continue doing. Do I rally to chase something? Or is it because something is chasing me? If I continue to push the envelope, it’s only a matter of time until it pushes back.

Rally in peace Gunther.

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