When you think of the world’s greatest road races, the Targa Florio and the Mille Miglia are probably the first that spring to mind but the brutal La Carrera Panamaricana is more than deserving of a place on your list.
First held in 1950, the race was sponsored by the Mexican government in an effort to promote the brand-new Pan-American Highway, but it was deemed so dangerous that it stopped after only four years. In 1988, a group of enthusiasts revived it: here we follow Christian Jäger and Frauke Feess in Christian’s yellow Porsche 356 B as they take part in the seven-day, 2300-mile marathon.
Eight 356s, seven 911s, a 912, a 914 and an RSR are competing in 2016’s La Carrera Panamerica. Each day’s route is split into transit and speed stages. The transit ones run from one place to the next, mingling with normal traffic. The speed sections are timed sprints, often on mountain roads. They act as regularity stages, where going too fast can be as detrimental to victory as being too slow.
On the road from Queretaro, 120 miles northeast of Mexico City, to Puebla in the Sierra Nevada, the drivers complete seven corner-filled speed stages, and 330 miles of transit sections. Temperatures vary between ten and 30 degrees Celsius in the mountains and jungle, and the route takes in views of the 17,800-foot Popocatepetl volcano.
“The Carrera is just the way I dreamed it to be,” says Frauke. “There are great people here and I love the spirit. I am having lots of fun and I think that the roadbook and I are getting along splendidly.”
The race’s infamy for being dangerous becomes apparent when a number of cars leave the road, scrape the rock face, or even overturn. Thankfully, no one is badly hurt and the cars can be fixed overnight.
Standing among thorn bushes, cactus plants and jagged rock faces, spectators wait for the stream of vintage racers to fly by. When they’re not spectating, they’re barbecuing and partying. After the final speed test, thousands of fans welcome the exhausted teams in the dust-dry western town Tehuacan. Christian and Frauke finish in third place for the day in Sport Menor category.
The 250-mile leg between Mexico City and Toluca pushes some teams to breaking point. The 15- to 18-hour days are taking their toll, and mechanics are working around the clock in order to follow the rally and get the racing cars going again. Drivers and mechanics rely on mobile workshops and car parks for their rest, rather than anything fancy, like a bed.
It’s on the speed test that many come a cropper. The roadbook, usually so meticulous, doesn’t include some of the big bumps – a fact discovered by some at speeds of up to 90mph. Fewer than 50 of the 70 teams reach the finish in Toluca, including Frauke and Christian, who rely on their technical crew to bring them back into the competition the next morning.
At 8am, with fans gathered in the centre of Toluca, a priest sends the pilots on their way with incense and good wishes. Amid the eight speed stages is the Mil Cumbres: 12 miles of closed road with lots of corners, and lots of grippy asphalt.
One Porsche 356 driver has turned his competition around. After coming off the road on the first day, Mexican José Juan Gutiérrez has finished second for the day – thanks in part to his mechanics getting his 62-year-old racing car going again overnight. “The competition is tough, but I definitely want to win a day’s leg in the Sport Menor category,” he says.
La Carrera Panamerica is “Exciting and dangerous at the same time”, says former Formula 1 driver, 1997 Le Mans-winning Swede, Stefan Johansson – the Grand Marshal of this year’s race.
Today, the cars leave Morelia for Guanajuato, the world heritage site 250 miles away and probably the most beautiful city in Mexico.
Christian and Frauke lose grip in the first speed trial, and end up in an embankment. With no injuries to report, the effort turns to making sure their 356 is ready for tomorrow. The Sport Menor title is now out of reach, but with more than 780 miles left, even finishing will be a triumph.
Trying to cover 120 miles of Mexico’s highways, biways and bumpy country roads in two hours proves a little too tight for many drivers, despite their best efforts and bold overtakes. The final few miles before the start of the speed trial leads the cars along a bone-dry prairie track – another small detail omitted from the roadbook.
On the seven-mile speed leg itself, Christian and Frauke manage to avoid a roaming herd of cattle, thanks to some speedy reflexes and a moment of Walter Röhrl-like car control. The next day brings the final lunge for class wins.
Just over 430 miles separate the competitors in Zacatecas with the finish line in Durango. In between, there are eight sprint stages to defeat along busy highways, mountain passes, semi-deserts, prairies and canyons. The highlight comes in with the final 21-mile leg, the Espinazo del Diablo (The Devil’s Backbone). It had been intended to be a sprint, but rain and freshly dumped gravel make it a transit section. Nevertheless, if you get a load of tired but excited racing drivers rushing to a finish line on gravel, then some fairly close duels are to be expected.
Porsche 356-co-pilot Frauke says: “I had to promise my father, who was very worried about me, that this Carrera would be my first and only one. But I do not know if I can keep the promise. Or if I want to. I’m not quite sure yet, but I think I’ve been infected with the Carrera virus.”