Carrera Panamericana
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By Ted Laturnus

What’s wrong with this picture? I’m blatting down a two-lane backroad at well over 180 km/h. In fact, I’m accelerating and taking corners just about as fast as I can, reaching 220 km/h on multiple occasions.

Unsurprisingly, I’m accompanied by a police car, but in this case, he’s in front of me, and it’s about all I can do to keep up.

I’m in deepest Mexico, well off the beaten track, and the black and white setting such a furious pace is being driven by two Policia Federal officers, who have been assigned to babysit our little group of automotive journalists as we tear through central Mexico in a convoy of brand-new Mercedes 500SL and AMG55 convertibles. Some of the cars we’re driving have 500-horsepower supercharged V8 engines, and can rocket from a standing start to 100 km/h in five seconds. Yet the Federales’ squad car, a Chevy Impala powered by a 3.8 litre V6 that pumps out 200 horsepower on a good day, is continually disappearing from sight as we struggle to stay with him. What’s more, the Federales’ car, more than ably piloted by Officers Fernandez and Larios, is a standard issue police package with upgraded suspension and bigger tires, but that’s about it. It’s also carrying about 300 pounds of armour plating, a necessity in many parts of Mexico.

2003 Carrera Panamericana
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The occasion is the 50th anniversary of Mercedes’ victory in the Carrera Panamericana, a 3000 kilometre race through central Mexico that was held from 1950 to 1954. In late 1949, Mexico had just finished building their leg of the Pan-American highway, which was the first continuous overland route from Tierra del Fuego to Alaska. The Mexican government wanted to draw international attention to their accomplishment and what better way than to stage a no-holds-barred road race. The Carrera Panamericana, which was patterned after the legendary Targa Florio and Mille Miglia races in Europe, attracted the best drivers in the world at the
time – names like Juan Fangio, Alberto Ascari, Luigi Chinetti, John Fitch, and Phil Hill, not to mention carmakers such as Ferrari, Jaguar, Cadillac, Chrysler, Alfa Romeo, Porsche, and, of course, Mercedes. The race was discontinued after five years, mainly because it was so dangerous, but resurrected again in 1988, as a vintage car event. For our part, we drove a
mere 1000 kilometres of it, from Tuxtla Gutierrez to Oaxaca to Puebla. Things have improved no doubt in the intervening 50 years, but driving in Mexico is still fraught with peril.

For one thing, all the major routes have speed barriers in the form of topes and vibradores, which, if you’re not paying attention, will rip the wheels right off of your vehicle. When you see a sign announcing their presence, you better throttle back or you’ll be the worse for it. And where topes and vibradores pop up, small pockets of human squalor seem to follow…or is it
the other way around. Anyway, as the cars – and trucks! – slow down, people – often children – scurry over and try to sell you everything from chewing gum to burro-meat burritos. The level of poverty in Mexico is staggering and I gave away a lot of change until I realized the overwhelming hopelessness of it all. I also felt more than a little guilty rolling along in air-conditioned, stereo-bathed comfort past mud adobe shacks with dirt floors, behind the wheel of an automobile that costs more than some of these people will earn in their lifetime. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, the best thing many Mexicans will ever see is the road to California, and it’s not hard to understand why they struggle to emigrate into the U.S. in such huge numbers. I would too.

2003 Carrera Panamericana
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Another major hazard is the animal life – donkeys, cattle, and horses grazing by the roadside, emaciated dogs that like to sleep in the middle of the road, chickens and pigs wandering around aimlessly, not to mention feral human beings that seem to materialize out of the mesquite bush and stare, glassy-eyed, as you roar past. During the 1952 race, a Mercedes 300SL coupe, driven by Karl Kling, collided with a low-flying buzzard, in Tehuantepec, at over 200 km/h, injuring co-driver, Hans Klenk. Reports at the time explained that the winged scavenger “misjudged the speed of the Mercedes.” Ay caramba.

And the trucks!! Not only are they overloaded and beat to hell, but they proliferate on most roads. Just when you think you can wick it up a little and do some corner carving, you’ll come upon an ancient Mack or Western Star, pulling two full-size trailers and spewing black smoke as it crawls up the mountainside. Either that or a decrepit bus that should have been cut up into scrap years ago. You simply cannot relax on the highways and byways of Mexico, and it goes without saying that driving at night is out of the question.

And let’s not forget the military controls. In the four days we traversed the Pan-American Highway, we encountered at least a dozen roadblocks, manned by Uzi-toting soldiers who were astounded, to put it mildly, at the sight of half a dozen top-of-the-line Mercedes convertibles converging on them at high speed. I later heard that this particular road has become a major
artery for drug smugglers and gun-runners, bringing cocaine and what-not up from Central America, and in the Chiapas region, where we stayed the first night, revolutionaries and terrorists are an ongoing problem. This is when I began to understand why the Federales were with us: ten gringos driving ultra-expensive cars along a major smuggling route through some of the most desperately poor areas of the western hemisphere. What’s Spanish for “easy pickings”?

Otherwise, the major routes in Mexico are in surprisingly good condition and well-engineered. Yes, you’ll come across the odd unfinished section with potholes and loose gravel, but the TransCanada Highway through Saskatchewan and eastern B.C., is worse in places. Highway 190, from Juchitan de Zaragoza to Oaxaca, in particular, has a seemingly endless series of tight switchbacks and high-speed straights. American driver, John Fitch, who was in attendance at the Mercedes event and participated in the 1952 race, said that this section of the highway had “40-mile straightaways” and drivers were taking it flat-out at speeds up to and over 280 km/h. Impressive when you consider that the cars they drove were lucky to top 200 horsepower in engine output and were equipped with drum brakes.

Which brings me to the cars themselves. Although the new Mercedes 500 SL and AMG55 are exquisite automobiles, I couldn’t wait to get behind the wheel one of the original 300SL coupes used in the 1952 race. Mercedes had brought one along and we got the chance to drive it near the Mayan ruins of Monte Alban and again, on a 20-km stretch through the desert around Tamazulapan. This particular car, in fact, was actually driven by racing legend Rudolf Caracciola, and was wrecked at the 1955 Mille Miglia in Italy. Compared to what we had been driving, it was loud, crude, heavy at the helm, and a bit of a handful through the tight turns. Power doesn’t really come on until the engine is revving around the 4500 rpm mark on those early twin cam six-bangers, and you really have to lean on the brakes to slow it down. As well, everything about the car has an industrial strength feeling to it, and I just can’t imagine wrestling with it for ten or twelve hours at a stretch.

So when you think of how they drove the wheels off these cars fifty years ago, without the benefit of disc brakes, full synchromesh, independent suspension, radial tires, or fuel injection, you can’t help but admire those old guys. “The suspension on the original 300SL only had about three inches of travel,” explains John Fitch. “That meant on the rougher sections, we spent more time in the air than on the ground. And we couldn’t stop to relieve ourselves. Nor could we work on the car once we were underway.” In other words, no stopping, period, except for fuel and maintenance.

While I was in Mexico – at the beginning of December – it was between 30 and 35 degrees outside. During the Carrera Panamericana, the temperatures were often in the mid-40s and the Mercedes 300SL, which has gull-wing doors, lacked roll down windows. It must have been like driving around in a sauna, and, frankly, I don’t know how they did it. Perversely, when they dropped the checkered flag on the 1952 race, in Chihuahua, it was snowing.

Our little adventure ended on a more dramatic note. While drifting sideways through a decreasing radius turn in the mountains near Huajapan de Leon, Officer Larios lost control of his Impala and side-swiped a farmer in a Nissan pickup, who bounced off a large rock and crashed into our car. I was navigating at this point, and although the Mercedes AMG 55 (value: $165,000), was basically totalled, we weren’t hurt… thanks to seat belts. The farmer wasn’t so lucky. He suffered facial cuts (wasn’t wearing his seat belt) and spent a day in hospital. However, there was a happy ending; because his vehicle was insured, which is somewhat of a rarity in rural Mexico, the farmer apparently got a brand new truck and a cash settlement.

Thankfully, no buzzards were involved.

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