Racing Mexico’s La Carrera Panamericana: A Family Affair
What was it that attracted you to racing in La Carrera Panamericana?
After deciding to delve into rallying, specifically TSD rallying in Europe, I was connected with Kent Bain, founder of Vintage Racing Services. In a conversation with Kent about rallying in general, he unequivocally stated that if I were to do one rally in my life it should be La Carrera Panamericana. This sounded like the perfect adventure for my brother, Jeff, and me. At the same time our mother had been diagnosed with a terminal illness and I wanted to do something with my brother that would give us an opportunity to interact with each other apart from addressing her health. Our mother was thrilled to see her boys tackling a major challenge together.
What car experiences did you bring to this adventure?
I grew up messing around with machines in general. We were fortunate to have a big basement that Mom allowed Jeff and I to use as a shop. Lawn mowers became go karts, street bikes became specialized off roading machines. You name it, we built it. As I got older this naturally transitioned to automobiles.
My grandfather taught me to drive in his 1962 Mercury Monterey when I was just a young boy. The first time I went over 100 mph was in that car. The Monterey was a true land yacht with a steering wheel as a helm to match. The minute I could reach the pedals, I would borrow it. I would drive the back roads for hours. I never did get caught. I can’t believe I never got caught by anyone.
When it came time for me to have a car and freedom, I made a deal for my mom’s 1968 Ambassador station wagon. The junkyard was offering $25 so I said I’d give her $26 if she’d sell it to me. The transmission was shot but I had never met anything I couldn’t fix. I took it apart and rebuilt my first car. My very first car!
The station wagon finally gave it up. It was time for an image change so I bought my first hot rod, a 1969 Chevelle , Cragars and all, the perfect high school machine. It was a great car, although terrible to drive in anything other than a straight line. I didn’t care, it looked cool, had an 8-track tape player, and easily laid rubber. I souped up the engine and installed side pipes. You couldn’t hear yourself think in the car. My girlfriend hated it but Mom thought it was a blast.
Years later, I bought a 1968 International Traveler while taking a year off from studying at Columbia. You could fit an entire party in that one, but at 5 mpg it wasn’t practical to use on a budget. So, it had to go. In the meantime, I had inherited the Mercury from my grandfather and continued to use that for a few years. I was restoring houses in New Orleans and drove it down. We had a lot of fun together until the heat got to us both. The old Mercury finally gave up the ghost. It was time to head west to cooler pastures, but I needed some wheels.
I found a 1970 Dodge tradesman van that had been this guy’s baby until he got married. Twenty years later it was still sitting on blocks. He had converted the interior himself, no detail was spared: captain’s seats, wood-paneled interior, and padded dash. It slept two. A real 70’s relic. I called it Buddha because it’d been sitting so long. I drove across the U.S. and back, living in it occasionally. Buddha was a faithful companion for many an adventure.
Soon after, I moved to Venice and exchanged cars for boats. It would be another 25 years before I bought another car, a 1965 Lancia Fulvia to have fun on the mountain roads of the Dolomites. Soon I will start preparing the Fulvia for rallying with the goal of competing in the Rallye Monte-Carlo Historique.
So your early car experiences didn’t include racing?
No. Well at least not on a track. I spoke to Kent about this and he suggested that Jeff and I go to Brian Redman’s Targa 66 and try our hand there. I owe Kent a huge debt of gratitude for taking a leap of faith on us that weekend. It would have been tough to be greener than we were. We rented a Spitfire and a 65 Volvo Amazon and hit the track. After a few pointers from Kent, we soon got up to speed. A broken axle on the Spitfire led me to an interesting off-track experience but, all in all, we kept it on the track and had a blast. A final session with a Swift DB2 Sports 2000 sealed the weekend. What an experience. We were hooked.
La Carrera Panamericana has influenced Chris’ life in many ways. As a result of this experience, he and his brother Jeffrey have founded a new business, Driving La Carrera. Their adventure also brought him to learn about the Piston Foundation and the decision to dedicate his time and talent to the Foundation’s mission. Chris’ La Carrera Panamericana continues here.