Other than a slightly delay in our departure from DFW and a 100-mph headwind causing an hour delay in my arrival, the trip to Mexico was smooth as can be expected. I was met at the airport by, Kenny, one of Darkcyd Racing’s newest team members. With accommodations and the other earlier arrivals from our team waiting in León, Kenny piloted our rented VW Jetta out of León/Guanajuato Airport.
It didn’t take long for Kenny to realize something was wrong as we headed into “Centro” off Mexico Ruta 45. “I think I made the wrong turn out of the airport,” he said, slightly embarrassed. So we retraced our route from the outskirts of León, a nondescript industrial Mexican city perhaps most famous for its leather industry, but also home to several auto and truck manufacturing facilities. We passed a massive General Motors plant, Volvo truck chassis assmebly plant and where they seem to be making vintage VW cars.
“The cars they’re making here are 10 years old, but they’re making them new,” explained Kenny, “why update? There are no safety regulations to adopt to,” he said slapping the center of the steering wheel of the Jetta, “no airbag in this car, nothing.” From Muskegan, Michigan and just 21, Kenny not only is a capable mechanic, he’s also worked with computers in the IT department at the local university. “Before I got into rally racing, I used to spend all my extra money on building computers, now, it goes into the car I’m working on.”
On top of my hour late arrival and our unintentional tour of Silao, México, Robb, his wife Tara and co-driver Ben Slocum were patiently, albeit very hungry, waiting for us to arrive. From Gainesville Florida, I’d last seen Robb in July when I was in Orlando for the National Speakers Association convention. And though we’ve emailed and I’d heard many stories about his wife, this was the first time I’d met Tara.
At dinner I learned that for the next two days Ben and Robb would pre-run and do reconnaissance, or “recce” on the 13 stages of the rally so they can make detailed “pacenotes.” Co-driver Ben will make shorthand notes that he will be able to relay back to Robb during the actual competition. These notes help the driver understand the conditions and how to best drive each stage. Notes include turns, road conditions and other items considered important by the driver.
As I noted earlier, this race is part of the World Rally Championship series, perhaps the most-watched sport in Europe save soccer or possibly F1 racing. The series started in January with the first race in Sweden and continues through November totaling rallies in 13 countries spanning 4 continents. The Rally Mexico, now in its 8th year, is sponsored by big brands such as Corona beer, Coca-Cola, Monster beverages and DC shoes (now part of Quicksilver). The series sponsors include the city of Abu Dhabi, Michelin, Edox Swiss Watches, and FX Pro. This is big business and as such there are a number of very well financed teams.
Perhaps the most interesting thing to me is that the cars competing in rally racing, all must be street legal and registered to drive on ‘normal’ roads. While some of the pro-racer cars can cost in excess of $300,000, the rules of rally racing mandate using a production car with a production run of at least 2,500 units. Allowed modifications to the production car include engine with displacement of no more than 2.0 liters, chassis strengtening, weight reduction to a minimum of 1230 kg (2,711 lbs), four-wheel drive and a sequential gearbox, aerodynamics and a roll cage for safety. There are a number of restrictions regarding maximum airflow of turbo-charged systems. I’m still learning about various classes and differences in vehicles, so in a future post I’ll have more data. These regulations and the definitions and requirements are set by organizations like the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA, a governing body for many of the most popular auto racing events in the world and, Rally America the governing body for most of the rally races held in the USA.
Signage through the towns of León, Guanajuato and Silao tout the upcoming rally, which is expected to bring more than 65,000 international tourists to the area.
As I look over the city of León, I feel the heat (it’s going to be 90°F/32°C), but the grey muddy air looks a lot like smog—though as the breeze picks up the sun shines and the skies turn blue.
As for the actual racing, it’s fairly simple. There are two components to the driving: 1) stages; and 2) transit. Both stage and transit driving are timed. During the stages, which are usually 3-6 miles, the drivers must drive as fast as they can within their capabilities. Pushing to hard during the stages can result in an accident or driving the car off the road where it’s impossible to get back on without assistance or tow. The drivers are timed how fast they complete each stage. During the transit phase, the team is given a card with a time stamp and are told at what time they must arrive at the beginning of the next stage—as such, they are simply transiting to the beginning of the next competitive stage. But here’s where it gets tricky. If they show up earlier or later than the posted “arrival” time, the team is penalized. The penalties around to minutes that are added to their total time in which they completed the stage component. The best drivers get zero penalties. It’s the co-driver who must monitor and direct the driver to control speed so that they arrive at exactly the right time.
For those of you who don’t know about, or haven’t experienced what type of driving goes on in a road rally race, I urge you to watch this short video clip to get an idea of the driver skill, competency and endurance required: Ken Block Monster Subaru