Ben Slocum was co-driver of the $500 Craigslist rally car profiled in yesterday's WRC Rally Mexico story. We've asked him to give us his take on this amazing David-and-Goliath story. This is it. — Ed.
There are Rally events, and there are life events. WRC Corona Rally Mexico Rally America was both.
Bill Caswell and I received word in January that a Rally America legal car would be eligible to compete in Rally America, a Mexican national rally run concurrently with WRC Corona Rally Mexico.
Some teams would dream about competing; Bill and I said screw it, we're going.
I was in a new car with a new driver, as I frequently have found myself over the years. With Mexico I was now adding a new rule structure in a new country with a steep-to-me language barrier.
As a co-driver my work started months before the event. I read the supplementary regulations, created time tables and movement plans, emailed the event officials and Bill to no end. I constantly stayed in contact with Bill, calling and texting as important dates approached, reminding him the day that entry forms were due, finding information on brokers and the border crossing.
With the Rally in the 100 Acre Wood the week directly before Mexico I was forced to put everything on the shelf sooner than I had hoped. I went to Missouri to co-drive for one of my regular drivers, Dillon Van Way in the Team 600 Ford Focus SVT, and left Bill to the car for the final days before we were due to set out.
While in Missouri my cell phone decided that it had enough of my abuse and gave up, I was out of contact with Bill during the final vital prep hours. After the champagne spray at 100AW I was able to call him on Dillon's cell only to be reassured that he was leaving Chicago in the morning.
Sunday, February 28:
I woke up at 6:30 am and called Bill. The plan was to leave Rolla, MO at 7:00 am. No answer. I waited at the hotel for a few hours and tried again. Still nothing.
After checking out I went to the house of one of our Team 600 crew who happened to live in town. I sat around, cat napping throughout the day, running to a truck stop every few hours to try to get a hold of Bill on a pay phone. When I finally got through, Bill told me he ran into some last minute motor issues and was still in Chicago.
Monday, March 1:
We were supposed to be in Laredo, attempting the border crossing in the morning so we could make Leon, GTO in time for recce on Tuesday. Instead I continued to loaf around watching TV. I kept checking in with Bill for updates. He was finally able to hit the road around 7:00 pm.
Tuesday, March 2:
Bill arrived in Rolla at 1:00 am. We were 37 hours behind schedule by that point so we drove in shifts nonstop to Laredo. After driving down Piotr Wiktorcyk and Pat Moro's cars last year for Rally of the Nations I had gotten used to driving unfamiliar tow rigs through the night across the country with little to no sleep, making this a familiar if annoying action.
We got to Laredo at 5:00 pm and drove straight across the border. The Mexican customs agents wanted to look in the trailer, so we showed them. That only piqued their interest, causing them to look deeper into more boxes of gear. My rudimentary Spanish skills weren't enough to get us through the border, luckily I always keep event documents on hand. I pulled out our movement plan which had the WRC Corona Rally Mexico logo on the cover. When the agent saw it his eyes lit up; "Ahh, Rah-lee? Go, go."
Our day stopped at the immigration office. To get into Mexico we needed the title and a letter for our service van allowing it past the inner Mexican border. I can't get into why we didn't have them for a few years, but the short version is we were sent back to the US despite our broker's best attempts to bribe the officials.
As we tried to cross back over we got caught on a cross over road between bridge one and bridge two leading between Laredo, TX and Nuevo Laredo, MX. The road is two lanes wide with concrete barriers a foot and a half high on either side. Nothing out of the ordinary, until a cartel decided to make war in front of us. We rounded what had to be the only corner on the mile long road when a car pulled across the path blocking us in. With the trailer we had no way of turning around. Suddenly dozens of people ran out of nearby buildings brandishing machine guns. We spent a frantic ten minutes backing up to the sounds of Spanish screaming and automatic weapons fire. Our broker simply explained it as "Mexico, she has problems."
We rushed across the bridge, darting between heavily armed Mexican military vehicles and took shelter in the Days Inn Laredo.
Wednesday, March 3:
Bill was able to "procure" another van in the morning. We transferred our gear over and successfully crossed into Mexico. We drove through the night.
Thursday, March 4:
We arrived in Leon at 5:00 am and fell straight in bed.
Bill and I woke after three hours of sleep and took the service rig across the street to the Poliforum service park. Event officials guided us through the building and down a ramp into our service area. The truck, once down the ramp, lifted the back of the trailer and scrapped the entry way into the Poliforum. Luckily I was driving and luckily all eyes were on us. It was a great way to introduce ourselves to the Rally world.
We unpacked, Bill set to work on final details for the car, I got deep into the paperwork for the weekend.
Both Bill and I were nervous that we wouldn't pass tech. There wasn't anything wrong with the car; it's just that being faced with a WRC level tech inspection with a 20 year old car is a bit intimidating. All of the tech inspectors were more than friendly and soon our fears were assuaged. We were cleared to start.
Around 4:00 p.m. we left the service park for the Siloa holding area, the first portion of the ceremonial start. No description I can give will be adequate enough to explain how the night went. The transit to Siloa was simple enough, but when we arrived at the holding area we were greeted by tens of thousands of screaming fans.
Bill and I were heroes. We were in an attainable car on the world stage and everyone loved us. As soon as all of the cars were parked the fans streamed past the barriers for autographs and photos. Someone was setting fireworks off on the roof tops, girls kept asking for photos and kisses on the cheeks and everyone, including local police, wanted autographs. Bill and I were happy to oblige.
We were released at one minute intervals from Siloa, starting off of a ceremonial ramp, into the streets. For the next 30km we transited down city streets and freeways lined with people. Police blocked every entrance and two officers, lights and sirens blaring, followed us to Guanajuato. We were free to drive as fast as we wanted, through toll booths with no charge, feeling like banditos fleeing from the police.
When we arrived in Guanajuato we were thrust into a scene that made Siloa look tame. The crowds built to over one hindered thousand screaming Rally fans. It was stop and go traffic for three miles with people parting for us to inch forward, swallowing us from behind after we passed. Several girls blew kisses which I grabbed with a wink and smile only to watch them swoon. It was an odd feeling.
The official start ramp, after three other false ramps, was a spinning platform surrounded by banners, grandstands and spot lights. The crowd went nuts when we pulled up. After driving down we immediately transited back to Leon, wondering the whole way if we were dreaming about the previous four hours of our lives.
Friday, March 5:
The day started oddly like any Rally day despite the previous night's festivities. We set to work in the service park. Bill on the car, myself on route books.
Since we missed recce we were going to be forced to do the whole weekend on very thin tulips. Luckily for us we met Nicolas Fuchs, a PWRC competitor and current Peruvian national champion. His co-driver, Juan Pedro Cilloniz, allowed me to photo copy his pace notes.
They were in Spanish and in a method neither Bill nor I had used before, but they were something. I wrote at the beginning of every stage that I=Left and D=Right and was forced to call that good. Other symbols I had to learn at speed were "L"= crest, "l"= long, "sc"=tightens, "sa"=opens and "boda"=off camber. Our in car video can attest that I wasn't perfect at translating Spanish to English at speed, but I was at least 95% accurate.
The first stage loop went alright. We bashed the rear left corner enough to rip the strut mount from the car, but not damage the shock. Bill took out the Bilstein to prevent it from banging around and we ran the last loop without any left rear suspension. Surprisingly we were sitting in third, but we were soon faced with a fuel pump failure on the transit to stage 7.
Using only a screw driver and a pocket knife borrowed off of a local cop Bill removed the pump from the car, stripped wires out of the in car video system and jumped the pump forward and in reverse off the car's battery until it spit out the piece of sand that clogged it. He jammed the pump back in the tank and we rushed to the next stage only to be told it was closed and we had to transit through.
The next story involves high speeds, GPS tracking, a Policía Federal road block and chase and other bits of James Bond level international intrigue. Like the previous story about our service vehicle, I can't get into this one for a few years unless coerced by a cold brew.
After some "issues" we returned to the service park and set to repairing the car under Super Rally regulations. I received some bad news from home and spent the night on the phone to Michigan leaving Bill to work on the car. He was able to wrap up all of our issues to allow us to start on Saturday.
Saturday, March 6:
We started the day third on the road. With our Super Rally penalties we were sitting in last, but that didn't stick. We attacked the stages in anger, quickly climbing back up the order to fourth.
On stage one we entered a tight yet fast downhill section with a little too much gusto. The back of the car slid off the road on the right and went off a bridge. My first reaction was, "well, we're done." Bill just kept on the gas and a well placed BMW trailing link caught the edge of the concrete bridge before the tire and somehow bounced us back on the road. According to the laws of physics it shouldn't have been possible, yet we found ourselves on still on the road and still pushing hard. I love those moments.
On stage three we approached what my notes said was a dip. It wasn't a dip. I said it wasn't a dip when we could clearly see what it was. Bill gunned it. It was a massive jump. Massive. We landed hard and broke the right motor mount, but instead of slowing down Bill just kept pushing. We entered the final Superspecials sitting back in third.
Of note was a young lady, maybe 20 or so, at the beginning of the Superspecial in the VIP area. She held a sign that said "I love Slocum." I've gone international.
I called her over but the security guards wouldn't let her pass. I scolded them out and they let her approach the car. I asked for her hand and gave it a kiss, feeling like an American lothario. She giggled and the security guard forced her back as we moved up to the start line. It was reported to me later that she spent the remainder of the Superspecial bragging to the crowd around her that I kissed her. I am an American lothario.
Once back to the service park Bill again set to working on the car. He was able to fabricate a new motor mount using a piece of tubing and angle iron. Unfortunately we went over our allotted service time and pulled 4:20 in penalties, moving us to fourth, but we were still in it.
Sunday, March 7:
We were solidly in fourth to start the day. There were only four stages left so we decided to play it smart and drive for the finish. We had no issues, the car was even better than when we started on Friday. I was comfortable with the notes; Bill was comfortable with the car and the stages.
After 22 stages, several severe mechanical issues, border delays and dozens of other reasons why it shouldn't have happened, we finished WRC Corona Rally Mexico Rally America. The final verdict came down that another car had been disqualified resulting in us moving up to third. The event that should never have occurred ended better than either of us could have hoped.
The ceremonial finish was just as insane as the other spectator events. Thousands of people, thousands of photos and autographs, kisses all around. I burned out two sharpies over the weekend on autographs alone. The only thing left was to party.
Bill got trashed inside with other drivers, doing shots with Petter and Henning Solberg; I hung around with other co-drivers outside drinking water and talking about how hard it is to get drivers to listen. Event workers hung out in between both groups trying to look natural. I went back to the hotel around 2:00, Bill stumbled in around 5:30.
Nothing can do justice in describing what it's like to compete at a WRC event. Even though it was the Mexican National event, we still experienced everything in the big show. If the chance comes to compete again I suggest others take advantage, I know I will.
Ben Slocum is a 25-year-old rally co-driver from Petoskey, MI. He entered the sport in 2005 after shattering his left eye in an accident. Now, blind in one eye, he competes in over a dozen Rallys a year as both a team and freelance co-driver. He can be seen in the Team 600 Ford Focus SVT co-driving for Dillon Van Way in the Rally America National Championship and with Robb Rill in a Subaru WRX STi for the Atlantic Rally Cup as well as various one-off rides throughout the US, Canada and Mexico. He's duct-taped rear hatches to hoods to replace windshields, towed cars out of lakes and pushed rolled over wrecks back on their wheels just to finish events. Slocum's simple mantra is to never say no to an adventure.