Bill Caswell made history a year ago when his old, thrown-together $500 Craigslist BMW triumphed over $400K race cars to make the podium at the WRC Rally Mexico. For Caswell, our story about his exploits changed his life and made him a semi-star.
A year later, Caswell returned to Rally Mexico a celebrity with an equally slapdash machine. Our original story was titled "How a $500 Craigslist car beat $400K rally racers." This year Caswell and his co-driver didn't podium, but somehow had a better time. So perhaps it's best to call this version "How a $500 Craigslist team got robbed, laid, drunk, and fast while being beaten by $400K rally racers."
In the style set forth by our original telling of the story, I'm just going to insert bits from Caswell's retelling with comments in between. But let me preface it this way: Bill Caswell is insane. The emails he sends are full of the kind of myopic energy few, other than perhaps coked-up cheerleaders, posses. And now, to the story…
Getting robbed by Mexican cops
The trip started out a lot like last year. I picked up Ron at his house in Missouri which is where I picked up Slocum last year and first met Ron Erickson. Ron is my kind of codriver. More of driver and mechanic than a codriver, someone who asks if its ok for him to go dancing with a hot Mexican girl Saturday night while I finish up the car. Sure man, just make it back to the service park by morning.
You dont need to read notes just strap in. Get back to the service park by any means necessary. He was home by 430 or so. Nice Job Ron! He is someone who picks up the welder asks no questions and just starts making repairs. My kind of guy.
I met him a year ago when I picked up Slocum at his house on the way to WRC Mexico 2010. He had his entire VW GTI in pieces on the floor and I was like wow that's a big project. His response, "it better not be, I am driving this to work in the morning." Hmmmm you need to stay in touch.
He came and crewed at STPR, so I offered him the Pikes Peak codrive as a thank you and it turns out he's pretty good. His grandfather actually raced there in the 1970's. Anyway, here is Ron and I rocking thru Mexico at night while I make pacenotes from last year's video.
In the end we didn't get through all the stages so we borrowed some notes from a fellow driver Yuji Otsuki who used Japanese characters here and there. Its actually pretty cool as it looks like you could have one symbol to describe a lot of stuff, but was very different from the notes we borrowed last year which were in Portuguese.
I wonder if I can get my notes in Finnish or something cool for next year.
We drove thru the night to the border. Swapped vans for one with Mexico paperwork just like last year and continued on our way. We were almost out of the Monterrey area when we missed and exit. Next thing we know we were crossing a speed bump at 65 mph and if you saw it from the outside it might have looked like a jump.
We get pulled over where we are told we will be spending the night in jail and seeing the judge in the morning. I've heard the stories and know its BS and say ok, do I follow you? He gets on his radio and another officer who speaks English shows up and explains we have to pay there on the spot. I explain that I only have $46 (I hid all my other cash knowing these things can happen).
They ask about Ron, but turns out on of the other cops already reached in and took all the cash in his wallet – maybe $100 or so, but didn't tell the others. So after a ton of back and forth, I'm finally like lets just to go this jail and we can explain all this to the judge in the morning. The guy realizes I get it and is like give us $100 and you can go. But I point to their friend, and explain he already took $100 from my friends wallet just didn't share with you guys and its all the money we have.
They insist on my $46 but I say no way, I need it for gas, so they start digging through the van as the guy asks if we have any TVs or stereos. I just start laughing. Right as they are about to uncover our portable radio which we need for our service stops to crank music I offer up this skibag I got for free a while back but here's the kicker: They all took a Caswell motorsport t-shirt as they left . One guy actually asked if he could exchange his for different size.
I really wish I had a picture of the three guys holding my shirts up to their chest. If you see three cops in Mexico with Caswell shirts, RUN.
Keep in mind the organizers provided safe travel from Texas but that meant having the car done early and transporting it down in advance and working from a small set of tools, spares, and supplies which wasn't an option for me. Also, the Mexican road trip is one of my favorite parts of both years. The cops weren't really dangerous, it just one of those things. Shit Happens. And the Mexican countryside and food is the best. I love it.
Yes, he just ended a story about getting robbed by saying "I love it." Also worth noting that Bill is a gearhead's gearhead and spend a lot of time — usually at the last minute — getting his car together. If you call him he's likely to be in his mom's garage outside Chicago welding his car.
Preparing for the race
We arrive right before tech and are told by the other teams that we are in trouble as none of the cars passed tech the first day due to cage issues and this is a last chance tech session. (I heard later the Focus was ok, but had some other issue).
I knew we were ok because we had passed last year and well, I welded my cage myself and personally know that every joint is welded properly. Sure enough the car passed but my old pair of shoes I was loaning Ron had a minor hole. I promised we would have new shoes by the start or wouldn't run.
Next stop, Ken Block. "Um Ken, any chance you have a spare pair of shoes? We'll pay for them, whatever it takes." It must be nice to be real team that even carries spare driver safety gear.
Ken had to ask the team manager which I also thought was kind of cool. I tried to get his card but he declined. I think he knew I would send him emails every week asking for a test in one of the Ford WRC cars. And he's right I would! I chatted with Rhys Millen a few months back and he now gets a text every month asking when I can test one of his cars. Someday, someone will give in.
Note, right after re-re-reading this I noticed an e-mail from Bill making more ridiculous requests. So, yeah, sorry Rhys. It happens.
On the way to opening ceremonies the car misfires so badly we can hardly maintain 40 mph and pull over. We play with a ton of stuff, call a friend Ben in Chicago, and eventually decide to disconnect the AFM and keep going in limp mode.
We were stopped at various points in the street with fans everywhere so you get out and sign autographs, well I had hundreds of Caswell stickers and when I started to hand them out the crowd went nuts so I quietly got on the roof and started throwing the stickers over Ron's head at the crowd who immediately went nuts, pushed past the cops and rammed Ron into the car as they fought for stickers.
I couldn't stop laughing and just kept throwing stickers from the safety of the roof. Here is a video of another section where the crowd was more contained. I heard Monster nearly started a riot handing out team gear at the jump El Brinco with a crowd of 20,000 or so.
I guess we were the only team that jumped on our roof at the opening ceremonies and they shot off some confetti, it was pretty awesome. They interviewed me about the police chase from 2010 that never shared with anyone after Mexico. As usual, buy me a beer and I'll tell you the story. It was pretty wild. Something about the highest speed ever recorded on a WRC stage, but it happened like miles off the stage according to the GPS. You know computers, they fail all the time.
We're going to eventually going to get Bill drunk enough to tell that story on camera. Whether he knows it or not.
A big leap
Anyway, I wanted to do well, I wanted to improve upon my finish from last year. But I went down there with a car that wouldn't run, had no brakes, and hasn't been driven since a legitimate crash in Maine at the end of the summer.
I kind of got it sorted out by the start and started pushing hard on the first stage where we caught the dust of the car ahead of us even with the 3 minute intervals. Then we came to a jump that didn't seem so bad. There was a nice VIP tent sitting next to it with a DJ and some people watching so I hit it fast in 5th gear. Easily 100MPH.
Best part, the jump wasn't in our notes because it was so obvious coming down the hill but Ron was still reading and not looking up. So I said into the mic, "Dude, are you ready to fly?" You have to listen carefully but you can hear it.
The moment we landed the car seemed to explode and dart to the right faster than any car can turn on its own. I was scared. We were headed off the road at good speed, and at a large enough angle that the roll was going to be bad. I focused on the road and where I wanted to go and steered out of it, but the car was clearly broken.
We did our best to measure the distance afterwards and believe we cleared 40-50 ft. The spectators told us someone could have stood in the road and we would have cleared them - I sort of doubt that, but we did fly.
We landed in a huge nose dive(the fisheye lens takes away some angle but you can pause it and see the slope of the hood) and smashed the oil pan into pieces. We also ripped the motor mounts(I use these cool ones from AKG Motorsport where the studs are chained together inside the mount which prevented the damage from being way worse), pulled the transmission brace clean from the car, tore the driver's side rear subframe out of the unibody, ripped the skid plate off, punctured a 6" hole in the oil pan, and ran the motor for 40+ seconds before seeing the oil light (I know, I know, I will make the light larger next time).
Still reading? Good, me too. We normally wouldn't print something this long. It's much, much longer than anything we regularly publish. But what can you do? It's Mexico. Someone in the comments is going to write "TL:DR" and, you know what. FUCK YOU.
Stickers, stickers, and more stickers
I thought our motor was done so we caught a ride on an ATV back up to the jump where there was a VIP bar with DJ under a tent. We sat out in the sun and crushed beers all afternoon as we watched the real rally cars come through. I got to ride around on a horse which was cool and a local cop rocked my stickers on his hat.
You can even see me in the tv replay wearing my firesuit and cheering a few feet from the car as they hit the jump. We tried to hold up our hood so our sponsors would make the broadcast but the camera guys FREAKED out.
We were smart to bring our hood with us (we took our carbon hood with us so it wouldn't get taken, — not stolen, taken — for the stickers and to hang on their wall. The sight of three people on an ATV with two in fire suits carrying a hood over their heads seemed to amuse people. ) as our mirrors had been torn off the car when we got back. They had Caswell stickers on them. I was sort of honored, I mean no one tries to take part of your car with you in the US.
Ken tried to hoonigan Mexico but I had him beat. I covered every WRC service vehicle and both tow trucks that took us home as well as a cop, AND Henning Solberg's WRC car! I went up to Henning before the rally and was like good to see you again, I am the BMW pilot.
He smiled and seemed to remember it all and I was like 'I am not doing more shots this year at the party, you and your brother messed me up last year' and he laughed and took the stickers. Well the next time his car pulled out he had them on both doors!!!!! And he kept them on for the weekend! SEE DOOR OF ORANGE WRC CAR IN THE PICTURES.
Well Henning loses his power steering (which I don't run as its one more thing I can break) and is forced to change it after the stage and completes the repair in the mechanics typical service time. It's cool to see a pro rally driver wrench on his car - I like to think the Caswell stickers helped him repair the car on the side of the road. Rock on Henning!
We got back to the service park and I was too drunk to fix the car. So we went to the superspecial and cheered everyone on while sobering up on free Monster energy drink thanks to Mr. Block and his sponsors.
Finally we return to the service park to work on the car. I start cutting pieces of our skid plate out to use as patches for the oil pan. I had 5 things of 5 minute JB weld. I wish they sold it in a chicken bucket sized container but 5 was all I had, that and a bunch of RTV. So I made a 3 dimensional patch and glued it all together. We also had to deal with the transmission mount that was torn clean from the car's sheet metal.
So once again I borrowed a random generator (I had to trade the sweet generator Miller gave me to finish the baja project and they didn't feel like replacing it) and tried to weld the car back together. I simply jacked the trans as close the blown out unibody as possible and just welded it straight to the car, the slots for the bolts were effectively gone.
If you've skipped this entire thing now would be the time to start reading again. There are girls. Or, at least one girl a few times. I'm looking through the photos trying to determine just how many there are. Also, given Bill's engagement (is that still on?) they're all Ron's. Go Ron.
The Girls of Mexico
Unfortunately, I missed that the rear subframe ripped out of the car and on the second stage or so on Saturday, the car's rear suspension fell out. So once again we spent a day in hanging out on the side of a mountain in the Mexican sun drinking beers. Every pickup in Mexico seems to have a cooler full of beer in it so when we ran out we would just leave our tree and go down to the road for more beers or sandwiches if the WRC vans were coming by – they carry these awesome ham and cheese croissants with spicy mayo that are amazing.
At one point a couple of cars showed up yelling Bill ? Bill? When we didn't make the next stage they backtracked looking for us. I have friends who do that when Block or Pastrana crashes out here in the U.S. I thought it was cool. But next year Im backing shorts, a t-shirt and flip flops in the trunk, Maybe also some margarita mix.
That night Ron welded the subframe back in while I worked the generator for more power and then was like "um Bill, the girl that came by earlier is coming to pick me up to go dancing or something and I was hoping that was ok?" Right on! At first I was like 'man here we go again,' but on the other hand If I were single I would have made the same call in his shoes. I told him no matter what happens, get back to the service park by our time out. Leave all your gear here just in case.
Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!
With the motor finally running right and the subframe welded back into the car, we are ready for the first stage of the day when it gets canceled for safety or something. But only one of us got an alternate route book so we all followed that car who proceeded to drive like a madman so everyone could check in on time. The time interval between cars is a good idea, a pack of rally cars in traffic, trying to make up time is never a good thing. One of the cars has video of it which I really need to see.
We all made our time in and we finally were able to run a stage at full speed again. We slowed for the jumps but not enough for one of them and we still caught air and knocked the car enough to jar the pan and start a serious leak of oil thru my patch job. We finished the stage and knew we only had one to go but then we find out there is a 30 minute regrouping control and we cant work on the car during the 30 minutes, nor can we open the hood to pour more oil in before we start.
I don't have much to say other than I made an obnoxious snorting noise when I read the next bit.
Super High Quality Dirty Oil
I ran into the local stores and bought all their oil but it was only 3 quarts, so I gave 700 pesos to a guy in the crowd and sent him to locate as much oil as possible before we entered the control. He came back with a lot of oil and even a half used quart with grime all over it – hell, I would have filled it with vegetable oil at that point.
So I super-filled the engine with oil and it barely ran as I drove it into the holding area there was so much oil in the sump. Initially we rolled the car onto some huge rocks to put the crack higher and allow us to collect the oil leaking out and draining across the sandy skidplate. We didn't have a lot of options or a lot of oil and we were pretty far from the service park.
When the time came to leave I ran the bucket of used oil over to the end of the time control. I decided to just start the car rather than push it after looking at how much oil the bucket had collected plus the puddle on the ground, and sure enough. No oil light, we were good to go. So we enter the time control and start our transit where I drive 5 feet past the control and stop to fill the car with the nasty sandy oil. But it was super high quality dirty oil.
Build, Race, Party
We started the last stage and drove as fast as we could. The subframe tore out about three quarters of the way through the stage but we decided to keep going till the car wouldn't run anymore as it was the last stage. We made it through and were substantially faster than our Rally America competition who were taking it easy to ensure a finish, but the top cars were still running flat out for final points awarded to the fastest times on the last stage.
We were only 4-5 seconds a kilometer slower than some real cars including Jourdain Jr and we were in a 20-year-old rear wheel drive, naturally aspirated car. I am ok with that but wish I could try a real car and see how it stacks up. Some day.
We finish the stage and drop in our last quart or two but its not quite enough to get it to the fill mark so we start making time back to town as we need to go back to the service park, survive another 30 minute regrouping, and then get to the awards ceremony and back. We stop at the first gas station and buy all their oil, like 12 quarts worth.
We fill the motor with 4 or so to top it off and head on our way. Somewhere there is a picture of this that I need to see because a rally car in a gas station with its hood up and two guys yelling for oil causes quite a scene in Mexico. There must have been a crowd of 20 or 30 yelling something like hurry up I think. Once we get to the regrouping at the service park, we again super fill it and drop it into the holding control where it leaks oil every where for 30 minutes.
But there was still some left in the engine, so once again we started the car and made it to the awards ceremony. As we did at the opening, we jumped up on the roof, happy to finish, all while holding a Valvoline flag in honor of this special oil they sent us just prior to the rally that save our engine. We managed a 4th place finish but only because 4 cars out of 12 actually finished. We were last I guess.
So if you just went down and drove at the minimum speed you placed and got a trophy. Oh well, I have a hard time racing with that approach. So did others. The carnage started on the first night when a Subaru struck a wall on the night stage which ran through the cobblestone tunnels under the streets of downtown GTO.
The next day, car after car arrived by wrecker. A few teams hit poles or trees after jumps and the neon of Wong and Yuji rolled in a very legit manner. It was even shown on the WRC broadcast. I feel like by the time the cars came through in the afternoon there were only 4 cars left in the race and that a finish would mean a strong result.. Stupid jump and oil pan. There's always next year.
On of my highlights was being called one of the "Last Warriors of Rally:" he builds, he drives, he parties with everyone else. I thought it was pretty cool. I think I'm putting Build, Race, Party on the side of my helmet!
If you haven't noticed so far, whenever Bill casually mentions "Ken" he's talking about Internet celebrity/WRC driver/Him-khana himself Ken Block.
Now just "Party"
Talked with Ken for a while. I am so jealous, he is living the dream. 5 years from his first rally to WRC. Some day I'll have a real WRC ride but until then Ken's the man I'm cheering for. He told me his guys on the stages said I looked good, crazy sideways, but good. And I was like right on, sweet, and then Ken's like "and slow"
What? Yeah they said you were slow, awesome sideways and pushing hard, but slow. I was a little heartbroken and maybe Ken could tell but he was like they just watched AWD turbo WRC cars come thru and then here's you in a little rear wheel drive car. Not your fault, your car is just slow. Well, at least they took enough notice to comment.
I then caught up with Henning, Petter, and Mads. Three of my favorite drivers. Absolute madmen both in the car and at the bar. We carried buckets of Coronas around and had a great time. I thought at one point that I had been left behind (you know like I was tagging along) but Mads came back and was like "Where are you? We are getting more beer! Come with!" Hell yeah Mads. You my friend, are awesome.
I kept talking about his drive in Sweden and one of the Solbergs was like "he was last, I would be that fast if I was last." I know what it means, he had clean roads which is key but did anyone see him drive with a loose light pod on the final stage? The kid is fast.
I also asked them if they were ever afraid getting in the car. "If you are not afraid, you are not going fast enough" Ok well that's good I guess. I still threw up every morning putting the suit on. I am ok once in the car but for those 5 minutes as we gear up it gets to me. I don't really have the problem here in the States too much, but the drop-offs in Mexico are legit and everywhere. You pretty much just tune them out and drive, buy you know they're there.
I challenged Petter to a cab race on the way home but he was like you are crazy, no way. Oh speaking of crazy, I talked a bit with the Paris Dakar winner Nassar Al-Attiyah and showed him my Baja BMW project and he was like "Man you are crazy! 14 days?" Yeah man 14 days. "How far did you get?" 185 miles. "hey man that's not bad for 14 days!" I thought that was pretty cool.
The Way Home
The rest is all pretty uneventful, except for these ridiculous tacos outside the hotel on this town square that are the best I have ever tasted. Ron had to fly home to take a final exam for college so I towed back solo. Stayed at this cool hotel in Matehuala with this awesome restaurant recommended by Ponce who was a fellow competitor from 2010. I kept texting him and he would be like "get gas here because they have great food then take the turnoff 2km later and…." It was great, made it so much easier to get there and back.
I did get a trailer flat tire in the middle of the cartel zone on the way to the border but I let the tire destroy itself while I located a hole to use to change the wheel in so I wouldn't need a jack. From noticing the flat tire to pulling away with a fresh one on the trailer took me less than 12 minutes. There was a quick phone call to Ron the moment I saw the flat. When he answered, all I said was "Where is the electric impact wrench?" He answered and I hung up. I called back later to explain.
I also stopped by Dave Carapetyan's and then saw Ken Stouffer testing his car in Dallas and realized I need to run Pikes Peak again(I am now paid and registered for 2011). Not bad for a two-week road trip adventure.
At the end of June I return to Pikes Peak. There is always beer in the service van(except during the rally itself) so look for a rental van covered in Caswell stickers.