“This race has been like my little sister,” says Karen Léon, the current global director of the Carrera Panamericana — an event that was once Mexico’s answer to the Mille Miglia or the Targa Florio. “My father, back in 1988, decided to bring back the Carrera with some friends. I was about 12 years old.”
Léon’s father is Eduardo León Camargo, who brought back the historic event alongside Pedro Dávila.
The first iterations of the Carrera Panamericana took place between 1950 and 1954. At the time, the event was organized in part by the government as a way to promote the creation of the Pan-American Highway, a network of highways that now stretches across the Americas — from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to Ushuaia, Argentina with a short gap for rainforests. Those initial races were designed to celebrate the connection of the United States with Mexico and to promote tourism.
But the race was cancelled in 1955 due to the costs on the government, the danger of the event, and the shadow of the 1955 Le Mans disaster, which saw over 80 people killed in a crash, most of them spectators. A golden era of motorsport — one that saw legends from every discipline flock to Mexico — was over.
When Léon Camargo and Dávila decided to bring back the event, though, its success would have more to do with the passion of a small group of race fans.
To revive the event in 1988, former racer Léon Camargo and Dávila needed to organize the event themselves. They had to lay out a route, acquire the necessary permits from local governments, organize safety, run promotion, and find competitors. Such an intensive process meant that hosting the race became something of a family affair.
“I had to share my parents with the race,” Léon admitted during a call with Jalopnik, “but I also feel very grateful.”
Léon highlights one example: In the 1990s, the Carrera had achieved such prestige that Pink Floyd performed during the race’s celebrations. At the time, having grown up with the event’s promotion, it seemed normal. Now, having stepped into a more directorial role, Léon has developed a greater appreciation for the event — something she achieved from 16 years of working it.
“My profession is chef, so I thought we can combine the experience of this race with this lifestyle and great food each day,” Léon told me when I asked her how she’s influenced the modern Carrera Panamericana. “I wanted nice parties, and for people to arrive in the main square of the cities to find handcrafts and the colors of Mexico.
“I can tell you that I’ve put this little bit of lifestyle into the race, improving the catering with food from my country.”
The Carrera has run since 1988, with the modern route looking a little more like a rally than a mad dash across the country. The race will run this year between October 14 and 20, and its route is split into seven sections — one per day — that will take competitors from Veracruz on October 14 down to Durango on the 20th. There are transit stages to connect the closed-course special timed stages, and the closed nature of the race has created a much safer event.
Governmental regulations limit the event to 100 participants, 80 of whom will be professional racers while 20 of them will take on a new class called Sports and Classics — the latter consisting of a Classic Tour (cars from 1950 to 1979) and Sport Tour (cars from 2015 to 2020) for the folks who may not want to race but who still want to cruise through the event.
For the competitors, there are four different categories for entry: the Panamerican Cars Group (GT and production touring cars made between 1940 and 1954 but including hot rods), the Historic Cars Group (all cars made between 1955 and 1973), the Original Panamericanos Group (all cars that are the same make, model, and year as the cars that competed in the original Panamericana; the cars must be functionally the same, with upgrades for safety), and the Exhibition Cars Group (cars allowed to compete but that don’t necessarily meet the standards outlined above). The first two categories are split into smaller subcategories based on the car’s body style and year.
For Karen Léon, continuing the Carrera Panamericana is in her blood — and the rest of us are able to benefit by having the pleasure of watching incredible vintage cars hit the roads of Mexico.