Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Gerald and Sam Johnson take on La Carrera Panamericana

One of the teams we had the pleasure of racing with last year was the father and son team driving the #230 Jaguar piloted by Gerald Johnson and co-piloted by his son Sam Johnson in the Sport Mayor Class. Not only did they finish the complete race in 65th overall but they also had a great showing of 4th in class.

#230 Jag in San Miguel de Allende in 2007.

They had several setbacks during the 2007 La Carerra Panamericana but using what they took with them from that first year they returned to what proved they had learned their lesson well.

In a well written feature article in the Brandon Valley Challenger of Brandon, South Dakota, author Jill Meier, wrote about the adventure of a lifetime as father and son took on La Carrera Panamericana and came home winners. Regarding the length of the race in miles, I think someone should let them know it's a lot further than 1400 miles and each days race is a lot longer than 200 to 300 miles.

Brandon father, son to tackle 1,400-mile road race

Gerald and Sam Johnson have an inkling of what it feels like to be a rock star.

But it’s not their musical talents that had hundreds of fans vying for their attention last year. Instead, it was a 1,400-mile race from Mexico’s southern edge to its northern border.

The father and son – pilot and co-pilot for the Coventry Irregulars Jaguar Racing Team – are making a second run in the La Carrera Panamericana, a 1,400-mile journey that begins today in Guatemala and finishes on Oct. 31 in Nuevo Laredo City, on the banks of the Rio Grande across from Laredo, Texas.

“It was so much fun the first time,” says Gerald, 62, as he and Sam, 27, tinker on the ’54 Jaguar XK 120 they’ll make the run with. “We were like rock stars down there. We were signing autographs last year, and 14 girls were lined up just waiting for Sam’s autograph. Fathers were actually throwing their little girls at us.”

The Johnsons and their two-man crew – wrench man Tom Winker and transportation captain Nick Goetzinger – are returning for their second run across Mexico’s mountainous terrain. Winker and Goetzinger will follow the team with a pickup and trailer that contains tools and parts that might be needed for repairs throughout the eight-day course.

Ready to hit the road. Photo Courtesy of Coop

The Panamericana had its beginnings in the 1950s to celebrate the inauguration of the highway that crossed the entire American continent under the direction of Mexican President Miguel Aleman. The race ran for four years before it was discontinued because of safety issues and several accidents.

Despite the dangers of the original event, the Panamericana was resurrected in 1988. Since then, different car clubs and drivers from all over America and Europe have participated in cars built from 1940 to 1965.

Last year, the Coventry Irregulars finished 60th in the pack of 100.

“We got some points for participating and just being there,” Gerald says.

Their goal, they say, isn’t to win but more importantly to finish.

“We need to be in every event every day. If we do that, there’s a good chance we could win our class,” Gerald says. “Different people approach this race differently. There are some cutthroat racers and then there are guys like us who want to finish and hope we win. One thing for sure is that you can’t afford to have any enemies among the drivers.”

Sam is more optimistic about the team’s chances this year.

“I feel a lot better about it this year. It would be nice just to finish and have a consistent run at every break because a lot of cars don’t make it,” he said.

The Panamericana features daily runs of 200 to 300 miles.

In their inaugural run at the Mexican road race, the Johnsons said the Jag’s motor ran well, but from that first-year experience, they knew some changes were warranted before this year’s event.

“We brought a race car down there for road racing, and we should’ve brought a rally car instead,” Gerald said. “With a high-low gear and a clutch that goes in and out, we blew three clutches and a flywheel. We learned our lesson.”

Over the course of the year and in the final weeks leading up to their departure, the Johnsons and their crew have been making those necessary improvements.

“The transmission’s been redone, we have a different flywheel and a lot more cooling, too,” Gerald says. “It was fine as a race car going 80 to 90 miles an hour, but when you’re stopped in traffic … now, we could damn near have it in a parade.”

Gerald says racing has been in his blood as long as he could afford it. He’s retired from a career as a plastering contractor. Sam is following in his footsteps in both career and hobbies.

Photo Courtesy of Coop

The race team’s car and venture to Mexico have added up to some big bucks.

Gerald bought the Jaguar several years ago. It sat in storage until two years ago when the father and son began rebuilding the entire car specifically for this race.

“The frame’s new, and we had every nut and bolt off and started from scratch,” Gerald says.

Gerald, who sold a 1950 XK 120 earlier this year for $64,000, has invested a significant amount in the ’54 model. The crankshaft alone was a $10,000 expenditure; the transmission $5,000.

“The car alone restored just as a car is worth between $40,000 and $50,000,” Gerald says, “and then you add all the racing components. But you don’t love anything that can’t love you back.”

The trip’s travel expenses, international driver’s licenses and entry fee, Gerald estimates, add up to $20,000.

The course features a variety of terrain that includes tricky twists and turns on narrow roadways in the mountains. One day last year, there were hundreds of curves in a 20-mile stretch. The Johnsons, however, weren’t intimidated.

“When you’re in a 54-year-old car, it’s an adrenaline rush,” Gerald says.

Rock slides and even a dead horse were some of last year’s road hazards.

Gerald is the pilot of the car and son Sam navigates the 200 to 300 miles they go each day. The father and son likely will remain in those same roles for the entire 1,400-mile race.

Photo Courtesy of Go Fast

“It’s difficult to switch roles in the middle of the race,” Sam says, “because you have to arrive at each stage on time.”

The co-pilot’s job is just as important as the pilot’s.

“There’s a lot of math you’ve got to do to arrive on schedule,” Sam says.

Although the Johnsons’ Jaguar can surpass 130 mph, Gerald says he’s not known to be reckless behind the wheel.

“I was much more nervous just riding in the truck with the trailer,” Sam admits. “Sometimes the traffic gets out of control there.”

Sandy Johnson, the wife and mother of the racing duo, does her best not to think of the dangers.

“The only thing that bothers me about that car is their names, birth date and blood types are painted on the doors,” she says.

Seeking a reaffirming look from Gerald, she adds, “They tell me they’re going to go slow and be safe.”

1 comment:

michael emery said...

It was very sad to see this one wrecked. Still don't know exactly what happened. I heard the steering wheel came off...