2008 La Carrera Panamericana Champion Bill Beilharz has been so gracious as to share his personal experience with us. Here is his first edition of what I hope to be many more...
We spent the first few days working on the car. We had a nice pit space at the fairgrounds was normally filled by a food vendor. Tony and Kent did a great job applying the sponsor decals to the car.
Everyone seemed to think we were one of the teams to beat so there was some excitement when, the day before qualifying, I pulled the intake manifold off of the car. I had been losing sleep worrying about a strange sound that I heard in the motor and thought it might be one of the roller lifters failing. Using a mechanics stethoscope what I heard only compounded my worries. As I listened to each lifter, the howling sound only got worse as I moved toward the rear of the passenger side cylinder bank. I figured it was either a roller lifter going bad or just the normal sound of the starter cranking the motor. It took 5 hours of work to put my fears to rest - just the starter doing it's thing.
The pre qualifying went well. I did not take any chances and qualified one second slower than Jorge Pedrero and the same as Stig Blomqvist. It's Pedrero's home town and Stig, an experienced rally driver, had been pre driving the course in the previous weeks so I felt pretty good about our time.
Day 1 - Lesson 2: Never trust the timing officials to give you the correct time. If you care about your time always time the speed sections yourself and double check the officials time before you leave Control C. (Lesson 1 is Do not Crash.) The first speed section we ran was the same stretch of road as used in pre qualifying. Since I had run it before I felt confident and drove quit a bit faster. We finished the stage just behind Pedrero even though we had started 30 seconds behind him. It was apparent that we had gained quite a bit of time on him but the there was some trouble at Control C. The timing people asked Jorge if he had our time - Jorge said no. He had not yet got his routine down and missed starting the stop watch. The timing guys then said that they did not have a finish time for us and would add it to the sheet later. They sent us on our way without writing anything on our time sheet. When we got the results later that night we discovered that rather than being the fastest car by 7 seconds the timing officials had added another 30 seconds to our time. It was a obvious mistake and we filed a formal protest. The organizers promised that they were going to correct it "later" - they never did. Fortunately for us we were fast enough to cover all of our mistake and theirs.
It started to rain before the next speed section. We had prepared for this by treating the outside of the windshield with RainX and the inside with FogX. The RainX worked, the FogX did not. Having coped with this problem in endurance racing, I knew just what to do. We rigged up a t-shirt wrapped around a stick to mop the windshield in between gear changes. I was a little disappointed when they canceled the stage because they thought it was too dangerous.
The rain stopped and it got hot and humid. The exhaust system in this car is sandwiched between the belly pan and the floor so it's extra hot inside. I made the mistake of allowing myself to get overheated. I was feeling fuzzy headed and was just hoping to get through the last two speed sections so I could take my helmet off and open up my driving suit. It was about then we started noticing smoke in the cockpit.
At a race a few months before, both Jorge and I had noticed that our seats were getting pretty hot (the mufflers are just below them). I had added some reflective insulation to the bottom of the seats to help reduce this. My mistake was that it eliminated the air gap between the seat and the floor. The smoke we were seeing was Jorge's seat smoldering. (It could have been worse, it could have been my seat). We started looking for a source of water while having to breath the noxious fumes. We pulled into a gas station in a hurry and the attendant came over. I told him we did not need gas and when he saw the smoke he went to the front of the car and started to open the hood. I still had my helmet/Hans device on and it took about 20 seconds get my helmet off and make myself understood to him that we just needed some water. We soaked down Jorge's seat and the floor hissed as the water cooled it. We hopped back in the car and just made it the short distance to the start of the next speed stage. (Apparently, without any hood pins)
We took off when they raised the green flag and made it though the first 3 corners when, BAMM!, the hood flies open and folds back over the roof of the car. For a moment, I thought the motor had blown - there was a loud noise and everything went black. Once I realized what it was, I was able to keep the car on the road by looking out of the side windows. When I saw some gravel on the drivers side I swerved off of the road and slammed on the brakes. Fortunately, there was not spectators, cars, or a cliff there. I jumped out of the car, got spare hood pins out of the trunk, and started to bend the hood back straight enough that I could get a hood pin inserted. My progress was timed by my competitors roaring by every 30 seconds. I almost lost consciousness struggling for the first hood pin. I had to stop till I regained my vision and then switch to the other side. I got that one in, jumped back in the car and took off to re pass a car and finish the stage. I'm a little embarrassed to now say that I did not take the time to put my safety belts on or window net up. The net result was we had lost another 2 + minutes to our competition.
Kent and Tony did a great job fixing the hood that night at the hotel in Oaxaca. It opened and closed normally and they even repainted it.
Between the timing "mistake" and the hood popping open, I was pretty pissed off. Wisely, I hid in the hotel room and spoke to as few people as possible. Now that we have won the race, I can look back on the day with some release, but that night I was not fit to be around innocent beings.
The next few days were relatively uneventful. We put our heads down and drove as hard a possible to regain the lead without crashing. The following YouTube video will give you some idea of what we had to do:
I'll write some more in a couple of days. It's good to be home.