TRANSAMAZON: Beyond Road Warrior
“This race oughta be called Beyond Road Warrior.” I glanced up to see a stevedore just as he disappeared behind what looked like a bale of cotton at the wharf in New Orleans. He had been checking out our brand new little Honda Civic, one of a group of racing cars bound for South America. The tiny car was somehow incongruous with all its wings and racing lights. But there it was, two months in preparation, replete with an exotic zebra-stripe paint job, NASCAR roll cage, fitted race seats, and a modified suspension that was designed to be able to absorb the shock of a land mine. This Honda made a blunt, unapologetic statement: it looked like what it was—a racing machine. It looked mean.
The auto race that my co-driver wife Lee and I were headed for was the TransAmazon Adventure Rallye Marathon 1988. We were in New Orleans for a gala sendoff. Even the Mayor came to wave us off. Hizzoner seemed to be a bit perplexed as he tentatively offered a few questions about this or that race car. One of the organizers tried to clear all that up for him, “Sir, this is an event for adventurers who have already done everything else.” The Mayor’s quizzical expression did not change.
The 1988 race was the first of what the promoters had hoped would be an annual event along the lines of the legendary Paris-Dakar Rally. As it turned out, the South American adventure of 1988 may have been the first and last. We also would have our own share of fatalities, but the future of the race may have ended before it started. Evidence pointed that way. In any case, those of us on the dock that day had no inkling of the organizational problems that were brewing. All we knew was that we were leaving for an event for cars, trucks, and motorcycles, a no-holds-barred mad scramble across vast expanses of South America, where even the strongest, best prepared, and most experienced would be lucky to survive.
The dozens of racers loading on the tramp steamer were bound for the port of Cartagena, Columbia, the starting point of the race. There in a few days we would join with 182 other competitors from all over the world. Then off we would go, tailpipes ablaze, to cover 8,000 miles of rural and treacherous terrain, mostly on unpaved roads. We would drive down the Pacific side of South America and then cross Argentina to the finish line in Buenos Aires.
It was hard to tell who had an edge, but luck would play a great part we knew. The participants and their vehicles ranged all the way from top professional rally drivers with factory-prepared machines to amateurs in their best-guess autos who had never participated in any motorsports event before. Our route offered adventure drivers some fascinating challenges: dust, desert, mountains, rocks, donkey carts, jungle, uncontrolled crowds, kamikaze traffic, and roaring river crossings. It was soon to become obvious that two-wheel drive vehicles of our ilk were as competitive as a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.
The sponsors’ manual described the marathon like this: “The TransAmazon is one of the most spectacular and exciting events ever created. Competitors will face challenges throughout the immensity of South America, including discomfort, fatigue, heat, and humidity, difficult terrain, rapids, and mountains. Our aim is, as the French would say, Tirer le queue du Diable (to pull the devil’s tail) and, above all, to return from this journey an enlightened group of individuals with a fresh perspective on the value of our lives." I thought this all sounded a bit overly dramatic. I underestimated the difficulty.
The event was created by the Exploration Society of America (ESA). It was the hope of the organizers to emulate the financial success of the Paris-Dakar Rally, which was enjoying a tremendous following, attracting nearly 1,000 monied entrants and sponsors. The ESA ran ads worldwide. With grand promises and great fanfare, the call went out for entries and sponsors. Unfortunately, some of the promises were completely false, and many claims were unfounded. For example, the ads read: “The course can be negotiated by stock two-wheel drive automobiles . . . and motorcycles with sidecars.” This was simply pious fraud. Many other claims were misrepresented. In fact, the greatest and most disappointing untruth was yet to be revealed. The biggest lie was that the race was planned to begin on April 22. Actually, no race was planned at all!
We learned this when Lee and I arrived at the sleepy old Spanish port of Cartagena on the Caribbean. Straightaway we went down to the ramshackle dock to claim our car. We were told, flat out, the event had been cancelled. It seemed the Exploration Society of America was broke. Where all the money went remained a mystery. But we were there, we were ready, we had said we were going and, by gum, we were going. A race can be a thing of the heart, and in my heart this race had to be on. We had spent months and tens of thousands of dollars in preparation. Mr. Honda himself had sent us a letter of encouragement. Our local newspaper had run a page of coverage. Our friends hosted a huge bon voyage party. We just could not return home with our tails between our legs. We had face to save, and we had lots of company! In a heroic effort to salvage things, some of us competitors raised about $159,000 among ourselves. With the assistance of various South American auto sporting federations, the decision was made to run the race anyway over a different route and with different rules. We were all embittered with the turn of events but were nonetheless excited and enthusiastic that “our race” was still on.
Our monumental group effort allowed the odyssey to start right on schedule. Showing up for the departure were 71 cars, trucks, and motorcycles. The cheering crowd at the start was an eclectic and frenzied mob of aristocrats, international playboys, school children, urchins, and other curious onlookers. The cars started at one-minute intervals, chickens and dogs scattering. Soon enough, it came time for us, the only husband-wife driving team, to go. We took the countdown, the green flag waved. Our little Honda, #180, plateada con rayas (silver with stripes) sped forward and parted the throng of people like the bow of a boat pulls the water. As we zipped away, the pushing and shoving rabble all seemed to want to fondle our car, just for luck. They were in fact quite lucky that we didn’t run over any of them.
We were on our way! The euphoria of adrenaline and fear was intoxicating. We lacked the support vehicles promised, so our mean machine was packed to the roof with paraphernalia we thought we might need. Lee and I were happy to have the trauma of all the reorganization behind us and to get on the road at last. We had a scrap of paper glued to the dash with an appropriate message, “Victory is a matter of staying power.”
Lee’s road skills were unrefined but intuitive. She had competed quite successfully in local autocrosses back home in Gainesville, Florida. On the other hand, I had a bit more experience. I was a former National Champion driver in the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) and past winner and record holder in the infamous cross-country race from New York to Los Angeles known as the Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash. (Burt Reynolds played me in the movie versions.) I had also driven a 1952 Ferrari racer in the 1987 and 1988 Mille Miglia, 1,000-mile runs around Italy for historic cars. Hell, I was ready and so was Lee. We wished we had thought to ask, “Ready for what?”
Driven by zeal and pent-up frustration, we sprinted headlong up and across the Andes and into the heart of Colombia. I don’t guess either of us fully comprehended we would be driving 26 days through indescribably trying conditions. This was no rocky road frolic, and driving experience didn’t mean much out here. What was required was luck, determination, and then good fortune. As luck would have it, chaos had the upper hand. The lack of organization quickly became apparent. The route book was confusing and inaccurate. Some checkpoints were many miles off, and many did not exist at all. The first day covered 504 miles and battered our bones for over 14 hours. We slogged over one-lane trails more boulder than road. Several times we touched 100 mph, but more often we drove at what we came to call “survival pace.” Even then, it seemed we were smashing into rocks with enough force to register on the Richter scale. Several serious crashes on this first day presaged the disasters still ahead. A Japanese motorcyclist who nearly became the hood ornament on a bus was critically injured, and two unfortunate Chileans at high speed put their Toyota over a precipice, hit a huge tree, and were killed instantly.
The most news we got were rumors, which were plentiful. We heard that 19 cars failed to finish on Day One. We had been lucky on that first day and were in 10th place. Our only seriously hazardous encounter was with a rock slide. The larger stones, which were about the size of basketballs, missed us. But in the shower of rocks, several softball-sized stones caved in the door of our rugged little auto and knocked some trim off. Our knuckles were white for a long time afterward! Five racers spent the night at that unhappy spot after the rocks continued to fall and obliterated the entire pass.
The earlier organizers had promised guarded campgrounds for the layovers each night, so we all carried camping gear. Those bums and their guards were long gone now though, so everyone scrambled for hotel rooms whenever they were available. As cars dropped out, finding hotel rooms became less of a problem. Of course, neither Michelin nor any other guide for that matter had reported on where to lodge on the scenic route of the TransAmazon. Each night Lee and I would completely unpack and take everything inside to keep from having anything stolen. Inside was hazardous enough. Less cautious entrants regretted their indifference.
Days began before light with a tedious repacking. Only those minutes before dawn could you distinguish the clean delicate smells of jungle, mountain, or desert. After that, the sun boiled everything together with dust and burnt oil and the gasoline smell of race cars.
Our engine was humming without a glitch despite the varying conditions. However, some different suspension part seemed to break routinely as the Honda was continually subjected to punishment for which it was not designed and for which we were neither forewarned nor prepared. The more professional teams had mechanics to make overnight repairs. The more amateurish like us had to find local mechanics, tire shops, and welders each night as best we could. This often meant little or no food and abbreviated sleep. After a while, the lack of rest and the constant search for mechanical assistance depressed us. We became more disillusioned daily and discussed withdrawing. Our friends were breaking, crashing, disappearing, or just quitting. But we had never voluntarily quit anything we ever started so we could not just give up. That now-grimy note on our dash still reminded us about “victory” and “staying power.” And in this event, finishing would be a Victory!
On a particularly wrenching rocky section that could have been the entrance to Godzilla’s Cave, a loud clunk and loss of forward motion were indications of a serious problem! There we were, smack in the middle of the Amazon jungle looking at each other and the gathering clouds. On a green mountainside we could see a waterfall accented by rainbows. We fell into the usual reparation mode of people in situations like this. That is, we started walking around the car and looking at it, as if the ritual itself had a healing effect. At about mid-ritual, a support car approached. The driver stopped and towed us to a nearby village where we were fortunate to find an available cattle truck. Alas, we could find no loading ramps. The enthusiastic locals, intrigued by the novelty of a race car as well as by my long-legged, blue-eyed blonde wife, gathered together to help. With a coordinated effort, several dozen Indians bodily hoisted the near-3,000 pound Honda to set it in the truck bed. After an all-night ordeal with mechanics and welders, we got the racer to the start with five minutes to spare! Our luck was holding.
Ecuador, Peru, Chile
Time flies when you are having fun. Before we knew it, we had driven through all of Colombia, Ecuador, the desert wasteland known as Peru, and into Chile. By now, we were accustomed to changes. In each country the rally was administered by the national auto club according to local rally rules. In Chile we were on our fourth set of rules and fourth type of route book so we had come to expect confusion. However, one day the route book seemed more garbled than usual. We suspected it was prepared by some malicious, brain-damaged reject from society. In any case, it caused acute grief for Pearson and Beslin, a California team driving a specially prepared Volkswagen dune buggy dubbed the Bugazon. Off course, they were suddenly surrounded by armed and hostile soldiers. They had strayed into Bolivia by mistake! Soon a cocaine-crazed boy was holding a revolver to Pearson’s temple. Relieved of all their belongings (money, luggage, spare parts, everything) they were then sent off toward Chile. They managed to catch up with the main body of rallyists three days later.
By now, we had met most of the competitors. It would be an understatement to categorize our fellow adventurers as eccentric. The list included physicians, former diplomats, engineers, writers, politicians, professional racers, business executives, dentists, accountants, college boys. In fact, it was such a diverse group of thrill seekers as to defy quantification. Some were remarkably laid back, some indifferent, some very serious and professional. A few drank cervesa constantly; most all drank beer after the day’s run. One paranormal fellow, a mechanic, was reputedly on LSD most of the time. A couple of wild bunches visited every house of ill repute on the 8,000 mile journey. One crowd loaded their truck with three grinning teenage tartlets. So our company of misfits did not lack for verve or style, although perhaps some lacked for class.
All the adventurers had discovered that alternate routes existed for some sections. The routes, which entailed penalty points, were much less abusive to the machinery. So on many occasions, prudence dictated that we nurse our weakening car along the easier trail. We were now faced with the additional challenge of determining which route would result in fewer penalties: a slow time on the prescribed course or the alternate course with set penalties. Before the start of one reputedly difficult segment, the course marshal assured us he had driven an “ordinary car” over this road just yesterday. He said our little Honda would do just fine.
Off we sped, only to come to a raging stream and stop. There was no way for us to know how deep the water was, but it looked hub-deep to a Ferris wheel. At times like this, the five senses focused together to give a sixth sense, and our sixth sense told us to turn back. Just then another team came along in a four-wheel drive Jeep. Even though we were competitors, a camaraderie had grown up among us all. The Jeep boys from Pennsylvania offered to help. They hooked a tow rope to our car and started across. As we moved into the torrent, the water level rose and began to surge into our open window. We exchanged startled looks and began to think of some way to avoid drowning. We couldn’t stop, and it was too late to turn back. Just then, the tight little Japanese car floated free of the bottom and started bobbing and bumping against the rocks, trolling behind the Jeep like a big silver-striped fish bait on the tow rope. We thunked against something solid and the 4x4 scratched and clawed slowly toward the far bank. Just as water began to seep in and fill the car, we made it to dry land on the other side, hearts pounding and buttocks clenched.
Days began to homogenize in our minds. The dirt-floored garages and Spanish-Indian mechanics had all begun to look alike. The cheap hotels, the tent grounds, the mountain passes, the slippery mountain trails without guard rails, the crashed vehicles of our friends, the close calls, all seemed ghostly alike and somehow equal. We were numb, transfixed automatons, continuing almost unconsciously, driven by determination. We had been driving for days. We had traversed jungles, a barren saline desert as long as the U.S. is wide, and a sea of sand dunes veined and rococo. We had crossed the mighty Andes Mountains several times. We had gone from the humid tropical heat at sea level to the thin, frozen air in snowy mountain passes at 16,000 feet. We had endured inhospitable climates, both geographical and political. We had shown our passports and visas countless times. We had dodged disaster so many times we felt kin to Mel Gibson in Road Warrior. It was exciting! We wanted to quit.
We continued. Late one morning we found ourselves in Buenos Aires, Argentina. After 26 days, we had dragged to the finish! Our travail was over, but our bodies and nervous systems were awry, our marriage was in trouble, and our car was a wreck. But still on our dashboard was our barely legible motto. We were proud and, in a sense, we were victorious. Just finishing this marathon was indeed a victory!
The awards ceremony was a disappointing continuation of poor organization. Of the 48 teams rumored to have gotten to the finish one way or another, only 11 were recognized. Honda #180 was not included. Assurance was given that we would receive our official finishing position en el futuro. We eventually heard we were 19th overall and 2nd in the stock two-wheel drive class. We were awarded a small silver tray for being one of the 31 teams that started every morning within the time allowed. Several professional teams were surprised to be bested by South American racers. Protests were filed.
Lee and I had not only endured, we had prevailed! But why would a happily married couple without frontal lobotomies want to do such a thing as run an event like this? Lee and I always tended to go to unconventional extremes and found that these experiences enriched our togetherness. Sharing of excitement and risk brings an intensity to existence. It strengthens bonds. Jarring the fillings out of your teeth for nearly a month in a little car is certainly not as pleasant as free caviar and champagne, but we had a lot of pleasure and satisfaction in spite of all the hardships. The TransAmazon might not ever be run again. It might take its place in motorsports history as the race too brutal to be repeated. We might be part of an elite group that will be talked about for decades to come. But would we do it again? Maybe . . . but not next week.
We had entered expecting a challenge. Events of this nature have always been hazardous and that is part of their attraction. Unfortunately, this one was needlessly dangerous due to poor organization. Many vehicles were seriously crashed. In addition to the two tragic fatalities, over a dozen entrants were hospitalized, two critically. All manner of creatures were struck by racers, from spectators to chickens, from jackasses to a 400-pound hog that was disemboweled.
That stevedore back on the dock in New Orleans was more prophetic than any of us ever dreamed. This indeed was Beyond Road Warrior.