“I don’t think I’ve ever experienced that kind of amount of people. It was quite overwhelming really.”
Those are the words of reigning British Rally champion Osian Pryce, but not in relation to a BRC round. No, it’s regarding a very different event: La Carrera Panamericana.
Don’t worry, you won’t be scolded for not having heard of the Mexican event before. There’s not a vast amount of people who have outside of Mexico itself.
Although it might not have a huge reputation internationally, it doesn’t mean it’s not a special event, something Pryce and his co-driver Claire Williams discovered when they competed on the rally in October.
Split over seven days, this 408-mile rally sends competitors along some of Mexico’s greatest roads. It’s essentially Mexico’s answer to Targa Florio or Mille Miglia.
La Carrera Panamericana isn’t exactly the type of event you might associate Pryce with. It’s a far cry from the British gravel stages he’s used to tackling.
But Pryce himself didn’t expect to be taking part in the event until Williams got him involved.
“I got involved with Richard Upton. It was his baby all along,” Williams explained to DirtFish. “He’s competed on it twice before and I got asked last August when I was doing some basic co-driver tuition.
“I had no idea of this event before then and they were telling me all about it. Him and a guy called Fraser, and it came from there.
“They wore me down over the course of three or four months and eventually in May I agreed to do the event. I was told that I would be co-driving for a guy called Charles Rainford (Porsche Carrera Cup driver) and the other person would be Dan Rowbottom (British Touring Car Championship driver) and Richard would be co-driving for him.
“Just over a week before we were due to fly out, I was in full flow with my prep and then I was told that Dan Rowbottom had to pull out on medical grounds and we needed to find a new driver. So enter Osian!”
“Yeah, that makes it sound easy actually,” quipped Pryce. “I had a text message actually from a sponsor of mine that’s also helped the team out a little bit with fluids and oil. It was quite close to midnight one night, so I left it. I didn’t read it properly, I read through it quickly, obviously saying what had gone on and what the opportunity was.
“So I left it until the morning and then text him the next day. We went through it and a bit like Claire, I’d never really heard of it, didn’t know what it was about. Tried to do some quick research, and they then put me in touch with the team and I was little bit like ‘oh god, rabbit in the headlights’.
“This was on a Tuesday and the flight was going on the Sunday. So I didn’t have much time. It was literally ‘can you give us an answer yesterday’ basically. And that was it really.”
Pryce made the decision to go for it, and the lineup was moved about so that Williams would be co-driving for Pryce in the Jaguar MkII, while Rainford and Upton would be competing in an Aston Martin DB6.
So off to Mexico they went, with Pryce eager to get as much preparation as possible completed as soon as he was on the ground. But that plan went awry as soon as they got there.
“The car was stuck in customs,” said Williams. “We arrived out in the country believing the car would be already being worked on, because it wasn’t even finished by the time they got out there. Basically they had a really tight turnaround in this country [UK] to get it into the shipping container to be sent out there. So they had quite a long list of jobs that needed doing as soon as they got out into the country.
“Well when we arrived out there the car was still locked in customs, so we had a battle before the event even started, just trying to get the car sorted.
“We missed the qualifying and the warm-up stage on the Thursday.”
The car was eventually released from customs and Pryce and Williams managed to start the rally, but the issues meant that the first time Pryce ever drove the Jaguar was on that opening stage.
“I didn’t really get any chance to prepare,” said Pryce. “But it’s one of them, if you can drive a Polo R5 at speed on narrow lanes, then surely negotiating some roads in a Mark II Jag shouldn’t be too difficult really as long as everything stays on it. And yeah, it was exactly that.
“The car is a Mk II Jag at the end of the day. It’s not the fastest thing in the world and you’ve got to bear in mind it doesn’t stop like the best thing in the world either. The best way I summed it up was I had to use experience from other long-distance rallies like Safari. Used that, used my brain and the process from that and put it into this event really, and that’s what I did.”
But it wasn’t just a step into the unknown for Pryce, it was a totally different ballgame for Williams too.
“I’d never done a rally before where it was purely on the roadbook, so that was totally new to me,” she explained.
“Normally I’m quite organized and I try and prep as much as I can, plotting out my routes and stuff like that, but I just couldn’t do it for this event. So I felt going into it quite unprepared.”
Despite a trip into the unknown, Pryce and Williams excelled. The car and location may have been unfamiliar, but the wide flowing roads weren’t as tricky to handle as some of the narrow lanes they are used to tackling in the UK.
The main difficulty was navigating the stages as the roadbook wasn’t always right.
“It was just guessing a lot of the time, just pure guesswork,” said Williams.
“It was really mostly the navigation and certain things that we’re used to in normal stage rallying were slightly different,” added Pryce. “Some things are so vague to the point they are so vague that they’re wrong.
“But I am often able to put my navigator’s hat on as well and we kind of helped each other out of a couple of holes where the roadbook was wrong, and we just did it like that, really.
“From my point of view, the driving wasn’t too strenuous, it was just a fact that we were doing really, really long days in the car, and not really getting out of the car much.
“The stages were fairly short, but the road sections were quite long and pretty much 12 hours minimum in the car a day. So yeah, from that side it was difficult, but from a speed aspect because of obviously the car we had, things weren’t arriving at speed.
“But it was just the nature of the road because it was all blind and off this roadbook that sometimes was quite good, sometimes was wrong, sometimes was vague. You just had to use your head really and always have a bit in the bank because some of the terrain was quite steep and quite tricky. So you would probably have quite a big accident if you went off the road. But thankfully that didn’t happen.”
With the rally being so long, the stages varied a lot too, and Pryce commented that in essence, each day had its own theme.
“Each day had it’s own style of roads. Double-width roads generally. We didn’t have many narrow roads. We did have one or two stages that were single width in places, but they were quite open, flowing corners. One stage was literally on the ridge line on top of a mountain on the last day and you’d have real main road stuff, like you could imagine in an old road race. Like this event used to be back in the day as the original road race.
“The roads were quite unique in some ways, but like I say, where I’m used to narrow lanes where you’ve got fences and trees and stuff going past your wing mirror, whereas here it was a case of you could just get a bit carried away with carrying too much speed on a wide road and the corner tightens round on you. That’s the way you were going to have an accident, being a bit too greedy.
“You have to use your eyes really to read the road in a different way than you normally would. And just try to extract anything you could that was coming up. Because the corners were quite long as well. You could just try and pick something out as if the corner was going to tighten and the thing in my head was always be on the cautious side. If we’d have taken risks, we’d have probably been bitten, but no, we got round.”
The stages might have been new and different, but they were manageable for Pryce and Williams, and that was exemplified by the fact they went on to win their class.
But one thing did overwhelm them, and that was the atmosphere.
Fans and spectators poured out in their thousands to see the competitors drive through the streets, creating a carnival-like atmosphere.
It was so hectic that at times, Pryce and Williams couldn’t even open the door of their Jag.
“The vibe I got very early on was this felt like a national sport,” said Williams. “They are very proud of the event and it was well supported.
“We were going into a city and Osian described it as the definition of not being able to breathe. You get out of the car and people literally were shoulder to shoulder. You just couldn’t move and you had people coming up talking, wanting autographs and everything.
“A driver then said to me later on ‘if you think that’s crazy, when we go into Mexico City it’s going to be even crazier’. He said there is going to be 500,000 people waiting for you. And I thought ‘yeah OK’, and then when we got there, by no means did he exaggerate that.
“I’ve never seen so many people. Never, never, never.
“What an experience that was. It’s one I am never ever going to forget.
“They love it, and probably Rally México is the same, but they were just incredible. You were superstars.
“If you were in a race suit, they didn’t really know who you were, but because you were doing that rally you were a superstar.”
It was just as overwhelming for Pryce too.
“I’ve been in situations where people come up to you, and rallies where there’s a lot of fans and so on and so forth, but I don’t think I’ve ever experienced that amount of people. It was quite overwhelming really,” he said.
“You almost have to be there to feel it and see what it’s about.
“And I looked back the other day at some videos I’d taken from some of the cities we stopped in and it just doesn’t do it any justice because behind that video was another whole load of people, and for 5kms into the city there was just people lining the roads like five or six people deep.
“It was just mental really, and yeah probably overwhelming is the thing because I’m not that type of person. I don’t do this sport for the fame and that sort of thing. I just like driving cars and enjoying myself.
“So when people come up to you and want a photo, I find it a little bit odd because I’m just a builder really. I might be quite good at what I do but I do it for that, and I don’t do it for any recognition.
“So it’s very very overwhelming when you’ve got so many people about, and like Claire said, there was one point, and it wasn’t that bad then, that was just the starter before the main meal really.
“I couldn’t get out of the car. I was in the car for five minutes. I couldn’t get out because I didn’t get out of the car quick enough and there was just people surrounding the car and I couldn’t see anybody. It was just a bit mental.
“Like Claire said, it was probably the most people I’ve ever seen in one place in all my life.”
It’s fair to say that La Carrera Panamericana was a once in a lifetime experience for the pair.
They might have been battling and succeeding in achieving a class victory, but that’s essentially a secondary factor.
What they will take away from the event more than anything else was the atmosphere and experience it gave them – one they may not have again.
And while La Carrera Panamericana might not have the reputation of some other road races the world has to offer, it’s clear that many – including the World Rally Championship – could learn a lot from it by the sheer fun, admiration and beautiful atmosphere it offers to competitors and spectators alike.