On April, 2016 the Chihuahua Rally Express turned 11 years old and, for the first time in my six years as spectator, I had the opportunity to experience the event from up close. This is what happened:
I’m not even sure how I got here; I’m traveling across some of the most sinuous back roads in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico at speeds which could be normally considered not only dangerous, but also illegal. The vehicle in which I’m traveling isn’t one of the specially prepared hot rods which are driven by most competitors in this race, but a rental minivan. At the wheel is Manuel “Chacho” Medina, director and creator of the event; on the seats in front of me is a pair of journalists who’ve come to do coverage of the event for their respective medium. Somehow, despite the considerable speeds at which we’re cruising down the road, Chacho’s confidence at the wheel is undeniable and contagious, as the all of us are looking surprisingly relaxed; although I must admit, a part of my brain still harbors some doubt about how long the wheels and tires of this rented vehicle can handle the torture to which they’re being submitted.
The Chihuahua Express is an automotive meet/race that takes place each year in the state of Chihuahua, throughout 4 days of competition. It’s one of the last open-road rallies in the world where the drivers have the opportunity to push their race-prepped cars to the limit on public roads and, by the end of it, be crowned as the winner of the event. For this reason, every year it attracts competitors from every corner of Mexico and other countries like the United States, Canada, and even as far away as China.
The first day of the event consists of a qualification round in the outskirts of the state’s capital, which isn’t compulsory for all drivers, as it’s only used to sort out the starting order for the next day. During the next three days, the competitors drive to one of three different locations; starting from a hotel located in the city of Chihuahua and finishing once again back in the capital city. On day 1 the competitors drive to Ciudad Madera and back, Divisadero Barrancas on day 2, and Ojinaga on day 3. Each of these stages covers some of the most challenging roads with tight corners, as well as long straights where the vehicles are capable of reaching speeds above 120 mph, not to mention some of the most spectacular views Chihuahua has to offer. Aside from this modality, there’s also a category called Tour or “Regularity”, which is the most common form of open road racing and where the competitors are evaluated by covering a set distance in a previously defined time span, points being subtracted for doing it faster or slower.
This year the event attracted more than fifty competitors, most of them returning after participating in past editions. Others, like professional WRC driver Benito Guerra, compete for the very first time. The event earns Chihuahua close to one million dollars, during the few days when the event takes place between accommodations in the city and restaurants. Some competitors even choose to stay after the end of the event and enjoy the touristic attractions the region has to offer. Despite all this, to some people the event is nothing more than a hassle to their daily chores, as many of the roads they use to perform their activities are closed by the authorities. Some would go as far as saying “it’s just a bunch of grown men playing with their toy cars” and forget about the economic benefits it brings.
The first day of competition went without any major problems; only one incident involving a Porsche 911, one of the many competing in the event, losing control and going off-road, but with no major consequences, even if it did leave the car out of the race. On day 2, our car is involved in a slight incident. Just before arriving at the day’s technical stop in the town of Creel, we’re passed by Benito Guerra’s Mini Cooper, who is forced to brake hard and perform an evasive maneuver to avoid our vehicle. Chacho is embarrassed and Benito is mad, fortunately it ends as nothing but a scare for everyone. That same day, two other vehicles are involved in an accident, including the Oldsmobile driven by the American Doug Mockett and Mexican co-driver Angelica Fuentes, as the car suffered from a steering mal-function and crashed with a traffic barrier just moments after ending of that day’s stages. Thankfully, both of them came out completely unharmed, but unable to compete the next day due to the damage sustained by their car. Sad, as they ended the day on third place overall.
The last day of the event went without any more accidents, with the cars returning to the state capital and gathering in the city’s most important shopping mall, where the citizens have the opportunity to get up-close to both the cars and the drivers. Everyone seems happy, especially Benito Guerra who, despite the little inconvenience from the second day, ends up grabbing first place overall. When questioned about coming back for a future edition of the event, he answers that they already have plans to prepare other cars for next year.
And with that, this year’s Chihuahua Express came to an end. Our rental car endured the three days of torture without any issues and everyone who traveled in it came back in one piece. Finally, when asked about his plans for the future of the race, Chacho says that he’s negotiating the possibility of doing a “special stage” across downtown Chihuahua, so people have the opportunity to see the cars racing with their own eyes. The future of the event is looking safe.
Special thanks to Mr. Manuel “Chacho” Medina for giving a complete stranger this opportunity and for his support in the writing of this piece. It really was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.