Colombian gold

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Rob Wilson, an expatriate Kiwi based in downtown Brentford, is an experienced racer who nowadays competes mainly in the states. He also has first-hand experience of Colombia’s thriving, though unusual, motor racing scene. . . Hands up all those who have heard of the Bogota Six Hours.

Nestling eight and a half thousand feet high in the Andes, on the Equator, Bogota has an almost perfect climate, a warm spring/early summer 12 months of the year. It is ideal for outdoor living, motor sport and the growing of agricultural produce. The sun rises sharp at 6am and the moon rises sharp at 6pm. It was only after my fourth visit that I realised there was no such thing as air conditioning or heating in this city. It simply isn’t required the weather is perfect.

Colonised by the Spanish, Bogota is a city of six million inhabitants and, despite the popular imagery, the vast majority of the residents lead perfectly normal suburban lives with no affection for the drug cartels.

Colombia featured in the international motor racing scene until roughly 20 years ago. Frank Williams et al ran their various March products there in a small Formula Two series. The demise of the sport at this level resulted mainly from a difference of opinion between the two brothers who inherited the track – one felt it should be kept as a circuit, the other felt it should be a farm and they sliced the land in two. The produce grew without any problems but the effect on the racing was less beneficial.

Ten kilometres further up the road, about 40 km North of Bogota, Tocancipa currently serves the needs of Colombian motorsport. Initially 1.25 miles long and now extended to 1.75, the track was built and is now managed extremely effectively by Fernando Munoz. Senor Munoz first showed me the site of the proposed extension in 1989. He had marked it out by driving his off road vehicle around an adjoining field. At the time, I told him I felt the section running within a few metres of the neighbouring farmer’s milking shed would not be conducive to his cows’ productivity. With a Latin grin, he said: “I know this and when his profits go down we buy his farm for less money and we build an even bigger race track!”

Sometimes I wonder about the moral fibre of my motor racing brethren.

This all started after I bumped into Jose Clopatofski. then the sports editor of El Tiempo, South America’s fourth largest newspaper and the biggest in Colombia. It was at Knockhill in 1989 – an odd meeting place you may think, but I was standing in for Steve Robertson in the Bowman F3 Raft and alongside me in the race was Colombian John Estupinan whom Jose had flown across to see in action.

I first met Jose about a decade earlier, when he had been in this country to report on the activities of Roberto Guerrero with whom I had had some interesting dices in Formula Three. Jose’s newspaper, his magazine Motor and Esso Colombia were sponsoring a six-hour race in Bogota at the end of 1989. This is a Latin American Trans-Amesque event featuring some heavyweight Corvettes and Camaros towards the front and an assortment of high revving, two-litre Mazdas and Toyotas further back on the grid until you reach starting position number 55 (I’m serious) where you could find my favourite – which, unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to drive – a 1954 chopped and channelled Ford Customline V8. I hasten to add this is not representative of the type of machinery present at the average Colombian race meeting. At least, Esso doesn’t use it in its advertising posters.

That first year I drove for the Botero Racing Team in a turbocharged Fiat 147 (actually a Fiat 127 to us) with around 180 bhp available through its front wheels which definitely kept the driver’s attention. Honorato Espinosa, Lucio Bernal and myself managed third overall and won our class in this machine and I was subsequently invited back for the 1990 event. This time I was driving with Clopatofski himself. Jose was a Colombian Sports car champion in a previous life and could also be seen racing a Formula Vee at the Nurburgring 20 years ago. We were partnered by Oswalso Fajardo in a Lola T530 CanAm car fitted with four monstrous headlamps from a Renault rally car for, as I discovered on my way to first qualifying in 1989, most of this race is run at night!

The car had an interesting history, which began in the CanAm series in 1980, in the hands of Riccardo Londono (who had earlier appeared briefly in the unsuccessful British F1 series, racing as Riccardo Londono Bridge . . . ). The car was then imported into Colombia by a local “entrepreneur” who was subsequently shot dead over what is believed to be an entirely unrelated matter.

The car was left parked in a shed for many years, where it was subsequently discovered serving as a flowerpot. Local preparation expert Jorge Montana spent a considerable amount of time lovingly rebuilding and refabricating this car from stem to stern, rebuilding the original five-litre Chevy V8 engine at the same time. Painted in dayglo red, you couldn’t miss the result. I may be wrong but I think this is the largest racing car ever built and it was a brisk walk from the side of the car to the cockpit.

Total investment, incidentally, was around US $5,000. They are worth a lot more now. With this monstrous car I found my way onto pole position by a reasonable margin, but its race was shortlived, driveshaft problems intervening. For 1991 we decided to hedge our bets. After lengthy talks with Don Marshall from Esso Colombia it was decided I would race two cars the Lola, with the same driver combination as in 1990, and a BMW/Esso sponsored BMW M3, which I would share with John Estupinan and Colombian coming man Pablo Bickenbach. Marshall, although raised in Oklahoma, has spent most of his working life as ‘our man in Havana’ and has a knack of finding himself in interesting places at interesting times. He was Esso’s man in Argentina at the time of the Falklands invasion before moving to the tranquility of Bogota. All this had made Don a good man to have beside you in a crisis. One evening while driving through Bogota we were stopped by two armed police standing in the middle of the road. There were some words and, looking disappointed, they stopped the next car – a Renault 4 containing a young couple. Obviously happier with this, they leapt into the back seats and ordered the couple to proceed at maximum pace. We saw them last heading for downtown Bogota with guns waved from either side of the car. I asked Don what was going on and he explained that we would have been taken for chauffeur duty had there been any available space in our car. Bogota is not the sort of place where a foreigner arrives and asks his cab driver to find the action. It finds you!

Another thing about Colombian traffic. You may not need a superlicence for the racetrack, but the roads are something else. Only the boldest (and there are many of those) survive. One evening, I was invited to what I thought would be a small dinner by team owner, Fernando Botero. For this race I would be competing against his Corvette, whereas in the USA I race for him in an IMSA GTU Mazda. I was somewhat surprised by the number of apparent guests who accompanied us to his house. I was sitting in the lobby when a Mercedes pulled up outside. This was rapidly joined by a similar vehicle on the street side of the hotel foyer and nosed in behind was a four-wheel drive vehicle. How many cars do I need, I thought. It subsequently turned out that the excess space was taken up by guards and their various pieces of hardware – it’s one way of getting through the traffic, I suppose.

Not that Fernando Botero is the only one with such matters on his mind. A few days before the race the boss of the BMW agents for whom I was driving had survived a Bonnie and Clyde style machine gun attack. One of the bullets actually passed through a front seat headrest . . .

And so to race day. I had put the Lola on pole and the BMW was slotted into fourth with John at the wheel. After the various national anthems (New Zealand’s was conspicuous by its absence “Will the British one do, Rob?”) the cars were pushed out onto the grid for the rolling start. The drag race into the first corner was going to be a lot more interesting this year as we were under threat from a full-house TransAm Camaro recently imported into Colombia. This had more power than the Lola, but my inside line into turn one was sufficient to establish the lead.

From there on it was of building up as substantial a lead as possible whilst dodging in and out of the traffic. There were, however, 65 starters which meant there was never a clear lap. On the clearest I managed to take some time off my previous outright lap record. Every now and then I would come across Divina Galica and Jenny Birrell, who were doing an effective giant killing act in their turbocharged Renault 9. After about an hour and a half I handed the Lola over to Jose, under whose guidance it maintained its comfortable lead, by now surprising most of the pit lane with its durability (in 1990 it hadn’t lasted much more than 10 iaps). I took some time out to stock up on Colombian coffee while I waited for John and Pablo to complete their turns in the BMW.

As it was now pitch black, this was my first opportunity to drive the BMW at night. The Camaro had collected some debris off the track, losing time on the pits, so that challenge subsided. Texaco’s Mercedes Cosworth, although reliable, weighed just a little too much to be truly effective and couldn’t match the outright pace of the BMW. At the drivers’ meeting a few people had joked that this was a necessary side effect of all the optional bullet proofing.

As the laps wore on I spotted the Lola ahead of me and, far from pulling away as I expected, I was gaining on it. Clearly it was experiencing problems. Jose, who had taken the wheel again from Oswaldo, was doing his best to nurse the beast home. For a mischievous moment I contemplated that I would win whether I stayed put or passed Jose. If I was going to do any serious negotiating with the team managers now would be the time. However, the situation was not quite so clear cut as Mobil had imported a very fast Peugeot 205 T16. This had been six months in the build in France. complete with altitude testing, and its turbocharged engine gave it a significant advantage over the normally aspirated Esso BMW. The preparation was comprehensive and the challenge effective, but the Peugeot did, nevertheless, suffer one unfortunate circumstance during the race. During a tyre change, the mechanics raised the car on the jacks and dived to all four corners with their air spanners. They then discovered that the power supply to the compressor had been hijacked to power the PA system for the rock band hired for the celebrations accompanying the race. . . I took the lead and thought it best to keep tabs on the Peugeot as it was now also ahead of the Lola and running in second place. For the last 45 minutes, with almost a two lap advantage, I kept its tail lights in view which was exactly the situation I wanted to be in. The BMW kept running smoothly and handling beautifully, which made the final result as much a victory for the team and its management as for myself and the other drivers. The ensuing celebrations were very Latin in nature and it took us at least an hour to get from the crowded finish line back to the pits. Here we sat on the roof of the BMW, surrounded by excited racegoers so closely packed together that it made an early escape impossible even if we had wanted one. Esso had booked a huge restaurant for around midnight for their post-event celebrations. The only sobering thought of the evening was when somebody cast their eyes over the festivities and queried: “What if Esso hadn’t won?”

The remainder of the time at Bogota was spent concentrating on the racing school which I had helped set up in 1989. This has now reached the level of an institution, with an overflow of applicants for each new intake. For the second year in succession a completely free season’s racing was the reward for the top students. Nine of the top 10 finishers in the 1991 Chevrolet Sprint Junior Cup Series were graduates from the school. Luckily for us they finished roughly in the same order as we had placed them. Proof, if it were needed, that the format we have established is 100 per cent successful, plus or minus 10 per cent!

Over the last few years Colombian motor racing has come on tremendously. This has only been achieved by concentrating on the groundwork. The school, the constant campaigning by Jose Clopatofski and many others, along with the very real support of Esso, Mobil, Texaco and Shell has resulted in a motor sports structure which, if nurtured and managed with a steady hand, will provide a stable platform for Colombian talent for many years to come. The downside of this success it that. because of all the work we have put in, we have created a situation which is ripe for exploitation. Motor racing has always been a political business, but I very much hope that some of the powers that be do not fall prey to greed or over ambition, fragmenting what has been achieved so far.

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