Former McLaren team manager Jo Ramirez avoids the perils of the Panamericana
Words: Rob Widdows. Photography: Go Fast Sports Mexico
When Jo Ramirez was a teenager in Mexico City he and his mates had a dream. Jo, Pedro and Ricardo decided it would be a good crack to race in La Carrera Panamericana. Problem was, none of them had a driving licence. Or a car.
They considered ‘borrowing’ the Rodriguez family saloon, the one that Ricardo used for late-night blasts down the Avenida Reforma, showing off his natural talent. But they figured that a gold Oldsmobile would be hard to miss.
Despite trying every trick in the book, and some they invented, they never did get to race the Panamericana. But other dreams came true and all three boys clawed their way to the very top of the sport they loved, the Rodriguez brothers with their brave and breathtaking race driving and Ramirez as team manager at McLaren through the triumphant years of Prost and Senna.
Now retired from Formula 1, Jo is back in his homeland and about to fulfil that boyhood dream, driving in the last great road race on earth. He will share a Volvo P1800, like the one the Saint used to drive, entered by Luis Barona. His navigator is Alberto Cruz, the man who survived a huge crash while navigating Clay Regazzoni through the Mexican mountains a few years back.
Ahead lies a 3000 kilometre dash from Veracruz to Monterrey, a route that will take them from one end of this pulsating country to the other. It will turn out to be one of the best weeks of his life.
The Panamericana was created in the 1950s when the roads were not as they are today. Men like Karl Kling, Hermann Lang, Umberto Maglioli, Luigi Chinetti and Phil Hill came to Mexico with the works Mercedes, Ferrari and Lancia teams. The rally, recently revived and rejuvenated by Mexican promoter Eduardo Leone, is now an annual pilgrimage for those who seek some thrills.
“The roads are so much better now,” says Ramirez before the rally gets underway. “But there are still big challenges, mountain passes with blind corners, super-fast sections where you don’t want to make a mistake.”
The locals watch in awe as the cars roar away, a riot of colour and noise, whoops and hollers and screeching rubber.
“Great! Just great!” laughs Jo as he prepares for battle. Like all real racing men, he wants to win. Jo Ramirez is an organiser, a man with a reputation for getting it right. “This is so different to Formula 1. It’s competition, for sure, but not so serious.” Beware wobbly trucks, spectators with their toes on the road, donkeys, cows and stray dogs as hazards.
A misfire, traced to a faulty rev counter, and an oil leak slow them down on the opening day. But their young mechanics Alejandro and Wilfredo soon have the problems fixed and the following day they win their class on the stage from Veracruz to Puebla. This is the City of Angels, famous for its magnificent cathedral and a huge Volkswagen factory, the biggest automotive plant in Mexico. A total of 40,000 people work in the car industry in this city alone and the arrival of the Panamericana is big news.
From Puebla the rally heads north to Queretaro, a day that takes in a visit to the Hermanos Rodriguez circuit in Mexico City. “We did four laps in the pouring rain in the early morning, all mixed up with the bigger cars, and a Corvette spun in front of us.”
This day took them through Tehuacan, a town in the grip of rally fever. “There were so many people along the roads and at the finish we were surrounded, couldn’t get out of the car,” says Jo whose autograph is much in demand, the local hero back from his lifelong travels. Next up is a demanding stage to Morelia. Highly enthusiastic crowds line the mountain roads. “The car is fantastic, more like a mini NASCAR than a road car,” he says, “and we’re pushing. Berto Cruz knows the roads, so I can go for it.”
But the rally nearly ended for them when they made a mistake. “I saw all these people coming towards me and I thought, this is it, I’m going into the crowd. I’m shouting at him, where is the road? Where is it going?” He ducks down in his seat, arms crossed. “Anyway, we got it round, but that was a big moment, big slide, and all those people…”
From Morelia the rally heads for Aguascalientes and they are running second to the Mercedes 190 of Thomas Hanna and Jorg Muller. This section includes lots of long, fast corners through the mountains. “This was scary. We came across a man and a boy walking on the stage. There they were, standing in a gulley on the apex. Then a photographer appears, his tripod on the road. Then a dog just ran out of the bushes. Crazy! But we were quick, chasing that Merc. With one day to go we knew we could win this thing.”
But it wasn’t to be. Heading for Monterrey, flat out, the Volvo snapped out of shape, no warning. “Suddenly we’re going sideways, and I thought, oil on the tyres, then came the smoke, then the pressure dropped. An oil line was broken. So I switched it off and that was that… Third in class.”
As they pushed the Volvo into parc fermé, big boss Eduardo Leone shouts, “Hey Jo, is good you don’t win, you have to come back next year.” And Signor Ramirez will.