La Carrera Panamericana is one of those wild adventures that attracts people from every corner of the world to compete in one of the last great road races. Shooting a racing documentary when you’re eighteen sounds like the opening line in a high-speed novel. It wasn't. I had flown from Seattle to Reno to drive in a vintage converted school bus across the border and into the heart of Mexico. My team and I were following the “Junkyard Dog”, a race team out of Reno. They had taken a 1954 Mercury Monterey and turned it into a racing hero… sort of.
Documentary films are a by the seat-of-your-pants event. You are often filming all day, hoping anything interesting happens. On the last day of this particular race, it was mission critical to stay with the race team and be there to witness the Junkyard Dog cross the finish-line.
Only I wasn’t there. I had been left behind.
We'd had a fight about it the night before. The driver of the car, a diva if I’ve ever met one, considered himself a producer for the film. The media industry term for his role would be “the talent.” Sometimes one can be the other but that was not truly the case in this documentary. In any case, he insisted we needed a shot of a particular mountain curve that we would be crossing from Zacatecas, a city 642 kilometers South West of Monterey, on our journey north to Nuevo Laredo 914 kilometers North East of where we were starting. I insisted that I had got that exact shot the previous day, because I had.
He was in his 40’s and I was 17.
It's still unclear to me if his age or temper tantrum won out.
It following day was the last day of the race. ALL the teams had a schedule to keep. As a film crew, we absolutely had to stay in front of the race to get the money shot of our picture car crossing the finish-line. We only had so many cameras, and even fewer vehicles. We would have to negotiate with one of the larger race teams to have their service vehicle pick me up after our team dropped me off. The trouble was that we didn’t speak Spanish, and they didn’t speak English. So we did what we had to do: we played charades. Satisfied that we were both in agreement, we toasted with Mezcal and enjoyed what the locals lovingly call “The Walk”- which is an entirely different adventure. Suffice it to say most racers and teams had a difficult time getting to the start line in the early am.
Zacatecas is a beautiful city that has old stone pavement and brick churches. We were staying at a hotel that was directly across from the grand pavilion where the race was starting that day. So it was super easy, at least for me, to roll out of bed, grab the camera gear and go. I found my ride, and after some obligatory shots of the Zacatecas Cathedral bell-tower, they dropped me off on the side of the highway to wait.
I didn’t have to wait long because I knew that we had about thirty minutes from the time I was dropped off to the time the race began. The lead pace car is always a Federales or a Policía, making sure civilians vehicles are the hell off the road. The red and blue lights were a welcome because they told me it was time to turn on my gear and check my lenses.
It did not take long for the pack leaders to cruise by at speeds that test the laws of physics, and the quality of their tires. I was familiar with the vehicles as my own team seven days into the race. Still at the head of the pack was the French team, lead by Pierre de Thoisy. He was driving their infuriatingly well-oiled 1954 Studebaker. I saw the familiar Ford Mustangs, the German Bugs and the American Hornet. Then our team came by, an 1954 Mercury Monterey that had been pieced together from other cars. Chasing alongside of the Junkyard Dog was my lead camera team hanging out of a convertible ’97 mustang. The waved at me as they went by.
The tail end of the race soon followed with more Policía and service vehicles chasing behind their teams in case they needed to fix something, or pull them out of a ditch. Satisfied I had the shot we needed, I packed up my gear and waited for my ride.
Slowly, regular traffic started to pass me by.
Then something interesting happened.
No one came.
A documentary filmmaker can carry a remarkable amount of gear with them. But for agility sake, I only had my camera and my press-pass. There was no reason for me to have my wallet, it was safer on the team bus. There was no need to carry a cell phone because, at the time, there wasn't enough minutes to justify an international call. So I sat there on my hulking camera case that had nothing but the camera and my mini DV tapes.
I sat for a long time debating if walking back to town was best or if walking over the mountain was smart. I was a young ginger girl stranded in the middle of Mexico, a reality that hadn’t quite hit me yet. All I knew for sure was that sitting there waiting meant I’d be there all night before they realized I was missing. So I shouldered my camera gear and started to walk.
Luckily, I was a young ginger documentarian stranded on the side of the road in the heart of Mexico. With my camera gear, I did not have the look of a hitchhiker. In fact, I probably looked a lot like someone who was in horrible trouble. I had walked maybe 50 yards before a taxi came screaming to a stop on the side of the road and backed up to me. The gentleman driving said… something in Spanish. I recognized Señorita and no paseo, which means miss and no walk. I did my best to explain I had zero dinero but he insisted, and I knew I really didn’t want to walk 914 kilometers. I got in.
He took me to six different hotels trying to figure out what I was saying- yes I know I’m a lucky girl that he was a nice guy. Surprisingly for a tourist town, none of the hotels he took me to had someone on the staff that spoke English. Somewhere along the line, his twin brother got in because he suspected that his brother spoke English (he didn’t). Between the two of them, they managed to determine the hotel I had been staying at was near a Cathedral.
It took nearly three hours to find the correct Cathedral.
The front desk at my hotel understood, and they called around to all the other hotels that had housed La Carrera teams. Everyone was gone. The local Policía were now too busy with real problems to deal with a stranded tourist. Then someone at the hotel got a bright idea and found the first PemEx service station required for all the racers and their support teams to stop at. It was Mexico’s way of insisting you buy their brand of gasoline to all the foreigners. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
My some dumb miracle, my real producer wa, fueling up the race car and the camera chaser at a gas station. I can only imagine her face when the attendant came out with a brick of a phone and handed it to her, like some James Bond level plot twist. The hotel clerk handed me the phone and, I finally remembered that I was an 18 year old girl stranded on the side in the road of Mexico. I started to cry. Luckily, my producer is a pragmatic sort and only had eyes for the end goal. She had the hotel charge her credit card on file to hand me as much cash as I would need for a bus ticket to the end destination. The taxi brothers took me to the bus station and I paid them with the swag-bag t-shirt literally off my back, leaving me with my tank-top, camera and press badge. That’s it.
There is not much to do on a bus when you have no phone, no friends, and no books. No point in pretending there was anything interesting to shoot but a bunch of tourists that had exactly zero to do with the documentary. So I took a nap. Which in hindsight might not have been the best plan, because I woke up to a routine check point at the Zacatecas-Nuevo Leon state border.
Mexican border checks are nothing like American border checks. Do not mess with their border guys. They’re bored, it’s hot, and they are looking for a reason to have something better to do that day. They are very much a place where any sass can land you in a Mexican detention center. Oh, and they carry huge automatic rifles that are standard issue when you’re in the Mexican Army.
It was these debonair gentlemen, rifles casually slung over their shoulders like a well-loved rucksack, that stopped the bus for a random I.D. check. Remember that part where I didn’t have anything but the camera and me? Yeah, that was a problem for them. The only I.D. I had was my La Carrera Press credentials, which were not exactly federally issued.
I was taken off the bus and questioned, again through broken translations of the only person on the bus who spoke Spanish and English, sort of. The good news is that the race is second only to soccer down there, the drivers are super stars. The better news is that I had been hanging out with the Federales and the Policía for the majority of the race (I’m pretty sure the Sheriff had a crush on me). One more phone call and a man named Cisneros made them all jump in line. Suddenly I went from certain detention to being treated like a princess. They let me back on the bus and even got me a glass bottle Mexican Coke (if you know, you know) for my trouble.
Six hours later, my bus pulled into Nuevo Laredo. The race was over and I have missed all the awards. I drop the camera off at the new hotel, shoot the Junkyard Dog that “if looks could kill” sneer, and head down to the party for a much deserved shot of tequila and some of the most delicious tacos I’d ever tasted. If there was one thing I learned that day, it was that when stranded in a foreign country, trust your gut and just keep moving.