A Race is a Chase (1971, -50, -68)
There used to be this car race down the length of Mexico, back when the Pan-American Highway was new, 1950. The race was on a road that stretched from Ciudad Juarez on the United States border to Guatemala, pushed past jungles, canyons, desert lands, through old colonial towns and modern industrial centers. The idea was to open Mexico up. Connect her from top to bottom. She wasn’t going to rest there like a lump anymore. The pavement was so black and new that scarcely a car had driven across the surface and none at top speed. The stock-car drivers beat the hell out of that new road. If you ask me, the road loved them for it. Five stages in five days. The race was such a hit that after the first year, it was placed on the International Sports Calendar as a World Championship Course. There are two things you need to know about this race. One: It took place on public roadways. Two: These roadways were uncharted waters.
--Why’d they stop running it?
--The body count, all the dead drivers and dead spectators, the dead livestock. In Mexico, every mule, burro, and dog likes to use the highway to roam or sleep on. Cattle lie down on the road all night. Children wander across the road to get a better look at the race cars. They just couldn’t secure the course. The faster the cars, the more casualties piled up. Don't get me wrong, the road was good, but it was full of switchback turns. There were unforeseen hazards such as low-flying birds of the buzzard variety. Lawsuits were piling up, vendettas were piling up, ghosts were piling up, so the race organizers pulled the plug. They ran the race north to south, then south to north, but nothing worked, so they quit.
--High speed, high danger. I see the attraction. Win or die trying.
--I’ve been on that road. To see that race and hear it, it must have been something else.
--With most grand spectacles, seeing is believing. With this race, it was the sound that did the trick.
--The louder the roar, the more the speed.
--It was so loud in those canyons that some of the racers lost their hearing and never got it back.
1950. The Nash Motor Co. motion picture team from Los Angeles, California made a deal with a Mexican child. They got him to stand on an old railroad abutment and signal at the first sight of cars hell bent for Durango.
It didn’t matter.
First, you feel a vibration in your feet coming from the ground, and then the rumble of the motors. The tremor is strong enough that you brace yourself to keep your footing. The heavy buzz grows louder. In the high mountain desert, the sun's heat bends the air above the blacktop.
Then you see them coming, not the cars, but two great clouds of dust.
By the time the cars are on top of you, racing neck and neck, the sound is deafening, loud enough to rip the mountains apart. The lead car weaves between the lanes, trying to keep the car behind him from gaining position. They’re going so fast that one mistake, and it's curtains for them.
The 16 mm motion picture camera is perched on a ledge a safe distance from the cars, but the photographer flinches as the cars zoom by. He’s not accustomed to this. If only he could get closer. He would like to be standing just outside the painted yellow line on the pavement. If he doesn’t feel the wind in the racers’ wake after they pass, there is no way he got his shot.
With his head still under the camera's black hood and eye focused in the viewfinder, he feels a tug at his shirttail. It's the Mexican kid, trying to coax him backward, down from the perch, pointing up. On the cliffs high above, the roar of the motors had loosened the rocks. It starts as a trickle of pebbles down the mountain. Then it grows into a rock-slide almost as loud and heavy as the race-car motors. The camera-man, an American teenager with no idea what he's doing, catches it all on film and thanks his lucky stars he didn't decide to go down there.
The two racers out front are long gone, and boulders now block the wave of cars behind them. The race committee will have to decide whether they want to stop the clock for the backed-up racers or disqualify all of them for not finishing the leg in the time set in the rule book. At the tail end of the pack are two ambulances of the U.S. Army type. Those two leaders better hope that if they crash they die instantly, because there’s no way help is getting to them. Not with these mammoth stones blocking the road.
1971. The effect of the roaring motors was not something the race organizers could have foreseen. Don't blame this one on the road builders. Everyone always wants to blame the builders. The Pan-Am Highway was an engineering marvel. It measured up to the highest standards for grades and curves. They built the road not just for the public at large. They built it for top speed, and the road showed itself to perform just as it was designed. The problem that the engineers hadn’t accounted for was the rumble of the motors breaking the earth. Now you go ahead and build a high-speed expressway through some of the most rugged mountains in the Americas, and see how you do. Before the road was built, this region was impenetrable. You couldn't get here, even on horseback, and you expect the road to roll out without hidden dangers? Not a chance, man.
--Culprit Clutch was a driver in that race.
--Oh, no, no, the skinny kid was the driver, and they weren't racing. Nash Motors sent Culprit to take photographs.
--That’s where Culprit Clutch cut his teeth in movies.
--His race footage is legendary. Did you see the rock-slide?
--It’s how he won the Guggenheim.
--Not that anyone on the award committee saw Culprit's film.
--Cars weren’t the only racers down there in Mexico.
--If you count children riding bicycles.
--No, I’m talking about coyotes running so fast their rotating feet become a blur of motion.
--Oh, brother, you're thinking of Warner Bros. cartoon shorts.
--One of the thrills of the Sonoran Desert is seeing the devilish coyote chasing the elusive roadrunner across the cactus landscape at top speed. Beep-beep!
--If you spend enough time watching kiddie shows on the boob tube, you’ll think it’s true.
--If you spend enough time in the desert, you’ll know it’s not. I just finished narrating for a TV documentary on the true story of the coyote and roadrunner. I even have a few feet of the edited film I can run through the Moviola to show you characters. I can read along from the narrator's script.
--So this is what's come to, you make nature films.
--You bet. It beats the nine to five. It beats not working in film, even if Mutual of Omaha signs my paychecks.
--I remember the first time I worked in film was like not working in film. It was all just waiting around for ocean waves. It was supposed to be a surfing film. The waves didn’t come until we were sailing back to New York.
Lafferty cranks the arm of the Moviola so the film flows through the machine, while reading from the script held in his other hand:
'Mexico and the American Southwest make home to the Chapparal cock, known more commonly as the roadrunner. The impression that most Americans have of the roadrunner comes from popular motion-picture cartoons. These cartoons have led legions to believe that the coyote, also known as The Singing Dog, has forgone the act of howling, giving it over to an obsession in giving chase to the roadrunner.
'Yet scientists have proven there exists no known history of a chase involving the coyote and the roadrunner. It's never been seen in the desert's recorded annals, and try as you might, you never will witness it. There are no credible reports of such a chase taking place.
'In a laboratory setting, we observe the behavior of the coyote when placed in close proximity to the roadrunner. See how the coyote appears uninterested, almost embarrassed by the situation. He quivers nervously and shows desire neither to outwit nor eat the bird.'
--Why does this happen then? What's the basis for cartoons, if not real life?
--Hollywood knows how fun it is to be fooled.
--They do it because it's entertaining.
--It keeps the crowds coming.
--Just because I've never head a dog say bow-wow doesn't mean bow-wow isn't what a dog says.
--You hate the coyote for his cunning and his appetite. You hate the roadrunner for being such a smarty pants.
--I don't know about you, but I have a soft spot for both creatures.
--That’s because you’re an odd duck.
--No, the scientists got it all wrong. The coyote does chase the bird. I've seen it with my own eyes. If you spend enough time in the desert, you’ll see it, too.
--Either you were mistaken or it happened just that once.
--If you spend enough time in the desert, you’ll see a mirage.
--There's the old adage, 'There is no such thing as a mirage.'
--Of course, there is no such thing as a mirage. That’s what a mirage is.
--Something you don’t see, because it was never there.
--I'm going to show you fellows. We'll see who gets the last laugh. I am going to the desert and taking the 8 mm movie camera. I will shoot the chase myself and then come back here to show you meatballs a thing or three.
--Is he serious? He can’t be serious.
--I wouldn’t go out in the desert alone if I were you. The sun sets, the wind picks up. The sand can only hold the heat for so long before giving way to the mountain's chill. It's dark when you're out there by yourself. The only people you meet are strangers, and the next stranger you meet might be a killer.
--I speak Spanish, I can talk myself out of anything.
--Your Spanish will get you nowhere. The killers you’ll run across in the desert at night in Mexico are North Americans, bloodthirsty enough to make the Manson Family blush, and the last thing they want to do is talk.
1950. Culprit Clutch in dark sunglasses walks into the business office of Nash Motors off Ventura Boulevard in Los Angeles, California, U.S.A., asks for a job, and is hired on the spot. The Director of National Advertising takes an instant liking to him.
--Do you know much about what’s under the hood? the director asks.
--Shell or Super Shell?
--Don’t know the difference.
--Do you care whether or not I hire you?
Culprit shrugs. He is without credentials and enthusiasm. All he has is a slack-jaw sense of cool and an attitude similar to other boys his age who never went to war.
--What makes you tick, Culprit Clutch?
--Talking to you is like talking to a wall. You are a new breed of animal, proof of Darwin’s theory thrown into reverse. Kids like you are evolving less into human as back into an ape. I just insulted you to your face, what do you have to say about that?
--You are exactly the type of kid I need to figure out. If you don’t care about making purchases, what kinds of products will men like me sell to the likes of you? You’ll be a wage earner one day. What will you purchase?
--How to make a generation of nonplussed youngsters give a rip, that’s the $24,000 question. The difference between you and a juvenile delinquent is a JD just pretends not to care, while at heart what motivates the JD is anger toward authority figures whether it’s his father, the parish priest, the math teacher, the truancy officer, the neighborhood flatfoot, the drill sergeant. Kids like you don’t care enough to harbor animosity toward anyone.
--You just don’t give a damn. I will give you a job, by God, that will make you care.
--The Mexican road race starts on May 5, and we want you to cover the Nash team with this 16 mm movie camera, the director explains to Culprit. --You’ll learn to care, damn it, you’ll care about your paycheck, you’ll care about the film you’re making, you’ll care enough to stay out of the way of the race cars if you value your life the way I think you might. You might even find a senorita down there who turns your head.
The director’s secretary, Mildred, lifts Culprit by the arm. Before he can say anything, she jabs a long hypodermic needle in his arm.
--That’s the small pox vaccine, the director explains. --Disease is still quite prevalent in Mexico. You never know what you’ll pick up in tropical storms and hot jungle country. Oh, Mildred, did you see these?
He shows the secretary three round patches of scarred skin triangulating on Culprit’s other arm.
--He’s already had this vaccine, and then some from the looks of it, the director says.
--A little extra of a good thing can’t hurt ya! Mildred says, rubbing a peroxide-soaked gauze over Culprit’s fresh wound.
Parked outside is a cherry-red Nash with a tapered rear end straight off the factory floor that looks like a streaking comet and is nearly as long as one. The lettering on the side of the car reads: CARRERA PANAMERICANA NASH MOTION PICTURE UNIT.
--The paint’s fresh, don’t smudge it! the director says, dangling the keys before Culprit.
--You're not racing, the director says. --Stripes, you have to earn.
The company had filled the trunk with jugs of drinking water, a Coleman stove, coffee pot, pans, paper cups, a lantern, flashlight, air mattresses, blankets, knives, forks, and spoons, enough cans of soup and beans to feed a small army, and a tin box filled with emergency cash.
--The cameras and film are in the back seat where they will come in handy.
As Culprit reaches for the keys, the director tosses them to a lanky kid standing there without Culprit noticing.
--Paul Panama will be your driver, Culprit, the director says. --He's a new hire who has shown a propensity for mechanics much the same way you have shown such a flair for the arts. You're the man in charge, and he's the man with the keys. Go ahead and figure that one out, and while you’re at it, get a move on.
Paul Panama is a kid so skinny his bones knock together and his high voice makes you wonder whether his balls are just pretend. On the desert highway east from Los Angeles, Panama drives full throttle. His body contracts when shifting gears, his shoulder nearly flying out of its socket. The landscape blurs beyond recognition, road signs and mile markers pass too quickly to read. His driving will leave Culprit shell shocked long after the finish of the race.
--Ease up on the gas, kid.
Culprit's comment has no effect on the way Paul Panama drives.
--They sure missed a golden opportunity sending you down there as a chauffeur while I make home movies, Culprit says. --They should have entered you in the race.
1968. Owing to bizarre circumstances, Culprit's race film was never widely seen, though he had a funny way of bumping into the handful of people in the world who knew of it. There was the woman who called herself a magazine writer and racing fan who insisted on buying Culprit drinks at the bar near Washington Square in June.
--You filmed the action at the start and finish lines with only one camera?
--I couldn't help that the kid liked to drive fast.
--You also shot the crack ups in the middle of the race.
--We weren't there sightseeing.
--Your footage included a series of churches and pueblos.
--That was to use up the leftover film on my way home.
--That film was a remarkable feat, a master work.
--I would have liked to have recorded sound. I didn't know what I was doing. It felt like we were everywhere at once. We were so fast, they called us cheaters. We weren't even entered in the race.
--Did you take short cuts?
--There are no short cuts. The new highway was the short cut.
--After the fellow who was with you, Paul Panama, cracked your telephoto lens, how did you manage to get all those tight shots?
--I had to bring the camera in close on the subject.
--Your subjects were racing cars!
--Still a safer than atomic missiles.
--What do you remember most from the race?
--The velocity was staggering. Cars go faster now, though back then they felt faster. There was more physical stress on the vehicle, I suppose. The Nash was awfully stiff. The conditions of the road, the tight turns without guardrails, the last 100 miles of the race over gravel, made it seem faster than it was.
--So Culprit, what are you like? Tell me everything about you.
--Everything I know about me I learned from my FBI file, he says half joking.
She looks at him sadly. She knows it's true.
--Now why would you have an FBI file? she asks.
--That's a good question. The answer is not in the file.
--Do you suppose that happens often? The FBI keeps an open file on a soul after forgetting why it started one in the first place?
--I have an FBI file on me this thick, she says.
--Why do you suppose that is?
--I'm an attractive woman and not unintelligent. I'm a foreigner, and I've known many interesting people.
--If I were the FBI, I would be suspicious of you. God knows of what.
--Culprit, let me buy you another drink.
--You seem to know so much about me, and you have these burning questions about Mexico.
--When did you stop believing in extraordinary coincidences, Culprit Clutch?
--When did I start, or is that something else you know about me that I didn't know about myself? You know so much, it's almost like you were there at the race.
--I've seen the film. It's like I was.
1950. Panama and Culprit arrive at the starting line to set up the camera minutes before the first leg is set to begin. Racing enthusiasts from a panorama of national origins crowd the scene. The nearest Panama can can find a place to park the Nash is a quarter mile away. He drops Culprit off and peels out to park in the hinterland.
The crowd is pushing and shoving to get a look at the contest vehicles and their occupants. Culprit unfolds the tri-pod and mounts his camera, but race fans rush in front of him every time he's ready to roll film. Soldiers push people back, forcing Culprit to move his gear time and again. He looks up and sees a building with an unoccupied fire escape. Using the tripod as a makeshift hook, he lowers the ladder and climbs to a perch where he can set up his shot of the colorful galaxy of stock cars revving and ready to go.
Panama is nowhere to be found. Then Culprit hears a blaring car horn and sees a parting in the crowd. Here comes the Nash driving right up to the where the racers await the grand marshall's waving of the green flag. There is no place else for him to park other than behind the racers at the starting line. The nerve of that kid! He's choosing to make a race of it, up against the best drivers in the world with their black leather racing gloves, and all they gave Panama was a stock model straight off the factory floor and a glove compartment with no gloves.
--Quarto, tres, dos, uno, ARRANCA!
There is a cheer from the crowd with church bells ringing in the plaza as the roar of race cars rips through the air, and in one-minute successions, the racers shoot with thunderous speed off the starting line.
Culprit jumps down from the fire escape with the camera and tripod in his grip and climbs into the Nash through the passenger seat window just Panama steps on the gas in pursuit of the racers.
After the start, a solid mass of people, autos, and dogs stretching for ten miles bottleneck down the middle of the road. Panama weaves through the crowd, making them get out of his way.
The first stretch of the race is tough going. There are hairpin curves, unbanked switchbacks, and washboard wash-outs that that are barely visible until the driver is roaring into them. Blind spots and rises in the road ahead hide tight bends and treacherous railroad crossings. To make conditions even worse, a thick fog rolls in.
Right out of the chute, cars spin out of control. The wrecks of the early leaders clog the center of the lane. Driver Spurling’s 1949 Lincoln careens over an embankment, rolling over six times, leaving him shaken but unhurt. He walks in circles, saying “Why does everything happen to me?” He raises his hand to block the lens of Culprit's camera not wanting anyone to see his emotion and embarrassment after losing the race so early.
Back on the road at full speed, nothing else matters to Paul Panama.
--Goddamn, if I don't have to pee.
Despite the perils of this stretch of road, steep curves without guardrails and cliffs that drop thousands of feet, Panama steps on the gas and soon catches the pack of racers from behind.
Ahead, cars are stopped in an endless pile up. The drivers lay on the horns as the cherry red Nash sneaky petes past them along the treacherous shoulder. The honking is the drivers' way of telling him not to pass, that it's not safe just now, that you'll get yourself DQ'd, that you're a son of a bitch for trying that, but the Nash doesn’t have a number and isn't entered in the race.
Culprit opens his passenger-side window just enough to poke the camera lens out of it without getting hit by the objects thrown by the irate drivers. He captures footage of smashed cars, black sedans with dying horses under the hood, their bumpers bent and radiators blowing steam plumes into the air. There's more honking, not all aimed at the Nash. It's the way the drivers stuck behind the wheel of their unmoving autos vent their frustration.
There are bodies strewn, some face down in the middle of the road and others thrown vicariously into the shoulder. The pools of blood surrounding those who were bleeding have dried already, leaving the new asphalt stained. While Panama jiggers his left leg nervously, Culprit climbs halfway out his window, bending at the torso, taking in the sight, not thinking about it, depressing the camera's trigger until he runs out of film.
Away from the pile up, Panama stops the car, bursts out, jumps into a culvert to relieve himself, while Culprit sits in the car, methodically placing the camera and a fresh film magazine into a light-proof black velvet pouch, inserting his hands into gloves sewn into the bag, and changing the film without seeing what he's doing. It is nothing for a rank amateur, but Culprit doesn't feel like an amateur. He doesn't know what he feels like.
The rest of the day's course is smooth and uneventful. The Nash cruises along at a high rate of speed, but it feels like they are hardly moving. The driving becomes so easy that Panama makes small talk.
--What separates Arizona and Guatemala?
--I don’t know, what?
--This is not a joke. It’s a real question. The answer is Mexico.
--I already knew that.
On the fifth and final day of the race, the sprint from Tuxtla Gutierrez to El Ocatal on the Mexico-Guatemala border is run over a gravel surface through more mountainous country and proves to be the slowest and most treacherous of the race. Two-hundred and fifty-one cars started the race, and only forty-seven remain in the field. An American named Pete Fontana holds the lead until the final unpaved leg of the race. On the gravel course, the Lincoln driven by Argentinian Dagobert Runes holds up better than Fontana's car, and Runes beats the American by thirteen seconds.
The vibrations from chasing Fontana and Runes over the gravel highway are murder on Culprit Clutch. He knows he won't stop shaking hours after the race is over. He knows most of the day's footage will be too shaky to watch.
The vibrations are not even the strangest physical sensation he's experienced in the last five days. There’s a quality of speed that racers don’t like to talk about. It’s experienced, it’s known, it’s never discussed. You go fast enough and the human body gets ahead of itself. The soul bobs in the drag behind the car. After the checkered flag, the driver slows it down, and the soul still traveling at top speed slingshots several hundred feet ahead. Then it snaps back like a rubber band. It hurts. The rider’s first steps outside the car are wobbly. His bruised body and soul still feel like they are going one-hundred-and-ten miles an hour, although it's good to have the both of them back.
In the winner’s circle, the race organizers and dignitaries deliver the prizes to the accompaniment of countless flash bulbs, which leave Culprit blind. The drone of the motor over ten days has already left him deaf. The race nearly pulls the life right out of poor Culprit Clutch. Midway through the race, he promised himself never to do anything like this ever again. His only remaining responsibility is to return the exposed film to L.A. safe and sound. It should be a quiet trip, and he will drive alone after Paul Panama took off on a horse on the second to last day of the race.
1971. The story of Culprit’s film is as strange as the race itself. Afterward, he turned over the cans of exposed stock to the Nash Motor Company. It floored them. It was not what they expected. Sure, they could cut out snips and make promos for the Nash car line. The film was more than that. It was extraordinary, a film in its own right. The rock-slide was just the beginning.
They would show it off after hours at private parties, lodge meetings. They would run the film again as soon as it ended. The footage was mesmerizing. It was pretty much exactly what Culprit saw through his viewfinder when he pulled the camera’s trigger.
--Law enforcement caught wind of it. Thought it was a Mexican stag film or cock fight.
--Word traveled fast, reaching the office of none other than J. Edgar Hoover, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who decided that it was in the country’s interest to quarantine the film.
--Boy howdy, I have to see it.
--Did they confiscate it?
--They stole it, sent Cubans to take it. Nash had the negative and two 16 mm prints. The Cubans took everything.
--Whatever the agency’s intent, it had the opposite effect. The legend of the film continues to grow. For me, it became an obsession. I met Culprit Clutch during the days of the surfing expedition in Haiti. When I got back to the mainland, I decided to make things happen. I broke into the FBI building and stole the film back.
--That took some derring-do.
--It’s extraordinary the places you can go disguised as a janitor.
--Why put yourself through the trouble?
--It’s what you do when you realize that for all your passion to create art, you’ll never be anything more than a hack, so you switch gears and apply all that creative zeal to someone else's art, as a fan, and in my case, as a fan of a movie I had never seen. I don’t know what came over me, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I was obsessed. I got the film.
--I also took a folder, Culprit Clutch’s FBI file. The idea was to send him his film and the file. Instead, I bought a projector and viewed the film alone in my apartment and read the file. I decided I would keep the film and send him the file in an anonymous envelope. He needed to know what his government thought about him.
--What’s the film like?
--Let’s just say that it cuts to the heart of that race. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It was like Culprit knew what was going to happen before it happened and started the camera just in time to film it all. He is in control of all the elements within the shot. It all seems staged, rehearsed, but you know it’s not. It was all improvised, done without a script, in one take. It makes you wonder about the person holding the camera and making the film. You see his shadow once in a while but you never see him.
--Do you still have the film?
--Nah, sold the negative and prints.
--I needed the bread.
--Who paid you for it?
--An acid rock band from England. They caught wind of the legend and had this idea they wanted to compose a musical soundtrack for it and put it out in theatres. It’ll be one of those types of movies that kids go see when they’re high on LSD, like 2001 or Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
--Which band? The Soft Machine.
--Never heard of them.
--Isn't that a Burroughs novel?
--How about the Pretty Things?
--Not them, either, and not the Who. Ever hear of the Pink Floyd?
--I think so.
--The Pink Floyd bought the film.
--I have to see the movie. Now I'm the one who's obsessed.
--I did make a secret print that I kept.
--I have to see it.
1950. You come unspeakably close to death with every mountain curve. Losing control means giving it all away. Losing control means going over the side.
Was it really all that bad? Travel has a mind-clearing effect, though there's nothing quite like racing. You can't trace your finger along the route on the map fast enough to keep up.The melting scenery whizzes by. Mountains in the distance roll toward you. Once top speed is reached, your mind lets itself go. The tether that holds the soul to the body becomes stretched to the fullest. Your soul will catch up when it's caught up, fifteen minutes after the body's arrival.
It is on the return trip back north, the road looks different. There is so much that Culprit hadn’t noticed, it was as if it wasn’t the same road. At a slower speed, he can pay more attention to the scenery he missed on the trip down, the switchback curves along cliffs thousands of feet high with no guardrails.
In the Tuxtla Gutierrez, where the rivers run shallow and wide, Culprit pulls out the camera to capture aigrettes and parrots forming flying clouds of color. In Oaxaca, a lush and tropical setting, he marvels at the green-hued stones. He keeps the camera rolling over their dalliance through the Tehuantepec Zone, one of the most colorful in Mexico.
Puebla is where the Spanish built a city on a site chosen by angels. She has four volcanoes watching over her: Popocatepetl, Iztaccíhuatl, Matlalcueitl, Orizaba. Culprit sleeps through the night slumped in the back seat of the car. He wakes early and explores Puebla’s cathedral, filled with fine paintings, exquisite carvings, and Flemish tapestries.
He picks up a map of Mexico City at a Pemex filling station. Mexico City is ultramodern and cosmopolitan with its swanky hotels, bars, night clubs, and cinemas. His next stop, Toluca offers many sites and sounds: a Friday Market of Indian arts and crafts, women carrying colorful baskets filled with fruit on their heads, carts selling a variety of herbs and beans.
He sleeps in Queretaro and awakens to church bells breaking the silence. He films the trickle of water from stone foundations, the sun slanting on the beautiful carved stone of ancient churches, tzentzontle birds singing in the shadowed patios. By midday, he arrives at Tlaquepaque, colorful and noisily gay with unending mariachi music. In Guadalajara, it is warm and dry, with houses built around tiled patios of the Andalusian type. Leon is a city of parks and orchards, and Durango is where he sees a sign leading down a branch road to Mazatlan, the port city on the Pacific. He passes into Chihuahua, a modern city and home of the Tarahumara Indians, where the people are cordial and the weather is blazing hot. As the town ends, the landscape becomes cattle-raising country and looks like Texas.
He pulls over to sleep for the night. Tomorrow he's back in the U.S.
Thousands of breathless racing fans line the parkway in Durango cheering the racers on. Headed by a squadron of army motorcycle officers with their sirens wide open and red lights flashing, the day's leaders cross the finish line of the third stage of the race, while Culprit grinds out foot after foot of film, long shots, close ups, running here and there to capture human interest material and keeping his exposed film in sealed metal canisters. A tropical climate is dynamite on exposed film. Culprit carries the canisters in his gadget bag and never lets it off his person.
He returns to the parked Nash to get a can of soup to heat up, but when he opens the trunk, he finds none of the provisions. Instead he sees a thin layer of ice cubes concealing a payload of Mexican beer. To Culprit, Panama doesn't seem like the type who could polish off all these cans of beer by himself. To Culprit, Panama is the type who sails three sheets to the wind after a sip or two. It's a ploy, a scheme to make a few extra bucks on the race circuit's black market.
After a day like today, a cold can of beer sure looks good to Culprit. Yet Panama manages to outwit him. When the skinny boy cleaned out the provisions, he also took the can opener. It's a game of chess and Panama best not underestimate the resourcefulness of Culprit Clutch. The can is cracked open just as members of the press corps are strolling by in search of the action.
--Hey, what are you birds looking at? Culprit says. --Ain't you ever seen a man open a beer with a tire iron before?
--No, but I wouldn't mind trying that out myself, says Steven Kline, a hotshot reporter from the Los Angeles Times. He's the only journalist covering the race not from an American car magazine or Europe.
Before long, all the gentlemen of the press are opening Panama’s beers with the tire iron, laughing at unfunny jokes, throwing their arms around one another in a rugged embrace, and Paul Panama is nowhere to be found.
The racer's village Sport Center is replete with Quonset huts and signs hanging over them, DINING PAVILLION and RACER DORMITORY. In the pavilion, soft drinks and hot dogs are for sale, and the dormitory building funnels sleepy racers into a circus tent with 300 cots set up with blankets placed in neat lines for the drivers, crew, and race officials.
--Driving all day is a sedentary activity, but boy, a man can build an appetite.
--Drivers eat like lumberjacks.
--It's exhausting, too. Tonight the drivers will sleep like angels.
--Hey you birds, get husky in the pots and pans department or you’ll be cooking your own breakfast!
The impound area is a hive of activity. The race committee promised to lock down the fenced area where all the autos were parked by 9 p.m. to prevent the crews from rebuilding their cars overnight. Mechanics with Coleman flashlights and lanterns rush to change tires, brake pads, and oil and beat the curfew. Drivers hover over competitors' autos, kibitizing every move.
--See the scars on the fender? They're from tire treads slapping off blow-outs at 90 miles an hour.
--I was talking to one of the Americans, the driver of Car 12, who said he made up for not knowing the road by judging the rubber the cars ahead of him had put down ahead of curves. He reads skid marks like a fortune teller reads palms.
--Whose car is this?
--Driver 52 is taking a leak.
--When Driver 52 gets back, tell Driver 52 his motor has unusually high compression.
--It’s high but within factory specifications.
--I'm not complaining. The guy has a one-in-a-million motor under the hood.
--Nah, it could blow tomorrow like anyone else’s.
--The course doesn’t seem as hard on the engine as it is on brakes and tires. All you need is to change the oil twice a day to keep the motor happy. Tires and brakes are another story.
--Blow a tire on a switchback mountain curve without guardrails, and your wreck will never be found.
Handsome silver-haired Taruffi comes around with a story about his countryman: --Antonio Stagnoli, flat out in his Ferrari on a hundred-mile straight straight after the mountains, his right-side rear tire blows, coupe leaves the road, hits the bank, and flies 180 feet through the air.
--Not dead. He’s walking with crutches under each arm.
--There was a driver killed on the first day of the race. With all this speed and frantic braking, someone is bound to die. The car spun out into a lamppost. Unfortunate Senor Xochihua was killed instantly.
--I heard he didn't buy the added insurance. All his widow in Mexico City will get is his wrecked Lincoln delivered to her door. Such a shame, they have a boy and another kid on the way.
--The short stages tempt you to treat each leg as a flat-out sprint. Crack ups are inevitable.
--The news angle is how many mistakes they made in planning the race. The planning committee must be real imbeciles. For instance, there aren't enough filling stations along the route. The faster you race, the more quickly you run out of gas. If you run out of gas, slower cars pass you by. Who ever heard of a racing strategy that requires drivers to conserve fuel?
--It's the name of the game in road racing.
--If you play it just right, you can coast the last 100 meters into the service station on fumes without losing time.
--You hear about the highway into Guatemala? It's unfinished. All gravel. Someone could have said something. Someone could have said that the course is not ready. Maybe they thought this day would never come. Maybe they just wanted to see what would happen. All they told you was to expect rough road. This is the same as no road.
--It doesn't take much for your wheels to slip on gravel.
--The unpaved section of the highway is strictly for burros.
--Depends on your position how fast you go. I'll drive flat-out, if I have nothing to lose.
--The trick is letting yourself get beat until the time is right. If I wasn’t half drunk, I wouldn’t have said that.
--Tomorrow when I have you beat, you are beat.
--One beer does this to you?
--One glass of beer and four shots of rye.
--It was a drunkard who said, 'A race is a chase, and equal parts tragedy and comedy.' It can twist on a pin.
--A race is a chase for survival. It’s on you to decide to be the stalker or the prey.
--Which is better?
--The stalker always has the advantage.
--Not when the speedy prey streaks across the finish line first.
--Ah, that’s bunk!
--Did you fellows see the German team filtering the fuel through chamois skin?
--I wonder what they know that we don’t.
--They don’t like the Mexican gasoline.
--Mercedes sent a team from Munich out here last October to plot the course, map out the variables. They brought tire specialists from Continental, Bosch engineers, the works.
--Do you know who the German racers are?
--They act like hot shots, like they think they're Italians.
--They sent their two most famous drivers to share a car.
--Hans Freleng, is Mercedes’ most experienced road racer. Karl DePatie was one of the greatest pre-war Gran Prix aces, and he's the co-driver.
--I don't know anything about European racing but I've heard the names DePatie-Freleng.
--You're thinking of a couple of cartoon bigwigs. Same names, different gentlemen.
--I dunno. I’ll take my Lincoln any day over one of those European coupes. This American-made, high-strung bucket of nuts and bolts was built for speed.
A reporter for Road and Track from Waco, Texas, Adrian Barnes, holds an unfolded map of the country and has this to say: I’ve been covering every leg of the race so far and following the radio broadcasts, and this is what I’ve figured out. When the American drivers want to pass the European hot shots on a flat course, they pour on the gas, and it’s a piece of cake. Yet when the track turns into curves, that’s when the foreign road racers show their skill and catch the Americans from behind. What this race will amount to is how many miles of the course are straight versus how many are curved. Do any of you fellows know?
--The Germans know.
--Nah, the winner is driving the jalopy that holds together on the last day’s gravel.
--Speaking of the Germans, says Stanely Kline, the Los Angeles Times reporter, tilting his head in the direction of the last car entering the impound area. It's a Mercedes with front and rear windshield blown.
The lone driver climbs out of the coupe. Covered in blood and feathers, he shakes glass shards off his pant legs.
--What happened to that car? Barnes asks.
--You don't know the story, and you call yourself a reporter? Kline says. --They hit a buzzard.
--I'm a good reporter, but I don't have your nose for the news.
--I heard it on the radio broadcast. He says it sounded like a gunshot.
--How fast were they going?
--He says they were purring along at 135 miles an hour.
One of the reporters releases an admiring whistle, then says, --To think my parents rode in horse and buggy.
--My cousin, Mickey Davis, topped 200 miles an hour on the Utah Salt Flat in a special he built himself, Bobbin says.
--Did I mention my mother in law is the Queen of England?
--Where is his co-driver, Herr DePatie?
--In the medic's tent.
--Is he all right?
--Sure, just rattled, says Kline. He opens his notebook and reads to the others:
'At the last tire change before the collision, DePatie didn't fasten his helmet strap. When the buzzard came barreling through the windshield, it knocked his helmet off and his neck flung back. He lost consciousness and was bleeding from the head. Like the true champion he is, Herr Freleng never stopped the car. Rather he poured a cup of warm tea from his thermos and tipped the cup back into his mate's mouth, reviving him. The car then returned to top speed.'
Freleng himself staggers over to where the writers are talking about him.
--How are you holding out, my good man, Hayward says. --We are glad it wasn't worse.
--He doesn't speak English, Tarnovsky says.
Yet Freleng replies in English, answering, --I have glass in my ass.
--Don't squirm, and it won't cut you!
To Freleng, the words of caution evoke the same physical response as squirming. It begins with giggling and turns into a roar of laughter. The shards embedded in his groin and buttocks dig in all the more.
--Leave it to a German to find this funny when it happens to him.
--Might be the first time I've seen laughter wipe the smile off a man's face.
--Someone, please go fetch this man a pair of tweezers.
--Where's the buzzard now? The Mercedes team might want to send it home and have it stuffed.
--Why would they do that?
--As a trophy, as a souvenir from Mexico.
Kline returns to his notebook, reading:
'The increased air pressure in the car's interior following the collision blew out the rear window, which shattered on the pavement. With the back now open, the drivers tossed the carcass out of the car behind them and cheered as it bounced on the highway floor.'
--You didn't stop to clear the glass from the road? Or the carcass?
--That was the next driver's problem, says Freleng, steadying himself.
--They said on the radio that the jeep control car swept it up, though not before several cars had blow outs.
--It's not like those tires weren't going flat one of these days, Freleng says, making himself laugh again, which brings on another wave of deep pain and causing him to bowl over and begin staggering away in the direction of the medic's tent.
--Herr Freleng, there is good news. A Chevrolet team lost control on the first leg and flipped in a field.
--This is good news?
--The crew bought a windshield from a local dealer and stuck it on with masking tape. The car then won the next leg.
No sooner is that said when six members of the Mercedes crew appear carrying a factory windshield for Freleng's car, as well as a sealant strip and a pair of steel bars to bolt across the face of the windshield.
--Buzzard bars, Kline says. --Just in case lightning strikes twice.
--Drivers, you should be getting some sleep. The race starts back at six in the morning.
--I don’t think I can sleep with the ringing in my ears.
--The race will make you deaf if it doesn’t kill you first.
--You can always quit now and save your ears.
--Not a chance.
--Did you hear? The Mercedes team of 23 is now a team of 22.
--Someone else, then? It must have been the drinking water.
--They can get by without the whole crew. Other teams have no one, just a driver and mechanic.
--They lost Freleng's girlfriend. She hit the road.
--He seemed so cheerful, everything considered.
--He doesn't know yet.
--What tough luck. First, he gets a buzzard through the windshield, and now this.
--Does this mean he's out of the race?
--That's a choice for him to make. I doubt it.
--It's easy. You've come this far. You keep going. You can always deal with her later.
--For all anyone knows, she's as far gone as Chicago by now.
--I don't remember seeing her.
--She's a child, just old enough to be a runaway.
--Typical of teenagers.
--She's a kraut. Are German teenagers anything like our teenagers? The war wasn't that long ago.
--Don't say another word. I have a picture of her in my head. A tragic overbite and dimple.
--A nose like the Wicked Witch of the West.
--Keep this on the down low, but there's a rumor floating that she switched allegiances and that she's taken up with another driver, an American, and that she's hiding out in the back seat of his car like contraband.
--That should make her easy to find. All the cars are in the impound area for the night.
--That was the first place they checked. She's still missing.
--Obviously, she only hides in the car when the race is on.
--That's clever on her part. They can't search for her while he's racing.
--Wait until Freleng finds out!
--The rumor I hear is that she's taken up not with a racer but with a member of the Carrera Panamericana entourage.
--A race official?
--Heavens not one of the reporters. We are all present and accounted for.
--Not unless one of you birds is hiding the girl somewheres.
--I could take offense at that, as I see it as my professional responsibility not to pull wool over people's eyes, but I have nothing to hide, and I have never seen the girl.
--I think it's safe to say she's not hiding out with anyone from the press.
There are no cots reserved for Culprit and Panama. The press is allowed in the dormitory tent, though many drive ahead 100 miles to stay in hotels. As representatives of a car company, Culprit and Panama are not press and have no leg to stand on. They sleep in the Nash.
Last night, Panama never came back for his payload of beer, never came back to sleep in the back seat.
Culprit doesn't give it a second thought until morning, just before the race is set to start at 6:03 sharp. He returns from a trip to the latrine to find Panama under the hood pouring a quart of oil into the engine. The surprise is when through the glass he sees a girl hiding in the back seat.
--Panama, this isn’t the time.
--The time for what?
--The time for making friends.
--I'll be no trouble, she says, rolling down the window.
--Where did she come from?
--Frieda's Austrian. She was with the Mercedes team. I'm nuts about her.
--The German will kill you if he finds out.
--If he finds out. It makes no matter. We're in love.
--What good will that do you when you're dead? He might even kill me to get to you.
--You take your life in your hands every time you ride in a car, Panama says calmly. --There is danger on every switch-back, danger every time I push past 100 miles an hour. So don't talk to me about danger. A little extra of a good thing ain't gonna kill you.
Culprit has no idea what that means, but Panama sounds convinced. There is nothing to do but drive.
--Panama, we need to stop so I can shoot footage. The pack will be coming through.
--The film can go to hell, says the young driver whose mood has changed. He steps on it.
Miles later, Panama slams on the brakes, puts the car in reverse and backs off the road where it is concealed by a billboard advertising Coca-Cola.
--We can hide here and film the racers as they whiz by, he says, shutting the motor off.
--You are outfoxing the foxes, the girl says.
--That's the thing about Germans, Culprit says as he removes the camera from its case. --Every time you beat them they come back next time stronger. It's a historical fact.
The pack passes without incident. There is no sign of Freleng's car. Culprit packs up, and they are off.
Nearing the end of the race, there are fewer cars left in the field. There aren't as many country people residing near the track who know there’s a race. The highway is a ghost town. There are no signs of other human beings until they are outside Tuxtla and reach an agricultural checkpoint where all cars must stop for a hoof and mouth disease inspection.
--Don’t they know there’s a race on? Don’t they know we're not smuggling livestock?
Frieda answers with a question of her own, --Are you sure we are going the right way?
--We're wasting time. The Germans are catching up, Culprit says. --They will want the girl back.
--Shut up, they can’t have her.
After the inspectors have looked the car over, they drag over a pressure tank and spray the chassis of the car with a strong-smelling disinfectant.
A Mercedes pulls up behind the Nash, the German racers.
--Don't look now.
Panama pulls the girl’s head down in the back seat so they won’t see her.
--They are the top car in the field, Culprit says. --They're lagging only because they are looking for her.
--Of all the dumb luck.
--Do they know I am with you? Frieda asks.
--I'm not waiting long enough to find out, Panama says.
He lunges from the Nash and grabs the hose from the station agent who backs away from the maniac American. Panama sprays the green disinfectant in the direction of Freleng and DePatie who were outside their car genially walking toward him. He moves the spray around, dowsing the Germans as they stagger back toward their auto while clutching their eyes from the stinging.
Panama jumps back into the Nash and hammers the throttle.
--We were skating by just fine, Culprit says. Now they'll come after us tonight at the racer's village.
--There won't be a racer's village.
--They can kill me, Panama replies, --But I won’t let the lay a finger on you or you.
The car feels claustrophobic. Frieda is crying in the back.
--If you want, we can turn off and hide. Then after they pass, we can head back toward Mexico City.
--I didn't come all this way not to finish the race.
--We're not in the race.
--Listen, there’s a land bridge near Tehuantepec that connects Mexico and Central America. We might be able to veer off course and find our way to the finish line ahead of the others. It's a short cut.
The car shoots across the broad valley low mountain ranges south of Oaxaca before yielding to a long flat straight and an hour of easy, open-throttle driving before reaching the Pacific edge of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.
--This is where we change course, Panama says.
The highway stops. At its end is a T in the road and a twenty-foot cement bank, brand spanking new, an engineering marvel considering the rough terrain. Panama makes a screeching ninety-degree right turn onto a new road and then a left in between two high cement walls. There are no other cars. The highway is not yet open to the public, and the racers go the other way.
They pass a sign with the words SLOW BAD CURVE in Spanish. When Culprit thinks of it later, he remembers the sign but not the Spanish. He remembers the sign but not the curve. The long-body Nash is unable to make it and plunges over the precipice, landing in the mud beside the river. Panama guns the motor but the auto won't budge.
Since the crash took place at the entrance to the village of Tehuantepec, citizens and officials rush down the bank to see what help they can give.
Away from the car, Panama checks himself to make sure he's in one piece. He focuses his eyes on the precipice above, the area where the Nash had left the road. Then he looks for the girl.
Culprit pulls the camera from the case to shoot the accident's aftermath.
Then they hear it. The roar of a racing car slashing through the river valley. The ground shakes and the people hold their hands over their ears. The sound has a way of surrounding them so no one can tell from which direction the car is coming, but since they are all off the road there isn’t the need to get out of the way.
Only Panama seems to know where to see the car, and when he sees it, it makes the same mistake he had made, drives off the same precipice, soaring through the air and down toward the river bank. When Panama crashed, there were no people down there. Now there are dozens. The Mercedes lands on top of the crowd before crashing into the rear end of the Nash. The second accident kills the two German racers and four people on the ground including a soldier, a police man, a bureaucrat, and a news reporter. It also frees the Nash so that it can be driven away from the accident scene.
The scene is in pandemonium, as family members weep for their dead loved ones, and police pull the dead race car drivers from their wreck.
Frieda is unhurt, a safe distance from the crash scene, comforted by a Mexican motorcyclist. He is attaching her bag to the back of his bike. When she sees Panama coming toward her, she grabs the motorcyclist by the arm. He lets her bag fall to the ground, mounts his bike and she climbs on behind him. The two of them speed away leaving her bag behind as Panama feebly makes chase on foot. Panama, not to let himself come undone, shakes an old man off his horse, climbs the horse and rides off in the direction of the motorcycle.
Culprit catches it all on film.
Through a detective who speaks English, the Mexican authorities will question Culprit extensively and conclude that there were no obvious reasons for either accident other than the drivers were momentarily blinded by the sun and that sometimes lightning strikes twice.
When it's over, Culprit will drive away in the Nash by himself.
One more leg tomorrow, and this race is history.