Rallying at the Ends of the Earth

Posted on 06. May, 2013 by in Features, Rally News

American rally driver, and 2011 Rally America 2WD champion Wyatt Knox set out looking for an adventure when he travelled to Tierra del Fuego to rally a Suzuki at the ends of the earth. What he found was so much more than a weekend of special stages.

Words and Photos: Wyatt Knox, Special to Flatovercrest.com

Patagonia.  The place really is one of the last frontiers of adventure, a place where man can still pit himself against nature in ways not possible in many of the more “civilized” parts of the world.  When rumours started making their way north about Patagonia’s thriving motorsport scene, about rally races through her pristine hills and valleys, they took hold among American racers like gold fever.  Could it be true?  In this most unlikely of places, could a motorsport community really exist with the contacts, influence, and organization necessary to hold quality racing events?

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With a co-driver nicknamed “Chicken Breast” and a Suzuki not found at home, I entered a race most Americans have never heard of, the Porvenir Rally off the southern tip of South America. I travelled down an entire continent and across some of the most beautiful land in the world.

I had set up a deal to drive a FIA N2 class Suzuki Swift.The N2 class is for production-based, two-wheel-drive cars with engines up to and including 1.6 litres of displacement. The only other class in the Patagonian Rally Championship (PRC) is N3, with similar rules but allowing up to 2.0 litres of displacement. There are no all-wheel-drive classes in the Championship. The Porvenir, the penultimate round of the PRC, is the southernmost race in the series.  The rally itself is actually held on Tierra del Fuego, the largest island at the southern tip of South America, and well below the 50th parallel. I’d have to cross the Strait of Magellan to get there.

Even getting to Punta Arenas – the southernmost airport on the mainland – giving it a sense of being at the end of the world – was an adventure in itself. I was just glad to have made it. On the way south his plane suffered mechanical problems that I still do not understand, since the flight crew’s frantic announcements were all in Spanish.

We had to make a few unplanned stops on the way down. The temperature in the plane seemed to be just above freezing and all sorts of lights and buzzers were going off.  The crew was obviously pretty nervous. Nevertheless, the plane landed safely at our final destinations, and we disembarked.

When I was happily on the ground, I met up with his team and headed to the suburban Punta Arenas home that would serve as our HQ for the event.

The team belongs to Eugenio Vilicic, a second generation Croatian ex-pat who operates a local transportation and construction business.  Eugenio’s grandfather had moved to South America to escape WWII and the threat of a Nazi-controlled Europe.  Eugenio inherited the construction business from his father, and will likely pass it on to his son when the time comes.  He’s also the current points leader in the Patagonian Rally Championship, piloting an N2 class Mitsubishi Lancer. He was the only member of the team who spoke any English at all.

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After a night of revelry and delicious local specialties, including grass-fed asado and a grape brandy called pisco, and a good night’s sleep, we set out to practice in the Suzuki and Mitsubishi.  In a place with so few inhabitants and such vast tracts of land, finding space to practice in rally cars proved to be no challenge at all.  Dirt roads were everywhere, delineated only occasionally by sheep fences and grates.

We spent a few days happily sliding and grinding through the countryside.  It was the one of the craziest few days of my life. There was never any thought of police action or angry neighbours like you’d have in the States.  Once I relaxed and realized that we could drive as fast as we wanted pretty much anywhere, it became really fun.  It was much more like snowboarding with friends than racing, and I really fell in love with the sport again.  We stayed on gravel for two or three days straight, just ripping around and exploring the countryside.

Before the ferry ride to Tierra del Fuego for the race, we spent a day in the garage re-prepping the cars.  The engine in the Suzuki was changed to a more rule-legal unit so there wouldn’t be any trouble at tech inspection, we checked and re-checked both cars, and assembled spares and tools for the trip across the Strait of Magellan.

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The ferry docked in the small port town of Porvenir, on the west coast of Tierra del Fuego.  after unloading, the team then set about doing “recce,” or pre-running the course that the race would follow in order to make the notes that they would use to navigate the turns and hills.

Recce was the most civilized thing I’ve seen.  In the States, the organizers give us notes that have been made beforehand, and we have one pass down the road to try to make them useable.  In Chile, they do it the way the rest of the world does: you get two passes down the road and make your own notes from scratch.  I knew that this was going to be my weakness, so I really took my time and tried to get it right.

My co-driver, a local nicknamed Pachuga or “Chicken Breast,” spoke no English at all.  One of the top co-drivers in the region and a true professional, Pachuga learned the basic English terms for most obstacles. A shorter guy with a ready laugh, Pachuga is local to the Porvenir area, and has aspirations of running the the Chilean championship. We made do with my crap Spanish and hand signals mostly.  The translator app on my iPhone was used when things got complicated, when there was time to use it.

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The first competitive stage of the day was at the local rally track, and was about 2.5 miles long.  Most towns in southern Chile and Argentina especially have their own rally and motocross tracks, built and maintained by the government in the same way that an American town might have a fairgrounds.  This short stage would also be used as a qualifying run to determine the start order for the rest of the rally, which started the next morning.  We finished the stage in fifth out of eighteen cars in our class and retired for the night to review video from recce and perfect their notes for the morning.

Race day saw the crews rising in the dark and assembling at the start as the sun was coming up.  The rally was composed of six high speed Special Stages around the island, connected with normal speed transit sections on the open road. We started the morning strong, with a third place finish on the first stage.

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The hardest part of rallying there is keeping your eyes on the road and staying focused on the task at hand. The coastline, the scenery… there’s wild flamingoes and loads of other birds and wildlife running around. It’s like racing through a National Geographic show. Your eyes and brain want to check it all out and you really have to fight that instinct.

Third place was unfortunately the best position we would reach at Rally Porvenir.

I came over a crest a little too hot, and the car jumped into the air in a way that I wasn’t really expecting. We landed hard on the nose, and broke an engine mount. It was impossible to continue, as the radiator had also been damaged.  It was disappointing after coming all this way, I’ve had the time of my life and really enjoyed every minute of the trip, so leaving without a trophy doesn’t bother me too much.  I learned a lot about making pace notes, and won’t make the same mistake again.

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With seasons in Patagonia reversed, I hope to return mid-August for a snow rally on Tierra del Fuego.  Everybody here was amazing.  The hospitality, the food, the scenery… I’ll be coming back for sure. I can’t recommend it highly enough to other teams. I’m in the process of building a film crew and support for his next adventure.  I really don’t like doing the same race twice.  That’s why I started competing in Canada and Mexico, and ultimately what brought me down here… The adventure of international racing, especially in special and remote places like this, is really what I’m in this sport for and I hope to share these adventures with the world.

We have set their sights on at least one other major international adventure this year.  I can’t tell you where we’re headed next, but I can tell you that we’re going with a proper film crew and you’ll be able to tune in and come along for the adventure.

Wyatt Knox competed in Patagonia thanks to the efforts of Triple Aught Designs, Team O’Neil Rally School, ITS Tactical, Drink Water, Eugenio Vilicic and family, Pachuga, and extends his thanks to everyone who made this trip possible.
 

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One Response to “Rallying at the Ends of the Earth”

  1. Adam Bettcher

    07. May, 2013

    Looks like a great adventure. I traveled from Santiago, Chile to Ushuaia, Argentina as part of the “Traveling Press” on Camel Trophy 1998 in Land Rovers. I would love to retrace my route sometime. Thanks to you and also Triple Aught for sharing your adventure!
    ~Adam Bettcher

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