A Midlife Moment: A Late Bloomer Does the La Carrera Panamericana

Behaviorists tell us that most folks have one: a sudden, midlife revelation–we won’t call it a crisis–when we realize that life is blitzing by and we’re not going to be able to check off all those cool items on our bucket list. The big question, of course, is what do we do then?

Renée Brinkerhoff’s existential moment—call it an epiphany if you like-struck her in the midst of the most ordinary of household tasks. “I was folding laundry,” Renée explains, “when the thought just popped up again, and I told myself that one day I’m gonna race a car. I’d been dreaming about it forever, now I gotta go do it.”

So that’s what she did.

Renée jumped into the deep end, choosing one of the most demanding and dangerous vintage rallies on the planet: La Carrera Panamericana. In 2013, at age 57, she drove her first race car, a rally-prepped 356 Porsche supported by seasoned co-driver Roberto Mendoza and her hastily assembled Valkyrie Racing team. She became the first woman in Panamericana history to drive to a class win in her debut, and only the second woman to post a podium finish in any class. She is also the only woman to finish and place in each of her starts.

A Yen for Travel and Speed

How did these remarkable achievements come about? Reflecting on it, Renée isn’t sure.

No doubt her unconventional childhood contributed. Her dad was a Marine and diplomat, and her family lived in Hong Kong during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, in Laos during the Vietnam War, and in California during social and political unrest.

Growing up with freedom in these places, she experienced life as few kids do. Travel and adventure beckoned, and so did speed. As a teen, her first car was a souped-up VW Bug, and she loved driving it as fast as it could go. Fast was fun, and she wanted more.

But for Renée, as for many would-be racers, life intervened. She married and concentrated on raising a family. Still, she harbored a secret need for speed. “No one knew,” she says. “I didn’t follow racing or even watch it on TV.”

When Renée dropped her I’m-going-racing bomb on her family, it produced plenty of grimaces and eye-rolls. “Are you nuts?” they asked.

“At first,” she says, “they thought I was talking about maybe Cars and Coffee or autocrossing, and I said, No, I want to do real racing.” As she persisted, those close to her began to realize she was serious.

They slowly came around-some faster than others-while helpfully pointing out the obstacles she faced. The most obvious? She had no experience, no car, and no clue as to which venue. Undaunted, she concentrated on turning her vision into reality.

Car First, Then Race

For Renée, choosing the car came first. “When I saw the 356, I knew it was the car I wanted to race. I love the lines, the body style,” she said. “I didn’t know anything about it, but I loved it.”

Car acquired, the question of what kind of racing remained. “Everyone was giving me ideas. Then someone suggested road rallies and mentioned one down in Mexico,” she recalls. “So I got on the internet and found the Panamericana. It looked like a lot of fun. After I read about it, I thought, that’s the race I want to do. Of course, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.”

Renée traveled to Mexico in 2012 to learn more about the Panamericana. She managed to score a ride in someone’s 356. “I did some navigating, a little driving, and really loved the rally,” she says. She returned bitten by the Panamericana bug. “It really is a bug,” she observes.

Still, doubts persisted. “What if I just can’t drive?” she asked herself. “What if I don’t have the ability or I’m too afraid?”

So she signed up for driving instruction, including a Porsche school at Barber Motorsports Park. “My instructor was Hurley Haywood,” she says, “and when they called everyone in, he said we’re staying out. He worked with me, and my lap times got better and better. He really gave me the confidence that if I worked at it, I had the ability to do this.”

Renée set about having her 356 built into a rally car, a feat pulled off by veteran Porsche builder and driving instructor Greg Johnson, owner of Eurosport in Sheridan, Colorado. “When she got back from Mexico in 2012, we started to get serious about turning her car into a La Carrera competitor,” Greg says. “I also became a mentor, and we spent many hours researching the rules before we started on the car. First and foremost, we wanted to make it as safe as possible, as well as competitive.”

 

TRUCKING THROUGH MEXICO WITH VALKYRIE RACING

No car can survive the Panamericana without an expert service team and a transporter packed with tools, consumables and spares. Jim Ansite, a 356 expert who owns Ansite Inc., maintains Renée’s Porsche along with mechanic Kelly Brown. Their rig hauls a spare engine and transmission plus suspension parts and a big generator for their welder.

Then add in the tent, tools, lights and such equipment.

Jim explains: “We basically leapfrog the route to stay ahead of our car. At each stop, we jack it up, put it on stands, pull the wheels and start our checks. We get feedback from Renée, and if nothing’s wrong, we refuel the car and they go back out.”

Then at the end of each day, they repeat the drill. Each time they discover a problem and must make repairs, they’re racing the clock. Sometimes they hustle for more than 24 hours straight. Days become a blur. Stress builds. Cell phone coverage is spotty.

The 356 carries a satellite transponder, and other competitors often relay problems and requests for help. If the Porsche is off-course or disabled, Jim and his team must wait until the stage is cleared before they can dash out and rescue it.

For car setup, Jim shoots for “predictable,” and he works with Renée to help her translate the car’s behavior into words. He’s encouraged by her progress. “It’s a huge learning curve for her,” Jim says, “and she is determined to get better. She handles pressure really well. There are heated moments, but unlike some men I’ve worked with, she knows yelling and screaming don’t work. It’s a seven-day race, and our goal is to finish the race.”

From bottom to top, they upgraded and improved the 356’s safety and performance as much as the rules allowed. While the car was being built, Greg also spent some track time instructing Renée. His observations? “I would not say she was a natural, but she was pretty much fearless-and determined to get better.”

 

First Time’s the Charm

So in 2013, Renée, her car still being tweaked as it rolled onto the transporter, headed south. Her expectations were not high. “I told my crew this race will be my school,” she says. “I’d had very little seat time, and I was very nervous. At the start, my whole body was shaking.”

Despite these constraints, she and Roberto motored off into the unknown, drove as fast as they dared, and managed to survive the first harrowing day. At the awards dinner that night, they were astonished to learn they had won their class.

Heartened, they pressed on, gaining confidence with each stage. On Day Six, with a comfortable class lead, Renée encountered a wet, oil-slicked curve and spun into a field. After she limped the damaged Porsche to the service area, her team sprang into action, repairing the car overnight. The next day, Renée and Roberto finished the rally with the small-bore Sports Menor class win. “I just couldn’t believe it,” she says. “I was just trying to do what I’d been dreaming about for years, and I actually won.”

Pumped by the victory, she and Roberto returned the next year to face rain, fog and treacherous conditions, which by rally’s end had claimed half of the entries. Still, Valkyrie Racing soldiered on to garner second in class and 14th overall.

In 2015, Renée crashed heavily in the qualifying round and was unable to compete in the first two stages. Pulling all-nighters, her team managed to stitch the car together, in part with steering components donated by a local 356 collector–who also attempted to buy her car. Renée and Roberto were able to regain much of the lost time to finish second in class. Again, she was the only woman to finish the rally.

During her rally appearances, Renée and her 356— which, in 2013, won the Most Beautiful Race Car award—have become fan favorites, drawing crowds along the stages. Women have been drawn to her improbable tale, she adds.

Renée maintains that she didn’t set out to be a role model. “My decision to race was a personal one,” she says, though she points out that she believes inspiring others—both women and men—is a good thing. Her message? You can overcome obstacles. Conquer your fears. You can pursue dreams and break barriers.

 

A BUSY 2017

We initially caught up with Renée and her Porsche 356 at last year’s Speedfest at the Classic Motorsports Mitty. She had arrived at Road Atlanta early to collect a prize that her family had won for her via a charity auction: instruction time with pro driver Randy Pobst.

“Randy drove my car first to show me the lines and see what I was working with as far as speed, handling and braking,” Renée says, “and then we changed seats. Road Atlanta has everything: big elevation changes, fast corners, slow corners, blind crests. It’s a great place to hone your driving skills, and I learned a lot.”

Randy’s comment after spending several laps behind the wheel? “‘I don’t know how you drive this thing for 2000 miles,’” she relays.

Soon after the Mitty, Renée and her silver Porsche returned to La Carrera Panamericana. During the prerace drivers’ meeting for the 30th running of this storied event, Renée looked around the room and saw nearly 80 competitors, all of them men.

Once again, she was the only female driver, and once again she was afraid. “This fear was different,” she says. “I asked myself what in the world I was doing.” Later, she had a stern talk with herself and decided that, just like all those testosterone-loaded guys, she could conquer her fear of this notorious race by turning in her best drive day after day. And that’s what she did.

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Driving with a blend of speed and caution, Renée and her copilot stayed near the top of the time sheets, winning stages or placing second. After Day Five, they enjoyed a comfortable lead. “On Day Six,” she says, “we said our strategy was to bring her home by playing it safe and staying out of trouble.”

Easier said than done. On Day Seven, running on the Devil’s Backbone toward Durango, Renée rounded a blind curve at speed and found herself in the midst of a cattle drive. “I saw a gap and shot through it,” she says, “ft happened so fast the cattle didn’t even know what happened.” At the end of that final day, she had clinched first place in class and ended up an impressive 24th overall.

“We accomplished our mission,” she says. “We won our class, put the car on the trailer unscathed, and made a little additional history as the first woman to place first in class two times.”

What’s next for Renée and Team Valkyrie? They’re heading to Tasmania to run the Targa Tasmania. After the La Carrera win, she plans to compete in five more races on six continents over the next three years on a world rally tour. Watch racevalkyrie.com for details.

 

 

LA CARRERA PANAMERICANA: MEXICO’S ROAD RACE

The first Mexican Road Race was launched in 1950 to publicize the recently completed Pan American Highway. American Hershel McGriff drove an Oldsmobile 88 to the win in that event. The race proved to be fun, fast and dangerous, quickly attracting racers and manufacturers from all over the world. It also proved to be deadly, with 27 deaths in five years. In 1955, the Panamericana was cancelled due to rising costs and safety concerns.

The race was revived in 1988 as a stage rally on paved roads through Central Mexico, and its 10 classes generally draw up to 100 vintage racers.

The speed stages are closed to traffic (although a stray vehicle or animal can present a real hazard) and include all kinds of terrain, from lowland deserts to mountain switchbacks bordered by precipitous drop-offs, that’s often crowded with spectators and often without guardrails. Overcooking a corner may result in a team launching into space, and the outcome is not kind. Injuries and, infrequently, deaths result.

Rally organizers set time limits for transit stages and assess penalties for late arrivals. Federales escort racers through transits, but a team that’s running behind on their own may struggle with poorly marked routes while dodging tractors, cows and the occasional civilian who wants to race.

Pilots and copilots often put in 15-hour days, and support crews must sometimes work around the clock. The Panamericana has been called a “wild and unpredictable beast, the greatest adventure a racer can experience, an exhausting, exhilarating experience.”

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