The 21st edition of the 1000 MIllas Sport was held November 18-22, 2009 in the foothills of Argentina’s Andes mountains. Argentina’s comparable to the Mille Miglia Storica consists of 155 participants driving pre-1980 automobiles over 1000 miles of some of the most scenic roads in the world.
Shelby Myers of RM Auctions and co-pilot Chris Drake drove a 1973 Maserati Khamsin in the 1000 Millas Sport and Myers shared his first rally experiences in entertaining and informative detail.
Story and photos by Shelby Myers
It has been a very long flight. We are slowly making our way across the South American continent toward Argentina. My English co-pilot Chris Drake has been drifting in and out of movies for most of the trip. Luckily his Bose headset has drowned out the snoring racket that has been going on with this dude in the seat behind us.
After a stop in Sao Paulo, Brazil, the main language in the British Airways cabin has slowly drifted from English to Spanish. Toward the landing in Buenos Aires I was even mistaken for an Argentinean by a lovely female cabin crew member.
This is my first time to Argentina. Some Canadian friends of mine have told me before leaving, “it is like the Rockies on steroids!” Or maybe that was a colleague of mine – can’t remember. I slowly doze off to the thought of big mountains, lovely female cabin crew members, and steroids.
I wake up too soon – or so it seems – “Ladies and gentleman, it is now 4am and the cabin crew will be passing through the cabin to serve breakfast before our descent into Buenos Aires.”
We are to meet a friend of mine, Cristian Bertschi, in Buenos Aires for dinner. He takes us to a restaurant in the Palermo region in the city – huge area! It is a cool outdoor place with perfect Argentinean beef (which I might say is half the reason for travelling here). After a short meal we crash early.
Chris and I slowly awake. Chris, being the go-getter that he is, is up at 6:30am and heads to the hotel lobby to embark on the first of many South American feasts that are to come. I join him just in time for the taxi with an apple in hand and my bags. We make our way by taxi to the domestic airport, which is close to city centre. The international airport is a 45 minute ride into the centre of Buenos Aires.
The trip started off with Chris and I flying to Bariloche which is a two hour flight to the south from Buenos Aires. Stepping off the plane the climate is quite a bit cooler and I had wished I carried my sweater on the plane. We collect our bags and head out the front of the airport to find a red Ferrari 250 SWB zooming past us. The shuttle is arranged and we board. From the airport it is about 45 minutes to our hotel. Llao Llao Hotel is a beautiful lodge set in a pristine location among lakes and snowcapped mountain peaks of Patagonia, Argentina. Our room sits on the corner of the main building overlooking the beautiful lakes east and west – perfect for watching the sun rise and set.
We pass out for a couple of hours and then head to the main hall for check in and registration. Our Khamsin is car #103, and we are given an enormous number of rally gifts including a GPS navigation system which will come in handy for us during the rally. It is now 9:00pm, although it doesn’t feel like it because the sun has just barely went down. We head to the dinning hall. The hall is a large room with high wood rafters and seats 400 people or so, and the entire centre of the room is carved out for the large tables to host the feast that is served each night. For people who love to eat good food, Argentina is a paradise! The meals featured freshly baked breads, cheeses, smoked salmon delicacies, pastas and the best of all – Argentinean beef – cut thinly and served singed on the outside and with a lovely pink inside. We meet the gentleman whose car we are using – Claudio Scalise – and his co-pilot ‘Poppy’ and dine with him the first evening. Following dinner we all make our way to the lobby bar where all of the entrants are enjoying cigars and after dinner cigarettes. After speaking briefly to a few people, Chris and I go to bed early and try to get some rest for the start of the rally tomorrow.
I am awaken by the sound of engines and cars outside of our window. The clock reads 7:15am … damn go getters! Our starting time is 9:19am. For those of you who haven’t done a regulation rally (such as myself), the way it works is this: You are given a starting time, i.e. 9:19. You must leave at this time otherwise you are docked points/time. From this point you must set a stop-watch, because at each stage of the day you have time check points which you must time exactly depending on your start time. In between the stages, there are several sets of time trials which you must complete. These time trials may be as few as one or two, or five or seven, all linked together so each must be timed exactly. These are essentially gauged by hoses that are placed across the road which you must cross at an exact time. For example, there is a start hose and an end hose. You have 7 seconds to get from the start to the end hose. If you are over or under, the difference from the recommended time and your time is added together at the end of each day. At the end of three days the team with the closest time to the recommended time is the winner. This includes your overall running time at each stage. The winners of this event typically are to the 100th of a second of deviation from the mean time of the event, which is incredibly precise!
After having a fast bite to eat and a coffee, Chris and I make our way outside and warm up the car. There are 150 other mechanical wonders of varying degree, depending on your point of view, as we look around the car park. The Ferrari 250 SWB tops them in terms of value; however, such cars as the Ferrari 250 Lusso, 1750 Alfa Romeo 6C 1750 Zagato, 275 GTB/4, Mercedes 300SL and a lovely Alfa Romeo ‘Double Bubble’ are also quite stunning.
The 1973 Maserati Khamsin which we are driving is not quite as valuable, but nonetheless iconic for its era. It is a 1973 and has a 4.9 Litre engine with approximately 310hp, most of which is produced under 4000 rpm. This particular car is the only one of its kind in Argentina and has been there since new. The interior is original from new and finished in lovely 70’s colours (depending on your taste) of brown and orange. The paint has been redone once and Claudio has made sure that mechanically the car is sorted.
I am due to be in the driver’s seat the first day, and as we position ourselves in line behind car #102, a white 1970’s Porsche 911, the rain starts to come down pretty heavy. We pass by loads of eager Argentinean spectators, pretty girls and television crews, and the biggest worry on my mind is not to stall the car in front of everyone. As we pass through the start gate at exactly 9:19 the open road lies ahead … until Chris, who is navigating, shouts to me “oh shit, we have our first set of time trials in a couple hundred meters!” Using only the stopwatch on Chris’s watch, we try and count 30 seconds from the car in front of us but soon realize that this is not going to be very accurate. Luckily the max penalty points are 100 – we score 100’s on them all!
We continue to drive up some fairly steep winding roads, and I am surprised to find the roads are not near as bumpy as I imagined. In fact they are better than most places in the US, Canada and Europe than I have driven on. Immediately I can feel the Khamsin has a lot of torque as I rarely need to shift gears around the corners as third gear seems to be sufficient. The roads wrap us around a beautiful lake, and soon we are perched atop a mountain with a view of our hotel and resort on the other side of the lake. Snapping photos we continue on through Bariloche.
We soon find ourselves on open road between two mountain ranges picking up some speed and try to keep up to the number 102 car in front of us. Hitting various small villages, check-points, time trials and petrol stations along the way, we finally make our way to the Chilean border. Customs is very relaxed, and the officials are more interested in taking photos than checking to see if we may be smuggling loads of white powder into the country.
As Chris and I pull in for a quick pit stop, there now seems to be a large banging coming from under the engine bay. We take turns peering under the hood and pushing the throttle, and we determine that a water pump bearing has worked its way loose. Thinking we can limp the car to the lunch stop in Chile and back and be thankful we had at least one day of uninterrupted driving, after fiddling with the air-conditioning knob, the noise soon stops and we realize that the AC pump is causing all the racket.
Back on the throttle and now at the back of the pack, we cut our lunch stop short and head back on the road trying to put the white Porsche in our sights. Peering through the fog with my trustee navigator finally getting the hang of the stopwatch and navigation book, we soon find ourselves chasing the number 98 car. It is completely pissing rain and with Chris’s “stop, stop, stop and go, go, go” techniques starting to prove relatively effective, the famous early Maserati/Lamborghini electrical gremlin struck and the car died quietly, leaving us stranded just yards from our final time trial of the day and the hotel doorstep. Towing the car to the hotel by Claudio’s support vehicle, we are disappointed the day finished like this but delighted to have gotten the chance to make it so far.
The next morning after grabbing a quick bite to eat and watching the rest of the field shoot off for the day, Chris and I meet a mechanic who has come up from Barriloche to take a look at the car for us. Our translator, a lovely woman from the event organization committee, tries to help us explain to the mechanic in Spanish what is wrong with the car. Maserati wrongly designed the electric systems by placing the black box that supplies power from the coil, which controls all of the cars electrics, at the very front of the car on a cross-member just underneath the grill. The obvious problem with this is it sucks up whatever the road can throw at it. “How do you say hair-dryer in Spanish?” we asked the lady from the event committee. Hairdryers can be used as more than just a woman’s hair accessory, and the one she lent us from her room worked brilliantly as we spent the next several hours blow-drying the water-soaked electrics. Once we had fitted the box back on the car and put the grill in place, the clocks read 11:00am – we would be miles behind the field and stood no chance of catching up.
After debating on whether to try the excellent trout fishing in the area, we decided to take up an offer from the gentleman in the Mercedes 300SL Roadster and the Ferrari Lusso and dine with them at their private hotel and cottage on a secluded lake in the Andes. Since the rain had subsided this day, the views were incredible and the 200kms to the resort getaway was the best driving we had done since the beginning of the trip. Having been both veterans (and winners) of the Argentina 1000km Millas and Italian Mille Miglia, the two gentleman we lunched with decided that this year they were going to enjoy the rally and take the Friday’s drive off and relax. Fortunately for us, they were invaluable by giving us tips on how to get through the time trials and meet the overall time standards with precise accuracy, which is exactly what we did the following day ….
The final day of the rally was the shortest. It starts with a lie-in for most competitors then a lazy day winding to the south and back covering only 400kms or so. Recently armed with stopwatches from veteran US competitors Martin Button and Sandra Kasky, and invigorated with the expert advice from our lunch companions the day before, Chris and I were on a mission to finish high on the grid. We had all the right ingredients: Chris an experienced UK Formula Junior racing champion driver; a freshly prepared car; great weather; a good sleep under our belts. The only problem we would experience was my amateur navigation skills, or lack thereof. I soon realized after our first time trials that the task of the navigator is in most cases much more difficult than that of the pilot. In fact, getting used to reading the driving notes, time trials and overall timing takes quite a bit of focus and practice. The first time trial was a disaster and we easily scored 100’s on each marker. The second time trial of only two seconds was better, but still no where near the time we had to achieve. Each subsequent time trial soon came with disappointment, and I soon started to feel slightly sheepish about my inability to navigate properly.
This quickly changed as Chris engaged in a high speed chase through a long stretch of windy, open roads. Sandwiched between our friendly number 102 car, the Porsche 911 and a speedy little Triumph TR6, I put the navigation book down and played the role of photographer and spotter for Chris. The chase went on for an hour or so and when we finally came to our stop, the cars were nicely warm and all participants involved had huge grins across their faces. “This is what driving is all about!” we shouted to each other.
Finally the last time trials section of the rally – a difficult track of 9 start/stop points set up on a go-karting track with varying times between each point. We slowed the approach and, stopwatches in hand, proceeded through the line. The first one was 7 seconds, and I counted down aloud so that Chris could gauge the time to the finish distance. Now immediately resetting the stopwatch on the finish/start line, we had 38 seconds to the next line. Tyres squealing and rushing through the end line, I hit the wrong reset button on one of the clocks and things started to go down-hill. After a series of “Go, Go, Go … Slow, Slow, Slow … No, No, No … awww screw it!” sequences we were at the end of our run.
After watching a Polo game and having a few late afternoon coffees with the participants, Chris and I headed back towards to the hotel, and reflected on our overall efforts. Despite the errors in navigation and the lack of preparation for the event, Chris and I were quite pleased and had a truly incredible experience. There is something about being in a motorcar that is magnificent. I am not sure if it is the smell of petrol, the combination of speed and grace, or the feeling of being out on the open road with the ability to forget the stresses of daily life and just concentrate on the drive that I love. Whatever it is, as we crossed through the finish line and proceeded to park the car, I was happy to be done but thinking of the next excuse I can use to get back in a car and fulfill that addiction.
I am filled with grateful thanks to my co-pilot Chris Drake, Claudio Scalise for letting us use his wonderful car and to Cristian Bertschi for making it all happen. I am already looking forward to next year!