Saturday At the Races with Santiago
Text + Photos: Mike Blanchard
Spotlight | By day Santiago De Rivas Salas is a corporate guy. He would seem at first glance the type of man to play it safe in life but that would be a misconception. In fact De Rivas, 56, a native of Mexico City, has been a bit of a thrill seeker for most of his adult life. He started out in competitive sky diving as a young man and for the last ten years he has been racing cars with his son Santiago who for clarity goes by Santi.
A week after the recent Mexican round of the Formula One Grand Prix circus at the Circuito Hermanos Rodriguez the final race of the Copa Notiauto series was held at the same track.
Sponsored by the online motorsports magazine Notiauto, the series is for touring cars between 1.6 litre and 2.0 litre displacement. De Rivas races a Chevrolet Chevy with an 1.8 litre engine from a Chevrolet Tornado pickup.
With the exception of a race held in Pachuca when the track was being prepped for the F1 race, the Copa Notiauto series is held at the same track for the whole season.The track can be configured in a number of different ways (including an oval for NASCAR races) but for most of the season they use the whole track. For the final race they were using an abbreviated section that included part of the oval and the stadium section.
Race weekends consist of practice, qualifying and two races. Races are usually held on Saturdays which De Rivas says makes it easier to get some rest before going back to work on Monday.
As it was the last race of the year De Rivas got a pit suite and threw a party for his sponsors, family and friends. The whole family made a day of it. His daughter Fernanda and wife Rocio were excited but slightly nervous.
At an early race in his career De Rivas had a bad crash, rolling the car several times and breaking his arm. At one point in the first race of the day there is a big crash and the field is red flagged so safety teams can get the driver out of the car. Several of the young men in the pit suite distracted Rocio so she would not be worried.
Normally Santi would be racing but he has been banged up and has not been cleared to get back in the car by his doctor. However he is in the garage after each practice and race talking strategy and tactics with his father.
Racing has been popular in Mexico for many years and Mexicans have good reason to be proud of their racing heritage. One of the most famous of all road races, the Carrera Panamericana, ran over 2000 miles between Tuxla Guttierez and the American border from 1950 to 1954. Very fast and wildly dangerous it put Mexican racing in the international spotlight in a big way. Even though the full tilt speed fest was stopped in ’54 it was revived in 2006 as a rally and is very popular.
The track is named after the Rodriguez brothers who were stars of the international racing scene. Pedro and Ricardo both very successfully raced sports cars and F1 in the fifties and early sixties. Pedro won Le Mans twice driving for John Wyer and had two victories and several podiums in F1. Both were killed racing. Ricardo in practice for the Mexican Grand Prix in 1962 and Pedro at an Interserie sports car race at the Norisring in 1971.
The NASCAR Peak Mexico stock car series is very popular in Mexico and there were transporters from several teams behind the pits bringing super touring cars out to race.
On this weekend there is everything from full bore professional outfits to shoe-string racers with a light trailer and couple boxes of tools running an old VW Rabbit. But as the cliche says, they all have the competitive spirit. De Rivas falls somewhere in-between. He owns his car, some racers lease, and he has it maintained by Jorge Crotte. Crotte is what we would call a master mechanic in the states but in Mexico he is known as an engineer. He has a shop that specializes in building and maintaining race cars and racing carts for customers.
As he readily admits, De Rivas knows very little about his car from an engineering standpoint. But he is a thinking man. He knows how to drive and he knows how to stay out of trouble, look after his car and consistently finish. His goal is to be safe and have fun and that philosophy has placed him in third place in the championship for 2017.
In every way De Rivas is a gentleman racer in the old and best sense of the term. He has a broad smile and a habit of laughing while telling you a story or making a point about racing. He says his son Santi is the fastest driver of the two of them but since he pays for everything he is the number one driver.
As a driver De Rivas has twice won the 24 Horas de Mexico. He does not count the first one, in Puebla in 2009, because it was his fourth race and he was too slow. The team pulled him out and put in another driver wearing his helmet so the officials would not know. But De Rivas is proud of his second win. It was his team, his car and he co-drove with his son and the cousins Victor and Gustavo Barrales who now race in the Peak NASCAR series. “Gustavo had not raced for eight years,” said De Rivas. “But he was the fastest and now he is driving in NASCAR.”
He is determined to follow the rules and compete in an honorable way. “Look, in races you have all kinds of people. There are some guys you can have a battle with,” said De Rivas. “When I have one of those races I go and congratulate him. Because it is too easy to have a nasty accident. And I don’t want that.”
Mechanic Jonthue Bezies, who goes by Jon Jon, looks after De Rivas and his car on race weekends. He does the mechanical work and he is on the radio during the race. “When I get out in front Jon Jon begins yelling ‘“Vamos Vamos’” but that is not helping,” De Rivas chuckles “I try to block him out. If he said something like ‘“He’s getting close’” or ‘“your pulling away’” that would help.”
On this weekend De Rivas qualified in 6th place and finished 7th in both of the races. Which netted him third place in the championship. The drivers in first and second place for the season were too far ahead in the points to be in danger of being overtaken. So De Rivas goal was to have a safe race and finish strong.
During qualifying the car developed a heavy shudder in the drive train which the mechanics traced to a broken retaining clip in one of the outer CV joints. They changed out the drive shaft before the first race trying the whole time not to let their competitors know they had a problem.
De Rivas had been experiencing the car shutting off in fast corners for the last couple of races, a situation that the mechanics had been trying to fix with only partial success. The car ran solid in practice and qualifying but by the end of the race weekend it was doing it again. “I was not going to stop,” said De Rivas. “I was going to finish.”
Racing has its rhythms. There are sights and sounds that are universal to all racing no matter the country or series. The morning is full of excitement, bustle and promise as teams get the cars unloaded and prepped. The garages are busy as mechanics and drivers work to solve the inevitable issues that crop up.
The roar of engines being revved and the clatter of air guns fill the air and cars howl down the straight outside the pit stalls. Friends and family sit and wait patiently as the day wears on and the racers attend to the business of racing. When the races finish for each class there is a burst of excitement as the announcers hold a podium ceremony and teams and fans cheer.
At the end of the day the sun is low and cuts through the paddock bathing everything in a golden nostalgic glow. The cars fall silent and the crews gather up the tools and spares, packing everything back up and loading cars onto trailers. Within a few hours the track is silent and workers clean up and shut the pit stall doors and close the gates.