Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Rally Racing South of Zero

Start/Finish line at Parque Xtremo (Credit: K. W. Jeter)
I know it will come as no surprise to Skirts and Scuffs readers that there isn’t much in the way of live NASCAR racing in South America. But, we moved to Ecuador anyway. Go figure.

Parque Xtremo

So, as soon as we arrived in Ecuador three months ago, the search was on for any event that had machines with four wheels and went fast. Fortunately, just two hours outside our Andes city of Cuenca, is a track designed for rally racing and motocross — Parque Xtremo, in the warm and arid Yunguilla Valley. Full of twists and turns and elevation changes, the 3.8 km (2.36 miles) dirt track provides for some good racing. And the backdrop — spectacular! A racetrack in a valley ringed by the Andes. So if the race has a dull spot, fans can always admire the scenery.

The creation of Ecuadorian businessman and race enthusiast Jorge Juan Eljuri Jerves, the park acts as a multipurpose event center for the surrounding area. In addition to the regional rally races and motocross events, the park hosts concerts, art exhibits, and disco parties. Which explains the cool sound system, featuring JBL arrays and Crown amps. Sweet. The park also is experiencing a major upgrade these days. Better seating, more and improved food and sundry shop services, an indoor meeting/event center, and a large water park are in the works and should be completed within the next year.

Parque Xtremo has three covered grandstands (a blessing as it was warm and high-altitude sun is strong), ranged behind uncovered seating; below is a stage with a large patio area in front, which looks to be useful as a dance floor. Each section has a good view of a large portion of the racetrack, along with a clear shot of the Start/Finish line. We were in the center grandstand, which was great for seeing the action at the top-of-the-hill curve, along with having a fairly good view of the hairpin turn section below.

Because we don’t have a car, and the track is almost two hours from our city, we took advantage of an excursion van that offers specialized trips to places and events. The company, JD's Private Transportation & Custom Outings, took excellent care of us. Because I told them I was covering the event for Skirts and Scuffs, they introduced me to Ivan Chacon Vintimilla, park manager, who drove me along a part of the course to the pits, arranged for me to speak with a couple of the drivers, and even to listen in on the drivers’ meeting (no good stuff here — my Spanish wasn’t up to serious eavesdropping).

Pit Road at Parque Xtremo (Credit: Geri Jeter)
It’s Race Time

There were five races that day. The 4x4s started things off, followed by four categories of rally cars: 0–1150 cc; 1151–1300 cc; 1301–1600 cc; and 1601–2000 cc. While it was fun to watch all the groups, the best action was in the third race, the 1301–1600 cc category, as it was the largest field and offered the most opportunity for mixing it up. The fourth and last group only had three teams represented, which on a large track didn’t make for exciting racing. The small field was understandable, though, as these cars are the most expensive.

Sponsorship is as big a problem in Ecuador as in the U.S. Car companies represented were Chevy, Peugot, Volkswagen, Hyundai, and Mitsubishi. Sponsors included a local alcoholic drink, Zhumir, and the park itself. When I asked Ivan Chacon if the drivers were at all interested in eventually participating in Formula 1 or NASCAR, he said, “The drivers are always interested in moving forward. However, lack of sponsorship is what holds a lot of these talented people back.” Sound familiar?

Team Zabaleta (Credit: Geri Jeter)
We saw some terrific driving and many examples of excellent car control. The best move of the day, though, was when pilot Sharlin Zabaleta of Team Zabaleta (navigator Susana Valdivieso), racing for fourth place, pulled a major move on Santiago Piña at the bend at the top of hill in front of the grandstand (an impressive slide job, from which Piña never recovered), securing a fourth place finish for her team. It was a slick and sophisticated move worthy of drivers at the upper echelon of motor sports.

My overall impression of the park and the raceway is that it is like a road course version of the Bullring at your local home track — which is not a bad thing. Was it at Sprint Cup or F1 level, no. But like your local home track, a great place to watch drivers as they perfect their craft. We definitely will go again.

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