Those Were The Days - Stories and Anecdotes from the Golden Age of Motor Racing
Those Were The Days - Stories and Anecdotes from the Golden Age of Motor Racing

Sojourn in San Juan

El Zonda at San Juan

El Zonda at San Juan

The third race in the Argentine Temporada of 1968 was in the earthquake town of San Juan close up to the Andes Mountains. As soon as the race in Cordoba was over it was decided that, instead of taking the plane, a group of us would go to San Juan by car. It would give us a chance to have a look at the country as well as driving on roads over which the Tourismo Carretera races of the Fangio era had been fought. The group of discomfort seekers included Piers Courage, Jonathan Williams, Jochen Rindt, Jack Oliver, Henri Pescarola, Jo Siffert and me.

Two cars were provided. One of the limos had a driver and Jack insisted on driving the other. So we split up. Piers, Jochen and Jonathan going with the chauffeur and Henri, Jo and me suffering Jack's manic driving skills. Luckily the chauffeured car led the way and Jack drove bumper to bumper into the unknown.

At first it wasn't too bad. As we approached the mountains the countryside became more rugged. Before long we were driving on roads hewn from the living rock, little wider than a rabbit run and at times seeming to be scraping the bottom of the clouds. For some reason, the chauffeur decided that now was the time to exploit his limited driving skills. Up until then he had ploughed along at a comfortable 60 mph that Jack had found frustrating. Suddenly he was careering along the rock strewn path, foot to the metal, ignoring that there was a 1,000 foot drop on the off side. Even Jack had stopped harassing him and dropped back a little.

The leading car hurtled into a tunnel cut in the rock, we followed more cautiously about fifty or so yards behind. As the front car came to the exit of the tunnel it swerved, seemed to recover, did a 180 and thudded into the rock face that extended for about thirty yards outside the tunnel.

Luckily nobody was hurt. Jochen was furious and had to be held off the driver. It appeared that he had told the man to take it easy and was annoyed. Piers told me that he had just remarked that he thought the driver was at his limit when he lost control.

The car body was badly disarranged and the doors on the off side had to be secured with trouser belts but mechanically it seemed to be running OK. It was decided that we would follow at a reduced speed just in case the car became undrivable and they had to off-load.

Once again we set off westward. We descended to a valley and speeded up a little. Jack suddenly started cursing and flashing the lights and blowing the horn to attract the other car that was now about hundred yards in front. They drove on unconcerned. Our radiator had picked up a leak and was steaming like the Flying Scotsman.

As we steamed through a little village the car hissed to a halt. Instantly we were surrounded by a horde of children. We climbed out of the car, opened the bonnet and stood and stared at the water gushing from the punctured radiator. Henri examined the damage and then said, unnecessarily, "C'est fini", crossed his arms and stood staring back along the road we had travelled as if expecting a rep from the ACF to arrive.

Seppy suggested we should pee in it and get ourselves another mile or two and I wondered why everyone was looking at me as if I should do something.

A bloke in Gaucho bombachas, botas and rastra turned up, shooed the kids away, looked at the damage, gave us a big smile and assured us that it could be fixed. "No problema."

But first he took us to one of the little boliches beside the road, introduced us to an old woman who he claimed as his 'Abuela', and then went off to get the car fixed. The old lady welcomed us with mugs of cold water and then gave us empanadoes with tomatoes when Henri confessed he was hungry.

It took about an hour and a half to fix the radiator. One of the children was put in charge of taking us for a look around the village. It was a lovely, serene place built around some stockyards that seemed to be the only form of business, other than a small cantina. The cantina owner came out and insisted we had a beer and then refused to take any money. Jochen stuck some Pesos under the bottles before we left. Which was a bit of a surprise for us all. Jochen was notoriously careful with his money.

The car was fixed and ready to go when we got back. Again we had the bit about not taking any money. I could see that the Gaucho wasn't going to be persuaded to benefit from our misfortune so I went into the boliche to say goodbye to his grandma and slipped her some notes and wondered how I would describe it on expenses. She accepted gratefully. No silly hang-up like her macho grandson.

So, with the villagers turning out to wave goodbye, we started off once more towards the setting sun. It was evening when we trundled into San Juan.

TR, Jack Oliver and the man from Firestone discuss tyres in a sand storm.

TR, Jack Oliver and the man from Firestone discuss tyres in a sand storm

Up until 1944, when an earthquake killed ten thousand of its citizens and reduced the town to rubble, it had been one of the back of beyond, rural townships that are often themed in cowboy films. Juan Peron used the earthquake to lever himself to power and the place has become a modern city of fine boulevards and magnificent buildings.

We weren't looking for architecture, we were looking for confrontation with those who had left us to die in the desert. Well, sort of. We found them. Stretched out on the terrace beside the pool enjoying the cool evening breeze, acting as if nothing had happened. We were as unpleasant as you can be when you are talking to people who claim to be blameless of any wrong-doing.

I had a message from Oresti Berta waiting at reception. Berta was the Argentine answer to Colin Chapman. In Cordoba Oreste had mentioned that he had a Renault OB specially prepared for racing and offered me the chance to drive it in the warm-up race at the El Zonda Circuit. Oresti wanted to meet me in the morning at the circuit for a test drive. I couldn't think quickly enough to refuse without seeming rude so agreed to meet him.

The car was a snarly little thing built on the bones of a Renault 6. It was everything a Renault 6 didn't want to be. It had an acceleration that straighten your hair, bucked like a bronco on the corners, and nearly snapped the seat belts under breaking. I spend most of the practice session rehearsing how I should say " Thanks, but no thanks" then heard myself saying, "That'll be great." A coward is a coward is a coward.

The saloon car race was just before the F2 Race on Saturday. To say I wasn't looking forward to it is an understatement. I could imagine the mindset of the local drivers racing against the man from Lotus. And it wasn't going to be locked in a courtesy mode.

By the time I was on the starting line the wind was beginning to get a bit frolicsome. As I drove around the circuit on the warm-up lap the wind was playing games. Buffeting on all sides, never giving the lightweight car a moments rest. I contemplated claiming to be sick and devastated that I was unable to drive in the race. Again cowardice won. I was starting from the third row on a 4-3-4 grid. Not a pleasant place to be. I was a fraction tardy at the start and was helped on my way by the bloke behind me. I decided that if I hung around whimpering I was going to have a very bumpy ride.

First lap I lost a few places but was just beginning to get into the swing of things when the wind hit me from the side when I was doing about 120 on the straight. I managed to straighten up but as I did so a hoarding at the side of the track broke loose and flew across the track. I said, "goodness me" or something like it before again being nearly overturned by the wind. I looked around me. The other drivers were also having a bad time and had forgotten the lesson they had intended to teach me while they learned some of their own. Bushes, bits of tree, more hoardings, sheets of corrugated asbestos and long skeins of sand were launching themselves at the track in a frenzied attack.

I saw some of the cars in front of me turn into the pits but I decided to keep on going. I was a Brit and a little wind and flying billboards were not going to deter me. I was about halfway round the lap when I realised I couldn't go on. Now the visibility was down to zero. Just a mass of scouring sand across the windscreen. I stopped. I had no idea where I was. All I hoped was that there wasn't anyone behind me trying to make a name for himself.

After about half an hour the storm past and a breakdown truck came out to collect me. As they drove me back to the pits the reason that the circuit was called El Zonda was explained to me. El Zonda was the hurricane force wind that occasionally blew in from the Andes and obliterated the surrounding countryside. Evidently I was very lucky to have witnessed it at first hand.


To an Argentinean, dinner, and for that matter breakfast, lunch and tea, means meat - beef and occasionally chevito (goat). Vegetables are looked on as contaminates. There are various chicken dishes but most of them involve the intestines and, although I am assured that many of them are very tasty, in the main I have manage to avoid them. I think it all goes back to an asado I was invited to in Tres Aroyyos . I was innocently chewing on a piece of meat I had selected from a multi meat dish (Parrilla) when the lady sitting next to me asked me if I liked it. I said yes and she proceeded to tell me how it was made. The process starts before the poor bird is even dead. It is fed with various herbs and spices and when it is killed the guts are ripped out and cooked as they are. Which means... Don't go there.


3lb Chicken, meat dissected
2tbsp olive oil
1 large onion
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 salami, chopped
1 can chopped plum tomatoes
1 cup peas
1 green pepper chopped
1 cup black olives, pitted
1 can condensed chicken broth
1 cup long grained rice
pinch saffron
4tbsp white wine
pinch dried oregano
pinch cayenne pepper
salt and freshly ground pepper


Shred chicken and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Get a deep frying pan and heat the olive oil. Add chicken and sausage and brown on all surfaces until chicken is cooked through. Put in a casserole dish.

Put the onions and garlic into the pan and cook until transparent. Add to casserole . Parboil rice a in saucepan with saffron, drain and place in pan with tomatoes chicken broth, wine oregano and green pepper. Bring to boil and add to casserole. Stir the contents of casserole, over a flame, bring to boil, cover and simmer for 25-30 minutes. Add peas and olives, fold in and serve.

Adding chilli powder rather than pepper can do marvels for the taste - if you like chilli.

Serve with crusty bread, beer or plonk.

Posted 23/2/2009

Those Were The Days - Motor Racing Stories, Tales and Anecdotes from the Golden Age of Motor Racing