Interview with Car 38 in Peking to Paris Rally
Pacific Prime interviews the team driving Car 38 in the Peking to Paris vintage car rally. As the team left Switzerland and entered France, we managed to steal a few minutes of their time and find out the most challenging moments for the team during the race so far. Michelle Jana Chan and Mike Reeves reveal their race highlights and reflect on their health (or lack of!).
How much planning did you put into the Peking to Paris trip before the actual race?
Michelle: Mental planning, over a decade. I first heard about it in Beijing in ’97 when I was working in China. At that point, when I heard about it, I was mentally preparing for it thinking, “I’d like to do sometime in my life.” But literally it was a couple of years planning, preparing the car.
Mike: In regards to this trip, Peking to Paris, it was 2 years ago. We got on it quite quickly, found our car in America, shipped it over, and it’s been a pretty intense year and a half building the car leading up to departure, which was quite frantic really.
Michelle: Yeah. We bought it on the internet. It was a rotting shell, just a body and the chassis, there was nothing else. No engine. No other parts. That was Christmas or New Year 2011, so a year and a half ago that it arrived. Since then, we have sourced parts from all over the world to make it a period 1940 Ford coupe.
Have you found it easy to get along throughout the whole race as co-drivers, or have you had disagreements along the way?
Mike: We’ve gotten along really well. It is a really intense thing to do, but I think in some ways couples are better suited to do it. We’ve had many different emotions together already and that sets you up very well. I think there are some relationships on the rally, father-son relationships and best friends, that actually aren’t that well suited to very intense pressure situations. I think that we and a number of other couples have handled it very well. It’s been great.
What’s the biggest problem you’ve encountered so far?
Michelle: It was the day where we ended up in a village in Mongolia and we had a catalog of mechanical problems that day, including that part of the suspension broke and then, more critically, the gear linkage broke, and that is just not a quick fix. It’s not an easy solution as all, where you change a tire or add oil. It was a serious problem that we could only access by finding someone who could open up the area underneath the gear stick, between the passenger and the driver, which had to be done by cutting into the tunnel with a metal cutter and accessing the gear box. Then a couple pieces were broken, which meant kind of fashioning them from metal tubing. And we were so lucky, because this happened quite near the end of the day, we managed to make all of our time controls late, but nevertheless made them.
We got towed 4 times that day and finally found this guy in the crowd, a wonderful Mongolian man that didn’t speak any English (we don’t speak any Mongolian). I was holding the gear stick in my hand and he pointed at it and then pointed to himself and gave us the thumbs up. Mike and I looked at each other and thought, “Really? Does that mean he can fix it?” We trusted him. He put us on the back of a tractor and took us to his back yard. We were up until the early hours, and he and his crazy friends fixed it, but, wow, that day was a rollercoaster of emotions.
Mike: It was very, very intense, because until that point we had lost our lead, but there was a serious concern that we would not be continuing the rally, and this wonderful, charismatic guy out of a crowd of people, we went with him and he was probably the only person there that could have done it. We were so lucky to have found him and we actually had a great time with him as well.
Have you at any point been afraid for your safety?
Michelle: Not really. The well being and the possibility of continuing were sometimes in jeopardy, that day of Mongolia included. There was another day where we smashed up the suspension in a bog, trying to get out of it, but I never felt like, “Oh my God. Are we going to make it?” You know, we had this terrible tragedy on the rally where one of the competitors was killed in a car crash. That accident also killed 2 people in the other car. I think maybe, in a strange way, that was the moment where you felt most vulnerable, just when you heard the news, because it made the possibility of accidents and car crashes and serious, fatal problems much more real. But I don’t think that there was any time where I felt like our lives were under threat.
Mike: There were moments that I think driving the Russian roads was terrifying. There are very bold overtakers. You see it amongst other competitors, you see them try to overtake a lorry and it’s a bit too close. It was just that the roads are uneven and broken, and these old cars do tend to follow the ruts in the roads. That was probably the most terrifying thing.
Michelle: And one other actually. We had a couple of time trials in Russia, which were on public roads that were not closed, and you’re screaming around corners as fast as you can to make the quickest time possible, and then suddenly there’s oncoming traffic. They were very quiet roads, it was kind of a rural area, but nevertheless that was a surprise to us. We thought all the roads would be closed when we were doing time trials, and they weren’t. I think that was also a moment that was kind of hairy, but we’re still here.
Has it been easy to stay healthy during the rally? Have you had any issues as far as sickness or anything along those lines?
Mike: I don’t think we’ve actually been sick. Maybe it’s our youth.
Michelle: Relative youth.
Mike: Relative youth, that has kept us in very good shape. Actually, it’s not a particularly healthy environment, because you’re not doing a lot of exercise and you’re eating quite poorly. I think Michelle has lost quite a bit of weight, I’ve lost weight, but, in truth, we’ve remained personally healthy throughout.
Michelle: Literally the only thing we’ve used from our medical kit so far is one band-aid, which is quite fortunate. But as Mike said, it’s quite sedentary, the diets are just junk food in a car. Often you’re skipping meals because it’s busy. We’ve seemed to hold it together until now.
So you wouldn’t say that the race has been physically challenging?
Mike: It has been physically challenging actually. In a number of ways.
Mike: You’re very, very tired a lot of the time, and I think coping with that is tough.
Michelle: We’ve pulled over a number of times on the side of the road when neither of us felt we were able to drive. We were too tired, and just literally had a 5 minute nap on the side of the road because we felt like we were going to fall asleep at the wheel, and the other person didn’t think they could take over at that point. It was physically demanding.
Mike: Also, working on the car sometimes requires huge amounts of strength to get things done. When you’re under the car, in a quite confined space, trying to undo a bolt. There have been moments when I’ve been dripping in sweat under the care in a pressure situation using absolutely every tiny bit of strength to get things done. It’s, physically, totally draining.
You’ve been to many countries along the way what has been the the strangest or best thing that you’ve eaten?
Michelle: God. I feel like all we’ve eaten is melted Snickers and crisps. We bought a bunch of food before we left in Beijing, but we still haven’t gotten through it. Can you believe? We have snack bars and pot noodles, but really food was not a very dominant feature of this rally. It was how much we didn’t eat, perhaps, that was more interesting.
What has been the highlight of the race to each of you so far?
Michelle: That day in Mongolia, and then a day in Austria, were probably our two toughest days as far as trying to make time control. I think they were, in a way, my favorite days because we pulled together so hard and became such a formidable team. We were so determined and we were so focused. On both days we had these challenges to deal with, and that delayed us, but we could not have done a better job, both of us, on those days. I really felt so proud of us at the end of both of those days. They were [filled with] immense soul searching, digging deep and, of course, we had penalties on both of those days, but nevertheless we really tried viscerally with every cell in our body to make the end of the day happen successfully. I think that for us as a team, as pair of adventures, was really big.
From an outside point of view, if I’m allowed one more, was passing this Russian couple in the rain who were an old granny and grandpa in a tiny little village as we drove through. On a really miserable day, they were holding up a banner that said “Fortune favors the brave,” and it was so touching, and it really drove us on. It was this mantra of support that came at exactly the right time.
Mike: We were not at a low ebb at that point, but we were still very much challenging, potentially, for the lead at that time, and it was just the sort of thing that we needed to guide us in the rain. Cheering us on with this slogan in English. It was so touching that they were doing it, but, yeah, our motto has definitely become “Fortune favors the brave.”
Is there anything about the trip so far that has really surprised you?
Mike: It is quite a lot harder than we had, perhaps, expected from time to time. I mean there are some days that went by and you think, “That was easy,” but it’s the sort of day on day on day exhaustion of doing it. We have a rest day, and it comes every six or seven days, but, in truth, on the rest days there’s more to be done than there is on a normal day.
Michelle: You’re fixing the car and making repairs.
Mike: And also you’re really up against the clock. It has been non-stop for 32 days now, without really any sort of let-up. We can see other competitors go off to lunch, or going site-seeing on their rest days, and we just never ever do that. They’re usually the toughest days that we ever have. It has been surprising.
Michelle: I think the other really big surprise is that a 73-year old car can do what it’s done and it performs so well. We’re so proud of the car. Shiner has just been such a steady compass for us, taking us in the correct direction.
It’s like there are 3 members of the team really.
Mike: Very much so.
What are you most looking forward to during the rest of the race?
Mike: I think it’s just rolling across that line in Paris. There is no certainty to getting that.
Michelle: The guys that were in fourth yesterday, so one behind us (we’re currently in third), they just fell out of contention completely yesterday. I think they’re now twentieth or something.
Mike: Then there was another car where the gearbox went wrong. They were doing really well and now they’ve totally fallen out of it. So we’ve got a long hard day, we’ve got 500 plus kilometers today through the mountains…
Michelle: …and 300 tomorrow.
Mike: …which puts a massive strain on every part of the car. Revving it hard climbing hills.
Michelle: It doesn’t feel like we can let up at all, with even only 24 hours to go. We’re still completely focused, and kind of stressed, to get to Paris. We’re not taking anything for granted here.
At this point, do you feel you would you do Peking to Paris again ?
Michelle: We try to think about it, but I think there are so many rallies. We’ll definitely do a rally again.
What would you say to other classic car enthusiasts keen to take part in a rally?
Michelle: If you’re competitive, there are ways and means to prepare you car and prepare a toolkit, prepare spares, to the best of your advantage. They should get in touch with us through our website because it’s too long a list now, but there are definitely top tips. Maybe we can give one each.
It’s quite technical this, but we went hell for leather at the beginning of the trip. Going all day everyday, because we could, but actually there are certain portions everyday that matter more for your time, and I think if we had been more aware of that and not just gotten over-excited and over-enthusiastic we could have been a bit more measured with the way that we managed our days.
Mike: Definitely prepare your car to the best of your abilities, as rigorously as you can, but also be prepared for the fact that when your car comes back, you’re going to need to restore the car again. The shortest, quickest way to destroy a perfect car in 33 days is to bring it on a Peking to Paris, because our car needs full restoration at the end of it… again.
Thank you for those tips and thank you for taking the time to talk with us. Stay brave, travel safe and every here at Pacific Prime is rooting for you.
Michelle: Thank you for your support.
Mike: Thank you.
Check back to the blog soon to find out how the team did after crossing the finish line in Paris!