Professional motorsport is a cold, hard place. If you want to run with the big dogs, you can’t just build a car in your mom’s garage and show up, right? Wrong. One guy did just that. Here’s his amazing story.
This is the multifaceted tale of Bill Caswell, a man who bought a crapcan off Craigslist to run against $US400,000-plus rally cars in a World Rally Championship race. It is a tale of a guy who had a welder, a bunch of credit cards, and a lot of free time but no real backing or funds. It is a story of a dude who taught himself how to build an FIA-legal roll cage because he wanted to spend the fabrication fee on race tires instead. It’s the story of a gearhead who drove a rustbucket to a third-place finish in an FIA-sanctioned event.
AU Editor’s Note: Hey, guys! You might have noticed that we’re posting the occasional story from our brethren over at Jalopnik now. To kick off our informal partnership, here’s a classic Jalops story; it’s one of my favourites. Enjoy! — Cam
Most of all, it is a story of hoonage.
Bill Caswell, an unemployed Chicago racing freak, entered the Mexico round of the World Rally Championship in a 1991 BMW 318i that he found on Craigslist. The car cost $500. One year ago, Caswell decided that he wanted to go rallying with Rally America. Two months later, he crashed a car and blew up an engine five minutes into his first event. Four events later, he found a loophole in the FIA rules that let him enter a twenty-year-old car in the same event as guys like Ken Block and former F1 driver Kimi Raikkonen.
Full disclosure: Caswell is my friend. We have a long history of collaborating on stupid, pointless projects. Most of the time, we hang out in weird bars and at race tracks and talk about the cool things that I want to do but never find time for, the things that Bill actually goes and does. I am admittedly biased.
The story of Caswell’s WRC entry is a story of weirdness: He entered the biggest motorsport event of his life with no crew; an untested, week-old E30 M3 engine swap and a junkyard transmission (don’t ask); a car that was still covered in dirt from the previous season’s rallies (“I’d wash it, but I gotta fix stuff instead”); and a rented panel van. His co-driver, a Rally America genius named Ben Slocum, had not spent more than five minutes in a car with him prior to the event. He did this not out of stupidity, but out of a lack of resources — he wanted to go rallying, and this was the only way he could make it happen.
Amazingly, they finished third in their class.
WRC Mexico took place two weeks ago. I wasn’t able to attend, but thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I got a non-stop feed from Cas while he was there. I was originally going to write a story summing it all up, but the emails — Bill’s wild-eyed, how-did-I-get-here updates from the road — proved to need no embellishment. Here they are. Enjoy.
(Note: This is a long one. If you do nothing else, watch the videos and read the bold sections. The emphasis/bold is mine, not Bill’s.)
Part One: First, We Broke A Lot
The story got dumped into my inbox in fits and starts. This is the first thing I got after not hearing from him for a week:
I think I am in second. But I went off and ripped the drivers rear shock right out of the car. Might be able to weld it but service is like a half hour.
Yeah, that’s reassuring. Huh?
It got crazier from there. I had no phone calls, no updates, just random emails. They got longer and more rambling as time went on. The video above — the rally’s ceremonial night start, with thousands of people, a car turntable, and some strange live music in the background — was taken with Bill’s phone. It showed up in my inbox without warning during the weekend.
Oh, yeah: The cops shut the highway and city streets down so we could get from city to city fast. Well let me tell you that hauling ass on rally tires with other rally cars while Mexican cops try to keep up with you is priceless. Not to mention the streets are just lined with people for over 20 miles. It was amazing. Got there too late to do reconnaissance and had to mooch stage notes from the Peruvian rally champion. Dude is cool but notes are in Spanish or something. So e’s are rights and d’s are lefts?
The FIA put a huge GPS device in the car. We stop for ten seconds without sending a “We are OK” message and they don’t hear anything by the 30-second mark, we get a medivac helicopter on our asses and the stage is canceled. A radiator tube was leaking during tech inspection, and when I was messing with it, one of the officials noticed. I told him it was overflow and just water?
I once asked Bill why he insisted on going through every spectator section crossed up and with the engine banging off the limiter. “Dude,” he said, “I don’t care if it costs me a couple of tenths. It makes the fans go nuts.”
Fuel pump seized with three stages left. I took it out, banged on it, borrowed a knife from a police officer and cut up some random cockpit harness to reverse the flow and banged on it until it worked again. But we were a few minutes late. We hauled ass and caught up. Was going to make the last two but got lost and was ejected for day. Oh well.
Have four hours to sleep, most sleep have had in a week. Car is perfect. Fuel pump fixed by the side of the road. Fixed rear sway bar. Changed to fresh tires. Fabricated new hood tie downs with a borrowed welder — had to borrow a larger generator to run it, too — b/c mine cracked off. Trans brace was held on with only one nut left and loose and halfway undone. Got lucky.
Also, after fixing fuel pump, we show up at the next stage late. The officials are like, “The fans think the stage is over, people are now walking down the stage, there are pickups in the middle of the road, you can’t run it.” I had to drive 15 mph, while being timed, through a stage we normally would have gone 100 mph through. If that wasn’t enough, [redacted]ing Kimi Raikkonen launched his car off the side of the cliff. A flatbed wrecker was pulling his car out of a ditch and blocking the road. When the tow truck finally moved, we finished the stage.
Had to make up time and was later told I went by a cop with the car [redacted] in [redacted] and never lifted. Someone said the federales set up some sort of road block but we never saw any lights or anything. (Something tells us that there’s more to this story. If you run into Bill at a rally or track event, buy him a beer and ask him for details —Ed.)
Part Two: Some Dude Mooned Us?
I’m in bad shape but b/c I was last into parc ferme the only room was with the million-dollar WRC cars. Parked the crapcan with Loeb, Hirvonen, the whole crew. I can only imagine what the other drivers where thinking when they strapped in: “WTF? I wasn’t even born when that model came out.” Another FIA guy came up and shook my hand and is coming back for my autograph. Seriously. He said he hasn’t seen a rear wheel drive car in a top event or anything this insane in a while. And to see one competitive… I say “sort of.” Still cool.
Unbelieveable. We had one stage where I jogged through some houses down a hill at 100 mph slipping sideways for maybe 100 yards. Awesome.
Time to go [redacted] up those Evo things. There’s a Mitsu in second and third and a five-year-old WRC car in first. Those were the only cars that finished all stages yesterday. The roads are beyond punishing. Like doing 100 mph over dirt washboards.
Oh, I got mooned yesterday. A dude runs three feet into the road, turns around, drops his pants, and grabs ankles. WTF. It’s in the video. So is Slocum yelling at me for giving a thumbs-up out the window to the photo guys and fans as I drive sideways into the corner with opposite lock. I thought it looked awesome.
This is the note that made my heart jump into my throat.
Just rocked the first stage of the day. Thirty kilometers of craziness. I came through this 70-80 mph section with thousands of people lining the roads. We come around a corner and there’s a bridge that somehow got missed in the notes. But it’s a flat piece of concrete like 15 feet wide and our trajectory is right off the side. Slocum says into the mic, “We’re done,” stops reading notes, and braces for impact. The river below has boulders the size of Volkswagens.
Sand and gravel in corner, almost as if spectators filled it. Can’t get to apex, four feet off, sliding way wide, exit of corner is entrance to bridge. I pitch the car and floor it. 35-45 mph. Half the car falls off the bridge. We are looking at daylight and I am full throttle hoping the left tire and diff can put the power down. We fell so far over the bridge it collapsed the inner leg of the trailing arm by an inch or two.
Almost the entire right side of the car hanging in the air. Now in the queue for Stage Two, six more to go.
They just closed the stage! Not sure why but assuming accident. Block, Sordo, and someone else all stuffed hard on the last stage. We got beat by both Evos but only by about 45 secs over 23 min. They have turbos. We’re over a mile up in elevation.
Trailing arm has a one-inch dent in it from where we hit the bridge. That’s what saved us — it popped the car back up onto the bridge. The car smacked the bridge two inches from the bolt that attaches the subframe to the body.
Some of the emails were repeats, but they were charming repeats.
Mooched a welder and welded the shock tower back into the car last night and it held. But on the first stage the shock mount blew through. Then the aux fan fried and kept melting fuses and it was hot. On the third stage we missed a jump call (our notes were in Portuguese or something) and hit it at like 80 mph or so and exploded into the air. The launch felt like hitting a brick wall and broke a motor mount arm clean in half.
But the jump was amazing. Later I had a minor off but regained the road. Some kids threw boulders in the road on a transit and I punctured my gas tank losing nearly a half tank in 24 km on the next stage. Best part, the officials pointed out our leak and showed a handful of gas to us when we asked how big it was — I knew we were screwed, but they said we could start the stage so we did.
I patched it with just stuff in the trunk — RTV and balls of duct tape — twenty feet after the stage finish, on the side of the road, with the officials watching. Didn’t have time at service to fix it so five stages tomorrow with RTV patch. Barely finished the rest of the day. I have a 10 minute service in the morning when we pull the car from parc ferme but we need to put on fresh tires.
I ran into the Rally Mexico organizers in the bar. Petter Solberg is in there doing shots. Having entirely too much fun. Only three real stages tomorrow anyway. But apparently the ex-WRC car in my class or the Evo broke on the final stage which means I am back into third place.
Part Three: We May or May Not Be Legit
Oh yeah. Parc ferme — they lock your car up and you can’t work on it at night. But you can pull it out for a 45-minute service. So before the final time control, I climbed under the car and undid the motor mount arm with the awesome little factory tool kit in the trunk. So then I could fab up the new part at my convenience and then pull the car out of parc ferme just to swap arms. It worked great. We now have a steel arm and factory mount. Gas tank still patched with RTV and duct tape. Wasn’t time to drain tank and JB Weld it. Hopefully it stays on today.
By the way. It’s awesome to be rocking a BMW down here and smoke the little WRC Peugeot cup cars in a chassis that hasn’t been pro rally racing since the Prodrive E30 M3 era. The party tonight is supposed to majorly epic. It’s in another city in some old school Mexican ruins or castle or something according to the guys who went last year.
The video below shows two fans talking to Bill and describing how he passed them on a stage called “El Cubilete.” Bill’s phone-cam clips are all the same; they all end with a shot of his face and an amazed, “Can you believe this? It’s me!” look.
OK, I know reading this is probably getting old, but wow. I’m having breakfast wearing a BMW jacket and the table next to me (like ten guys) turns around and says, “Are you the BMW pilot?” I then take pictures with each of them right in the restaurant.
They said they like BMWs but are with a Mexican Dodge club. They love that I came to the WRC with no team and jump out at each service and start working. They said that I must be part Mexican because of the way I fix my car. That’s a compliment, right?
Wow. I collapsed the front frame rails vertically from coming down off the jump and smashing the skid plate which is supported by roll cage tubing to plates on the bottom of the frame. And part of me is sick and wants to see how long I can punish this thing before it cracks in half.
Also, someone wants to give me a free entry and shipping to another rally?!? Apparently they watched my co-driver yell at me to go while I signed autographs and took pictures with the fans until the last possible minute before jumping in the car and taking off. I guess the other teams blow it off a bit because it gets old having dozens of kids shove stuff in your face while you’re putting on your HANS device.
Slocum and I were estimating. I signed autographs for three hours straight on Sunday alone. He thinks it might be close to 1500 or 2000 autographs and maybe 1000-1500 pictures. A couple hundred people were screaming “Caswell! Caswell!” at one point. But I guess the fact that Ken Block and I are the only Americans that came down makes me legit or something? We finished third in class. Don’t know how I got here. Nuts.
Yeah, Bill — nuts. You, my friend, are a true Jalop. You are the hoon of the day, maybe hoon of the month, maybe even hoon of the year. And you are nothing if not ballsy as hell. Next time you parachute in and blow the FIA’s world up, give the Jalopnik Nation a shout. We’ll bring the margaritas and cheer your ass on.
10:39:17 AM Bill Caswell: Burning Down the House seemed to be the theme song for the whole weird adventure. We were the only team cranking music during service. I jump out and first thing I do with my 30 minutes is set up tunes, because you can’t work in the hot Mexican sun without music. You should have seen the crowd. Driver in firesuit jacking up car and wrenching while Talking Heads blares from the radio and co-driver yells 20 minutes….it was [redacted] real. I started laughing at one point all by myself while putting a wheel back on — am I really at a WRC event in my favorite chassis and engine combo of all time with no crew fixing the car myself?
10:41:28 AM Bill Caswell: Even if I never race again I could be happy. It was epic. You should have been there.
There has been some confusion regarding Caswell’s finish and the class that he and Slocum competed in. This should clear things up:
The class he raced in is called Rally America, but it has no affiliation with the stateside sanctioning body of the same name. You can find the results (in PDF form, by stage) at www.rallymexico.com. Caswell and Slocum achieved a total time of 5:29:38.4 after penalties, enough for a third-place finish in their class and a hypothetical 23rd if the two men had been competing in WRC.
Twenty-five drivers competed in the WRC class at Rally Mexico. Caswell and Slocum didn’t just compete with $400,000 race cars, they beat them. As always, don’t forget to hit the galleries for more pictures and anecdotes!
Photo Credits: Alex Hernandez, Jordi Saiz, A Talented and Generous Man, Ruta Rally, Sam Smith, Bill Caswell