When he runs Recce, the corners make note of him. Parc ferme is named after his left foot; Force Majeur, his right. He’s the reason any stage is considered a Super Special Stage. His name is Tony Chavez, he is the most interesting man in rally, and – I’m proud to proclaim – he is a friend of mine.
HOW I CAME TO KNOW THE MOST INTERESTING MAN IN RALLY
I first met Tony a few years back at one of the now widely-known CRS (California Rally Series) after rally parties. He was at the center of the action, in the eye of the storm if you will, hoisting a bottle of the finest Cazadores tequila alongside the one and only Mustafa Şamli at the controls of El Blendero, the 2-stroke-powered blender from which all “Group B Margaritas” flow. Despite the whirlwind of well-earned inebriation spinning ’round (and well-blended spirits spinning before), Tony’s voice could be heard loud and clear; his mellow, Latin accent permeating the felicitous cacophony of celebration with sincere belly laughs, referring to just about everyone as “my friend.”
Though I’ve attended the Prescott Rally every year since 2005, served as California Rally Series Press Liaison (at Tony’s recommendation) in 2007, been running this little magazine since 2009, and run into Señor Chavez numerous times since, I’ve yet to point my inquisitive emails his direction. His unusual absence from Prescott this past October was a deafening silence in the soundtrack that is my CRS family, reminding me how little I actually knew of el Jefe. I tracked down an old email and got to work.
INTRODUCTIONS: TONY CHAVEZ
Originally from Peru, Tony’s been living in the United States since 1978 and currently calls Cerritos, California, home. He’s founder and CEO of a contract packaging company called Condor Enterprises, specializing in blister and skin packing, laser marking, labeling, assembly, and more. Condor opened its doors in 1990 and Tony is pleased to share they have weathered the recent economic downturn.
Let’s get into the interview, shall we?
Introductions: What do race, how do you race it, and why do you race it, specifically?
Currently, I race a 1986 VW Golf GTI in the Production Class. This is my 4th rally Golf. I have owned and raced a variety of rally cars – a Datsun 510, Mitsubishi Eclipse, Mitsubishi Galant, VW Golf Reynard, and a number of what is known as the MkII Golf.
Since stepping down from Open 4WD in 2000, I have been campaigning a Golf. They are good, solid cars and come with a variety of powerplants, both in 8 valve and 16 valve variants. For my driving style, I prefer the 16 valve because it revs higher and that’s how I drive – nothing below 4,000 rpm.
Another reason for the Golf is cost. When I ran the Open Class cars, I had some very serious sponsors and, while they provided me with the economic means to run up front in the biggest class in the sport, they also required quite a bit of time for special events, etc..In 2000, at the Ramada Express Rally, I had a huge scare. I was not able to do recce that weekend, so Doug Robinson, my dear friend and long time co-driver, did recce and took notes. At the start of the rally on Friday, all went well in the first stage and we were running top 5 overall. In the middle of the second stage there was a straightaway about 3 miles long with several blind crests. The notes said “flat out over crest” and I did just that for the first 3 crests. While in the air after the third crest I saw the next and the road going left, Doug called a right after crest, I believed it was wrong and I turned the car left just before we took the jump, the road indeed went right, I was wrong. All this at 110 mph.At that moment I decided to just enjoy rally driving for what it was – FUN – and not take unnecessary risks which could possibly hurt Doug or myself.
Doug called a right after crest, I believed it was wrong and I turned the car left just before we took the jump, the road indeed went right, I was wrong. All this at 110 mph.
That is how we ended up running a Production Class GTI. In early 2000, I purchased the GTI and, while picking it up with Doug, we decided to run the entire SCCA National Championship to try to win the National Production Class Championship – which we did – along with the SCCA Pacific Southwest title and the CRS P-Stock Championship, the same year in the same car. I believe we are the only ones to have won the Rally Triple Crown, all 3 championships in the same year.Since then, I have raced CRS events. These rallies are mostly in California and Nevada and, of course, The Prescott Rally, my favorite event, in Arizona. I have also done some international rallying, mostly in Mexico, running the 24 Hour Rally, the Ensenada Rally and several road racing circuits with pretty good success.
How did you get started in rally?
Rally has always been huge in South America. I come from the country that hosts The Inca Rally, a week long rally covering 3,000 miles (8,000km). So rallying was always something I wanted to do as a kid growing up. I did some racing in Peru, but with no experience and no financial backing of my own.
When I moved to the US in 1978, I had to, of course, get a job, learn the language, and get with the program of being a grown up for a few years, so racing took a back seat. In the early 90’s I was financially secured and ready to start racing again. Rallying is what I wanted to do as part of other racing activities.
Here is when rallying really became my passion. I did some searching and found a group called the California Rally Series (CRS for short), which organized rallies locally. I contacted some of the CRS members and they were nothing but nice to me from the very first time. People like Mike and Paula Gibeault, Ray Hocker, Lon Peterson, Bill Gutzmann, Jeff Hendricks – the founders of rallying in California – went out of their way to welcome a newcomer that ,to this day, speaks English with an accent. [A kick-ass accent! -BD]
1992 Rim of the World was my first proper rally. I received 1,200 penalty points on Friday and another 1,400 on Saturday, and I finished dead last in my Datsun 510, but I was hooked! About a week later, I realized I had lost 28 minutes in penalties – talk about being embarrassed after the fact!
In time, I did learn how rally worked, and I also learned how to drive fast. This I owe to Lon Peterson, who in one morning taught me more that I could have learned in years on my own.
Why do you think rally is so different depending on where you are in the world?
There are several reasons for it. The first one is geography. In Europe, countries are much smaller and most rallies are within a relatively small area. That allows more people to rally on smaller budgets. Second is opportunity to watch, versus other sports. In the US, we have too many professional sports and people got used to having in them in your face (meaning on TV). There is so much money in TV ratings that any sport not televised doesn’t get exposure at all. Take X-Games or Global Rallycross for example; these two are going to destroy what is left of the sport and their excuse is to get TV ratings – gap jumps, running cars in opposite directions, etc., is a recipe for disaster.
A few years ago, rally was sanctioned by the SCCA. Things were good. There were regional and national championships, the sport was growing, entries were up. Then they got a wild idea to align the national classes to the FIA and get a shot at a WRC event. That was beginning of the end. SCCA decided to drop rally, claiming the insurance cost was getting too expensive due to a couple spectator accidents, and since rally was a small part of their operation and the risk was so high, we were gone. Then came the funny part – NASA and Rally America.
NASA Rally Sport is run by people that know about rallying, have lots of experience, and believe rally is a viable sport that can survive from the grassroots up. Rallying is tough. Make events long, run them at night, make them fun. Rally America, on the other hand, is run by the biggest wallet and all they want to do is be on TV. And whoever wants to whore themselves out becomes their newest superstar.
How do you think we might better unify the global rally community, given the diversity of local cultures and laws?
I believe we can have a happy medium, where we have regional and national championships and realize once and for all rally will never be a huge mass sport in the US. Once people understand that, we can concentrate on making it work. A good way to look at rally is the real cost of each stage mile. US$10-$12 dollars for each stage mile is a good deal nowadays. Get 6 small events per year per region, have the best 8 be the national events, and everything will work because it will be simple, with existing events; some being overlapped as a national. The fast local guys would pay the extra entry fee to run the national event while still running their regional event.
In our particular area, we have a similar problem. The California Rally Series has been, is, and always will be the premier rally organization in the South Pacific area. Unfortunately, a group of disgruntled former CRS organizers decided to do everything in their power to take down the CRS at all costs and formed a rival series. For the past few years, they have organized rallies with very limited success as their entry is very low. Following the same ideas as their supporters from Rally America, they try to lure competitors with “big” sponsors at every little event. It obviously doesn’t work, as their entry lists get smaller and smaller, but they must think we’re either prostitutes or – damn.
Rallyists don’t enter a rally to get prizes. We go for the fun, the speed, and the trophy. I couldn’t care less what a radio station or lubricant company is doing or donating. If the event is not fun, I am not going. Besides, my personal feeling is all they want to do is destroy the CRS and 30 years of hard work by some very good people (themselves included). When their series fails – and it will – rallying will be better.
What keeps you coming back, event after event, year after year?
The people. Rallying is not about the cars, it is about the people. After all, you can go road racing by yourself.To rally, you must have at least 2 people like you to go with you; one to co-drive, the other to drive your service truck. When you’re out there on stage, specially in dusty conditions, the car interval is 2 minutes. If something goes wrong – and it will inevitably go wrong at one point or another – your only hope is the people in the cars behind you. Your life is in their hands and theirs in yours.
This is the only sport where your toughest competitor lends you the spare parts you need in service so you can go back out and continue the battle. We want to win on stage. We welcome the competition. And there is the other people thing; the after rally party, a chance to spend time with the people who share your love of rallying; a relaxed time when everyone has a story to tell. After all, each rally is nothing but a great experience.
When you go to a rally, you are surrounded by people who not only love rallying, but who are, in that moment, at a good point in their lives. Everyone is healthy, they all have a couple extra dollars to spend, they have a job or the means to survive, their family is okay, and they can take the time to enjoy their sport. In a few words, eveyone at a rally is looking for a good time and that makes it fun.
These last few years, I have had a major change in my rally team. My wife, Raquel, is my new co-driver, and that has made a world of difference to me. Rallying now is a complete family affair. I have my best friend and wife in the car with me. These last couple of years, I have felt complete in the rally car. And while we have not rallied as much as we would have liked, we have actually won every event we have entered together except Gorman 2010 (our first rally together), when the fuel pump failed (while we were leading). Now my daughter and son-in-law are starting to rally. This is, of course, music to my ears, and I hope to help and support them as much as I can and help them raise their kids inside the rally family.
What’s the most important thing the rally community can do today to grow the sport?
We (the rally people) need to make access to new people easier, not only competitors, but workers, volunteers and people that just want to come out and watch. If the fist thing you say is “No spectators will be allowed,” you’re pretty much shooting yourself in the foot. Spectators are your future volunteers AND competitors.
A simple way to attract competitors – not just new competitors, but people that have rallied before and have since parked their car – is to reduce the cost per mile. (Entry fee divided by stage miles).
We need to use social media. This is a sure way to attract new people to our sport and to keep the existing ones informed. The demographics have changed in rallying, we have gone from an era where drivers were daredevils driving by the seat of their pants, to a new generation where drivers, and co-drivers for that matter, are educated people who inform themselves before taking up a new hobby (and let’s not forget this is what rally is). New drivers – I call them the X-box generation – they have all played a game or two of rallying before trying out the sport. These are people used to receiving their news via social media.
Most important thing we can do is think about the future of the sport. We need to have continuity. People need to see the same faces and the rules must be stable. This is the way to grow the sport. Have fewer events that are solid and fun rallies.
“ATC” STANDS FOR “ARRIVAL OF TONY CHAVEZ”
If you’re looking for Tony at a rally, you’ll either find him at the front of the pack in a Condor-liveried VW, or at the center of the cheering, laughing crowd at the after party. Walk up, shake his hand, and introduce yourself. You won’t be disappointed. As for finding Tony between rallies, he’s on Facebook and also spends time in the Special Stage Pacific Southwest forum. He replies to as many rally questions as he gets through these channels (and we bet he gets lots of these).
“FTC” stands for “Follow Tony Chavez.” Anti-lag was invented to help the AWD guys keep up with him. I like to think that, In Finland, they call him “Sisu,” and that, at service, he works on his crew. Tony Chavez cares deeply for rally and for the people who make it possible. Some of his comments here today might sting, but it’s clear Tony’s first concern is the longevity a relatively little-known sport where daredevils and rocket scientists alike come together to share in the best that life has to offer.
He is, the most interesting man in rally.