Partnerships It Takes Two to Tango

15 min

– and Win The Carrera PanAmericana. Meet Hilaire and Laura Damiron, driver and co-pilot respectively, and the Carrera Panamericana team sponsored by TAG Heuer who raced to victory in 2016.

Ever felt the pressures of married life? Try being squeezed together inside a metal box, in 45 degree heat, taking hairpin turns at 250km/h, narrowly missing ravines, and having to communicate in code. That’s right – they’re also husband and wife. We find out what makes this dynamic duo such an extraordinary team, and why a shared need for speed could be the secret to a happy marriage… 

 

In everyday life, who does the driving? 

Laura Oh la la! We’re going straight to the heart of things… 

Hilaire In day- to-day life, I usually drive, with Laura as co-pilot. When we met about twenty years ago, she was downright terrified, sitting in the car next to me. And then after a while she started to adjust to the speed…and today… well, it’s funny really. Once upon a time she’d shout at me for going too fast, and now, well… 

Laura I’m shouting that I want to go faster!

Hilaire Exactly. We can be going 300 km/hr, she’s perfectly happy. As a person who likes to drive fast, it’s wonderful to have someone next to you who never makes a comment about your speed – unless it’s to say, ‘can we go any faster’?

« Laura has to ‘sing’ at super-high speed, every turn, every instruction… so she needs to really prepare her voice, a bit like a professional singer. »

Hilaire Damirón 2016 Pan-Am Champion with Laura Damirón

How do you prepare for this race, both mentally and physically? Do you prepare together? 

Hilaire The preparation for this race is a big part of what makes it so much fun. There are at least 10 months of preparation – including a huge amount of planning. It’s a seven day race, so any mistake you make at any point can spell disaster for the whole thing. You have to be as passionate about planning as you are about driving!

And then there’s real physical preparation as well. The driver needs a lot of agility, a bit of strength, and a lot of endurance. The co-pilot needs more endurance – a little less physical strength maybe, but an incredibly strong voice. Laura has to ‘sing’ at super-high speed, every turn, every instruction… so she needs to really prepare her voice, a bit like a professional singer. It sounds weird, but it’s true! 

Laura  I really have to practice breathing, because there are speed stages where it goes so fast – you have to sing out in rapid fire. And like a singer, you have to control your breath perfectly to get through it. You can’t miss a beat, or run out of breath at the wrong moment. 

 

And when you say ‘singing’, you mean calling out directions?

Laura Yes, exactly.

Hilaire  She really does sing! And then, there’s preparation for the car – it gets completely dismantled, all of the engine, the chassis, the suspension. So, even if it looks roughly the same from the outside, there’s a great interior evolution happening every year, which allows the car to go faster, to be more efficient, and safer.

Can you tell us a little more about the car itself? How does it hold up under these extreme conditions?

Hilaire The race regulations say that the car has to date between 1950-54, so our car has the body of a 1954 Studebaker Commander. It’s a coupé, designed by Robert Loewey, a Frenchman living in the United States, and it was one of the most modern, cutting edge, and aerodynamic cars of its day. She’s got incredible style.

Obviously, there’s a lot of noise during the race – and no ABS, no traction control, no stability control, no electronic assistance. It’s a completely mechanical car, including the gearbox – with all the sound and glory that entails. Drivers love this race, because today there’s nothing else of this scale on the planet, with so much power and speed on the course and almost entirely mechanical vehicles, completely free to the public. 

 

This is one of the most interesting things about this race – that it’s open to the public, and people can watch from anywhere along the course.  How does this affect your experience? 

Hilaire The Carerra Panamericana might be the only race in the world where you have an unmediated connection with the public. They’re right there with us, around the car –  no barriers, no tickets.  It’s completely free. We arrive in the cities, and the audience can touch the cars, they can talk to us. And it’s been that way since the 1950s. Today, we see generations of audiences who have been with their parents and grandparents to see the race. It’s a big event in Mexico.

Laura I love doing the speed stages, but for me, arriving in the cities is such a joy. We’re part of the history – along with all the people around us who love this race.  Every pueblo, every small town we pass through on the course is a real event – for them and for us.  In some ways, they prepare for it as much as we do! 

Hilaire Even before social media they would follow us; we always receive a wonderful greeting.  You might even get little ‘good luck’ gifts – santos, angels… even prayers!  You never feel alone. And we do feel supported by this lovely, positive energy around us; I wonder if we forget about that with social media these days – the power of a big smile, a face-to-face exchange. It’s a beautiful thing, to be made to feel so welcome.  But it’s also a race with a reputation for being very dangerous– it was even cancelled for a number of years because too many people died. 

Have you had any close calls?  What are the dangers you have to watch out for? 

 Hilaire Before doing the Panamericana, I was a motorcycle rider in the French championships, so risk has always been part of my life. But in this race, the danger is different because there’s no track, no mechanics or spare tires nearby. And 200 meter deep ravines… 

Laura… cows… 

HIlaire: … exactly.  And yes, we’ve had some scary moments. Two years ago, for example, in one of the dangerous stages called Mil Cumbre, there’s a big descent of 20 km, with lots of tight turns, where the car can ‘jump’. We got into a turn too fast, and when we swung to the right the car spun around and hit a wall – behind that wall there’s about a 300 meter drop. But luckily the wall held up, and we swung the other way,  hit the opposite wall, and bounced back and forth between them for a bit. 

Laura It was horrible.

Hilaire And the car, luckily, stopped in the grass. It was a bit of a disaster, but could have been much worse.  I would say risk is a big part of the race –  it’s something that we expect, and try to manage as best we can.

Laura but with good training, you definitely lower the risk. You practice preventing those situations. 

Hilaire that’s right.  And then there’s the safety we build into the car – to protect us, should something happen. There was a big shift from the 1950s to the 2000s, and today we are much safer.  But the risk is perhaps even more of an issue in our case, because we’re married, we have two young daughters, and we’re both in the car. In general, it would usually just be the crazy dad who’s the driver. Not so for us! But we look at it as something that brings us even closer, and gives us skills to face other problems in life. 

Do you have any advice on how to avoid conflict as a couple under pressure? Other than racing at 300 km/h, perhaps?

Hilaire Absolutely.  It’s a simple piece of advice – to have a shared passion. Something that allows you to go beyond the day-to-day routine. You can each have your own passions, of course, but then it’s good to have a third one that unites you.  And if it’s intense, even better, because you have to solve high-stakes problems in the moment. Whether it’s actual life-or-death situations, or even just that you might not win! When you’re aligned like that, it teaches you to overcome almost any problem that life might present.

 

What happens if someone messes up or makes a mistake? 

Inevitably, one or other of us will make a mistake and the other person has to handle the situation well. Because the idea is not to blame the other person, but to try to find a solution.  It’s a team spirit – we pull together.  But part of the goal is also to take pleasure in the process, in doing it together.  You have to respect the happiness of the other person.  Because that radiates out to other people – the people who help us behind the scenes, the spectators,  and our family too.  And today, if we’re going through something difficult as a couple, we can put some good music on and relive some of the incredible moments that we’ve had together. 

 

Laura, how much convincing did it take, if any, for you to agree to be Hilaire’s co-pilot?

Laura Hilaire asked me to do it in 2009, for his first race.  I said,  “let’s have the kids first, then we’ll see.”  And when our second daughter was 3 years old, in 2014, he asked me again. And I said  “OK, but I’m just going to try it once.”  I was a little nervous!  But he was a good teacher, and I was a good student – he explained to me exactly what he needed in a co-pilot, to make us the perfect team. 

 And for a few months, I studied a lot – eight hours a day. I learned all about the mechanics of things, and we invented a kind of language, a code, to communicate better. It’s like a shorthand, so I can read it out much more quickly than full sentences; I write about 800 pages, by hand, in pencil, every year.  Well, we did the first race together and I loved it.  I said I’d do it once and now I’ve done six. And in the second year, we won! 

How do you manage your time during the race? And what tools do you use to measure each stage? 

 Hilaire  There’s no point in relying on your own perception of time in the race –  we’re all too subjective about it.  It might feel like 10 minutes have passed when it’s only been two.  So you have to use a watch.  And it has to be incredibly reliable, readable – really a dashboard instrument that you wear on your wrist.  I sometimes look at my watch 5 times a minute; the importance of time in this race cannot be overstated. 

First, we have to measure the stages; we have a window of 30 seconds in which to reach each checkpoint in the race or we receive penalties.  Second, the speed stages – where the only objective is to be the fastest.  So we are constantly measuring time, obsessively, for eight days. And then you never know what will happen in terms of traffic, mechanical problems, punctures…

 

When you say there can be traffic… 

Hilaire We cross the whole country –  cities, ring roads, roundabouts – sometimes we sit there in our 800 horsepower racing cars in the middle of a traffic jam. And then eventually we arrive at a speed stage, where the road is blocked off and we can open up.  It’s a war against – and with – time.

 

What’s the temperature like inside the car? Your watch is made to take the heat, but how are you coping with it?

Hilaire There are big temperature swings in this race – at 5 am it can be really cold! Then at full speed it might reach 42 degrees; we’re right up close to the engine. A racing car radiates heat absolutely everywhere, it’s total madness. The exhaust pipes go right under our seats, with minimal insulation…  you could fry an egg on them.  For us humans, I would say that physical preparation is the key – and of course hydration! The secret is to hydrate in sync with the temperature –  we always have 3 l. camelback bags attached behind our seats.

A TAG Heuer watch will keep perfect time, with zero variation, even in these conditions, which is amazing. It’s a brand that I’ve always loved.  The Carrera watch is a pure racing watch – very readable, very reliable, very elegant. I’ve always had it with me for this race. Being able to represent the brand today really is an honour for both of us. If there is one brand that symbolises motor racing in my mind, it’s TAG Heuer. 

Laura At first, I got incredibly claustrophobic inside a helmet at 40 degrees.  But I started practicing by going into a sauna with my helmet on! It really worked, and I got used to it. I did that for two months, and then it wasn’t an issue for me anymore – I was completely fine, even at 45 degrees. 

« At first, I got incredibly claustrophobic inside a helmet at 40 degrees.  But I started practicing by going into a sauna with my helmet on! »

Laura Damirón 2016 Pan-Am Champion with Hilaire Damirón

What are you doing to prepare at the moment? 

Hilaire  Yesterday we were doing recon, in the state of Guanajuato. We go over our notes on the different speed stages to be sure they’re accurate, and that road hasn’t changed. The roads undergo construction, and in some places you’ll find gravel or holes where there didn’t use to be any. 

Laura Even the road signs change!  

Hilaire Sometimes there are signs we’ve used as a reference, and then, all of a sudden, they’re gone.  Which is really annoying!  That, and we’re always looking for ways to go faster. I’m passionate about speed, about pushing the car to its limits, testing the boundaries. But the co-pilot has to anticipate what I can’t see –  and this is where something really incredible happens:  imagine driving at 200 km/h, and up ahead there’s a bend – behind a mountain, maybe –  which I can’t see around.  And my co-pilot says ‘you have to take it at full speed’ – and I have to trust her, unconditionally. I cannot brake.  And to have that kind of experience with your wife,  it’s amazing.  It gives you a very rare kind of connection as a couple.

Laura There’s a real synergy between us. 

Hilaire And also trust – absolute trust.  If she tells me to brake before a turn and I second-guess it, or don’t understand, or I’m not listening properly, I might go around that bend much too fast.  And then, of course, that’s it – we’re out.

Laura then we’re ****ed.   You have to be completely, 100% in sync in every way –  with the voice, the intonation, the rhythm of the car and the road. Because the pace changes, and you have to adapt to every movement, to get the right intonation, clear breathing, and to be totally articulate no matter what’s happening. 

Hilaire  And there’s another thing, which Laura has developed –  it’s quite amazing, because it takes many professional co-pilots years to master it –  which is that she’s able to feel it. She can not look at the road, and read her notes, and just by the movement of the car and the feeling of her body in the seat, she knows exactly where we are.  

Laura and when everything lines up, it’s like magic. 

Hilaire and that’s when the car dances… the co-pilot singing, the car dancing…  it’s like a great tango.  To share that as a couple, it’s something that stays with you forever.

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