An ambulance driver must be able to get where he is going quickly and safely. Those are the same traits needed for a driver in a marathon rally, such as Paris-to-Dakar-to-Paris.
With that in mind, Secoamerica, Inc., a Newport Beach-based holding company with interests in ambulance service, entered a three-man team in the 18-day, 7,500-mile rally that twice crossed the Sahara Desert.
Paul Blevin, 30, an ambulance driver from Anaheim, was selected to drive the team’s diesel-powered Toyota Landcruiser.
“The way Secoamerica looked at it, if we can’t get from Point A to Point B without getting in an accident of our own, we can’t help the patient,” Blevin said after finishing the grueling competition without mishap. “The company will use us as an example to all its employees.
“In other words, if I can drive 12,000 kilos without being in a wreck, then the rest of them should be able to drive 12-hour shifts safely.”
Secom, Inc., the Japanese parent corporation that owns Secoamerica, Inc., entered drivers from Japan in the Paris-Beijing Rally in 1992, and the company reported that the resulting focus on safety resulted in an 18% reduction in losses from accidents in Japan.
Blevin was on the road 62 hours 46 minutes 31 seconds and finished 47th overall of 127 entries. It was the only American entry in his class.
“The thing I’ll always remember most about the trip was fatigue,” Blevin said. “I don’t think either Doug (Neal) or I was ready physically for it, even though we had trained for more than three months around Barstow, the Glamis sand dunes (near the Salton Sea) and in Japan. We were fatigued by the third day out when we broke the front end and lost the shocks and had to drive all night to catch up. Fatigue was with us all the way.”
Neal, who was Blevin’s navigator and rode every mile, is an emergency medical technician from Seattle. Eric Smith, a paramedic from Key West, Fla., was the team manager.
The three were chosen from 65 applicants throughout the United States after Secoamerica sent a bulletin to its 2,500 employees, asking for volunteers. When the list had been pared to eight, the remaining group was given off-road training by rally champion Rod Millen before going through a two-day test of navigational skills and driving ability.
“I was the only one who had any racing experience of any kind,” Blevin said. “I had never driven in an off-road race, but I had ridden with Ivan Stewart and Mickey Thompson and others in the Baja 1000, Mint 400 and other races. I had also worked as a mechanic for Cal Wells on the Toyota racing team.
“It was like a dream come true, getting this chance. My interest in racing began when I was 15. A friend of mine invited me to an off-road race, and his dad was working on Jerry Welchel’s car. He asked me if I’d like to be the gas man for one of the teams, and from that day on, I was hooked. I progressed to tire man and then became a mechanic and co-driver.”
The rally started in Paris and crossed Spain to Gibraltar, where the contestants were ferried to North Africa. From there, they crossed the Sahara to Dakar, Senegal, then back north across the Sahara again to the Mediterranean and another ferry trip leading to Paris.
“Leaving Paris was exciting,” Blevin said. “It was raining, but people were lined up along the streets, waving and hollering and cheering. In Granada, when we stopped for a red light, people swarmed around the car and when the light changed, they moved just enough for the car to squeeze through.
“They told us that the streets were packed with people at 8 a.m. and the rally wasn’t due until midnight. People in Spain just seem to love an excuse for a party.”
Although the teams were warned about camels in the desert, Blevin said the worst problem was with sand crabs and locusts.
“The first couple of days in Morocco, we ran through swarms of locusts. It looked like a blizzard. We had to get out and scrape them off the radiator, they were making the car overheat.
“The sand crabs were eight to 10 inches in diameter. We also saw a lot of donkeys. In fact, in some areas, donkeys were the main mode of transportation. It was funny being in a town and not seeing any cars. It was like old horse-and-buggy days, except instead of horses, they used donkeys.
“When we were out in the desert, we’d run across wild donkeys. They were a nuisance because they wouldn’t move. They’d just stand and stare at us.”
The biggest problems were getting stuck in the sand or lost in the vast wasteland.
“Once we got stuck for five hours, and we didn’t make our checkpoint in the allotted time. We got penalized 16 1/2 hours.
“We had trained for the desert in Glamis and had learned to read the sand, but the sand in parts of the Sahara is like an illusion. It looks hard, but it’s soft as snow. For every shovelful of sand, three more fall in.
“From Altar to Nouadhibou (in Mauritania), we drove all day and night trying to catch up. All we got was about 20 minutes’ sleep in two days. It’s worst when it gets dark and you have to drive all night, after having driven all day.
“There are no road signs, most of the time no roads of any kind. You go by the route book, charting the course by compass and global satellite positioning.”
Speeds ranged from 5 to 80 m.p.h. in the Landcruiser.
Motor Racing Notes
STOCK CARS--Saugus Speedway will open its season Saturday night with NASCAR Sportsmen, pro stocks on both the third-mile asphalt oval and figure-8 tracks and Grand American modifieds. . . . Sportsman, Grand American modifieds, street stocks and pony stocks will run Saturday night on the three-eighths mile oval at El Cajon.
OFF ROAD--The annual SCORE Nevada 400 will be run Saturday over a 98.16-mile loop north of Las Vegas. It is the third event of the SCORE Desert Championship Points Series.
MOTORCYCLES--The Bridgestone Arizona Superbike Challenge--eight classes of AMA road racing--will take place Friday through Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway. After Phoenix, the superbikes will be at the Pomona Fairplex on April 8-10. . . . Speedway cycles will open the Coors Light season Friday at Costa Mesa Speedway.
AWARDS--Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt was named the Carolinas’ athlete of the year for the second time. He was selected over basketball’s Alonzo Mourning and Michael Jordan.