Big Bend Open Road Race brings high speeds to West Texas 

Photo by Hannah Gentiles for The Big Bend Sentinel / Agustin Gonzalez inspects the safety features in his Corvette before the race on Saturday.

FORT STOCKTON The 23rd annual Big Bend Open Road Race returned on Saturday after it was canceled last year due to the coronavirus pandemic. It’s one of just a handful of open road races in the United States and –– according to the event organizers –– it’s the most challenging of them all. 

The course runs from Fort Stockton down Highway 285 to Sanderson. Drivers then turn around and make the 59-mile trek back to Fort Stockton. This year, the fastest drivers made it down to Sanderson in under 24 minutes. Trophies and bragging rights are all that’s at stake. 

Throughout the course there are over 59 turns, some blind, with constant changes in elevation, which makes for difficult driving conditions, according to the race organizers. 

Agustin Gonzalez, of Marfa, was one of 160 competitors who took part in the race –– this was his third year to compete. He was in the 120-mph division with his 2018 Corvette that can reach speeds of up to 186 mph. 

On turns, Gonzalez said he pulls an average of .75 G-forces. “You take that turn and the whole car is pulling and you want to let go and slow down because you think the car is going to go off the road,” he said. “But you gotta have faith.” 

Gonzalez also has a lot of safety gear. For the 120-mph division, his Corvette is required to be outfitted with a five-point harness, a roll bar and a fire extinguisher. During the race, Gonzalez wears a helmet, a neck brace, arm restraints and a fire-resistant suit. 

“We don’t have guard rails. We don’t have sand traps. We don’t have anything like a race track does, like a closed circuit does, to help you if you go off the road,” Gonzalez said.

To make the race a reality, event organizers have to get a permit to shut down Highway 285 from the Texas Department of Transportation. For 12 hours, the public road is designated as a private course, said Dustin Archer, the race director. 

Unlike in NASCAR, drivers aren’t tailing one another, jockeying to be the first across the line. Rather it’s a time trial, where cars are set loose on the highway in set intervals. 

There are a number of divisions that entrants can compete in, ranging from the 85-mph category all the way up to the unlimited class where speeds average around 170 mph. 

It’s a little complicated, but the goal is to get as close to the target speed set in each division. “For the 150-mph class, the whole purpose is to try to get from A to B, start to finish, averaging 150,” Archer said. 

If a driver’s speed is above the division limit, “they’re obviously too fast [for the division],” said Archer. “You need to be under that limit. It’s almost like the price is right. You can’t overbid. You need to be under the speed or right on the nose.”

This year, the 160 cars that entered in the race ranged from Subarus to Corvettes, from Miatas to purpose-built race cars. There was even a Dodge Charger that was formerly in the NASCAR circuit in the race. While the majority of the contestants live in Texas, there were drivers that came from all over the United States to compete.

The event organizers go to great lengths to ensure the safety of the participants. Sheriff’s deputies, firefighters and EMTs are staged all throughout the course. There are three planes that are flying overhead to monitor any incidents. And before the race, the local air-medical helicopter does a flyover to calm any nerves the drivers might have. 

There has been only one major incident in the past five years, according to the Fort Stockton race coordinator, Crystal Lopez. A Porsche going 150 mph lost control and slammed into a power line, knocking out the electricity in Sanderson. “We had a delay for a little bit, but honestly, the guys have so much gear and so much is required of these cars, the guys left [the crash] walking,” Lopez said. 

Due to the necessary safety precautions, the open road race isn’t much of a spectator sport. But drivers aren’t doing it for the fans, said Rhonda Parmer of Pasadena, who has been attending the race since 2011. “There’s no police after you. You know the road is clear. It’s the thrill of pure speed,” Parmer said. “There’s nothing better.” 

Many of the drivers in the race have a second person in the passenger seat –– known as a navigator –– who gauges the car’s speed, monitors the time and alerts the driver to upcoming curves. “It’s one of the most important jobs, and it’s extremely stressful. The navigator is in charge. They are the boss,” said Bryan Parmer, Rhonda’s husband. There’s even a school for navigators to train them how to “call the road.”

After the race on Saturday, all of the participants gathered in Fort Stockton’s Rooney Park to celebrate. There, Gonzalez said he and his navigator Daniel Mendoza, a Marfa native and Midland resident, placed fourth in their division. “We do it to represent Marfa in something we believe we do well.” Gonzalez said. “We do it to see if two small town boys can compete with the big boys from around the U.S. that come down for this race.”

His Corvette –– sparkly clean just hours before the race –– was now painted in bug splatter.