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Oceanfront Motorhead Grand Prix Madness

By J.A. del Rosario

October 31, 2003
Copyright © 2003 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

If you have traveled to Puerto Rico, you have undoubtedly noticed locals' uncensored love affair with their automobiles. On any given Sunday, you cannot drive down Highway 52 (which runs from San Juan to Ponce) without passing a procession of proud car owners parading their customized and overwaxed rides down the right lane of the expressway. This car culture doesn't know economic barriers. Upscale sports cars, and antique car clubs are as common as groups celebrating budget-priced Korean imports like Hyundais and Daewoos.

This car aesthetic cult, along with heat-induced impatience that provokes a collective preference for speed, is at the heart of the Puerto Rican traffic identity, which can be summarized in a simple aphorism: When in doubt, put your pedal to the metal.

Given the public's fascination with cars and speed, it is no surprise that Puerto Rico was chosen by the Trans Am Tour to host the final race of the circuit's season. For the Trans Am racing circuit, this meant staging its first race outside North America, a feat that involved shipping race cars and building a special track in the grounds of the Isla Grande Airport in San Juan. But for local spectators, the race, titled the Puerto Rico Grand Prix, meant three days and nights of car racing, live music, along with plenty of drinks and plenty of food.

The Isla Grande Airport is the main feature of a former Army base facing the San Juan Bay. The U.S. government passed ownership of the base to the local government several decades ago, and the compound now houses several hangars and docking facilities. The semi-abandoned industrial atmosphere will be short-lived though, because Isla Grande is undergoing major plastic surgery. Across the road from the airport, construction of the Puerto Rico Convention Center has already begun. The $400 million center, which will include a world-class convention center along with hotels and restaurants will link Isla Grande to Condado and Old San Juan, two of the city's most popular tourist sites. The center will open in 2005, according to government estimates.

Meanwhile, we have 23 world-class drivers riding their V-8 powered vehicles at more than 100 miles per hour, racing 61 laps around a 1.6 mile oceanfront racetrack, enduring temperatures of 140-degree inside their fireproof racing suits. All encapsulated by the Zen-like hum of revved-up engines and the intoxicating scent of exhaust fumes.

Think of those racing games you once played in the video arcades where you got your only chance to speed down exotic highways, and you get an idea of what these Grand Prix racers do for a living.

But the Grand Prix was more than a car race. For three days, the transformed airport hosted three consecutive nights of rock, rap and salsa concerts. There was plenty of drink and plenty of food, and, well, plenty of those revved up engines and exhaust fumes.

Every day, after the racing concluded, music fans were treated to the Motorock Trans-Am Tour, a three-day concert series featuring a taste of the more popular local musicians. This meant some rock, some pop, some salsa, and a whole lotta rap!

On Friday evening, after the drivers tested their cars on the tracks, the airport filled up with several thousand people who went to see local rock group La Secta, and rap artist Tego Calderón, dish out their favorite hits for the crowd. Being a difficult, and hard-to-please music fan I seriously recommend catching any one of these three acts if you are in town. La Secta could be Puerto Rico's hardest working rock band. An independent outfit who keep spreading their soulful Spanish rock songs throughout Latin America.

These guys are not recording studio hermits, instead they seem to live by the Keith Richards credo that a rock band that does not play live is a dead band.

Another must-see is Tego Calderón, a local rapper whose debut album caught the attention and imagination of world-class stars like Roselyn Sanchez, and Robi Draco Rosa (the songwriter responsible for Ricky Martin's hit songs). Calderón's rap songs, which deal with sex as much as racism, drug addiction and other social maladies, are wrapped in a blend of standard salsa grooves, mixed with dance beats. When playing live, the gap-toothed singer prefers to perform with live musicians and not confine himself to the accompaniment of a DJ.

Calderón's performance set the tone for Saturday night's lineup, which can only be described as an all-local, all-rap, all-night concert. For those who never jumped on the rap bandwagon, it bears clarifying that local rap gains more mass appeal in Puerto Rico everyday. The main reason behind this is the perreo phenomenon. Perreo, the Spanish equivalent of the term doggystyle, is a dance that makes the Brazilian Lambada seem as racy as the waltz, (which was deemed pretty racy in its day; apparently because the man and the woman were required to be in the same room during the dance).

Regardless of where you stand on the moral implications of a dance that involves standing behind your partner and grinding the night away, what is undeniable is the dance's popular appeal. Despite attacks from conservative groups, conservative politicians, and conservative neighbors -- perreo becomes more popular everyday.

During a recent concert of Don Omar, one of the Grand Prix performers, the audience demographics were so widespread that it was enough to give a marketing expert a serious migraine.

"I didn't expect people of so many ages," a friend told me a few days after the concert. He quickly added that he spent most of the concert perreando with four different women.

"I'm so glad I got divorced six months ago," he said.Now, using this background information, picture Saturday night's concert at the Grand Prix. Late night under a black sky, the breeze from the bay sweeping across the crowd, the city lights beaming like frozen fireflies, and all around you a crazed sea of perreo grinders going at it like... well, you get the picture.

No doubt, a night to write home about, and then save to read to your grandchildren someday.

Sunday night's show, which followed the race was devoted to a little rap and some salsa, courtesy of local singer Jerry Rivera. It was a subdued show. The adrenaline of the upset victory in the race earlier in the day seemed to have drained the energy from the crowd. This was just fine with me.

Around 10:30 P.M., a thick rain started to fall on the city. Monday was approaching. It was time to go home.   

J.A. del Rosario, a business reporter for The San Juan Star, is a remedial guitar player and an incorrigible nightcrawler. He can be contacted at: :

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