Purpose-built race circuits became the norm in the United States following the spectator fatality at Watkins Glen in 1952, but in some parts of the country where a racetrack wasn’t financially or logistically feasible, races carried on well into the 1970s and even 1980s on temporary race courses. Few used actual roads—airfields were the safer alternative—but in the 1960s, well off the beaten path in the high desert of New Mexico, a few men and women now mostly lost to history raced an epic track along and on top of a stunning red mesa.
This was Bottomless Lakes State Park just a short distance from Roswell, itself far removed from the rest of civilization. The harsh and brutal high-speed race track, called Las Ochas Millas (spelled in a variety of grammatically incorrect Spanish ways depending on where you look), sent racers climbing and diving and scrambling around 7.7 miles of state park road. Races would be few, but its participants and sponsors (including the state of new Mexico) would cling to them enthusiastically.
Any circuit of such length is formidable, but Bottomless Lake’s track encircled a handful of sinkhole-sourced lakes that served as something of an oasis in the otherwise-desolate New Mexico scenery. Getting to the races was something of an adventure, but in the mid-1960s, Bottomless Lakes offered a throwback to the previous decade: open-road racing.
With club racing quickly becoming big-budget racing and the Rio Grande SCCA Region offering little in the way of incentives, Roswell would draw only diehards, those who raced for its passion, some from as far away as Los Angeles. There were no Shelby-backed or big-dollar teams, just weekend enthusiasts out for white-knuckle wheel-to-wheel racing.
Las Ochas Millas circuit created an immense, flat-footed adrenaline ride for drivers, almost as if someone had dropped Circuit de la Sarthe on the moon, tossing out the chicanes in favor of elevation-changing bolsters. By all accounts, lap times were directly related to how quickly cars ran out of RPM in top gear and/or whether the drivers ran out of intestinal fortitude first.
The clockwise track (Click here for bigger image) was a narrow south-north arrangement with the Start/Finish line and paddock at the park’s south end near Lea Lake (A). From there, racers would flat-foot it for miles along the freshly paved tarmac, lined on both sides by low desert scrub (B) that hid smaller lakes to the right. The mesa loomed over the road to the right as racers barreled toward the curvy section around Lazy Lagoon (C). The picturesque scene with the mesa on the right and lagoon on the left would have been appreciable had the drivers been focusing on not dying. The scenery continued as drivers squeezed on the brakes before the big climbing turn (D). At last, the first half the track dropped behind and racers would find themselves atop the mesa (E), desert stretching seemingly forever in front of them.
Drivers then faced “The Y” (F), a hard right at the intersection of the only road leading into the park at the time. The road then turned into another very long straight, skirting the mesa’s edge (G) before opening up into a top-speed run across the barren landscape (H) with an unending vista. A constant-radius left (I) broke the high-speed monotony before another right turned cars back south. The long bend then pointed racers back toward the edge of the mesa with paddock and Start/Finish in sight across Lea Lake and some 150 feet below during the long left (K). A rapid descent (L) then led to the course’s sharpest corner, a diving right-hander (M) toward the paddock.
Bottomless Lake hosted its inaugural event in 1964. At least 29 cars from a mix of classes showed, including Gary Wilson’s Chaparral I (one of very few customer Chaparrals) and Jim Chaffee’s unique Pink Elephant. The non-championship feature was won outright by Joe Starkey in his F-Modifed Elva Mark VII. Results are hard to come by (I haven’t found any for 1965), though Starkey’s Elva won again in 1966 over a pair of Shelbys (John Nygaard’s Cobra and Brad Booker’s GT350).
With the park in the middle of nowhere, racer turnout for races was relatively low and lacked huge names, though noted Texas Datsun drivers Doc Foerster and Bert Jones (Cars show above in the Bottomless Lakes paddock) would make the trip for at least the final race in 1967, which James T. Crowe would cover for Road & Track.
Still, the races drew crowds of up to 3,000 people, no small feat when the surrounding population is relatively sparse and the track in the middle of the desert. Crowe remarked in his R&T article that the turnout surpassed that of a National-scale race at Las Vegas only a week earlier. The immense scale of the race required more than 100 course workers, many of whom would spend the day atop the mesa, unprotected from sun and wind.
Doc Foerster would win his race in 1967, but he would also be pressed into medical service during an earlier Saturday race when he came upon Ken Haynes’ rolled Alfa Romeo. Foerster would perform CPR and an emergency tracheotomy on Haynes using a pen knife he fortuitously carried in his Fairlady Roadster. He apparently thought little of the heroics, returning to the pit area later with his race suit bloody. Unfortunately, Haynes would perish overnight after being taken to hospital.
The next day, Kent Bagnall’s Shelby Cobra won the feature race in his B Production monster, averaging 175 km/h (108 mph for the metrically challenged). That’s the average speed; top speeds would have been well north of there for what was essentially a V8 and four wheels.
No races were held after the 1967 event, though the reason is unclear. Crowe was clearly impressed by the event, despite the death that marred it, and would almost certainly have thought it a shame to have ended.
As with some other forgotten racetracks, Bottomless Lakes is remembered in the virtual realm as user-generated content for PC game Grand Prix Legends. Here’s in-game video of a lap around Bottomless Lakes:
The scenery is all wrong, but the track is pretty close to correct, giving a good feeling for how long racers would have run the throttle wide open.
Today, Bottomless Lakes State Park remains a picturesque destination in New Mexico, an oasis with swimming, camping, and breathtaking scenery. It still hosts races, albeit in human-powered domains. The park has hosted at least one triathlon while the the Tour de Ocho Millas (above) follows the same route as the motor race, challenging bike riders to power themselves up and down the mesa, around the lakes, and past the arroyos.
[Sources: James T. Crowe/Road & Track; Datsun.org; Racingsportscars.com | Image sources – Google Earth: Lead and track map. TopoQuest: Topographical map. Datsun photo : Jim Kellar/Datsun.org. Final photo: Tour de Ocho Millas]