The History of La Carrera Panamericana
Known worldwide in its initial stage as the Mexican Road Race, the motorsport competition would eventually receive the name of La Carrera Panamericana, La Carrera, and even La Pana; this rally-like sports event was classified as one of the most important of its kind due to the breadth of the route, which even exceeded that of the Mille Miglia and the Targa Florio of Italy.
The competition quickly gained international recognition and attracted the attention of speed lovers to Mexico, a country that became famous as an exotic and economical tourist destination that offered great possibilities. It was the fifties and in those days the joust was broadcasted by radio in national territory and through the cinema and various reports to the rest of the world.
Throughout its editions, this auto racing event has gotten the assistance of iconic pilots of each era. Star drivers of the fifties made their appearance in La Carrera mounted on famous vehicles such as Ferrari, Osca, Lancia, Mercedes, Porsche or Maserati, in addition to the North American Ford and Oldsmobile.
The history of La Carrera is divided into two stages: the old one that runs from 1950 to 1954; and the modern one that relaunched the route in 1988. It was during the old stage that La Carrera Panamericana obtained international prestige, and was therefore named the golden years of La Carrera Panamericana.
THE OLD STAGE
“La Carrera”, the beginning of a story…
La Carrera Panamericana owes its beginnings to the initiative of Don Enrique Martín Moreno, who together with the organization committee and the support of the Mexican government, organized the first five editions of La Carrera, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953 and the last of that period, in 1954. It was not until after the fatal accident in 1955 during the 24-hour rally of Lemans in France that the Mexican government decided to suspend the race in 1956 for safety reasons.
1950, the start of “La Panamericana”
It was the year 1950 when the government of Mexico decided to support the idea of Enrique Martín Moreno to carry out a large international event that toured the national territory with the goal of spreading tourism and opening business opportunities for investors, besides giving visibility to the newly created Pan-American highway that traversed the country. This was how the largest automotive sports event in our country originated.
President Miguel Alemán Valdés, a car enthusiast, was delighted with the idea and named Antonio Cornejo as the Director of the event, who captivated the attention of the automotive community of Mexico and the world. Thus, the first event was paid by the federal government, state governments, contractors who built the highway and other parties of the national automotive industry.
Alemán Valdés sponsored two cars in the race. One of them was known as “Coche México” (Mexico Car) and was driven by Rodolfo Castañeda who overturned the vehicle twice during the second stage eliminating any possibility of victory and finishing in the 25th place. The other car was signed up by the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the University from which the President graduated.
On the other hand, the event had the moral support of the United States racing community, including Wilbur Shaw, Director of the Indianapolis Speedway, and Eddie Rickenbacker, a pilot of the First World War. Thanks to them and to the promotion they both made in the northern country in favor of La Carrera, many of the North American competitors decided to attend the automotive competition.
At that time, La Carrera was made up of nine stages distributed throughout six days. The start took place on May 5, 1950, in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, a Mexican town adjoining the border of the United States, ending May 10 in the southern Mexican city of Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chiapas. That same route was to be followed for subsequent years.
The inaugural event had nine stages of competition over six days through the desert plains of the north, the mountains of the central area and the southern rainforest, landscapes that enhanced the impressive engineering work of the Pan-American Highway.
One of the issues that most concerned the organizers, was the safety of the drivers, so the use of seat belts was emphasized, a measure taken twenty years before the Formula 1 did. Competitors were given the opportunity to buy additional insurance for themselves and their vehicles. Enrique Hachmeister, a competitor of Guatemala, was one of the few who did not buy insurance, nor had he the recommended safety equipment installed in his car, and was coincidentally the only driver who died during the event.
In those days, the quality of the tires was not the best, and the road was not completely smooth, so the tires should be replaced frequently. Some vehicles changed the set of tires even four times, i.e. a total of 16 tires in just six days.
In the 1950 edition, the first participant to register for the competition was the Mexican José Antonio “el Viejo” Solana from a total of 32 cars registered, and the overall winner was an ’88 Oldsmobile driven by American McGriff. On that occasion, the participation of European brands in La Carrera was weak, mainly due to the participation requirements
However, a spectacular six-cylinder Alfa Romeo 2500 took part, driven by the Italian and internationally known, Piero Taruffi, who finished in fourth in the general category.
TESTIMONY OF JAVIER SOLANA:
Javier Solana participated as co-driver of his brother, José Antonio “El Viejo” Solana, in car number 29, NASH, during the 1st Carrera Panamericana in 1950.
Their participation was recorded as follows:
“It was definitely the most important race in the world, it attracted the best drivers and cars, including world champions Alberto Ascari, Herman Lang, Scarfiotti, Taruffi, Trevoux, Fangio, Johny Mantz, Vukovich, McGriff, Tom Deal, Cabalén, Bonetto, Segura, Maglioi, Phil Hill; and from Mexico, Leal Solares, Ché Estrada Menocal, Solana, Razo Maciel, and Iglesias, among others. The atmosphere was indescribable, service cars roamed the stages at night to wait at the finish line for their drivers. In the afternoon, with the tranquility of having covered the stage and finished servicing the cars, a social gathering took place, where you could hear the experiences of the best drivers in the world.”
Road Book – Car Nº 208 of MOISES SOLANA
1951, La Carrera Panamericana attracts the best European drivers
La Carrera Panamericana of 1951 generated considerable expectation around the world and for this reason, it was decided to change the event’s date to November, just at the end of the American and European racing season, to attract more professional competitors.
For that year, the route was the reverse of the previous edition mainly because the infrastructure in the north of the country was higher than in the south of the country, promoting the work of the media. In addition, at the end of the joust, American competitors were closer to its border, making their return easier. Finally, the organizers anticipated that some of the first stretches were mountainous, making the event easier to drive in the end.
Although there were fewer registered competitors for this edition, there was a higher quality among participants, since many were experienced drivers.
Since NASCAR and Indianapolis organizations supported the event, many professional drivers came from North America, including, Chuck Stevenson, Tony Bettenhausen, Troy Ruttman, Bill Sterling, Bud Sennet, John Fitch and the winner of the previous edition Hershel McGriff.
The European stars also attended La Carrera, including Italian Piero Taruffi and his Luigi Chinetti as co-driver, Alberto Ascari, Juan Manuel Fangio were with co-driver Luigi Villoresi, and Felice Bonetto and Giovanni Bracco driving two Lancias.
In that 1951, race organizers allowed the automotive producers to make modifications to the chassis and engine of standard vehicles, provided that the camshaft was kept intact. It was in that same year that Ferrari recorded his first participation in the automotive joust with two Coupes 212 Export with a V12 2.6L engine for the Taruffi/Chinetti and Ascari/Volloresi duos who had an overwhelming victory achieving the two top positions, and classifying third the Chrysler Sterling, equipped with an eight-cylinder 220CV engine.
Although there were many reasons for celebration, there were also some complaints from some competitors claiming that the Italians had teamed up to block certain sections of the
road, that they used another type of gasoline and used competition sports car instead of standard stock cars used by other competitors.
1952, La Carrera becomes stable in the world of the automotive rally
For 1952, the third edition of La Carrera Panamericana, it had already become a legendary event compared with the best rallies in the automotive world such as the Targa Florio and the Mille Miglia in Italy, and the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France.
During that year, several automotive manufacturers like Lincoln, Mercedes, Alfa Romeo, Porsche, and VW sent complete teams to compete in the event. On the other hand, American companies were pressuring the organizers to create a new category to include their cars arguing that the competition would be fairer.
Thus, during this edition, two new categories were created, the Sport category for small sports cars with two seats and the Turismo Estándar category for stock cars with four-seat cars, cars whose production exceeded the 5,000 units per year and that were built between 1949 and 1952.
Stock cars were allowed to make changes to their dampers, suspension, wheels, tires, the rear seat and the gas tank.
The route was not changed for this edition, but the day off was removed, so drivers had to drive for five consecutive days, which represented an additional effort.
That year the safety of the driver and spectators became more important, therefore some Mexican Army soldiers were placed every 800 meters along the route and every 50 meters in towns and cities. They were even instructed to shoot any animal that could compromise the safety of the competitors if crossing the road.
The Guastalla Millanese team entered registered three Ferrari 340 Coupes for Alberto Ascari, Villoresi and Chinetti. On the other hand, the Italian Piero Taruffi raced on an Oldsmobile 88, just like the winner of the first edition, Herschel McGriff.
The team that created the buzz at the event was Mercedes-Benz with three 300SL cars, two Coupé gullwing and one Spyder. Karl Kling and Herman Lang drove the coupes and the pilot John Fitch, who shot down several German aircraft in World War II a few years ago, drove the Spyder.
The Germans took their participation in the Carrera Panamericana very seriously and arrived at Tuxtla Gutierrez with a team of 23 people and 13 vehicles. They made over 2,000 miles of tests in different sections of the route and at different heights where the analyzed everything, the spark plugs, carburetor, the composition of the gasoline and gasoline consumption in different sections.
Porsche brought two 356 GTs with a 1,500 cc and 70 horsepower engines, reaching a maximum speed of 110 mph (177kmph). It is noteworthy that these cars belonged to Prince Alfons von Hohenlohe, who lived in Mexico and was the national importer for the VW brand.
In the Standard Touring category, the three Lincoln Capris stand out, with a 5.2 L V8 engine, they reached a maximum speed of 125 mph (201 kph).
Second to last edition of the Old Race in 1953
The second to last edition in 1953, featured four categories: Sport Internacional, Turismo Internacional, Sport up to 1,600 cc and Turismo Especial, increasing the number of participants, teams, and brands. Again, with the participation of the main champions of American and European championships such as Juan Manuel Fangio from Argentina driving a Lancia vehicle.
During 1953, the FIA created the World Drivers Championship to recognize the best driver of the season, and the World Manufacturers Championship to recognize the best car of the season competing in prestigious events such as the Mille Miglia (Italy ), 24 Hours of Le Mans (France), 24 Hours of Spa (Belgium), Nürburgring (Germany), 12 Hours of Sebring (USA), Tourist Trophy Dundrod (Northern Ireland) and the final event of the Championships would be defined in La Carrera Panamericana (Mexico), which made this edition an event that would decide highly prized award.
This year the competition was very tight between the Jaguar and the Ferrari. The dispute would have the result on Mexican soil, raising great expectations in that edition.
The Organizing Committee had created new competing categories: Turismo Especial for cars with 75hp to 115hp; Turismo Internacional for cars with power higher than 115hp; Sport Menor for cars with engines up to 1600cc or 800cc with a supercharger; and Sport Internacional for cars with engines over 1600cc.
A total of 177 cars started the race in Tuxtla Gutiérrez: 74 from Argentina, 47 from Mexico, 39 from the US, 9 from Italy and 4 from Germany. A curious fact is the high number of cars registered from Argentina, this is explained by the elimination of taxes on cars imported into that country; so, it was much cheaper to import an American car that had participated in “La Carrera”. While this measure generated additional income for the Organizing Committee of La Carrera, it failed to raise the level of competitors.
Ten Porsches registered in the Sport Menor category. The most remarkable participants were, the winner in 1952 Karl Kling, and Hans Hermann driving a 550 Spyder reaching speeds up to 125 mph (201 kph).
Lincoln returned to receive the title of the best stock car, with six registered cars in the race. These were driven by Johnny Mantz, Chuck Stevenson, Walt Faulkner, Bill Vukovich, Jack McGrath and Ray Crawford. These cars draw a lot of attention since they had some cartoon characters painted on the hood, including Popeye the sailor and Woody Woodpecker. Lincoln also developed a technique to film some stretches of the route and then go over them with the drivers to analyze the curves and stretches; this would become known as “road movie.”
Lancia won first, second and third place setting a new record for average speed throughout the event of 105.15 mph (169.2 kph). Fangio won the race without winning a single stage.
A victory in La Carrera Panamericana was considered as important as a victory in any other major event of the time.
The last race of the golden years in 1954
The 1954 event was the last event of the golden years of “La Carrera Panamericana”, at least for the next 34 years, until the promoter of auto racing events, Eduardo de León, brought it back to life.
During the fifth Carrera Panamericana in 1954, the participating categories were five: Sport Mayor, Sport Menor, Turismo Mayor, Turismo Especial and Turismo Europeo, which allowed participation with cars that were not standard, as modifications to the car were
allowed in some categories. The race began, as usual, on November 19, 1954, in Chiapas and finished on November 23 of that same year in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua.
In 1954, the race included Ferrari cars with driver Maglioli, overall winner with a total time of 17 hours 40 seconds. Equally remarkable was the participation of Mexican drivers in the Turismo Especial categories with Alvarez Tostado (4th place in the Turismo Especial category and 29th in the General Category); Ramiro Aguilar (5th in the Turismo Especial category and 35th in the General Category).
Meanwhile Moisés Solana, the youngest driver of the race, only 18 years old, was considered a revelation as driver of the, considering that this was his first foray into auto racing, and despite a loss of thirty minutes due to mechanical failures, he managed to reach the 6th place in the Turismo Especial category and 32nd place in the General Category; who behind the wheel of a Dodge with 50,000 kilometers, tussled on the asphalt with Italian Piero Taruffi and Argentine Oscar Cabalén.
Individual registrations made up most participants, decreasing registration of official car brands’ teams. The main reason was that the World Constructors ‘ Championship was already defined and the results obtained in La Carrera would not change that, therefore some teams saw no need to come to Mexico. That year Ferrari would win the title again, Lancia the second place and Jaguar the third.
A total of 149 cars registered for the fifth edition of the event: 20 in Sport Large, 13 in Sport Menor, 29 in Turismo Abierto, 68 in Turismo Especial and 19 in Turismo Europeo. The list of competitors became increasingly international with participants from many countries, some came with the intention of winning and others simply to live the adventure offered by La Carrera. There were teams from all over the world; 45 from Mexico, 42 from Argentina, 31 from the US, 7 from Italy, 6 from Germany, 4 from Guatemala, 2 from the UK, 2 from Spain, 2 from the Dominican Republic, 1 from France, 1 from Colombia, 1 from Cuba and 1 from Chile.
The main changes in the rules of that year related to the categories and the time allowed to perform maintenance and repairs to the car. The Turismo Europeo category was also added.
The rules set forth that the time allowed to work on cars was reduced to just one hour at the end of the day in Oaxaca, Durango, and Chihuahua; and two hours in Mexico City. This
rule applied only to cars in the Turismo categories. Sports cars could receive attention all day and night if necessary.
Volkswagen also sent a Sedans’ team (vochos) to participate. Obviously, they did not go with the intention of winning, but to prove their superiority in design, durability, and reliability.
The two Ferraris that Maglioli and McAfee were going to drive, were the most powerful cars ever designed by Enzo Ferrari. These vehicles could reach 350hp and a top speed of 175 mph (281.6 kph), and they were also coming from a victory in the 24 Hours of Le Mans rally.
Another car that caught the attention of fans was the sports car designed and built in Spain, the Pegaso Z103 Roadster driven by Joaquin Palacio. This car was sponsored by the Dominican President, General Rafael Trujillo and the name of the car was written on the hood, El Dominicano.
Coca-Cola sponsored the Mexican team of five Buick Century cars painted white with the logo of the soft drink brand highly visible. These cars were driven by five Mexican drivers, Luis Leal Solares, Fernando Razo Maciel, Ricardo Ramírez, Héctor Riva Palacio and Julio Mariscal.
Maglioli and Hill’s reputation was strong in the auto racing environment for many years. Porsche, Alfa Romeo, and Volkswagen were the real winners of the event as they took advantage of the visibility offered by the race. The reputation of the Borgward cars fell significantly due to poor results. Lincoln barely saved itself by the final victory of Ray Crawford.
A three-decade impasse for La Carrera
In 1954, the fifth and final race took place, because as of the following year it was suspended due to the accidents occurred and for the tragic fate occurred in 1955 during the 24 Hours of Le Mans. in France.
In August 1955, just four months before the start of La Carrera, the Mexican government decided to cancel the event. Apparently, the event accounted for certain danger for both participants and the public in general. This argument became more valid after the tragic accident in the 24 Hours of Le Mans race when Levegh, the Mercedes-Benz driver crashed with another car and both crashed into the wall of spectators.
Another version states that the new on duty President of Mexico, Adolfo Ruiz Cortines, was not planning to finance the event in the future, nor the necessary repairs to the Pan-American highway.
It would have to wait for over three decades for La Carrera Panamericana to be brought to life again, and gather the best drivers in the world to traverse the iconic competition.
Winners of the golden age of La Carrera Panamericana
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