The Carrera Panamericana was a sports car racing event on open roads in Mexico, similar to the Mille Miglia and Targa Florio in Italy. It ran from a southern Mexican west-coast city towards Texas, and counted towards the World Sportscar Championships. Running from 1950 to 1955, it was widely held by contemporaries to be the most dangerous race of any type in the world. It has since been resurrected as classic road rally.
After the Mexican section of the Panamerican Highway was completed in 1950, a nine-stage, five-day race across the country was organized by the Mexican government to advertise this feat and to attract international business into Mexico. The race ran almost entirely along the new highway, which crossed the country from north to south for a total distance of over 3,300 kilometers (2176 miles). Antonio Cornejo, a Pontiac dealer in Mexico City, was the hard-working and effective general manager of the event.
The first of five annual races began in May 1950 and was entered by racers from all over the world, representing virtually every motor sport; Formula One, sports cars, rallying, stock cars, endurance racing, hill climb, and drag racing. Because it started at the border with Texas, it was especially attractive to all types of American race drivers, from Indy cars to NASCAR. Bill France, the founder of NASCAR, was there for the first race (and would return). The Mexican government's representatives worked closely with the American Automobile Association and other motorsports groups in the U.S. to organize and promote the event, which was limited to stock sedans with five seats. Piero Taruffi and Felice Bonetto, both Italian F1 drivers, entered a pair of Alfa Romeo coupes especially constructed for the event. However, many of the 132 'competitors' were ordinary citizens from the U.S., Mexico (including some Mexican taxi drivers) and elsewhere, who ran as privateers.
The first race ran from north to south, beginning in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, across the international border from El Paso, Texas, and finishing in El Ocotal, Chiapas, (now known as Cd. Cuauhtémoc) on the Guatemala-Mexico border opposite from La Mesilla, Guatemala. At least one stage was run each day for five consecutive days. The elevation changes were significant: from 328 feet (100 m) to 10,482 feet (3,195 m) above sea level, requiring amongst other modifications re-jetting of carbeurettors to cope with thinner air. Most the race was run between 5,000 feet (1,500 m) and 8,000 feet (2,400 m).
The first four places were won by American cars and American drivers. The winner, Hershel McGriff, drove an Oldsmobile 88 at an average speed of 142 km/h (88 mph). Though less powerful, the car was substantially lighter than its big Lincoln and Cadillac competitors, meaning that it would eventually pull away from them on the steep, winding course. The car (which had cost McGriff only $1,900, when the winner's purse was $17,000), had another advantage in its weight - it was much easier to stop, meaning that McGriff finished the race on his original brake shoes when the big cars were re-shoeing every night. The reason that this was so important was that neither McGriff nor his co-driver were capable of even the most basic maintenance to the car. McGriff also noted that the control afforded by his manual gearbox gave him a significant advantage the last day on the gravel roads in Chiapas, when he finally passed the Cadillac leading the race. The best placed European car was an Alfa Romeo sedan driven by world-famous Italian driver, Felice Bonetto.
The following year, the race was run from south to north, starting in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chiapas, and finishing in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, because of the lack of accommodation available for race officials, drivers, crews and press in El Ocotal and the jungle. This northerly direction also allowed the U.S. drivers to finish at their border. For the first time, a European manufacturer entered a 'factory' team, Ferrari entering several cars including a 212 Export LWB Vignale, and although these did not technically satisfy the requirements of the touring car category, the Italians were permitted to compete anyway.
The race would prove to exact a heavy toll upon drivers. At the start of the race, José Estrada, a prosperous Mexico City car dealer and a veteran racer, announced: "I will win, or die trying." On the first lap, his 1951 Packard skidded off the road and tumbled 630 feet down into a ravine. Both Estrada and co-driver Miguel González died in a Oaxaca hospital later that afternoon. The next day claimed Carlos Panini, Italian in origin, and a pioneer of Mexican aviation - in 1927 he had established Mexico's first scheduled airline, which he sold in 1951 with plans for his retirement. He is credited with being the first pilot to fly a light plane around the world. The fatal accident occurred on the second day, during the second stage from Oaxaca to Puebla. Although the registered driver for the race was Carlos' daughter Teresa, he was at the wheel of car, despite not having a valid license and being in poor health. The accident happened while a young Bobby Unser was trying to overtake Panini, as Unser related in his book "Winners Are Driven: A Champion's Guide to Success in Business & Life":
On the second day, we were in seventeenth and coming up to pass the car of millionaire Carlos Panini and his daughter, Terresita. She was the registered driver. However, Carlos was behind the wheel instead and was in ill-health. He shouldn't have been driving. He didn't even have a driver's license. The rules were that the slower car was to allow the faster car to pass if the faster car honked its horn. We were in the mountains, and I came up to Carlos and honked, but he wouldn't let me pass. This went on through about ten turns, with Carlos blocking me each time. We were probably doing about 90 miles per hour at this point. The next time I tried to pass him, he bumped my right-front fender, which almost pushed me off a sheer cliff to the left that was some 500 to 800 feet down. My left front tire went over the edge, but fortunately I regained control of the car. Carlos over-corrected his car to the right, and went straight into a solid rock wall. The car exploded on impact like an egg hitting a sidewalk. I didn't know it at the time, but Carlos was killed instantly. One of the rules of the race was if you stopped to help anyone, you were automatically disqualified... Seeing the explosive impact, I wanted to stop to help, but daddy told me to keep going. He knew the rules and told me that people were there to help. That was hard for me - I slowed down to about 15 or 20 miles per hour. He insisted that I keep going, and grimly, I did.
Unser managed to control his Jaguar, while Panini's 1949 Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 SS collided with the cliff face. Ricardo Ramírez of Mexico City abandoned the race to rush the Paninis to a hospital in Puebla, but he was announced dead on arrival. Teresa Panini survived the accident with minor injuries. The deaths of two well-known Mexican sportsmen in the first two days of the race brought some reactions of horror and indignation. A government official publicly branded the race "an imitation of North American customs not suited to Mexican characteristics." The press went off on a crusade; Mexico City's El Universal declared that permitting such dangerous shenanigans was a "crime."
Although the first two places were predictably won by the works Ferraris (driven by Piero Taruffi and Alberto Ascari respectively), third and fourth places were won by ordinary American cars. Bill Stirling, a salesman from El Paso, Texas, won third place in a Chrysler Saratoga and well-known race car driver Troy Ruttman won fourth in a flat-head Mercury which he reportedly had bought for $1,000 in a used car lot in El Monte, California. In spite of this he was able to defeat several of the factory Lancias and Ferraris.
In 1952 the Carrera Panamericana saw the introduction of two categories - Sports Cars and Stock Cars, dividing what had previously been a single class, so American heavy saloons did not have to compete directly with the nimble European sports cars. The major automobile manufacturers had taken notice of the race and Mercedes-Benz sent a highly organized group of people and cars to the race. First and second places were won by Karl Kling and Herman Lang, driving the now legendary 300SL. This group may well have achieved a 1-2-3 finish had American John Fitch not been disqualified for permitting a mechanic to touch his 300SL on the penultimate day. American Chuck Stevenson won the touring car class in a Lincoln Capri.
The Mercedes 300SL of K. Kling & H. Klenk following the impact of a vulture to the windscreenFamously, the victory of the Mercedes-Benz 300SL of Kling and Hans Klenk came despite the car being hit by a vulture in the windscreen. During a long right-hand bend in the opening stage, taken at almost 200 km/h (120 mph), Kling failed to spot vultures sitting by the side of the road. As the birds scattered at the sound of the virtually unsilenced 300SL, one impacted through the windscreen on the passenger side, briefly knocking co-driver and navigator Klenk unconscious. Despite bleeding badly from facial injuries from the shattered windscreen, Klenk ordered Kling to maintain speed, and held on until a tyre change almost 70 km (43 mi) later to wash himself and the car of blood, bird and glass. For extra protection, eight vertical steel bars were bolted over the new windscreen. Kling and Klenk also discussed the species and size of the dead bird, agreeing that it was a bird with a minimum 115-centimetre (45 in) wingspan and weighing as much as five fattened geese.
Less famously, but with far greater implications, was the innovative use of pre-prepared 'pace-notes' which allowed Klenk to ascertain and communicate upcoming road bends in rapid shorthand to Kling. This system proved so effective that it is used in all motorsports involving a navigator today (such as rallying).
In 1953 the Sports and Stock classes were both subdivided into Large and Small groups, giving four categories in which to compete. These were split by engine cubic capacity; sports cars under and over 1600 cc were Small and Large respectively, and stocks cars under and over 3500 cc likewise. This was to accommodate the huge number of participants and the diverse breeds of cars within the race.
Both Lincoln and Lancia came to the race highly organized and both factories swept 1-2-3 finishes in their respective categories. The Europeans dominated the sports categories, and the Americans the stock. Large Sports Cars was won by Juan Manuel Fangio of Argentina in a Lancia, Small Sports Cars by José Herrarte from Guatemala in a Porsche. Large Stock Cars was won by Chuck Stevenson of the United States in a Lincoln and Small Stock Cars by C.D. Evans (again of the U.S.) in an ordinary six cylinder Chevrolet. Stevenson has the distinction of being the only person to ever win twice in the original race.
By 1954 the race had shifted from a largely amateurish basis to become a highly technical exercise. This is reflected by the winning of the final stage by eventual race winner Italian Umberto Maglioli, in a Ferrari at an amazing average speed of 222 kilometres per hour (138 mph) over the 365 kilometres (227 mi) stage. To put this into context, McGriff had won the 1950 race with a combined time over 27 hours - eight hours longer than even Kling and Klenk would take just two years later in their 300SL. Phil Hill won second place in another Ferrari with Ray Crawford winning the stock car class in a Lincoln. Two new classes were in effect in 1954; the European stock car class was won by Sanesi, of Italy, in an Alfa Romeo and the small U.S. stock car class was won by Tommy Drisdale in a Dodge. Californian hot rodder Ak Miller became famous by winning fifth place in his Oldsmobile powered 1927 Ford.
Due to safety concerns, the race was cancelled after the 1955 Le Mans disaster, although the President Adolfo Ruiz Cortines announced only that the race's original task of publicizing the highway was 'complete'. The cancellation was unavoidable given that cars of the period were of a high-speed, low-safety design, and drivers of a win-at-all-costs mentality. Only a third of entrants typically finished the race, and unlike more compact circuits, the long stage sections were impossible to secure entirely, making it possible for crashes to linger for several hours before being noticed. 27 people had died during the five years of the Panamericana, giving it one of the highest mortality rates per race in the history of motorsport, primarily because during the years the race was held, automobile racing had undergone an amazing technical transformation to emerge as an advanced science. The speeds had almost doubled as a result, but safety controls remained static and competitors, spectators and safety control personnel alike became casualties.
Despite being abandoned, the race would not be immediately forgotten. Despite their models being small and often quite underpowered (especially with regard to American and other German opponents) Porsche enjoyed some success in the race, mainly class wins, which was a testament to the reliability engendered by the Volkswagen Beetle ancestry of their cars. Famously, a 550 Spyder won the Small Sports Car category in 1953. Later, some Porsche road cars were named the Carrera, after this race (in the same theme as the Targa, after the Targa Florio).
Also, the race saw famous people from different forms of auto racing converge in one event, making for an interesting mix of competitors. A few of the famous names involved in the race were:
Bill France, future president of NASCAR, Curtis Turner and Marshall Teague of stock car racing.
Mickey Thompson, Clay Smith and Ak Miller, famous hot-rodders.
Carroll Shelby, Tony Bettenhausen, and Jerry Unser from open wheel 'Indy' car racing.
Phil Hill and Juan Manuel Fangio Formula One champions.
John Trevoux, Robert Manzon, Louis Chiron from France, winners of the 24 Hours Of Le Mans as well as major international rallies.
Herman Lang, Karl Kling and Hans Hermann from Germany.
Alberto Ascari, Piero Taruffi, Umberto Maglioli and Felice Bonetto, all already famous Italian race drivers.
These were the best in the world at that time and even fifty-some years later it is acknowledged that these are key people in the formation of modern motor racing.
The race was resurrected in 1988 by Eduardo León Camargo (2007 is the 20th retrospective year), and runs a 7-day, 2,000-mile (3,200 km) route aping some of the original course. It is run, unusually, with official backing on special closed stages of the public road network and fast transit sections through central Mexico at speeds approaching 160 mph (260 km/h). 80 cars compete in 10 classes, sorted regarding age and authenticity; virtually any car with a classic bodyshell is eligible. The bulk of entries are provided by 1950s and '60s American stock cars; the most popular shape is the 1953 Studebaker Champion Regal Starliner, designed by Raymond Loewy, because of its exceptional aerodynamics (this is best proven by the fact that as of 2007, of 20 post-1988 races, 13 have been won by Studebakers). Other common European entries include Alfa Romeo Giuliettas, Jaguar E-types, Porsche 356s & 911s. Rarer cars included Saab 96s, Volvo PV544s, and Jaguar MkII saloons.
However, despite the generally aged appearance of the cars, often they conceal underpinnings more closely related to modern NASCAR entries. Tuned V8 engines of more than 500 PS (493 hp/368 kW) are common, especially in the American cars, and the cars are often created especially for the race and ineligible anywhere else. Even less modified cars often have nonstandard brake and coolant upgrades to help them survive the punishing course. Roll cages are standard fit, and drivers and navigators are required to label their helmets and respective sides of the roof with their blood types.
The above is a clue as to what separates the Panamericana from other modern road races; it remains extremely dangerous. Mechanical attrition for the more classic cars often leads to burst brake lines and overheated engines, but crashes are also common on the winding roads. In 2006, a 19-year-old co-driver was left in a coma after his Jaguar E-Type Roadster crashed more than 100 ft (30 m) into a pine forest; Rusty Ward, another competitor, rolled a Studebaker from a bridge into a river, having finished the event in a similar fashion the previous year. It is obvious, therefore, that the race should not be classed with road-rallies in the style of the recreated Mille Miglia; the race is competitive with no speed restrictions on the closed-road sections.
The 2006 event started in Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico coast, pulling in at Mexico City's CP circuit as a curtain raiser for the Champ Car race, and stayed nights at the old colonial cities of Puebla, Querétaro, Morelia, Aguascalientes and Zacatecas, with the finish at Monterrey. It was won by Gabriel Perez and Angelica Fuentes in a yellow 1959 Ford Coupe, the first win for a woman and a first for the 'Turismo Production' class. Though competed mostly by amateurs, Jo Ramirez of the McLaren F1 team competed a Volvo P1800 amongst other star drivers.
In a retro step, Cadillac entered a replica of the 1954 Series 62 coupe that a Colorado Springs dealer loaned to "five ordinary guys from Chicago", in order to revive a half-century old duel with Lincoln. The original rag-tag team won the last two stages, and finished third in class (a Lincoln Capri won the Large Stock Class). The newer car, built in-house by GM's Performance Division Garage, preproduction trim shop and show-car paint department, was built from an identical coupe hauled from somewhere within Cadillac's own inventory. The 331-cubic-inch 270 hp (200 kW) V8 was enlarged to 398-cubic-inches, with higher 10.5:1 compression bringing output to 375 hp (280 kW) and 400 lb·ft (540 N·m) of torque, and certain safety improvements included. The car was reunited with Blu Plemons, the co-driver of the original (the driver, Keith Anderson, was killed in practice for the 1957 Indy 500) at the starting line. Among the nine other entries in the "Original Pan-Am" class were four Lincolns, including a 1949 model that contested the original Pan-Am.
Also importantly, 2006 saw the debut of a 'modern' category, with the sole entry of a Lotus Elise ('Chica Loca') run by Rachel Larratt. This class, called Unlimited, allows machines manufactured after 1990 to compete in the race. Controversially, in recognition of the high value of some of the supercars thus allowed to run, organisers of the race foresee the need to allow case-by-case exceptions from the race's normal safety equipment rules. The class is intended to raise the race's profile beyond a market elderly enough to recall the original four races, to ensure the survival of the event. Also, it is a reflection of the increasing scarcity of eligible vehicles, and of the effect of modern rallies like the Gumball 3000.
The 2007 event, according to Eduardo León Camargo (President emeritus of La Carrera Panamericana), was the largest recreation to date. More than 100 teams (20 more than the usual limit) participated in seven days of racing from October 26th to November 1st inclusive, with an additional pre-qualifying stage held outside Oaxaca on Thursday October 25th. Cars competed in the usual ten classes along a 3,100-kilometre (1,900 mi) course starting in Oaxaca. From there, the route lead the convoy in day-long sections consecutively between Tehuacán, Puebla, Querétaro, Morelia, Aguascalientes, Zacatecas and Nuevo Laredo.
As the 20th (XXth) anniversary of the race's recreation, 2007 saw Mr. Camargo gave thanks to the committee which has for 19 years organised the race, and the presence of President of the Mexican Motorsports Federation, José Sánchez Jassen, and President of the Mexican Rally Commission, Rafael Machado. During the conference announcing the route, special mention was reserved for the efforts of Mexican law enforcement in general and of the Highway Patrol in particular, under the command of Comandante Julio Cesar Tovar, and to thank Mexican Federal, State and municipal authorities for collaborating to ensure smooth running of a challenging project.
Year Drives Car
1950 Hershel McGriff
Ray Elliott Oldsmobile
1951 Piero Taruffi
Luigi Chinetti Ferrari
1952 Karl Kling
Hans Klenk Mercedes-Benz
1953 Juan Manuel Fangio Lancia
1954 Umberto Maglioli Ferrari
Year Drivers Car
1988 Eduardo Morales
Gael Rodriguez Ford
1989 Guillermo Rojas
Alberto Rojas Jr. Mercury
1990 Alain de Cadenet
Gordon Currie Jaguar
1991 John Ward
Shirley Ward Kurtis
1992 Peter Frank
Mark Williams Mercury
1993 Carlos Anaya
Eduardo Rodriguez Studebaker
1994 Carlos Anaya
Eduardo Rodriguez Studebaker
1995 Kevin Ward
Kimberly Elsnier Studebaker
1996 Carlos Anaya
Eduardo Rodriguez Studebaker
1997 Phillipe Lemoine
Pierre de Thoisy Studebaker
1998 Phillipe Lemoine
Pierre de Thoisy Studebaker
1999 Pierre de Thoisy
Jean-Pierre Gontier Studebaker
2000 Pierre de Thoisy
Jacques Tropenat Studebaker
2001 Pierre de Thoisy
Carlos Macaya Studebaker
2002 Doug Mockett
Alan Baillie Oldsmobile
2003 Pierre de Thoisy
Pierre Schockaert Studebaker
2004 Juan Carlos Sarmiento
Raúl Villareal Studebaker
2005 Juan Carlos Sarmiento
Raúl Villareal Studebaker
2006 Gabriel Pérez
Angelica Fuentes Ford
2007 Pierre de Thoisy
Frédéric Stoesser Studebaker
2008 Bill Beilharz
Jorge Ceballos Studebaker
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