Classic races: the Carrera Panamericana!

In the series on classic races from the crazy days of motorsport, we’ll today travel to Mexico and learn more about the legendary Carrera Panamericana, a race that was cancelled after only five years, that is one of the most deadliest in motorsport history, but the name of which has also inspired two world-leading firms in naming their products sine more than 50 years. Unfortunately I’ve never been to Mexico which would certainly be an advantage in trying to describe a race as colorful as the Carrera in all its dimensions, although that would probably still be a problem to do in writing. Let me give it a try though, because the Carrera Panamericana (PC hereunder) certainly deserves its place among the truly classic motorsport races!

The PC was conceived as a road race by the Mexican government to showcase the opening of the Mexican stretch of the Panamerican Highway, a 30.000 km long highway stretch linking North and South America from Alaska in the north to Ushuaia in the south of Argentina. Well, at least almost linking, because in the middle between Panama and Colombia, there’s a break of around 100 km where there’s no road at all and you need to engage in a dangerous, four-day hike through the rainforest (without your car…) to link the two parts. Still, the Mexicans were really proud o having completed their part, and decided to celebrate it with a race.

The (almost) full stretch from north to south

In 1950 the first edition took the drivers from Juarez in the north of Mexico down to Chiapas in the south on the border with Guatemala, over a total distance of around 2000 miles (3200 km). Considering we’re back in 1950 there was obviously no 2000-mile race stretch available, so cars were driven on completely public and open roads, just like in the Mille Miglia we looked at a few weeks ago. In Mexico at the time and maybe still, many of those roads were made of mud, they cross mountains over passes and vast stretches of desert among cacti, over passes and through valleys. Then as now it’s also warm in Mexico, at times really warm, but at other times really cold as well, and none of this made the whole thing easier.

One of few color pictures – a Porsche during the PC

The first race in 1950 was made up of adventure-hungry amateur drivers from around the world, without any fuzzy rules whatsoever – the first car to cross the finish line was the winner. For some reason the first race was limited to five-seat sedans, a rule that was however changed in subsequent years. The race was anyway off to a strong start in the first year, with no less than three drivers and one fan dying… Over the coming years it would earn a reputation as perhaps the greatest motorsport adventure there was, attracting both brands and drivers that were more professional than in the first year. Until the original race came to an end in 1954, drivers like Juan Manuel Fangio, Carroll Shelby and Phil Hill had all competed in the race, with Fangio being the only F1 world champion to have won the PC as well.

1952. The three men in ponchos are Hans Klenk, Karl Kling and Hermann Lang, all successful Mercedes drivers in the Carrera Panamericana.

Just as in the Mille Miglia, there is a great number of stories that could be told about incidents during the different races. A great one is from 1952 when Mercedes had entered three 300 SL’s in the race, one of which was driven by Karl Kling with co-driver Hans Klenk. Taking a fast right-hander, a vulture smashed headlong into Kling’s windshield with the glass cutting Klenk’s face quite badly. The pair carried on regardless and still managed to take the win by half an hour. Another far less entertaining incident was during the 1953 race, the deadliest of all, with a total of eight spectators dying, including six who were hit by a car as they tried to help another car that had tumbled down an embankment. Just like in the Mille Miglia, one of the main problems was that the average speed climbed steadily every year and was by the end close to 160 km/h. That’s quite a lot when you consider the muddy roads, the mountain passes and deserts, and the 1950’s technology!

Klenk and the 300 SL after the encounter with the vulture

A total of 27 participants died during the five original PC races. That’s a truly astonishing number, but it fades somewhat (but not much) when you consider it’s estimated that over 2 million spectators watched the race on the roadsides between 1950 and 1954. What made Mexican authorities cancel the race was however not the race itself, but rather the dramatic accident in Le Mans in 1955 that killed 83 (!) people. More than 30 years later in 1988, the PC made a comeback as a professional race over a completely different stretch that is driven to this day, but that’s also a completely different story.

The Italian Maglioli won the last race in 1954 on his Ferrari 375 Plus

There we go – the Carrera Panamericana was perhaps the most dangerous of the classic motorsport races in the roaring 50’s and was cancelled after only five years. It was enough to make its reputation well beyond the race though, most notably of course with Porsche choosing to use the word Carrera, Spanish for race, to name first the 911 Carrera RS 2.7 and today, their 911 base models. The other company that took a liking in the name is the Swiss watch manufacturer Tag Heuer, that would obviously later also team up with Porsche with several dedicated watches, using the Carrera name. Time-keeping was certainly less precise during the PC than if Tag Heuer had handled it, but then again, that was never the main issue with the legendary, Mexican motorsport adventure!

“Luck, for a racing driver, is to survive”

Hans Herrmann, motorsport legend and Carrera Panamericana driver for Porsche in 1953 and 1954

Classic races: The Mille Miglia!

This week sees the start of a new section on the blog called “Classic races”, where at more or less regular intervals, the idea is to tell the story of some of the most famous and legendary classic car races of the last century. As is often the case the idea came out of nowhere, or at least not following any logical path. More precisely, last week when walking down the street, I saw a grown man in a business suite on a non-powered, two-wheel scooter, kicking himself forward on the sidewalk and wearing – a helmet. It struck me how in spite of fatalities from most activities being lower and longevity obviously higher than at any time in history, in the perception of some people, the world has become incredibly dangerous. Somehow that made me think of cars (never far away…) and especially classic cars, and thereby of a time when the drivers indeed risked their lives for the sport and cars they loved. In other words, classic car races!

I’m sure you could have a lengthy argument of what race you should start such a section with and I certainly don’t intend for this section to follow any kind of order of importance, but somehow you need to start with one of the most well-known ones, which at least from a European perspective is no doubt the famous thousand miles through the northern half of Italy, more well-known as the Mille Miglia (hereinafter also MM)! Given the 2022 race took place in the second half of June this may ring more than one bell, but today’s race is not the same as the original one, so let’s take things in good order.

Neither helmets, nor paved roads

It was back in the 1920’s when, as part of the strong rivalry between the two northern Italian cities Milan and Brescia, the Brescians weren’t happy to see the completion of the Monza race track close to Milan in 1925. Some resourceful merchants from Brescia got their heads together and thought up a race that would be driven on (unprepared and unpaved) roads rather than on track, but be of the same length as a Grand Prix at the time, namely 1000 miles (1600 km). Why on earth would Italians think in miles you may think, but actually the old Romans used miles as measure, so it’s indeed a measure which at least historically has been used in Italy as well. The race would start in Brescia, lead to the eternal city of Rome before ending back in Brescia, along a route as figured out by two of the more enthusiastic merchants, Aymo Maggi and Franco Mazzotti.

Aymo Maggi, one of the four men who gave us the Mille Miglia!

Two years later in 1927, a total of 77 cars took part in the first Mille Miglia. Ferdinando Minoia and Giuseppe Morandi needed a bit more than 21 hours to win the first race in their OM 665, thereby managing an average speed of 77 km/h. Not bad for the 1920’s, but it didn’t take more than three years for a certain Tazio Nuvolari from Mantua, also known as “The Flying Mantuan”, to increase that to over 100 km/h. The Mille Miglia was however not reserved for sports cars with both smaller cars such as the Renault 4CV and family cars taking part as well. In a logic that would arguably not be applied today, the slower cars started ahead of the faster ones such as to reduce the time officials had to spend along the route. This was certainly one, but not the only cause of accidents, of which a serious one in 1938 led to the original route being changed to a shorter 165 km route driven several laps in 1940 (no race took place in 1939). After the war however, the MM went back to the original route – having seen the horrors of war during five years, the general view was that in comparison, the original route was child’s play!

The OM 665, winner of the first Mille Miglia in 1955

When the MM resumed after the war it remained, as in previous years, very much an Italian story. In most years both the winning cars and their drivers were Italian. In the years before the war it was Alfa Romeo that was most successful with the 6C and 8C, after the war Ferrari had most success with various models. Among drivers, Tazio Nuvolari is perhaps the most legendary, and in some years the route was even changed in his honour so that it went through his home town of Mantua. This is not to say that foreigners didn’t have some success as well; Juan Manuel Fangio participated in the race but never won, and the most well-known foreigner is no doubt Stirling Moss who won in 1955 in the Mercedes 300 SLR. That was only two years before the last Mille Miglia race in 1957 when a tragic accident killed not only the driver and his co-pilot but also 10 spectactors of which five were children. This meant the end for the original Mille Miglia race.

The Flying Mantuvan Nuvolari in full action!

As a largely pre-WW2 car race, there’s obviously a number of stories to be told from the young age of automotive sport. One of the best ones is certainly from 1954, when German driver Hans Herrmann participated in a Porsche 550 together with co-driver Herbert Linge and decided to save some time at the sight of a rail crossing – and an approaching train. Given the 550 was quite low, Herrmann accelerated and both Linge and him sunk down in the seats such as to be able to pass under the barrier… Stirling Moss’s victory in 1955 is also a story in itself since he managed to set an all-time speed record, averaging close to 160 km/h. Given the non-paved, dwindling roads of the race with hundreds of spectators alongside them, that remains difficult to understand to this day. His co-driver during the race was the journalist Denis Jenkinson who later in the magazine Motorsport told the story of what was in his words a terrifying experience. If you’re curious, you’ll find it here!

An artistic view of Moss and Jenkinson in the 1955 race

In 1977 The Mille Miglia was revived as a tourist race with the current, annual format being in place since 1987. The race is today open to cars that either participated in the original race, or are of the same type. Either or, needless to say that these are worth quite a lot of money these days and the race has thereby become a wonderful exhibition of automobiles from a bygone era. The initial technical inspection in Brescia on the eve of the race is something not to be missed if you happen to be in northern Italy around this time of year! Every year around 400 cars take parto out of around 1500 applicants, and the route still leads from Brescia to Rome but varies a bit from year to year. As a tourist rally it’s no longer about outright speed but more about typical classical car race moments such as regularity and navigation. The risk of accidents and need for helmets has thereby diminished heavily, and it’s also highly improbable that any driver chooses to cross a railway under the barrier!