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