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Carrera Panamericana La Máxima Competencia

Introduction

The ultimate competition! This exhibit explores an infamous auto race, the Carrera Panamericana. The race was held annually between 1950 to 1954 and took place on the Pan-American Highway through Mexico. A variety of cars raced across the open highway, and the race was known for its daredevil nature, famous drivers, and accidents.

Race Overview

The Carrera Panamericana race has been called many things over the years, but the ultimate conflict is one of the most apt superlatives. The race was held annually from 1950 until 1954 on the Pan-American Highway through Mexico. It pitted cars of different classes against drivers from countries around the world. As a five day race with nine legs, it tested driving ability, stamina, strategy, and the drivers' desire to win. In addition to being an exhausting race, it was incredibly dangerous as it was raced on the open roads, through the desert and the mountains. There were many accidents and fatalities throughout the history of the race. This exhibit explores various aspects of this infamous auto race. But first, a quick overview of the race:

What: The Carrera Panamericana was one of the most grueling road races that has ever been organized. It was held on a mostly paved route twice as long as the famous Mille Miglia road race in Italy. Modified factory sedans and coupes competed against each other in various classes to finish the journey in the least amount of time.

Where: The race was run through the Mexican portion of the Pan-American Highway System, a highway meant to stretch from Alaska to Argentina. In 1950, the race journeyed from Ciudad Juarez to El Ocotal, going from North to South. The rest of the races from 1951 to 1954 were run in the opposite direction going from Tuxtla Gutierrez to Nuevo Laredo. Either way the race ran, it went through the center of the country and finished over 2,000 miles later.

When: The inaugural race was held on May 5, 1950 and ran annually for 5 consecutive years before safety concerns for both drivers and spectators became too pressing to ignore. The 1955 race was even planned to be included on the FIA calendar until the tragic crash at Le Mans that killed over 80 people swayed opinions the other way.

Why: The original goal of the race was to promote the near completion of the Mexican portion of the Pan-American Highway. The race was funded mainly by the Mexican government and meant to be a prestigious international event. It eventually attracted big name manufacturer efforts hoping to use a win as both a marketing opportunity and also bragging rights. The prize money was another motivating factor for drivers, as the prize fund for top finishers ranged from around 334,000 to 765,000 pesos throughout the race.

Who: This race attracted many big names over the years. Juan Manuel Fangio, Karl Kling, and Luigi Chinetti are a few of the overall winners who were also famous drivers in other types of racing. Other famous drivers who competed with varying levels of success include Bill France Sr., Tony Bettenhausen, Phil Hill, Carroll Shelby, Dan Gurney, Robert Manzon, Hermann Lang, and many more. The Carrera Panamericana was not just for famous drivers, it also attracted people who wanted to experience the excitement of this unique race.

Map of the Carrera Panamericana Route, 1950s

Famous Cars

The Carrera Panamericana is famous for the daredevil nature of the race, but also for the cars that it attracted. Huge, powerful production cars raced beside sprightly sports cars, not to mention the customized cars that some drivers raced. All in all, it made for a visually exciting race.

Shown below are just a few examples of the different types of cars that raced the Carrera Panamericana over the years.

The Ham Special, car number 35, raced by Mexican drivers Jose Ham Gunam and Armando Santamaria in the 1953 Carrera Panamericana was a customized car that drew lots of attention. Unfortunately, this car did not finish the first round in time, so it was eliminated and did not finish the race.

However, this photograph shows the uniqueness of this Ford that Jose Ham Gunam modified by adding the distinctive transparent hood over the car. The hood was actually an aircraft canopy, a Consolidated-Vultee BT-13 Trainer that was affixed to the car. The canopy would protect the driver from the dirt and gravel while simultaneously allowing him to see more of his surroundings. It married the best parts of having an open cockpit with the best parts of having a closed cockpit. Overall, this car exemplifies the playful ingenuity of the Carrera Panamericana.

Similar to the Ham Special is another larger touring car, the Lincoln Capri. This is the Lincoln Capri raced by Chuck Stevenson and Clay Smith during the 1953 Carrera Panamericana race. This Lincoln Capri represents an important model of car during the 1953 race. As Johnny Tipler describes in his book La Carrera Panamericana: "The World's Greatest Road Race!" for the first time in this race, touring cars were given two separate classes: Turismo Especial and Turismo Internacional. This differentiation was based on the power it produced. If it produced 75 to 115 bhp it was in Turismo Especial, and any car that produced over 115 bhp was entered in the Turismo Internacional class.

Lincoln Capri Stevenson

The Lincoln Capri, as a powerful touring car, fell into the Turismo Internacional class, and generally performed well in the race. This chart breaks down the technical specifications of a 1954 Lincoln Capri. The car was massive but was also incredibly powerful with a large engine that was almost three times bigger than a Porsche engine. Adding to the imposing nature of the car, it was a body-on-frame construction made of all steel, which would have made this car relatively heavy compared to the lighter European aluminum bodied cars. Interestingly, it went from zero to sixty in twelve seconds, which is rather slow for a race car by modern standards.

Specifications of a 1954 Lincoln Capri from Special Interest Autos Magazine, 1992

However, Chuck Stevenson finished first in class this year with a time of 20 hours, 31 minutes, and 32 seconds. He had also won the previous year in the general touring car class, Turismo Standard, also in a Lincoln Capri. He has the supreme distinction of being the only two-time winner of the Carrera Panamericana.

The Carrera Panamericana attracted a variety of different marques, classes of cars, outside-the-box designs, and also eye-catching paint jobs and decals. One of the most famous being Jacqueline Evans, an English actress, who had her Porsche 356 custom painted with Eva Peron's portrait. Eva Peron had died on July 26, 1952, and Jacqueline Evans wanted to race in her memory. In addition to the portrait on the front hood and the "In Memory" on the sides, Evans had "representing the women of the world" painted on the fenders of the car. Besides standing out for her car, Jacqueline Evans also had the distinction of being the only female driver in the race. Unfortunately, Jacqueline Evans only competed in the first leg of the race from Tuxtla-Gutierrez to Oaxaca. She did not finish the first leg in time and was thus eliminated from the race. Even though Jacqueline Evans did not win the race, her Eva Peron themed car stands out as one of the most memorable in the race's history.

Jacqueline Evans Races a Porsche 356 in Memory of Eva Peron, 1953

An important car to the Carrera Panamericana is the Porsche 550 Spyder. This photograph captures the moment that Hans Hermann raced across the finish line in a Porsche 550 Spyder. The 550 Spyder served as stark contrast to the much larger and more powerful American machinery that was entered in the race. The Porsche had a modest 1.5 liter four cylinder engine and yet Hans Hermann won the Sport Menor class (under 1.5) in the 1954 Carrera Panamericana in a nail-biter of a race. He beat his closest competitor, Jaroslav Juhan, by only 38 seconds with a final time of 19 hours, 32 minutes, and 33 seconds. He finished third overall behind Umberto Maglioli in a Ferrari 375 and Phil Hill and Richie Ginther also in a Ferrari 375.

Hans Hermann Crossing the Finish Line in Porsche 550 Spyder, 1954

Background Photo: Ham-Special raced by Jose Ham Gunan, 1953

Advertising for the Races

Although the Carrera Panamericana only ran for five years, it generated a lot of publicity. There are many programs, letters, maps, and other materials that were saved from these first years that highlight the general excitement surrounding the race.

Carrera Panamericana Outstanding Facts Press Release, 1954
Carrera Panamericana Program, 1952
Invitation Letter to Carrera Panamericana, 1954
Carrera Panamericana Program, 1953

Background Photo: Carrera Panamericana Program, 1951

Upper Left: Carrera Panamericana Program, 1954. Upper Right: Carrera Panamericana Map (1), 1953. Lower Left: Carrera Panamericana Map (2), 1953. Lower Right: Carrera Panamericana Program, 1954.

Crashes

The Carrera Panamericana killed 27 drivers and spectators, making it one of the most deadly races in motorsports history. Rugged terrain, lax safety regulations, and speeds well over 100 miles per hour contributed to the high death toll.

In 1950, the first year the race was held, more than a dozen participants retired due to accidents during the race's nine legs. The Quintanilla brothers of Mexico City crashed their Mercury just south of Parral on the second day of the five day race and suffered injuries. Though they did not finish, both brothers survived the crash.

Other drivers were not so fortunate. During the first 50 miles of the race, Guatemalan driver Enrique Hachmeister lost control of his Lincoln at 115 mph, missed a turn, and flipped over. Hachmeister was one of two drivers killed during the 1950 race. Two spectators were also killed, including a four-year-old boy.

Aftermath of Enrique Hachmeister's fatal crash, 1950

Over the next four years the race was held, only about a third of entrants would actually finish the race. Driver Bobby Unser remembers the crash that killed wealthy businessman Carlos Panini in 1951. Panini - who was not the registered driver, had no drivers' license, and was sick at the time - refused to let Unser's faster Jaguar pass. After several attempts, Panini bumped fifteen-year-old Unser's fender, almost sending him off a sheer cliff. Panini's Alfa Romeo slammed into a wall and exploded, killing its driver instantly. According to Unser, it was "like an egg hitting a sidewalk."

All told, the race claimed the lives of dozens of competitors, including Lancia driver Felice Bonetto. Crashes were deadly not just for drivers, but also for spectators. In 1953, the deadliest year of the race, a crowd of people flocked to the scene of an accident in which a car had run off the road and down the embankment. Moments later, another car lost control when the brakes jammed, plowing into the crowd and killing six people.

Hitting spectators was not the only danger drivers had to face. In 1952, race winners Karl Kling and Hans Klenk hit a vulture in their Mercedes-Benz W194 at 120 mph. Roosting next to the road, the birds took flight as the car came roaring around the right-hand bend. One of the birds hit the car, breaking through the windshield. Klenk, who had removed his helmet and forgotten to put it back on, was briefly knocked unconscious.

A bloody Hans Klenk emerges from behind his shattered windshield after striking a buzzard, 1952

Klenk, bleeding badly from the bird impact and the shattered glass, instructed Kling to keep going. Even though the hole in the windshield created so much air pressure that the rear window popped out, Kling maintained his speed until the next tire change, 43 miles later. The next morning, all three Mercedes-entered cars were equipped with "buzzard bars" covering the windshield.

Karl Kling sits on his Mercedes-Benz W194 with new "buzzard bars" installed, 1952

Striking birds during the race was not altogether uncommon. Oldsmobile driver Ak Miller, laughing at the Mercedes team's reaction, remarked, "Hell, everybody hits buzzards! They were just too slow on takeoff to get out the way when we came by at 140 mph!"

Safety concerns contributed, at least in part, to the cancellation of the race. Due to design innovations, race car speeds had been increasing significantly, but safety measures had not yet caught up to the increased danger. Following the 1955 Le Mans disaster, which killed over 80 people, the Mexican government announced that the Carrera Panamericana was at its end.

Background Photo: The Quintanilla brothers' wrecked Mercury, 1950

Scenes from the Road

The Carrera Panamericana was an exciting adventure of a race going straight through the heart of Mexico and giving the drivers a taste of the desert, mountains, plains, and cities of Mexico. The drivers would have seen spectators, police, and scenery as they drove down the race course. This gallery aims to show a few things drivers may have seen along the race, from the road and when they stopped for the night to rest.

Background Photo: Lincoln Capri Racing During Carrera Panamericana, 1953

Spectator with Dog, 1950
Lincoln Team Drivers in their Hammocks, 1953
Man Preparing Food, 1953
Lincoln Capri, 1953
Woman in dress, 1950
Police at Carrera Panamericana, 1952
Cadillac Oveido, 1950
View of the Road during Carrera Panamericana, 1953
Carrera Panamericana course, 1950
Karl Kling Checks Map Along Course, 1953

Background Photo: Carrera Panamericana Finish Line, 1952

Legacy of the Race

Although the Carrera Panamericana was drawing large crowds and lots of publicity, the race only ran for 5 years, from 1950-1954. One of the main reasons for its cancellation was the high number of fatalities for the race. After the tragic Le Mans catastrophe where 87 people died, the public was all too aware of the inherent dangers of racing for both the driver and spectator. The Carrera Panamericana had a history of numerous drivers being killed during the race, but in addition to this track record, there were people who died before the race even began.

Route of the Carrera Panamericana, 1953

In Johnny Tipler's book La Carrera Panamericana: "The World's Greatest Road Race!" Tipler states that in the 1954 race "fatalities occurred before the race began. A crew of Argentinean entrants was involved in a fatal accident driving to Tuxtla-Gutierrez, and two US fans, who simply wanted to watch the start, overturned their Jaguar XK120 and were both killed. The Lincoln service van also flipped during the trip to Tuxtla-Gutierrez, seriously injuring some mechanics."

The other overriding concern was the cost of putting on the race. There are conflicting reports of how much money the race really brought in and how much the government actually spent on it. In any case, racing events are expensive and coupled with the public outcry over the dangers of racing, the Carrera Panamericana was cancelled.

Ray Crawford and Rick Iglesias, 1950

Even though the Carrera Panamericana only lasted for those five years, it has had an enduring legacy. The history of this daredevil race lives on in the current incarnation of the race that was brought back by Pedro Davila, Loyal Truesdale, and Eduardo de Leon Camargo in 1988 and runs to this day. The current race bears little resemblance to the original, but is still popular.

As far as the cars of the Carrera Panamericana, there are many shining stars. Lincoln was a marque that really shone during this race because Lincoln Capris won their class from 1952-1954. In 1952 and 1953, Chuck Stevenson and Clay Smith finished seventh overall and first in class in a Lincoln Capri. In 1954, Ray Crawford and Enrique Iglesias finished ninth overall and first in class in their Lincoln Capri. Also during this period from 1952 to 1954, the Lincoln factory sponsored Lincoln teams.

Lincoln Mercury Team, 1954

This race is also where aspects of two famous cars got their start: the Porsche Carrera and the Mercedes 300 SL. Generally associated with the Porsche 911, Porsche Carreras are so named in honor of their triumphs at the Carrera Panamericana race. In the final year of the race, 1954, Porsche won its class and finished third and fourth overall.

Porsche 550 Coupe, 1953

The Mercedes 300 SL Gullwing was another iconic car that is associated with the race. The Mercedes 300 SL Gullwing was released in the early 1950s, and Karl Kling and Hans Klenk raced the car in the 1952 Carrera Panamericana. They had a memorable accident, where a vulture flew into the windshield of their car, which led to them installing bars over the windshield to avoid a repeat occurrence. For many reasons, the Gullwing became a very popular street car, but the 1952 Carrera Panamericana made it stick out in collective racing memory.

The Carrera Panamericana was an unforgettable race; it had all of the needed components: danger, an international setting and participants, high performance cars mixed with everyday cars, prize money, skilled drivers, a slew of interesting stories, and a brief history. This race with its daredevil, free-wheeling nature still captivates those who read about it to this day.

Background Photo: Ray Crawford Crosses Finish Line, 1951

Credits

This exhibit was created using materials from:

The Milles Collier Collection

Tipler, Johnny. La Carrera Panamericana: "The World's Greatest Road Race!". Veloce Publishing, 2008.

Brown, Arch. von Sauers, Russell. "Race Car / Luxury Car 1954 Lincoln Capri." Special Interest Autos, April 1992, pp.10-17.

"Panamericana 1950" courtesy of Bruno Hancke on Youtube.

"Carrera Panamericana (1950-54)" Courtesy of GTO3987 on Youtube.

"La Carrera Panamericana 2015" courtesy of MOTUL on Youtube.

"Vintage Carrera Panamericana from the early 50s, Auto Racing", Courtesy of Gonzo Economist Channel on Youtube.

"Classic Races - Ep02 : Carrera Panamericana (documentary) HD", courtesy of BSP Vintage on Youtube.

"The Last Great Road Race | La Carrera Panamericana," Courtesy of Valkyr, Youtube.