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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Background Photo: Carrera Panamericana Program, 1951
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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