Wednesday, March 26, 2008

La Carrera Panamericana News from 1951

Like myself, Hershel McGriff was from Oregon. Hershel was the winner of the first Carrera Panamericana Mexican road race, in 1950 (1950 Oldsmobile 88 Carrera Panamericana pictured)Hershel’s Oldsmobile 88 was a lighter car than most of the usual front-running Lincolns and Cadillacs, though at the beginning of each stage, when he was full of fuel and spare tires, he was nearly as heavy. The car was essentially stock and he raced without an extensive crew following along. Neither he nor his co-driver was a mechanic, and they only carried a few hand tools, so any major damage would have ended their bid. But careful driving and the lighter weight of the car meant they finished the race on the original brakes (the big cars were re-shoeing every night). “The car only cost me $1900 or so, and the purse winnings were $17,000!”

Chris Economaki, lifelong motorsports reporter and announcer
Chris recalled covering the Carrera Panamericana as a “foreign correspondent” with the Mexican government providing his transportation and lodging. Much of the transportation was via “a broken down DC3 with broken out windows.” The first Spanish word he learned was “disentario,” which many suffered until they started feeding from the Ford hospitality tent. He recalled watching Phil Hill and Richie Ginther cross the finish line of the first stage way ahead of everyone else “at what seemed like 9000 miles per hour.” He was also surprised at the huge attrition rate suffered in that first section, until he learned that Mexico and the governments of several south and central American countries had waived the customary 100-percent duty on imported cars for any car participating in the great Mexican road race. Many of the lovely new imported “race cars” simply left the starting line and drove right onto a boat. He also recalled one of the Mexican drivers skidding to a spin-out stop at the finish line and excitedly yelling for medical help. Not for him, but for his co-driver who had fallen out of the car at full speed 20 miles back.

The following story was written in 1951

The Great Race

From the sunbaked, palm-dotted town of Tuxtla Gutiérrez near the Guatemalan border, 97 carefully tuned automobiles set off last week on the first northward lap of the second Pan-American stock-car race, a five-day, 1,933-mile scramble sponsored by Mexico's National Automobile Association. Competing with Mexican speed demons for $68,000 in prizes—and the glory of beating some of the world's nerviest racers to Ciudad Juarez—were two-man teams from the U.S., Canada, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, France and Italy. Ahead of them were the hairpin curves, roller-coaster dips and erratic paving of the Pan-American highway, bone-jarring enough at tourist speeds, and highly dangerous for even the most experienced racer.

At the start of the race, Jose Estrada, a prosperous Mexico City auto dealer and a veteran racer, announced: "I will win, or die trying." On the first lap, his 1951 Packard screeched off the road and tumbled 630 feet down into a ravine. Both Estrada and Co-Driver Miguel González died in a Oaxaca hospital that afternoon. Next day Carlos Panini, wealthy Italian-born founder of Mexico's first scheduled airline (Aerovias Panini), was killed when his Alfa Romeo skidded into a field and turned over.

Though the Mexican attitude toward bloodshed and danger is traditionally stoic, 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."

Meanwhile, the race went on, to heightened public interest. Of the 97 starting cars, only 35—all but two U.S. models—finished out the race. Among the starters who dropped out: Hershel McGriff of Portland, Ore., winner of the 1950 race. The two foreign cars that went the route, both lightweight 1951 Italian Ferraris, came in first and second. Leading the pack was Italy's white-haired Piero Taruffi, who finished fourth last year. Taruffi's Ferrari covered the 1,933 miles at an average speed of 88.2 m.p.h., 9.8 m.p.h. faster than McGriff's 1950 mark. Runnerup was Alberto Ascari, Italy's champion racer. Seven minutes and 50 seconds behind Ascari, according to the official clocking, was William Sterling of El Paso, in a Chrysler. The top Mexican came in ninth.

1 comment:

Kaull Peffer said...

I knew Bill Sterling, He drove car no.38 in that race. He was a friend of my fathers. He used to tell us stories about it and how lucky he was to finish it alive.
Bill and Miss Puppy