Carrera Panamericana

A bit of history

In 1950, Mexico was, to some, an ancient and backward country stuck in the wrong century. It had given the United States tremendous economic support during the war, but the average American’s view of the land south of the border was of an unstable and uneducated nation, with a population that filled its days lazing in the shade under sombreros and its nights robbing tourists at gunpoint.

Texans thought even worse. Their prejudice had historic roots; once a part of Mexico, the Republic of Texas and later the Lone Star State had been created amidst bloody battles just over a century earlier. Texans hadn’t forgotten the Alamo and by the middle of the 20th century, economically superior Texans looked upon Mexicans as a “useful underclass.”

Postwar prosperity had, among other things, allowed the Americas to resume grand plans for an international road to be known as the Pan-American Highway. As Americans laid asphalt and concrete across Middle America, Mexicans were rushing to make more of their country accessible to both trade and tourist, hoping to bring a new economic and social awareness to the country.

Two of the roads in Mexico—the Central Highway from the Texas border to Mexico City and the Cristobal Colon (Christopher Columbus) from the capital to the Guatemalan border—had been under construction since 1935 and were nearly complete. By the time they were done, the two highways would represent about one-fourth of all the paved roads in the country and cost 500 million pesos, or about $58 million.

With the anticipation of a link across Mexico connecting North America with Central America, the Asociacion Mexicana Automobilistica (AMA) and the Asociation Nacional Automovilistica (ANA) began to talk about an event that would prove and publicize the nation’s new artery. Their answer was a race. No race of any significance had been held in the country since 1939. And it couldn’t be just a little race, either. It had to be an event that would make the world sit up and take notice. A contest of heroic proportions and vast distances. A race that would bear witness to what Mexico had accomplished and what it was capable of doing.

Committees were organized, inquiries were made, and in March 1949, the ANA magazine began publishing a series of features about the new highway and European road races—without making a connection between the two. Mexican President Miguel Aleman and Secretary of Communications Agustin Garcia Lopez nonetheless offered their support—should such a race ever be scheduled.

By August, the complete list of committees was publicized and work began, still without a formal date for the start of the race because of uncertainty about when the road would be completed. A successful Mexico City Pontiac dealer, Antonio Cornejo, was appointed the race’s general manager. Stanford-educated, the upper class Cornejo was fluent in both English and Spanish, and was a man used to getting things accomplished.

One of his first tasks was to find financing. The Mexican government provided a 250,000-peso ($28,900) seed fund, and Cornejo raised twice that amount from the individual states through which the race would pass and from contractors and manufacturers of cars, accessories and tires. Of the 750,000-peso fund, half would be designated as prize money.

Needing outside help, Cornejo contacted the American Automobile Association, then the biggest and most powerful race sanctioning body in the U.S., to loan technical assistance in organization. Press releases were sent to hundreds of North American newspapers. Copies of the rules and entry blanks were sent to 600 registered AAA race car owners, drivers and mechanics.

By mid-December 1949, Mexican Public Works engineers were able to forecast that by February 1950 the highway would be open and all river crossings would have either permanent bridges or fords proper enough to permit a high-speed race.

The date for the start was set for May 5, Cinco de Mayo, the national holiday commemorating the 1862 Mexican victory over the invading French at Puebla. The place would be Ciudad Juárez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas.

El Paso was relatively remote from the rest of the state. In 1950, it was a hard day’s drive from any other large city in Texas: 560 miles from San Antonio, more than 600 miles from Dallas and 750 miles from Houston.

This meant that the racers and their crews headed for Mexico would be virtually inaccessible, so would need to have everything they needed before they left home.

The 2,178-mile race would be in nine legs, varying in distances from 84 miles to 334 miles each, over a period of five days. It would cover the entire length of Mexico, from Ciudad Juárez on the Rio Grande to the tiny village of El Ocotal on the Guatemalan border.

Cars would start the race in numerical order at one-minute intervals, with five minutes between each group of 20. On subsequent legs, they’d start in the order of finish from the previous leg. Each team would be furnished a route book to record leg and accumulated times.

Cash prizes offered for each leg were 2,000 pesos ($232) for the win, 1,000 pesos ($116) for second and 500 pesos ($58) for third. The first three places at the end of the race would receive 150,000 pesos ($17,442), 100,000 pesos ($11,630) and 50,000 pesos ($5,815) in prize money. In the perspective of the time, the average price of a new 1950 Oldsmobile 88 was about 16,800 pesos ($2,100). The narrow prize money structure put competition on an all-or-nothing basis; many U.S. drivers hesitated to post the $290.75 entry fee, after assessing their chances.

Bob Estes, a California-based Lincoln-Mercury dealer and race car owner, was interested in sponsoring AAA driver Johnny Mantz’ Lincoln in the race. The two appointed themselves as ambassadors of the Southern California racing fraternity and went to Mexico. They drove nearly the entire course in a 1949 Lincoln borrowed from Estes’ lot, inspecting and practicing. They used the Pemex race gasoline, talked to race manager Cornejo and even checked out the race committee’s books. Satisfied that everything was on the up-and-up, they returned to Los Angeles and took out an ad in the Los Angeles Times sanctioning California entrants.

Rules for car preparation were simple: keep it strictly stock. Allowable modifications included a 0.030 in. overbore for 1949-50 models and a 0.060 in. overbore for older models, replacement of shocks with stronger units, and removal of the rear seat to install extra gas tanks and to carry spares and tools. An open exhaust was specifically forbidden, and seat belts and helmets were encouraged but not required.

The organizing committee was even going to provide room and board for all participants during the race—along with free gas and oil. At the start of every leg, each crew would be provided a sack lunch and three warm Coca-Colas, plus the racers could look forward to a banquet each night at the stopover city.

The American concept of fast cars had always been two-ton luxury behemoths popularized in the twenties by Duesenberg, Packard and the like. So the mindset, even among the racers, was that bigger cars were faster and more stable. That was partly true. The most expensive—ergo the biggest—American automobiles of 1950 coincidentally had the most horsepower.

Packard and Lincoln were producing plenty of power from their old L-head engines. In fact, Packard had the most efficient of the group, with a better horsepower-per-cubic inch figure than the rest, but the flathead engine was nearing the end of its usefulness.

Cadillac and Oldsmobile had independently introduced two new, modern overhead valve V-8s in 1949. These V-8s had shorter, more rigid crankshafts than their competitors and were lighter, higher-revving and yet more stressed for elevated compression ratios. The 331-ci, 160-hp Cadillac unit was 220 pounds lighter and 10 hp stronger than the 346-ci L-head V-8 it replaced, and it had five main bearings instead of three.

When the smaller Olds Rocket—303 ci and 135 hp—was dropped into the light sedan body of the 76/88 series, its nimbleness and favourable power-to-weight ratio made it an instant hit with stock car racers. Oldsmobile had won five of the eight National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing Grand National races in 1949, and Olds driver Red Byron was national champion.

A drawing for the Carrera Panamericana starting positions was held in Mexico City on April 29, 1950, and entrants began arriving in Ciudad Juarez on May 2 for inspection. Entry fees were posted for 132 cars—59 by Americans, predominantly Californians and Texans.

Italian Formula One drivers Piero Taruffi and Felice Bonetto entered a pair of Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 coupes. Taruffi, whose specialty was road events, had been successful in the Mille Miglia (third in 1933, fourth in 1934) and the Targa Florio (second in 1939 and 1948) and was undoubtedly the most experienced road racer in the field. Other European competition came from Frenchman Jean Trevoux, who entered a Type 175 Delahaye.

The field was filled out by Mexican truck and taxi drivers equipped with little more than a desire to compete, along with a group of middle-aged “gringo” tourists who viewed the race as a chance to drive at speed across Mexico without the distraction of oncoming traffic. Among the less serious were Marie Brookerson and Ross Barton, with Brookerson’s 1949 Lincoln Cosmopolitan. Brookerson lived near Wilcox, Ariz., and had met Barton when bad weather had forced the private pilot down onto her ranch. Both single and in their sixties, they fell in love and decided to get married if they finished the race.

Arthur and Marie Boone, a retired couple from New York City, entered their new Buick for the high-speed trip across Mexico, and Mrs. H.R. Lammons of Jacksonville, Texas, used the sides of her 1948 Buick as a billboard for the brassieres she sold.

The oldest cars in the race were a 1937 Hudson, driven by Ismael Alvarez of Mexico City, and Chicagoan Hugh Reilly’s 1937 Cord 812.

“The boys from Thunder Road” made up the southern contingent. Bill France was their ersatz leader. A racer since the first Daytona Beach race in 1936, France was denied sanction by the AAA contest board in 1947 to stage stock car events. The AAA was interested only in the open-wheel, oval track racing it had always controlled, so France formed a dedicated group: NASCAR.

Accompanying France as the co-driver of a 1950 Nash Ambassador was consummate wild man Curtis Turner. Reformed moonshine drivers Bob and Fonty Flock from Atlanta, Ga., entered a Lincoln. Fonty, called “the funniest man in racing” by his NASCAR buddies, would later gain notoriety as the only person ever to win Darlington while wearing Bermuda shorts. Johnny Mantz’ co-driver was California engine and chassis wizard Bill Stroppe.

Thomas A. Deal, a portly El Paso Cadillac dealer, had tested all the cars at his lot and selected a 1950 four-door to enter. C.R. Royal, an El Paso Chrysler dealer, hired Bill Sterling, a tall and lanky local truck driver and amateur racer who was familiar with Mexico’s roads, to drive a Cadillac.

Joel Thorne, whose Art Sparks-built Thorne Engineering Special had won the Indianapolis 500 in 1946 under George Robson, entered his personal 1949 Cadillac. Thorne, a full-time California playboy and sometime millionaire, had also competed at Indy, finishing ninth in 1938, seventh in 1939 and fifth in 1940. Brothers and Pikes Peak Hill Climb champions Al and Ralph Rogers also entered a Cadillac.

The 132 starters assembled promptly at 6 a.m. on May 5, and while waiting for the start, heard news of the race’s first accident. A Mexican official, zealously speeding ahead of the racers toward his post in Chihuahua, failed to negotiate the only curve on the 233-mile leg and rolled his Pontiac station wagon. Unhurt, he was assisted by soldiers guarding the course, who righted his car and sent him on his way, a sadder but wiser driver.

After four hours of festivities and speeches, the governor of the state of Chihuahua waved the Mexican flag to start car number one, Mexico City’s Luis Iglesias Davalos, driving a 1950 Hudson.

And so the 1950 race began….

With thanks for excerpts from many sources, hopefully they are mostly correct.

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