Although it only ran for four years, from 1950 to 1954, the original Carrera Panamericana has left a legend of high speed adventure which time has not diminished. That is why every year, at the end of October, over a hundred racers meet in the extreme south of Mexico to race with each other for over 2500 kilometres up the whole length of the country, to finish in Nuevo Laredo a week later, in cars similar to the ones used in the ’50s. Although it is technically run to a rally format with transfer and special stages, it is won and lost on speed and still retains the aura of the old flat-out road race of the past. This is its special attraction.
This year, time, effort and money were no object for those out to win. Jon Ward from California built two Studebakers designed solely for this race, with features such as a hydraulic boot lid that could be raised from the cockpit and used to help stick the car down on to the road at 180 mph on the long desert runs. Last year, one of the Mexican Studebakers made an unceremonious exit when it took off at that speed. Californiabased Englishman, Steve Lawrence, managed an excellent second place overall in his highly modified XK120 with fibre glass body. Ian Harrower of ADA and co-driver Richard Worral took third in their small sportscar class and Carol Spagg, in her DB2/4 Aston Martin, came second in the big sportscar class behind the V-8 Kurtis of Joe Sexton.
Every year, the attrition rate in this gruelling event is high. This year, on the first day alone 19 cars failed to arrive at the night stop at Oaxaca either through mechanical failure or accidents. The following evening, in Mexico City, as if the excitement of driving in to the centre of this huge City behind the police escort at over 100 mph was not enough, competitors were shaken from their beds at 2.30am by a major earthquake!
High altitudes for the first few days coupled with poor quality Mexican fuel (the rules state that cars must run on local pump fuel plus boosters) mean constant regulation of carbs and fuel systems. The mountain scenery is breathtaking with cactus forests and snow-capped volcanoes dotted with colonial towns with cobbled streets. Every night is a party and the municipalities lay on music and dancing, food and drink for all.
A big party is held in Zacatecas on the fifth evening in which everyone dances in the streets. After this, the road begins to, straighten out and the smaller manoeuvrable cars who have had it all their own way until now begin to lose stages to the big horsepower cars which have been waiting for their chance. Many change axle raros and even engines in Zacatecas.
The Ward Studebakers had both suffered mechanical difficulties and fallen by the wayside. This left Carlos Anaya’s similar car, Steve Lawrence, Luis Unikel in his Corvette and Ted Thomas’ relatively standard Ford, “Blanco Peligroso”, as main contenders who finished in that order. Ted had had gearbox trouble and despite changing the gearbox at a service stop in 45 minutes, had seen his outright win slip away with the penalty points gained. Frenchman Herve Ogliastro was dicing amongst these giants in his little Alfa T1 fitted with special 2-litre engine. This has been immaculately prepared and maintained and the attention to detail was rewarded with a fifth place overall and a first in the Tourismo Production class.
There were lots of stories to be told as the cavalcade arrived in Nuevo Laredo and no doubt participants will be telling Panam stories until next year. It is that kind of event. Just to have survived it is something to boast about.