Danger around every corner

The 1954 Carrera Panamericana would be the last road race of its kind, the final episode in one of the sport’s most perilous and challenging chapters

Writer & photographer Boyd Harnell 

A white Jaguar XK120 hurtled out of a turn near the Mexican town of Tehuantepec and its passenger and driver waved. I later learned that this signalled a last hurrah for two US fans en route to the start of La Carrera in Tuxtla-Gutierrez, Chiapas, Mexico. Seconds later, the Jaguar crashed and the pair perished. Looking back, their demise seemed prophetic, a sign of what drivers faced over five days of this classic open road race. It was to be the fifth and – as it turned out – last Carrera Panamericana Mexico.

I drove from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Tuxtla-Gutierrez, roughly 3100 miles away. I was on assignment to cover that race for International News Photos, forerunner of United Press International (UPI).
I was convinced the only way to cover the event effectively was essentially to become part of it. A special press cordon had been organised, allowing journalists to follow or drive ahead of competing cars. It was an extremely difficult race for one person to photograph due to the distances and harsh conditions involved; I opted to drive ahead of the race to catch the action. This meant the peripheral aspects – banquets, parties and daily maintenance – would be sacrificed.

Adding seatbelts and a hard-mounted tape recorder to my ’54 Oldsmobile 98 Holiday Coupé was the best choice for covering the race. My photo gear comprised a 35mm Luftwaffe Robot and the ubiquitous 4x5 Speed Graphic. The Robot was an early motor-drive camera used as a wing-mounted gun camera on German fighter aircraft in WWII. It was the first 35mm motor-drive camera to be used as a journalistic tool in America and didn’t accept standard cassettes. Loading film onto the camera’s internal, spring-loaded cassettes had to be done inside a hot changing bag. The film’s emulsion would often soften during this process making it a hellish, messy affair.

A total of 166 drivers started the race (by which time two Argentine competitors had already died, after their car plunged into a ravine) and the purse totalled $117,000 – almost one million dollars in today’s money. Thousands of spectators lined the 329 miles between the start at Tuxtla and stage’s end at Oaxaca; thousands of soldiers patrolled the road, their job to keep spectators and livestock clear of the course. Their weapons were loaded; spectator casualties in previous years dictated this dramatic – but apparently effective – show of arms.

Day 1 November 19, 1954

Leg 1: Tuxtla-Gutierrez to Oaxaca

It was precisely 6:00am when I saw the green flag drop on Jack McAfee’s Ferrari 375 Plus as it shot away towards Oaxaca – a town it would never reach. As the last cars whined away, I leapt into my Olds and set out in pursuit with the press cordon. The rules specified that no press car was to pass another at any time, but violations of that sort were rampant from the start.

Storming past the 200-mile mark, we were flagged down by an official and came to stop at a place where a small group of people stood atop an embankment. Some 50 feet below stood McAfee’s Ferrari, and 100 feet away lay co-driver Ford Robinson’s body, motionless in the dirt. So began La Carrera: by the time I reached Oaxaca, 22 cars had already been eliminated, the majority by burned pistons and cooling troubles.

At the end of the first stage, Phil Hill and Richie Ginther led Umberto Maglioli by more than four minutes. The young Californians had a 4.5-litre engine, Maglioli a 4.9, and these 375-series Ferraris proved capable of nearly 175mph on La Carrera’s open stretches.

Day 2 November 20, 1954

Leg 2: Oaxaca to Puebla

Leg 3: Puebla to Mexico City

The second day was equally hard. Having already lost several cars, the Lincoln team suffered another setback when star driver Bill Vukovich breasted a hill at 100mph, skidded across the road and plunged over the side of a ravine. He had only minor injuries but the team’s only remaining prospect was the present class leader, Walt Faulkner. He flew into Mexico City as if riding a jet stream, chopping two minutes off the class record set by Johnny Mantz in ’53. Carroll Shelby flipped his Austin-Healey, breaking a collarbone and a few ribs, a Borgward driver was seriously injured in a pile-up and an Alfa also crashed out.

After photographing the first stage I headed out toward the mountainous terrain between Oaxaca and Puebla, hoping to camp outside Puebla that night and await the arrival of the first cars the following morning. The drive to Oaxaca had ascended to 5000 feet over a mixture of hazardous and well-paved surfaces, passing through hundreds of unpredictable curves. Close to Puebla I found an ess-bend on a downward slope that looked like a great spot to shoot from the next day. I pulled up the Olds, hunkered down in the back seat and drifted off to sleep. Just before dawn I was awakened by hoof beats, so loud and strong it sounded like I was in the middle of a stampede. Looking out of the car’s rear window in the dim light, I could make out three horsemen. I got the distinct impression they were bandits and their sombreros did nothing to dispel that image. One of them walked over to my car smiling and explained they were police officers, then they made a campfire and invited me to share their food and coffee. I later learned they were a part of an anti-bandit patrol and had stopped expressly to protect me.

Eventually a white Ferrari appeared. It was Hill and Ginther, their 375 proceeding at breakneck speed. They were gone in about eight seconds and I shot a sequence as they rocketed through. This series of photos turned out to be the most unusual of the entire race. While streaking by at racing speed they were holding a conversation and at one point seemed to be looking at each other… 

During the second and third legs Hill maintained his lead over Maglioli; the duel between the two would ultimately dominate the race in the premier category. Coming into Mexico City Hill was just 39sec ahead of his rival.

The casualty list continued to grow: by the time the field reached Mexico City another 15 cars had been eliminated and several drivers were injured, some seriously. Guatemalan privateer David Cerezo’s Alfa plunged off a bridge at San Martin de Temechucan, demolishing the car. Cerezo and co-driver Carlos Palacios were both reported to have died, although they later turned up very much alive in Mexico City a few hours later.

Day 3 November 21, 1954

Leg 4: Mexico City to León

Leg 5: León to Durango

The carnage continued to mount on the next leg. There were four major crashes and one fatality, all occurring at a curve near Rio Hondito. I had followed the route northwards and in less than 30 minutes spotted Karl-Günther Bechem’s battered Borgward. He had fallen foul of a tricky corner that left his car with a mangled nose and him with a fractured femur.

Shortly after, Joaquin Palacio Pover misjudged the same stretch of road. His Pegaso skidded sideways off the curve, flipped down an embankment into a maguey field and burned. Palacio was thrown clear and somehow survived but a Mexican soldier standing by the roadside was not so lucky.

During the second part of the day the field raced over the taxing section from León to Durango. On this stage Maglioli used the 375 Plus’s higher top speed to rocket ahead of Hill to build a 6min 19sec advantage. Unfortunately, three serious accidents occurred south of Aguascalientes, near Durango. One involved Chilean Patricio Archurras, who flipped his Ford into a group of spectators, killing two and seriously injuring himself.

Day 4 November 22, 1954

Leg 6: Durango to Parral

Leg 7: Parral to Chihuahua

On the fourth day the race covered an arrow-straight 437-mile run split into two legs. The first fell easily to Maglioli at an average speed of 112mph, bettering his own record set the year before. He then proceeded to dominate the Parral-Chihuahua leg as well, pushing the 375 Plus to more than 170mph at times and averaging 131.2mph.

Phil Hill had cruised into Parral a close second, just four minutes behind, but differential problems dropped him to fourth overall by the time he arrived in Chihuahua. The gap between Hill and Maglioli opened up to more than 14 minutes; barring the unforeseen, the Italian looked a comfortable victor… but the unforeseen had always typified La Carrera Panamericana.

I experienced a chilling incident while looking for an advantageous vantage point. 

A young Mexican army private approached and yelled “alto!” – stop! – then levelled his rifle at me. I pivoted around so he could see my press armband and he withdrew the gun as swiftly as he’d drawn it, then smiled and waved me by. The army had orders to keep spectators clear of the road.

After the last cars roared by my chosen spot, I cranked up the Olds and continued on to Parral. En route I spotted what looked like a wrecked car, though it was so badly pancaked it seemed to blend in with the scenery. I braked to a halt and saw three people standing nearby, one of them the injured Argentine driver Victorio Menghi. Sponsored by nationalist dictator Juan Peron and wife Evita, his Chevrolet had flipped violently and co-driver Leopoldo Olvera was dead at the scene. I took photos of the wreckage and moved on.

By my calculations, the race had so far claimed the lives of four entrants, four spectators and a soldier. By the time I arrived in Chihuahua, there were only 87 cars left in the race.

Day 5 November 23, 1954

Leg 8: Chihuahua to Ciudad Juarez

Hill was bogged down with differential problems, causing him to lose valuable time, but he managed to get his car back in shape overnight. On the final sprint to Juarez he blew away Maglioli’s Ferrari by more than 53 seconds – a performance equal to 138.25mph and one that missed his Italian rival’s 1953 record by a scant 30sec.

This was undoubtedly of some small satisfaction to Hill and Ginther, who had battled against Maglioli’s superior horsepower since the race began. They’d hoped for an unexpected chance that would give them the final edge. In the end, however, it was the Italian maestro who took top spot at an overall average of almost 108mph. Overall he finished 24 minutes clear of the Americans.

More than 100,000 spectators greeted the finishers. Some of these were Americans who had crossed the border to see the spectacular finale to what, in five short years, had become one of the most famous open-road races of all time. Scores of light planes flew at tree-top level to escort the early arrivals to the chequered flag.

I set up my gear for the last time at the finishing line, well before the first cars appeared. I was tired from the drive and the pace of the past five days, but the pressure of the race and the excitement of the finish kept me going. Soon the snarling sounds of a Ferrari in the distance signalled Hill’s arrival; in seconds he scorched across the line for his third stage victory and second place overall. He’d covered more than 1900 miles in 18hrs 4min 50sec. Maglioli seared past less than a minute later, his overall pace setting a new record for La Carrera at 107.99mph. He had been fully 30 minutes faster than Juan Manuel Fangio’s winning time in 1953.

It was an exciting, almost movie-like finish: Hans Herrmann’s Porsche 550 roared in side-by-side with team-mate Jaroslav Juhan’s, the pair grabbing third and fourth places respectively and leaving the larger Ferraris of Cornacchia and Chinetti in the dust. Crawford and Faulkner drove their Lincolns into first and second in class, and the ever-remarkable Alfa Romeo 1900TIs – still led by Consalvo Sanesi in 15th overall – poured across the line to cement the top five positions in their division.

While the Alfas set new standards in terms of their engine capacity, Ak Miller’s El Caballo special achieved the most amazing performance of this Carrera Panamericana. His $1500 backyard creation averaged more than 92mph to score fifth place in the premier Large Sports category. It had stayed with the best of them, much to the chagrin of those who owned more expensive cars, and grabbed seventh overall. El Caballo even beat the well-financed Lincoln team. Only four Ferraris and two Porsches had been faster than the homebuilt hero.

Of the 149 cars entered in the race, 85 withstood the rigours of the treacherous course and completed the distance, while no fewer than 25 were simply abandoned along the route. The remainder managed to limp into a friendly port before expiring.

Most of the prize money went to European competitors, with the largest haul – $18,200 – going to overall winner Maglioli. Phil Hill picked up $9200 for second place and his three leg victories, while Ray Crawford was awarded a whopping $16,800 for victory in Large Stock and class wins in the first and second stages of the race. Alfa’s division winner Sanesi collected $4480 and team-mate Sergio Mantovani picked up $3040. It’s interesting to note that all Alfa drivers pooled their earnings and divided them into equal shares.

Postscript

Plans to make a sixth Carrera part of the FIA’s 1955 calendar were scuttled by the Mexican government. Sources inside the country said it was purely an economic matter. President Adolfo Cortinez refused to allocate the funds necessary to repair the Pan American highway, which was in a continual state of disrepair due to heavy rains, flooding and poor initial construction. And so the famous Carrera Panamericana Mexico passed into history.

More than 60 years have passed since that final event and, in covering a wide range of motor sport before and since, nothing has compared; no race held today can even remotely approach the tone and scope of the original Carrera.

My equipment, compared to today’s, was primitive. The Robot jammed once in a while, and mostly dead reckoning determined the focus. While exposure was determined with a meter, changing light conditions often made it a dicey toss-up. Films were slower and digital cameras were still just a photographer’s dream. The photo series of Hill and Ginther, among the earliest 35mm motor-drive sequences taken of a major race, is a tribute to one of the great road races and I’m grateful that I was fortunate enough to witness and document this incredible event.