There's no race like home

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Discuss who is the greatest driver of all and Fangio will soon crop up. Yet there was a man who matched him in Argentina, but who did not race outside South America. The intriguing story of Oscar Gálvez is told by Tony Watson

Two drivers polarised Argentina’s motorsport scene during the 1940s: one of them went on to claim five world championship drivers’ titles; the other stayed at home, but also became one of his country’s legends. One was Juan Manuel Fangio; the other was Oscar Alfredo Gálvez.

Moments after winning the second round of the 1947 Argentinian Temporada on the Retiro street circuit in Buenos Aires, Luigi Villoresi told the local press that, baning mechanical failure, he would not have been able to catch up with Gálvez, whom he defined as being a great driver. The latter had been leading when his pre-war Alfa Romeo 308 minced part of its differential. Villoresi’s succinct appraisal of Argentina’s hugely popular driver speaks for itself; but it does not seem to have transcended the frontiers.

When, after a 14-year lapse, Formula One returned to Argentina in 1995, the venue was, as usual, the Buenos Aires circuit, which had been renamed the Autódromo Oscar Alfredo Gálvez almost six years earlier. At the circuit’s media centre, during the days leading up to the GP weekend, some of the visiting journalists wanted to know more about Gálvez, a man who had never raced beyond Latin America. A few wanted to know why the track was not named after Juan Manuel Fangio. The fact was that Fangio already had a circuit bearing his own name, since 1972, on the outskirts of his home town, Balcarce. There was another reason, though: Gálvez’s racing exploits and considerable success on home ground caught the imagination of the nation.

Born of Spanish immigrants in Buenos Aires, months before the start of WWI, Gálvez was the middle of five brothers. Before reaching his 20s, he began buying and selling well-used cars, gradually honing the art of rebuilding and tuning them, something that would serve him well during his competition career.

About to turn 24, he decided to have a go at racing and entered a two-year-old Ford in the long-distance 1937 Gran Premio Argentino. Right from the start in Buenos Aires he drove the car as fast as it would go, through the night, and was leading the race until slowing his pace so as to make the car last. This meant he was sixth at the end of that first leg, northwest in Santa Fé, but still in the company of the country’s top drivers. He had already hit the headlines.

Leg two was a long haul northwards and Gálvez continued to run with the leaders until he was caught out by a drainage ditch. Fortunately, he was thrown clear of the car in the subsequent accident. His race was over, but his 27-year career on home soil had only just begun. It would be a career of glittering success which – with the possible exception of his brother Juan – none of his countrymen have equalled.

In the following year’s Mil Millas Argentinas, a one-day, 1000-mile ‘sprint’ on the roads of Buenos Aires province, Gálvez – now accompanied by Juan – placed fourth after more than 16 hours of non-stop racing. Nearing the end of the season he had another go at the (13-day long) Gran Premio Argentino. It was on this occasion that he and Fangio met in competition for the first time. The latter was meant to be the riding mechanic of Luis Finochietti, but ended up driving the car during most of the event. Fangio finished seventh while the Gálvez brothers retired after overturning during one of the later legs.

The first Gálvez victory would come in 1939, when he easily won the Gran Premio Argentino. That year the event had to be divided into two parts after monsoon conditions led most of the competitors to retire mid-race. Not Gálvez, though. Days later, after most of the bogged-down cars had been rescued from the mire, he again clobbered the opposition in the second part – the Gran Premio Extraordinario – of the event. Fangio’s Chevrolet was fifth on this occasion. The rivalry was hotting up.

The 1940 Gran Premio Internacional del Norte consisted of 13 legs, from Buenos Aires to Lima — and back. No less than 5800 miles. Gálvez and Fangio were among those fighting for the lead until, nearing Lima, Gálvez was delayed by engine trouble. He clawed back to third place but, on the return from the Peruvian capital, at night, he plunged over a cliff when his car’s lights failed. Both he and Juan escaped serious injury, but they were out of a race in which Fangio scored his first victory.

The end-of-season Mil Millas Argentinas saw Fangio clinch his first Turismo Carretera title, although Gálvez, in fourth, finished way ahead of him in this final race. Fangio went on to claim his second — and last — Turismo Carretera title the following year, shortly before the ripples of WWII called a halt to the sport in Argentina in 1942. No spares, no tyres, no races.

Restless as usual, when racing resumed in South America, Gálvez sought a new challenge to add to those endless open-road runs, in which he continued to be a leading figure. So began his brief sojourn in single-seaters. During 1946 he had heard of an Alfa Romeo GP car for sale a mere half-hour drive from his workshop. He did not take long to acquire it, and he and the Alfa reigned supreme between 1947 and ’49 on the local front.

It was with this car that he also became the first local driver to trounce the visiting stars in one of the Argentinian Temporadas, his opposition in ’49 including notables such as Villoresi, Alberto Ascari, Giuseppe Farina, B Bira and Reg Parnell. On that occasion, February 6, Gálvez scored a memorable victory by taming the powerful Alfa on a soaked, tricky and bumpy Palermo street layout in Buenos Aires (the same one on which Jean-Pierre Wimille had crashed fatally just nine days earlier). Fangio, aboard a Maserati 4CLT, placed second.

There wasn’t much cloth to cut between the performances of Fangio and Gálvez in Turismo Carretera, but it is hard to establish a comparison between them aboard single-seaters because so rarely did they meet at the wheel of similar machinery. At a national level, approaching the end of the ’40s, Gálvez won at places like Bell Ville, Mar del Plata and Necochea — Fangio finishing fifth (twice) and third in these events aboard his Volpi. But there was no comparing Fangio’s Rickenbacker-, and later Chevrolet-engined Volpi with the 3.8-litre Alfa of Gálvez. The fact is that, apart from the 1948 and ’49 four-round Temporadas (one win each for them), they met aboard similarly competitive grand prix machinery on very few occasions.

In the two-race Temporada of 1951, on the Costanera street circuit, Fangio — together with Hermann Lang and Karl Kling — was part of a team of pre-war Mercedes-Benz GP cars. In the first round, he was third, with Gálvez right behind him at the wheel of a borrowed Ferrari. The following weekend they both retired.

Two years later, at his home event, Gálvez briefly returned to single-seaters to make his one and only world championship appearance, forming part of the works Maserati team, with Jose Froilán González, Felice Bonetto and Fangio as his team-mates. The latter two were soon out with transmission trouble, while Gálvez motored on to fifth behind Ascari, Villoresi, Gonzalez and Mike Hawthorn; Gálvez was on the same lap as the latter three.

A fortnight later, in the non-championship Buenos Aires GP, he drove the Maserati to sixth, while Fangio again retired. And that was Gálvez’s single-seater career over and done with.

It appeared as if Fangio was more at ease expressing himself at the wheel of a car. No doubt he was the quieter of the two; Gálvez was much more of an extrovert, arms in the air when explaining things, his high-pitched voice very penetrating. But despite their differences and rivalry — the Ford versus Chevrolet factor helped — in all those Turismo Carretera marathons there was always respect and camaraderie between them. During the 1948 Gran Premio de America del Sur, a 6000-mile marathon, Gálvez was the first to arrive at the scene of Fangio’s accident, rescuing him from his battered car after it had rolled down an embankment at night. Their career paths separated a year later, after the 6800-mile Gran Premio de la Republica. This was Fangio’s last such outing, and he provided the meat in a Gálvez sandwich, Juan beating Oscar on this occasion.

With Fangio away conquering Europe, the Gálvez brothers continued their winning ways in the division. Oscar, who had already claimed the 1947 and ’48 Turismo Carretera titles, added three more to his tally: ’53, ’54 and ’61. Juan Gálvez went even further, amassing an unequalled total of nine championships (1949-52, ’55-58 and ’60).

Had Fangio continued racing at home he would have undoubtedly been chasing and possibly winning some of those titles during the ’50s. But what might have occurred had Oscar Gálvez followed Fangio to Europe?

“Oscar was very quick with that Alfa Romeo of his,” says González. “Yes, in single-seaters, I think he could have done very well competing abroad. Apart from his driving talent, he used to put so much effort into all the things he did. Also, he had loads of physical stamina, which would have come in useful in those (3-hour) grands prix.

“And, by the way, in those Turismo Carretera cars, he was the greatest driver I have ever seen.”

Gálvez did go over to Europe with Fangio. They were part of a delegation sent on a brief reconnaissance tour in mid-1948 by their country’s motorsport authority, which had set its sights on forming a team – Equipo Argentino – in ’49. After watching Gálvez race during the ’47 and ’48 Temporadas, Achille Varzi had only months before offered to put him in contact with several European teams, in case he should someday want to further his career abroad. So, once in Europe, Gálvez suggested to Fangio that they attend the Swiss Grand Prix and see Varzi at Berne. This they did. Then, unfortunately, the Italian ace was killed during qualifying for the event.

That weekend, out of the blue, a close acquaintance of Varzi apparently came up and offered Gálvez some drives in Europe until season’s end. He jumped at the idea. But the days went by, the initial project seemed to evaporate, and it all came to nothing. He returned to Argentina disillusioned, and elected to continue his career at home, never wishing to speak much about his decision. Not something common in a person as determined as him. Retirement was not a word in his vocabulary.

On the morning of March 3, 1963, however he was dealt a very big blow. The week prior to the Vuelta de Olavarria – which Oscar did not enter – he had recommended his brother not to contest the event. Juan decided to go, though, and was leading when he overturned at nearly 100mph and was killed.

Still Oscar continued to race. Indeed he was lucky to escape death only a few months later when a tyre burst while he was leading a relatively short (420 miles) race. The following year he finally called an end to his lengthy and brilliant career.

He went on to be one of the leading lights in Ford’s racing programme, developing factory-supported Falcons for Turismo Carretera. One of the team’s drivers in 1968 was a certain Carlos Reutemann. Gálvez slotted well into his new role and the public still idolised him, roaring their approval whenever he attended a race at Buenos Aires during the 1970s and ’80s.

In 1989, however, his health deteriorated and, several months after an operation, he passed away. He was 76. Just three months earlier his name had been given to the Buenos Aires track. Which meant that Aguilucho – Young Eagle, as he was known to his hundreds of thousands of fans – would continue to soar over them.