Was the Carrera PanAmericana the greatest road race of them all or simply suicidal folly? Chris Nixon looks back over its five short and bloody years to decide its place in history

Originally it was planned as a one-off, but the Carrera PanAmericana grew into an international event that counted towards the Sportscar World Championship before it was abandoned as too dangerous. Open at first only to saloon cars with five seats, the first race attracted 132 entries, a cross-section of the booming, post-war US automobile industry: Fords and Buicks, Lincolns and Oldsmobiles, Chryslers, Cadillacs and Packards. There were just foreign cars: a Talbot-Lago, Jaguar, a Hotchkiss, a Delahaye and two Alfa Romeos for Italian aces Piero Taruffi and Felice Bonetto.

That first Carrera was a 2000-mile, five day blast from the top of Mexico to the bottom, split into nine stages. To begin, Cadillac had it all its own way, winning the first five stages. The Alfas simply weren’t fast enough. They fought back, however, Bonetto winning the seventh stage and Taruffi the last. The overall winner was Herschel McGriffs Oldsmobile. Taruffi and Bonetto were fourth and eighth.

The Carrera was adjudged a great success, so much so that the organisers made it an annual event. Recognising that both the American and European seasons ended around mid-September, they moved the race to November. The original North-South course had ended in the middle of nowhere, so it was reversed and the start moved to the end of stage eight at Tuxtla Gutierrez. The road reached its highest point of 10,400 feet between Puebla and Mexico City, and finished at the original starting point, Gudad Juarez on the North American border. The longest stage was 332.3 miles (Leon to Durango) and the shortest 80.6 (Puebla to Mexico City). Cars now had to be four-seat saloons powered by original engines, but modified heads and carbs were allowed.

Taruffi and Bonetto had returned to Italy full of praise for the Carrera and persuaded Ferrari and Lancia, respectively, to enter the ’51 event. The Scuderia sent two 212 Inters,with 2.6-litre V12s and four-seater bodywork by Vignale. They were to be driven by Taruffi/Luigi Chinetti and Alberto Ascari/Gigi Villoresi. Lancia also sent two cars, tuned B20s for Giovanni Bracco and Bonetto.

The second Carrera Panamericana began on November 20, 1951 and was a total disaster for Lancia as both cars retired before half-distance, but a triumph for Ferrari, who scored an impressive one-two victory.

However, it wasn’t as simple as that for Ferrari. The surface on the first stage was made of volcanic rock, which shredded tyres with abandon. The Ferraris suffered and finished 15th (Taruffi) and 45th (Ascari). Changing from Pirelli to Mexican Goodrich rubber, they stormed back into contention, Ascari winning four stages and Taruffi one. United States oval racer Tony Bettenhausen won the final two in his Chrysler, but Ferrari had the race sewn up. Taruffi and Chinetti averaging 88.09 mph, finishing eight minutes ahead of Ascari and Villoresi.

Ferrari’s victory garnered considerable publicity worldwide and Mercedes-Benz took note. Their remarkable 300SLs made their debut in the 1952 Mille Miglia and very nearly won, victory being denied by the skill and daring (some said madness) of Bracco in his Ferrari. Mercedes went on to win Le Mans and and then entered the third Carrera.

The two-seater 300SLs were now eligible because the popularity of the race had made the organisers divide it into two classes, for stock saloons and sports and GT cam. This effectively split the event into two camps – American and European – and we will concentrate on the latter from now on.

Flushed with his 1951 success, Enzo Ferrari built three cars especially for the 1952 event. Powered by his 4.1-litre V12 and clothed in exotic bodywork by Vignale, these were named the Type 340 Mexico and were reportedly good for 175 mph. They were entrusted to Ascari, Villoresi and Chinetti. Backing up these works entries was the formidable Bracco in his Mille Miglia-winning 250S, which had been renamed the 250MM in honour of his great victory.

Lancia were back with two 1320s, a supercharged one for Bracco’s protege, Umberto Maglioli, and a normal 2-litre car for Bonetto. Gordini sent two 2.3litre machines to be driven by French motorcycle champion Jean Behra and Robert Manzon.

The Mercedes entry comprised two gullwing coupes for Karl Kling/Hans Klenk and Hermann Lang/Erwin Grupp and a 300SL roadster for American John Fitch and Eugen Geiger.

Ferrari’s plan was to get so far ahead that the Mercedes would never catch them. Mercedes team principal Alfred Neubauer, by contrast, told his men to hang back and expect the the Ferraris to break. He was ultimately correct in this forecast, but for most of the race it seemed that Mercedes were going to be beaten once again by their Mille Miglia béte noire, that man Bracco.

The first stage brought some big surprises, the biggest being the humiliating departure of the new World Champion, Alberto Ascari, who wrecked his Mexico within miles of the start. Another was the number of treads flying off the Mercedes’ Continental tyres, leaving them in third, seventh and eighth places at the end of the stage. Surprisingly it was won by Jean Behra in the indecently fast Gordini, six minutes ahead of Bracco.

The Germans did not only have blown tyres to deal with. Kling and Klenk were extremely lucky not to crash at 135 mph when the 300SL was struck by a buzzard. The hapless bird smashed the windscreen and stunned Klenk. Then the rear screen blew out. They managed to finish the stage and their mechanics fitted eight vertical bars across the new ‘screen to prevent further airborne interruptions.

Behra crashed the Gordini badly on the second stage and was taken to hospital. Slowed by gearbox problems, Villoresi won the stage in his Mexico, but was still ninth overall. He won the next two stages, too, but now Bracco was the race leader. He drove brilliantly and so long as the Ferrari held together there was nothing Mercedes – now running second, third and fourth – could do about him.

Villoresi’s race came to an end during stage five due to distributor failure and the valiant Bracco was forced out on stage seven with two broken valves. He had led the Carrera for just over 1200 miles.

This left Mercedes running first and second, with Kling and Klenk winning the race at a remarkable 102.4 mph, finishing more than 30 minutes ahead of Lang and Grupp. Luigi Chinetti was third in the surviving works Ferrari Mexico, ahead of the 300SL roadster of Fitch and Geiger. However, the latter were disqualified on the final stage for receiving outside assistance and so Umberto Maglioli took fourth place after a tremendous drive in his Lancia.

In 1953 the Carrera gained itself international recognition by being chosen as the seventh and Final event in the Sportscar World Championship. Mercedes-Benz withdrew from racing but Lancia returned to Mexico in force, entering five of their new V6-engined sports cars: three 3.3-litre D24s for Juan Manuel Fangio, Piero Taruffi and Felice Bonetto and two 2.9-litre D23s for Giovanni Bracco and young Eugenio Castellotti. Lancia sent their huge transporter and more than 20 mechanics to look after the cars, which carried no passengers.

Despite the fact that they were neck and neck with Jaguar fur the Championship, Ferrari decided not to enter the Carera officially, but to entrust their cars to Franco Comacchia. He took five V12, 4-litre 375MMs to Mexico, four Berlinettas (to be driven by Maglioli defecting from Lancia Mario Ricci, Guido Mancini and Antonio Stagnoli) and a Spyder (for Chinetti, with Fon de Portago in the passenger seat). Alan Guiberson entered the ex-Villoresi 340 Mexico fur the promising young American Phil Hill, whose riding mechanic was his friend, Richie Ginther.

Two more classes were added, for sportscars up to 1600cc and small stock cars. The former drew 10 Porsches (two being factory 550 Spyders for Karl Kling and Hans Herrmann) and two Borgwards.

The race belonged to Lancia all the way, but at a tenible price, for this year tragedy struck the Carera with a vengeance. Within 100 miles of the start the Ferrari of Stagnoli and Scotuzzi crashed and both were killed. Then six spectators died when hit by a Ford as they rushed to look at another wrecked car.

After winning the first three stages Bonetto led Taruffi by over half a minute, with Fangio third and Maglioli fourth in the Ferrari. The works Porsches of Kling and Herrmann retired on stage two and Hill and Ginther crashed the Mexico on stage three.

On stage four tragedy struck again, when Bonetto’s Lancia hit a lamp-post at high speed, killing him instantly. Bonetto had been racing his teammate, Taruffi, when he crashed, so the remaining Lancias thereafter carried mechanics, to ensure no more inter-team rivalry. Maglioli won that stage, but Fangio was now the overall leader.

On stage five Maglioli’s Ferrari shed a wheel, so he took over from his team-mate, Mario Ricci, who was lying eighth. Driving quite brilliantly, he won the last three stages to finish sixth overall, although with the race now in the bag, the Lancias wisely took it easy. The final stage of 230 miles was the fastest, and Maglioli’s Ferrari covered it at an awesome 138.3mph, a road-racing record that stands to this day.

So Fangio won the fourth Carrera at 105.14 mph, ahead of Taruffi and Castellotti, giving Lancia an impressive one-two-three. Not even Mercedes had managed that. Guido Mancini was fourth in his 375MM Ferrari, which secured the first Sportscar World Championship for the Scuderia.

In the small sportscar class only two Porsches finished inside the time, the 550 of Jose Herrarte and the 356S of Fernando Segura. The Gordinis retired.

Despite the carnage of 1953, the race was on the calendar in ’54, but this time it attracted no works entries from the Europeans. Even so, it proved to be the hardest-fought Carrera of them all, with Maglioli and Hill enjoying a flat-out battle all the way.

The Italian always had the upper hand, for his car was Ferrari’s latest big-banger, a 4.9-litre 375 Plus with de Dion rear suspension, similar to the car with which Froilin Gonzalez and Maurice Trintignant had won Le Mans in June. American enthusiast Erwin Goldschmidt bought one and invited Maglioli to drive it in the Carrera.

Alan Guiberson was another enthusiast who had already provided Phil Hill with a car in the previous two Carreras. Now he came up with the 4.5-litre Ferrari 375MM Spyder which Luigi Chinetti had raced in the 1953 event and which Alberto Ascari and Nino Farina had driven to victory in that year’s Nürburgring 1000 kms. It was completely rebuilt, given a headrest and fin and painted in the white and blue colours of America.

Other Ferraris entered were the 375Plus Jack McAfee/Ford Robinson; a 375MM for Luigi Chinetti/john Shakespeare; four-cylinder, 3-litre 750 Monzas for Bracco and de Portago; a V12, 3-litre Monza for Franco Cornacchia and a 500 Mondial for Porfirio Rubirosa.

Austin-Healey sent two new 100S models for Carroll Shelby and Lance Macklin to drive while the small sportscars were led by seven Porsches, including four 550 Spyders, one for Herrmann.

Tragedy again struck the Carrera before it was barely a couple of hours old. McAfee slid off the road and the Ferrari rolled, killing Ford Robinson. On that first stage the Ferraris of de Portago, Rubirosa and Bracco all retired, as did the Austin-Healey of Macklin. Hill won by four minutes from Maglioli, with Cornacchia third and American Ak Miller fourth in his remarkable Olds-powered Ford Special. Shelby was sixth in the Healey, but was beaten on time by the first five cars in the up to 1500cc class! He crashed on the next stage and broke his arm.

Maglioli won the next stage, beating Hill and Ginther by six seconds, Phil fought back to win the third, but Maglioli regained the lead by winning the fourth. He consolidated his position by taking the fifth, sixth and seventh, taking him 25 minutes ahead of his rival. Phil won the final stage, but was still 24 minutes behind Maglioli. The Italian scored the greatest victory of his career, winning five of the eight stages and beating Fangio’s winning time by more than 30 minutes, to win at an average speed of 107.87 mph. Phil Hill also beat Fangio’s time — a remarkable performance in a two-year-old car.

Just as remarkable was Hans Herrmann, who won the small sportscar class to be an astonishing third overall in his Porsche Spyder. It was to be the last Carrera PanAmericana.

So how does the Carrera stack up against the great European endurance races of the period? Not very well, really. Of course, it covered some pretty rough territory which Le Mans, for example, did not but in 1954, Maglioli’s Ferrari completed the 1900 miles in 17hrs 40 mins at 107.9 mph, whereas in the 24-hours Gonzalez and Trintignant’s similar car covered 600 miles more at 105.1 mph. The crucial difference was the European races (Le Mans and Spa 24 Hours, Mille Miglia, Targa Florio, Tour of Sicily) were non-stop endurance tests, whereas the Carrera was spread over a leisurely five days, the longest stage being a shade over 300 miles. Also, mechanics had unlimited time to work on the cars between stages, although this was reduced in 1953 — to three hours.

Despite winning two of the five races the Scuderia had lost interest, Mercedes and Lancia had given up sportscar racing and the Carrera’s appeal to European teams was waning rapidly. In 1955 John Wyer proposed sending two DB3S Aston Martins for Reg Parnell and Peter Collins, but by then the Carrera was doomed, for eight people had been killed in ’54, bringing the total number of deaths to 26 in five years. The tragedy at Le Mans in June, when more than 80 people died, sealed its fate.