6000 miles to Caracas

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The Gran Premio de la América del Sur almost forced Fangio to quit racing, as Tony Watson relates. Photography courtesy of the Juan Manuel Fangio museum

Monday, November 8 1948: Oscar Gálvez has been leading the 5950-mile Gran Premio de la América del Sur since the first leg from Buenos Aires — nearly three weeks ago. It is now only 420 miles to the finish line in Caracas, and he is starting this final leg with a lead of two and a half hours over his nearest pursuer, Juan Gálvez, one of his younger brothers. No need to risk things then as, barring mechanical glitches and as long as there’s sufficient fuel along the road to feed the thirsty V8 in front of him, he should be celebrating victory by early afternoon.

But temptation for a final do-or-die effort to Caracas is finding its way into some of his rivals’ last-minute plans, due to a hefty jackpot that is now up for grabs for the winner of this leg. There is talk of huge prize money, several tens of thousands… in dollars. This is the day’s prospect ahead of him and riding helper Federico Herrero, aboard their self-prepared Ford coupé, on a typically torrid South American morning while they wait to be flagged away.

The 1948 Gran Premio de la América del Sur — call it ‘La Buenos Aires/Caracas’ — was quite unique, and without doubt the continent’s lengthiest open-road car race to date. By far. No special stages combined with road stages in this case. Instead there were 14 legs, which were flat-out all the way (spread over 20 days, five of them so-called rest days but in fact required by the crews for servicing their cars) on interminable, dusty plains and over mauling, rock-strewn mountain roads, the route winding its way northwards through Argentina via Bolivia, Perú, Ecuador, Colombia and right up to the Caribbean shores of Venezuela’s capital city, Caracas. Among these were a good amount of car-balancing miles over the Andes’ mountain paths, usually with about 200 litres of fuel slopping around behind the crews’ backs.

There were no fewer than 141 entries. It was now three years since the end of WWII and the supply of spares — tyres especially — was back to normal in South America, the event representing the chance of a lifetime, not only for the pros but also for an army of lesser-knowns wanting to take part in this ‘one-off’ adventure. Drivers and their families had been pooling their resources, and many of the entrants had organised huge barbecues and the occasional soccer match in their towns, the local population happy to have assisted and paid for an entry fee. Absolutely nothing like having a home crew in the event, representing your town.

Pre-event favourites included the Gálvez brothers (Oscar and Juan), Juan Manuel Fangio and his great friend Domingo Marimón (father of future Maserati works driver Onofre), with Eusebio Marcilla, Pablo Gulle, Uruguay’s Héctor Supicci Sedes and several others also in the frame for victory. It boiled down to a Ford versus Chevrolet contest, with the Mercury, Lincoln, Buick, Plymouth, Nash and De Soto marques also represented.

The late-evening start on Wednesday, October 20 in downtown Buenos Aires, from the ramp in front of the Automóvil Club Argentino’s mammoth building, was quite a sight, with massive crowds forming human chains on both sides of the streets for mile after mile. Heading the crews off just before midnight, with number 1 proudly painted on his 1939 Chevrolet, was up-and-coming Balcarce driver Fangio, accompanied by his pal Daniel Urrutia. The night was clear and there were no side winds — good news when it came to man-handling the two-ton, top-heavy and tail-happy cars in the dark.

Exiting Buenos Aires the roads continued to be engulfed by enormous crowds, the intermittent glow of the small fires along the way giving them the appearance of an interminable barbecue party, with the cars flashing past at just under 100mph. Fangio and Oscar Gálvez fought for the lead during the initial 300 miles until the future five-time World Champion encountered condenser trouble during the night. Making use of his knowledge of the roads due to his frequent journeys in the area required by his business as an undertaker, Domingo Marimón took over Fangio’s challenge for the lead. A hundred miles before Salta, after nearly 12 hours’ racing and at about 85°F under the arid scenery’s few trees, the two were still neck and neck until two punctures delayed Marimón. Fangio was over four hours behind after having to change his car’s mashed differential on the roadside, aided by an onlooker who lent him parts from his own car.

Gálvez was fastest over the slow gravel roads of the second leg to La Quiaca, Argentina’s most northerly town. Typical of him, his careful planning had entailed practising the assembly of his car’s transmission over and over again, blindfolded. After all, there were no floodlights to be seen in the Andes, where they were now heading. The following day the 94 remaining crews made their way into Bolivian territory en route to Potosí — 300 miles further up the road — and the elder Gálvez continued to lead the way, with Fangio this time suffering a broken halfshaft. While competitors congregated for late-night supper in Potosí the mood was sombre — news had filtered through about one of the crews falling down a precipice and meeting their death.

Sunday, October 24 was a 340-mile haul west towards La Paz, on Bolivian soil and still climbing, towards Lake Titicaca. With engine heat and dust pouring into the cars, this time it was Juan Gálvez aboard his dark blue Ford who was fastest, while Marimón finished a minute behind and Oscar Gálvez remained ahead on aggregate, despite hitting a large rock and needing to stop to repair his car’s steering.

From 40th on aggregate Fangio dominated the next leg, an all-out, 340-mile drive west from La Paz to Arequipa in Perú. The day’s climb over the Andes, peaking at 4600 metres above sea-level, was tough as hell, with the Gálvez brothers keeping in front during the first miles until the climbing began. At that point Fangio stamped his authority on the proceedings after clambering past more than 30 cars. After a ‘rest’ day came a 678-mile trek from Arequipa to Perú’s capital city, Lima, during which Oscar Gálvez further increased his advantage.

There the drums of war awaited them in the shape of a military coup making its way up from the country’s southern region. The starting hour for the 820-mile seventh leg to Tumbes should have been 5am on Friday, but the sound of gunfire around Lima meant a last-minute change of plan: to get them away from the shooting as quickly as possible the remaining 66 sleep-deprived crews were awoken and ushered off from 10pm on Thursday night at 10-second intervals.

To cap it all, mist blowing in from the Pacific Ocean meant visibility was reduced, although Fangio again gave it his all, so much so that he missed his mid-leg refuelling point. Exiting a village in the middle of nowhere just before 5am — and with Oscar Gálvez only metres behind — a left-hander caught Fangio out. The Chevrolet rolled down an embankment, with spares and wheels — and even a spare gearbox — flying around inside the car. He hung onto the steering wheel, but his riding helper Urrutia had nothing to grab onto and was flung out. Oscar Gálvez overturned almost simultaneously at the same spot and, after helping Fangio out of his car, was urged by the latter to continue the event. Urrutia was found badly injured in the surrounding darkness, some way from the destroyed Chevrolet. Moments later Marcilla came to the rescue, forgetting about his own victory aspirations to carry both of them to a nearby hospital, but Fangio’s good friend Urrutia died shortly after. Marimón and several other drivers wanted to retire, so as to see Fangio through his convalescence in Perú but from his hospital bed, via a radio message, he managed to convince most of them — Marimón included — to continue.

Marimón again considered quitting the event during the following day — on winding and mountainous roads between Guayaquil and Quito, in Ecuador — when a broken half-shaft further delayed him, but riding mechanic Pedro Duhalde convinced him to give it another chance. The next leg was a mere 242 miles, steep climbing at first followed by some miles on a plateau and then a rapid descent into the town of Pasto, now on dusty Colombian soil.

Marimón fell further behind when a wheel parted company with his Chevrolet, but after retrieving it from the bottom of a precipice he retained third place on aggregate, several hours behind the Gálvez brothers. Then it was over some relatively low-altitude Andes passes and on to the Colombian capital of Bogotá. Starting the final day, Oscar Gálvez’s aggregate time was just over 105 hours, with the chequered flag awaiting him in Caracas, not much more than eight hours away. As the cars trickled into Venezuelan territory, Juan Gálvez flashed past his brother and disappeared into the horizon until falling down an embankment, luckily without injury to him or his riding helper, Desiderio Avila. The final leg’s tempting jackpot had taken its first victim.

When Oscar arrived he tried to tow Juan’s car out, giving his Ford’s engine a real hammering until a lorry arrived and finally managed to finish the job. Oscar now heard ominous noises emerging from his bonnet — add a slipping clutch to this and Caracas suddenly seemed a mirage.

Victor García, ninth on aggregate, was first to reach downtown Caracas — and the coveted prize money — at lunchtime, followed by the Chevrolets of Marcilla and Marimón. Meanwhile, the local broadcaster was announcing that Oscar Gálvez had stopped not far out of Caracas and that his formerly invincible bright red Ford coupé was being pushed on uphill stretches by a spectator’s car. Marimón was already celebrating an unexpected overall second place, but now some were whispering in his ears that he could end up as the winner. Winner? Marimón shrugged it off with one of his hearty laughs. After all, he began the morning nearly five hours behind Gálvez, and everyone in the business knew the Ford driver was capable of repairing an engine on the roadside in much less time than that. With darkness looming, Gálvez stubbornly reached the finish line in Caracas, free-wheeling down the avenue towards the line, his car’s engine well and truly silent. According to the rules, all cars must reach the finish under their own steam; the Ford’s radiator was stone cold. Which meant that the victor’s laurels finally went to an incredulous Marimón. But there was little time to celebrate as he soon set off for Perú in his Chevrolet coupé to see how Fangio was recuperating. And there he found a man, nearly a fortnight after his accident, still shocked by the loss of his friend Urrutia, considering forgetting about a career in motorsport, thinking of just heading back to Balcarce to concentrate on his garage business.

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