Run for the Border

In 1954, an American photojournalist covered all 1,900 miles of the final Carrera Panamericana.

Photo: Run for the Border 1

Spectators lean in for a close look at Umberto Maglioli’s 375 Plus.

June 11, 2015

Although La Carrera Panamericana didn’t last long enough to establish a long tradition like the Targa Florio, Mille Miglia or 24 Hours of Le Mans, it is widely regarded as the most challenging open-road race ever recorded in the annals of motor-sport history. Run from 1950 to ’54, the Carrera was the ultimate proving ground for testing the skill and endurance of its drivers, as well as the structural and mechanical integrity of their machines—and it took a heavy toll on both.

Despite, or perhaps due to, the danger, the event attracted the finest racers of the day. A partial list includes the likes of Piero Taruffi, Karl Kling, Umberto Maglioli, Felice Bonetto, Phil Hill, Carroll Shelby, Luigi Chinetti, Sr., Alberto Ascari, Giovanni Bracco and five-time World Champion Juan Manuel Fangio.

The world’s great sports-car marques were drawn to the race, as well, led by Ferrari. While Mercedes and Lancia (and Oldsmobile) each won once, the Prancing Horse did so twice. The first time was in 1951, when Taruffi and Chinetti drove a 212 Inter to victory. The second time was in ’54—and I was there, covering the event as a photojournalist. It turned out to be the adventure of a lifetime.

In the late 1940s, holding a major road race in Mexico to celebrate the opening of the new border-to-border Panamerican Highway was a dream shared by many. It became a reality through the efforts of various leaders in the Asociacion Nacional Automovilistica (ANA), an affiliate organization of the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA). Mexican President Miguel Aleman and his secretary of communications and public works, Augustin Garcia Lopez, gave their hearty approval, and by March ’49 government officials had announced La Carrera Panamericana would be run the following year.

Photo: Run for the Border 2

Author Harnell followed the Carrera competitors in his own Oldsmobile.

Starting at Tutxla-Gutierrez, the capital of Chiapas at the southern tip of Mexico, where road-surface temperatures often exceeded 130° Fahrenheit, the race ran some 1,912 miles before ending at the northern town of Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, just across the border from the U.S. city of El Paso, Texas. The Carrera spanned five days, with the distance divided into eight legs comprising countless numbers of uncambered hairpin curves interspersed with hundreds of vados. These dips in the road claimed the life of Felice Bonetto, who was leading the ’53 Carrera when, in the town of Silao during the Mexico City-Leon leg, his Lancia D24 catapulted off a vado into the front of a house, killing him instantly. Chuck holes and occasional washboard curves further accentuated the treacherous aspects of this scenic trail of danger.

The final Carrera commenced in the early morning of November 19, 1954. A field of 166 drivers was on hand to challenge for a purse totalling the then-vast sum of $117,000. The colorful array of 145 cars lined up slowly in the cool, crisp weather, freshly painted with their official race numbers and identifying slogan: “V Carrera Panamericana Mexico.” Thousands of spectators lined the 329 miles between the start at Tuxtla and finish line of the first leg at Oaxaca, and thousands of soldiers patrolled the road intent on keeping spectators and livestock clear of the course. Their weapons were loaded; spectator casualties in previous years had dictated this dramatic and, as I learned later, effective show of arms.

Dominating the field of nine Ferrari entrants were two massive 4.9-liter 375 Plus spyders (s/ns 0392AM and 0396AM). These were the most powerful cars the company had produced to date, delivering 360 hp at 6,000 rpm, and were capable of a top speed of 175 mph. They were potentially unbeatable on the long chutes prevalent in the final stages in central and northern Mexico.

S/n 0392, which had won the 24 Hours of Le Mans earlier that year with Jose Froilan Gonzales and Maurice Trintignant, would be driven by Jack McAfee for owner John Edgar. [We told s/n 0392’s story in issue #52’s “Fame and Misfortune.”—Ed.] S/n 0396 had also run at Le Mans, with drivers Robert Manzon and Louis Rosier holding second place for several hours before retiring with rear-axle failure. Now owned by Erwin Goldschmidt and sponsored by Industrias 1-2-3, a Mexican producer of oils, home detergents and soaps, it would be piloted by Umberto Maglioli, a rising star on the Italian racing scene.

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The Ferrari compound in Tuxtla prior to the race.

Next up were a trio of 4.5-liter 375 MMs. The first (s/n 0376AM) was the Pinin Farina spyder of Luigi Chinetti, in his final race, while the second (s/n 0358AM) was Argentine Roberto Bonomi’s Pinin Farina berlinetta, which featured a completely reworked V12. The third 375 (s/n 0286AM) wore an unusual one-off Vignale spyder body fitted with a vertical stabilizer that resembled the one found on a D-Type Jaguar. It also had a Lincoln Continental-esque protuberance to accommodate a second spare tire in the trunk.

S/n 0286 had already proved its mettle, winning the previous year’s 1,000-kms of the Nürburgring with Alberto Ascari and Giuseppe Farina. It had since been modified by specialists Lujie Lesovsky and Roscoe Ford (the latter helped Lou Moore score three consecutive wins in the Indy 500) with special camshafts built by Ed Winfield. For the Carrera, it would be piloted by Phil Hill.

Hill and Maglioli were considered the top competitors in the Ferrari field, as each had chalked up impressive victories for the marque in their short careers. Maglioli had won the Pescara 12-hour race in a 4.5-liter berlinetta in ’53 and, in ’54, the 1,000-kms of Buenos Aires with Farina in another 375. Hill, who had ranked among the top-three drivers vying for the coveted Sports Car Club of America championship in ’53, had racked up many wins in his Vignale-bodied 250 MM spyder. Plus, less than two weeks before the Carrera at March Air Force Base in Riverside, California, he drove s/n 0286 to a second-place finish behind Bill Spear’s 375 MM.

Ferrari was further represented in Mexico by a mix of smaller-displacement four-and 12-cylinder models. The former consisted of a 750 Monza (s/n 0470M) driven by Giovanni Bracco, who was making his fourth bid to reach the finish at Ciudad Juarez after three failed attempts, a 735 Sport (s/n 0428M) piloted by Spanish nobleman Alfonso de Portago and the 500 Mondial (s/n 0464MD) of Dominican playboy and diplomat Porfirio Rubirosa. Finally, Franco Cornacchia, sponsored by the Guastalla team, drove his 250 Monza (s/n 0442M), a 750 Monza chassis powered by a 250 MM engine that developed 240 bhp at 7,200 rpm.

Photo: Run for the Border 4

Giovanni Bracco poses with his 750 Monza. He wouldn’t finish the race for the fourth time in a row.

I had arrived in Tuxtla after a 3,100-mile drive in my ’54 Oldsmobile Holiday Coupe from my home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, convinced that the only way to effectively cover the event was to essentially become a part of it. I joined a special press cordon, organized by the ANA under the authorization of El Comite Nacional de La Carrera Panamericana Mexico, that allowed journalists to follow the competitive cars on each of the race’s eight legs.

Although I had access, the Carrera was an extremely difficult race for one person to cover alone, due to the distances and conditions involved, the speed of the action and the multitude of peripheral aspects to the event (e.g., the drivers, the banquets, the repairs, etc.). I opted to focus solely on the racing action itself.

One of my two cameras for the race was a Robot, one of the earliest 35mm motordrives, developed from a wing-mounted gun camera used by the Luftwaffe in World War II. Sent to me by my brother, Chris, who was in the Army and stationed in Europe at the close of the war, my Robot was, to the best of my knowledge, the first-ever 35mm motordrive camera to be used as a journalistic tool in the U.S. My first published motordrive series appeared in Speed Age Magazine in 1947.

The Robot motordrive cranked out about three frames per second through single-frame manual operation, and I swapped between a high-resolution Schneider-Kreuznach telephoto lens and a standard Tessar F2.8. Since the Robot didn’t accept standard cassettes, loading film onto the camera’s internal spring-loaded cassette had to be done inside a hot, light-tight changing bag. The film’s emulsion would often soften in Mexico’s subtropical heat, making the process a hellish, messy affair.

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Phil Hill and Richie Ginther (in foreground) wait in their one-off 375 MM for the start at Puebla.

It was precisely 6 a.m. when earsplitting cheers from the crowd signaled the start of the race. The snarling exhausts of the big-bore entries pierced the cool morning air as the racers, one by one, edged toward the starting line. The green flag dropped on McAfee’s 375 Plus, the first car to go, and it shot away with lightning speed and a throaty roar.

When the second Ferrari reached the starting grid, the countdown to the green flag repeated: Cinco, cuatro, tres, dos, uno, arranca! Smoke poured from the V12’s exhaust as Maglioli accelerated up the narrow ribbon of highway toward the mountains. And so it went with the rest of the entries, each leaving the line at their appointed time, just seconds apart. As the last car rocketed away, I leapt into my Olds and set out in pursuit with the press cordon. We quickly developed a scorching pace.

The initial leg from Tuxtla to Oaxaca was indisputably the most dangerous of all, plagued by myriad road hazards, sweltering heat, more than 3,000 torturous curves and constantly changing road conditions. Starting at an altitude of about 1,900 feet, the stretch descended slowly to 300 feet after the first 100 miles, then remained almost at sea level before ascending sharply to 6,500 feet as the road climbed toward the finish.

As we stormed past the 200-mile mark—some 50 miles past Tehuantepec, about eight miles from Rio Hondo—we were flagged down by an official. I braked to a halt and noticed a small group of people standing atop an embankment. I ran to the edge and saw, some 50 feet below, McAfee’s once-proud Ferrari. The 375 Plus had hurtled over the embankment and flipped end over end, throwing McAfee’s co-driver, Ford “The Fox” Robinson, clear; his lifeless body lay 100 feet away, covered by a tarp. McAfee, who had finished fifth overall in the ’52 Carrera driving a Ghia-bodied Ferrari 340 America, somehow emerged with only minor injuries.

Photo: Run for the Border 6

Jack McAfee crashed his 375 Plus on day one, killing co-driver Ford Robinson.

So began La Carrera. While Robinson was the first fatality of the race, he wouldn’t be the last. By the time I reached Oaxaca, 22 cars had been eliminated, the majority by burned pistons and cooling troubles.

In the meantime, Maglioli and Hill set a blistering pace in the Large Sports category. Hill’s MM was the underdog against Maglioli’s more powerful Plus, and the fin-tailed Vignale carried more weight with co-driver Richie Ginther aboard; the Italian rode solo. The Mexican press took note of these disparities and affectionately referred to Hill as the batallador, or fighter. Surprisingly, despite this power-to-weight handicap, at the end of the first leg Hill scorched across the finish line four minutes, nine seconds ahead of Maglioli. The American’s 96.12-mph average speed shattered the leg record, set the previous year by Bonetto’s Lancia, by three minutes.

Hill’s superb driving skills obviously played a major role in winning this most difficult section, but a big question remained: Did that vertical fin improve the car’s stability, especially on the long straights? Forty-one years later, Hill quipped to me, “It didn’t do a damn thing!”

Interestingly, Chinetti had driven Hill’s car in the Carrera the previous year, with de Portago as co-pilot. He retired the Ferrari after the second leg, explaining in a testimonial, “The car wouldn’t hold to the road, a real disaster; with that short wheelbase (2,500mm) we had to be careful not to lose control on curves.” Hill’s ease in handling the car, as well as Ascari’s ’53 victory at the Nürburgring in the same Ferrari, seems to contradict Chinetti’s concerns; perhaps he was apprehensive about damaging a valuable machine he had already sold to Allen Guiberson, who sponsored Hill’s ’54 Carrera ride.

Photo: Run for the Border 7

This motordrive sequence captured Hill and Ginther chatting at speed on the second day of the race.

After photographing the tragic McAfee/Robinson crash and the rest of the first stage, I headed toward the mountainous terrain beyond Oaxaca, hoping to camp out that night and await the arrival of the first cars the following morning. The Puebla-Mexico City stretch, the second most dangerous of the race, was like a bobsled driver’s nightmare: The road shot up to 10,485 feet at Puerto del Aire then descended sharply to 6,500 feet through hundreds of hairpins. Drivers faced partial washouts due to earlier torrential rains, and there were no guardrails to guide the cars through the curves or prevent them from flying off the road and down the side of a mountain. Parts of the road were lined with memorial stones, macabre reminders of where drivers had been killed.

As the road out of Oaxaca ascended toward 7,000 feet, I drove on to Puebla, a beautiful classical Spanish colonial city, where I grabbed dinner, bought some bananas and bolillos (savory rolls) and filled my thermos with hot coffee.

A few miles down the road from Puebla I found an “S” curve on a downward slope that looked like a good place to shoot from the next day. So prepared, I hunkered down in the back seat of my car and drifted off to sleep.

Just before dawn, I was awakened by the sound of hoof beats. Looking through the rear window in the dim light, I could make out three horsemen approaching fast. As they came closer, I was more than a little distressed to see them wearing crossed ammunition belts, revolvers and rifles over their panchos. They looked like they had walked right off the set of the classic movie The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and their large sombreros did nothing to dispel that image.

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This motordrive sequence captured Hill and Ginther chatting at speed on the second day of the race.

They dismounted, and one of them walked over to my car, smiling. Still smiling, he tapped on the window. I can only imagine my expression, and the armed men understood the impression they made; patiently and politely, they explained they were federales, (Mexican national police) and showed me their badges (yes, really!). Then, after making a campfire, they invited me to share their food and coffee. I later learned these federales were part of an anti-bandit patrol and had stopped expressly to protect me.

The sky soon brightened and the cool air warmed. The distant sound of an engine, barely audible at first, broke the quiet. As the car approached, I could hear gears changing as the driver downshifted to save his precious brakes on a steep hill or tight bend. The noise grew louder and louder until a white Ferrari appeared. It was Hill and Ginther, their 375 MM slithering through the “S” curve at breakneck speed.

I shot a motordrive sequence of the pair that turned out to be the most unusual series of the entire race; the whole time they were streaking through the left-hander at racing speed they were holding a conversation. In one frame, they were even staring at each other! (I’m pleased to say these photos have been shown in many fine museums in three countries, and world-renowned sculptor Stanley Wanlass also brought to light this amusing incident with a dynamic bronze sculpture of s/n 0286 called “Fast Company.”) Decades later, when I asked Hill about that day, he said they had been joking about going off the road at that same spot one year earlier in their 340 Mexico coupe. Fortunately, the ’54 Carrera field shot through this particular corner without incident.

Despite his slower car, Hill maintained the race lead. The remarkable Vignale MM streaked into Mexico City still 39 seconds ahead of Maglioli’s 375 Plus. However, the casualty list continued to grow, as 15 more cars were eliminated and several drivers were injured, some seriously. Carroll Shelby, who later drove Hill’s 375 to victory at Torrey Pines, in 1955, suffered a broken arm and ribs after his Austin Healey 100 flipped on the way to Puebla. Franz Hammernick’s Borgward crashed, dealing its pilot a fractured collarbone, and David Cerezo’s Alfa 1900T plunged off a bridge at San Martin de Temehuacan. The car, which Cerezo had purchased solely for the Carrera, was demolished, but he and co-driver Carlos Palacio survived.

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Franco Cornacchia drove his 250 Monza to a third-place overall finish.

The carnage continued to mount on the next leg, Mexico City-Leon, as four major crashes and one fatality occurred at a single washboard curve near Rio Hondito. I had followed the last Carrera entrant from Mexico City northward, and in less than 30 minutes spotted the first of the washboard victims: the battered Borgward of the Small Sports-class leader, Karl Bechem, who suffered a fractured femur in the accident. The worst mishap came when pilot Joaquin Palacios flipped his Pegaso spyder off the corner at high speed. The car struck and killed a soldier, then hurtled down an embankment into a agave field and burned. Palacios was thrown clear and miraculously survived.

The second part of the day found the field racing over the long chutes of the Leon-Durango stage. On this stretch, Maglioli streaked by Hill for a seemingly insurmountable six minute, nine-second advantage—by this time, Hill’s 375 MM was dogged by differential and ignition problems.

On the fourth day the race headed from Durango to Chihuahua, a 437-mile straight run broken into two legs by a refueling stop at Parral. The first stage fell easily to the cool-driving Maglioli, his average speed of 112 mph bettering the record he set the year before. The Italian then repeated this victory by dominating the Parral-Chihuahua leg, pushing his 375 Plus to an average speed of 131.2 mph for the entire stretch and once again shattering the record he had set previously.

Hill cruised into Parral a close second, but ongoing differential issues dropped him to fourth overall by the time he arrived in Chihuahua. The gap between the American and his Italian rival opened up to more than fourteen minutes, but Hill wasn’t out of the hunt yet; the unexpected always typified the Carrera Panamericana.

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An Alfa Romeo takes the checkered flag at Ciudad Juarez, more than 1,900 miles from where the race began.

I had camped at a hairpin curve some 80 miles shy of Durango. The weather was great and I came back with some fairly good shots, but a chilling incident occurred. While I was walking around looking for an advantageous spot to film the race, a young Mexican Army private approached, yelled Alto! (Stop!) and then leveled his rifle at me. I quickly pivoted, swinging around so he could see my official Prensa (Press) armband and loudly shouted, Periodista! (Journalist!) He quickly pulled back his rifle and waved me by. I’ve since often wondered if he was actually ordered to carry out this threatening challenge or was merely taking risky liberties.

After the last cars roared by, I proceeded to Parral. On the way, I spotted yet another race casualty: a pancaked Chevrolet sponsored by Argentine dictator Juan Peron and his wife, Eva. The car had flipped violently, killing co-driver Leopoldo Olvera.

By this point, the race had claimed the lives of eight people—drivers, civilians and the soldier—according to Mexico’s Cruz Roja (Red Cross). It seemed obvious that the patrolling soldiers were unable to cope with the vast number of rabid race fans, unknowing innocents and unfenced animals that constantly wandered onto the road. By the time I arrived in Chihuahua, only 87 cars remained in the race.

The final day consisted of a 222-mile dash from Chihuahua to the finish at Ciudad Juarez. The route was mostly straightaways across the cold high desert, where the altitude varied between 3,300 and 4,700 feet.

The surviving cars were greeted at the finish by over 100,000 spectators, many of them Americans who had crossed the border to witness the spectacular finale. I set up my gear for the last time right at the finish line, tired from the drive and the pace of the previous five days, but electrified by the crowd’s excitement.

Hill had managed to get his car back in shape overnight, and the snarling sounds of a Ferrari in the distance signaled his arrival. Seconds later, the 375 MM scorched across the line for its third leg victory. On the final sprint to Juarez, Hill blew away Maglioli’s time by more than 53 seconds, setting an average pace of 138.25 mph that missed the Italian’s ’53 record by a scant 30 seconds. S/n 0286 had performed admirably, no small satisfaction to Hill and Ginther, who battled against Maglioli’s superior horsepower hoping for an unforeseen opportunity that would give them the final edge. Their time for the 1,900-plus miles was an impressive 18 hours, four minutes, 50 seconds.

Maglioli’s 375 Plus sped past the checkered flag a minute later, taking the overall win and setting a new speed record for La Carrera: 107.99 mph. The Italian finished 24 minutes ahead of the Americans, and was 30 minutes quicker than Juan Manual Fangio’s 1953 winning performance. For his victory, Maglioli picked up the tidy sum of $18,200. Second-place Hill received $9,200.

Plans to make a sixth Carrera part of the FIA’s calendar for 1955 were scuttled by the Mexican government. New President Adolfo Cortinez refused to allocate the necessary funds to repair the Panamerican Highway, which was in a continual state of disrepair due to poor initial construction. And so it was that the world’s greatest open-road race passed into history.

I feel privileged to have witnessed and documented the final running of this legendary event. I covered a wide range of motorsports before and after, and to me nothing has compared. No race held today can even remotely approach the tone and scope of the original rendition of the Carrera Panamericana Mexico.

I’m certainly not alone in that assessment. Race winner Maglioli was later quoted as saying, “I am sure we shall never see again the million spectators lining the finish at Mexico City or the tens of thousands on the initial legs, a breathtaking spectacle. The pinch of madness that it transmitted to me has never been cancelled!”

Also from Issue 143

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