The idea was revolutionary, simple in concept but more difficult in execution: build a road spanning across the entire American nations. From Canada to the very tip of South America, a stretch asphalt would be ribboned across two continents to unite them in one cohesive whole. And, just like any good road, people would race it.
The Carrera Panamericana was the brainchild of the Mexican government, intended to be a way to advertise the beautiful new highway. What better way to break in your pride and joy than with sheer speed and adrenaline over the course of five days, where cars could push themselves to the very limits and make it out on the other side to a reward of thousands of dollars? What better way to attract attention and bulk up the economy than inviting hundreds of famous drivers that the world wants to see in person to race across the entirety of your country?
Here was a chance for the Americas to prove that they, too, could host a race as impressive as those in Europe. What spawned on that brief stretch of international asphalt is the stuff of legends, the likes of which we’ll never see again. The grid was packed with a diverse lineup of drivers and cars from around the world, something you just didn’t see taking place anywhere else at the time.
But when the first race was run on May 5, 1950, it had yet to make a name for itself. This nine-stage five-day race across the country caught the attention of drivers from every discipline, from Formula One to NASCAR to sports cars, all the way down to amateur drivers who simply showed up for the chance to showcase their talent and take on this stretch of relatively untamed road.
That year, the race started at Ciudad Juárez, crossed into El Paso, and finished in Ciudad Cuahtémoc. The event was open to stock five-seater sedans, and 132 competitors started the race. Those brave souls had to endure wild terrain changes and 10,000 foot differences in elevation—including a stint through the uninhabited jungle.
Drivers basically had to be self-sufficient. They had to know how to fix gearbox trouble, rejet carburetors to cope with thinner air, change their brakes, and more. There was really no way to anticipate exactly what this undriven terrain was going to throw at you.
Interestingly, the winner that year was, uh, kinda terrible at that whole maintenance thing. American stock car driver Hershel McGriff took on the Panamericana behind the wheel of an Oldsmobile 88 with an average speed of, coincidentally, 88 mph. There were plenty of Lincolns and Cadillacs entered that year, and no one really thought the Oldsmobile would be able to keep up. But it was really light. Having less weight to throw around a twisty road with plenty of inclines was definitely a bonus.
But that weight also meant that McGriff didn’t have to change his brakes. Yeah. While all his competitors spent the night re-shoeing, ol’ Hershel and his co-driver were able to kick back and relax. Which was key, considering neither of them knew how to do even basic maintenance and showed up with a couple of basic tools for minor repairs. Any significant damage would have nipped their hopes of winning in the bud. It’s kind of amazing that they managed to keep their car that pristine.
But just as notable as McGriff’s incredible win was the first hints of the reputation this race would receive. Three competitors and one spectator were killed. It’s hard to justify death, but they did so at the time; it was an untried course in an era of danger. With so many competitors, it would have been a miracle if something didn’t happen.
The next year, in November 1951, quite a lot had changed. After the American competitors swept the top four places during the premiere event, the race was ran south to north, from Tuxtla Gutiérrez to Ciudad Juárez. The course detoured around the jungle, too; it had proved difficult to, y’know, find accommodations surrounded by nothing but trees.
1951 saw things get both more serious and more dangerous. Ferrari showed up with a factory team, making them the first European manufacturer to do so. It was obvious that the appeal of the race was starting to take off around the world
But it also proved far more dangerous than the previous year. Before the start, José Estrada, a prominent car dealer and racer in Mexico City, declared that he would win the race or die trying. On the very first stage, his Packard tumbled off the road into a ravine, where both driver and co-driver were killed.
It was Carlos Panini who caused the most horror, though. Panini established Mexico’s first scheduled airline in 1927 and was something of a local legend. He wasn’t supposed to be driving that day; his daughter, Teresa, was registered to race because Panini was ill and didn’t even have a license to drive a regular car, let alone race one. In Bobby Unser’s book Winners are Driven, he talks about the incident; he was trying to pass Panini, but Carlos was driving belligerently. At one point, he over-corrected after bumping into Unser and crashed straight into a solid rock wall, where the car exploded on impact.
If you stopped, you were disqualified. Unser kept going.
That year, the race claimed the life of Oaxaca’s mayor, Lorenzo Mayoral Lemus, too. With the deaths of so many prominent, beloved figures, the press started questioning the viability of the race. It was labeled a dangerous crime, one that should be immediately banned.
Piero Taruffi and Alberto Ascari took home the first two places that year in the works Ferrari. The stock American cars that had been so dominant the year before suddenly took the backseat; this wasn’t just amateur hour anymore.
The Carrera Panamericana came back in ‘52, despite the fact that people were questioning its safety. And that year, it got real serious. So many major European automakers entered that race organizers divided the race into two classes: Sports Cars and Stock Cars. That way, the lighter European models wouldn’t be outclassing their heavier American counterparts.
It was also the year that proved racing was getting serious. You couldn’t show up in a cheap car with no tools like McGriff did and expect to win. Mercedes-Benz showed up with a whole team of professional drivers and mechanics.
The Merc team of Karl Kling and Hans Klenk even showed up with pre-prepared race notes. This wasn’t really the norm back then; if you showed up to a rally, it was a balls-to-the-walls surprise every time you went careening around a corner. But by having notes in shorthand ready to go, Klenk was able to warn King about all possible upcoming bends and turns. This is the same navigation system we’ve come to expect in rallying today.
It wasn’t a particularly bloody year for the Panamericana—barring one incident.
While Kling was speeding around a long right-hand corner at 120 mph, he ran smack into a vulture. The things had been sitting on the side of the road, startled by the noise from the engine. But one didn’t get away fast enough. It went right through the windshield and knocked co-driver Klenk unconscious. But the two kept right on driving; they waited 43 more miles before they cleaned up themselves and the car, not wanting to lose any unnecessary time.
The following two years saw the race grow even more professional in nature. The Sports and Stock classes were both further divided into Small and Large groups because so many people were traveling out to compete. It was even included as the final round of the World Sportscar Championship season. The incentives to compete were huge.
Lincoln and Lancia both took a cue from Mercedes-Benz, who stopped competing in the Panamericana to focus on Formula One, and showed up with massive factory teams. World class drivers like Phil Hill, Juan Manuel Fangio, and Felice Bonetto were hitting the tarmac to show what they were capable of.
But death was prominent for those two years. In ‘53, Bonneville Salt Flats record holder Mickey Thompson killed six spectators who had gathered in a dangerous area to see the relatively less-dangerous crash of Bob Christie that had happened just minutes before. That same day, two Ferrari drivers were killed when their tire blew on the first stage. And Felice Bonetto, who was competing without a co-driver, missed the warning signs he had carefully painted on the track to avoid certain hazards, and crashed into a building in Silao. The following year, in 1954, four competitors, two spectators, and a team crew member all lost their lives during the Mexican race.
That was the final straw. After the horrific crash at Le Mans in 1955 that possibly killed up to 130 people, motorsport was getting a bad reputation. The Carrera Panamericana had racked one of the highest mortality rates per race in history at that time due to the fact that the ‘track’ was a highway—it wasn’t designed for racing. The speed of the cars competing had almost doubled (88 mph in 1950 compared to 138 mph in 1954), but nothing was being done to keep the safety standards up to par with the increasing danger. On the long sections of stages, there was so little security and medical assistance that crashed cars could sit there for hours, potentially causing more accidents.
The President of Mexico at the time, Adolfo Ruiz Cortines, was careful not to blame the casualties and danger as the reason for the cancellation, though. After all, the race was supposed to showcase the brand new Mexican roads; it was supposed to make you want to drive on them, not fear for your life. He simply stated that the purpose of the race was complete; the Panamerican Highway had been completed, so there was no need for the race.
The race has lived on ever since in the hearts of devout motorsport fans, carved in the bloody annals of racing history by the drivers who raced in it, the Porsche Carreras named after it, and the memories made by it. It’s even gone through a revival in recent years, although it’s a lot safer now than the race was back in the day.
It’s one of those races that’s endlessly fascinating—once you know about it. Because it didn’t last particularly long, the race didn’t achieve the status of something like the Targa Florio, despite having its own unique challenges that inspired drivers from all over the world to risk their lives to achieve a moment of glory. But it’s one that shouldn’t be forgotten.