Friday, April 20, 2012


Ack Miller's, Caballo de Hierro
La Carrera Panamericana, the Mexican Road Race, was originally a five-day automobile race on public highways that covered 2000 miles across Mexico in 1950-1954. It was considered the most difficult, dangerous, and exciting auto race in the world, especially when compared to similar events in Europe, like the Mille Miglia, Le Mans, and the Nűrburgring.

The Mexican government, headed by President Miguel Aleman, who had a deep personal interest in the Carrera, wanted to publicize the completion of the Pan-American Highway across their county. The government hoped that tourists and business would follow the new highway system into the interior of Mexico and perhaps to its beautiful beaches.

In its first year the Pan Am race was limited to stock American sedans, which were ultimately joined by two specially prepared Alfa Romeo “family sedans.” The Mexican government wanted to demonstrate that a family car could be driven to and from Mexico safely.

The first event enrolled 132 entries. Of these, fifty-nine were from the United States, mostly from Texas and California. The entrants included many amateur drivers from the U.S., Mexico, and other countries who participated just for the adventure. In 1950 Mexico was a strange and mysterious country for most Americans, even those who lived along the border.

The U.S. entries also included professional racers, such as the founder of NASCAR, Bill France, and a few of his top drivers, like Curtis Turner. The “good-old boys” were joined by a bevy of well-known American racers, including champions of the two oldest races in the U.S., Indianapolis and the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.

Entries from Europe and South America completed the field, which included a taxi driver from Mexico City, an official entry by the Mexican Army, and assorted playboy and playgirl aristocrats. There was also world-class talent from Italy, namely Felice Bonetto and Piero Taruffi. The very name of the latter, who won the race in 1951 and competed in every "Pana," would become part of Mexican automotive folklore.

Only a few modifications were allowed to the cars in 1950, such as heavier springs and shock absorbers, plus a larger gas tank installed in the back seat area. Roll bars were not required, and seat belts and helmets were only recommended. Crashes were common as pumped-up drivers, both amateurs and professionals, quickly exceeded their car’s capabilities and crashed with alacrity. The rate of attrition was frightening. Only fifty-two cars finished the event.

Because the American Automobile Association (AAA), the largest and most influential auto racing organization in the U.S., helped the Mexican government and (Mexican) National Automobile Association (ANA) establish the event by reviewing the rules and recruiting competitors from the AAA’s six hundred licensed race car drivers. Most of the professionals were motivated by the generous prize money, not the trip into the interior of Mexico.

The first Pan Am race was won by a relatively unknown “piloto,” a twenty-year-old from Oregon, Hershel McGriff. McGriff was driving a 1950 Oldsmobile “Rocket” 88 that cost $1800, running on white-wall tires he picked up for $12. His victory earned him $17,533 dollars, a huge sum in 1950.  McGriff would go on to a successful, if brief, career in NASCAR. He would return to racing later in life and currently holds the record for the oldest driver to start a NASCAR sanctioned event at age 82.

The first race started in Ciudad Juarez, across the Rio Grande River from El Paso, Texas, and ended in El Ocotol, Chiapas, Mexico, next to the border with Guatemala. The next four races (1951-1954) were run from Tuxtla Gutierrez, the capital of Chiapas, to Ciudad Juarez, primarily because there were no hotels or support service in the village of El Ocotol (now Cuauthémoc), and importantly, so the American teams would be closer to home when they finished the race in their flogged automobiles.

In 1951 the rules for the Pan Am allowed more modifications to the cars, especially the engines. The high altitudes in Mexico (up to 10,000 feet) reduced the power of an internal combustion engine by a third or more, making it difficult to climb the mountains with zest. Thus in 1951 some American V8s sported four carburetors, high compression heads, and other speed equipment. Helmets were required for the first time, and more roll bars and seat belts could be seen. 1951 was also marked by the appearance of a team of Ferrari 212 coupes or “sedanettes” (four seats) from Italy. The cars weighed about half the weight of an American sedan and produced significantly more horsepower per pound than American cars. They were also driven by road-race champions. The other Italian manufacturers, Lancia and Alfa Romero, were also in the race.

The Ferraris finished in the top two positions (Taruffi and Ascari), followed by eight American sedans, led by Bill Stirling in a hot Chrysler Saratoga.

 For the 1952 race, the cars were divided into two classes: sport cars and stock. A Mercedes 300 SL won the sports class, while the new “hot rod” Lincolns dominated the stock class, as they did NASCAR. The rules for the American cars were tightened, basically moving them back to stock.

By 1953 the race was open to just about any car with a gasoline engine, and it also became an event that counted toward the world sports car championship. Instead of two classes, the event now had four classes of cars -- based on the size of their engine: large sedans, small sedans, large sports cars, and small sports cars. European manufacturers were anxious to open up the U.S. market, and a victory in Mexico was considered an important step. Most manufactures sent teams to show off their products, with the exception of Jaguar.

Juan Manuel Fangio, arguably the greatest race car driver ever, won the 1953 event in a Lancia D-24. In doing so, he never collected a prize for winning one of the daily “legs,” but his overall performance for the five days was enough to win the championship by six minutes. Fangio simply knew how to take care of his equipment.

Porsche made its racing debut in the Pan Am in 1952. The following year, the Porsche 356s and 550s swept their class. Their success in 1953 would mean that most Porsche 911s in future years would be known as Carreras. The other great German company, Volkswagen, was also well represented but the podium eluded its drivers, but the all the "bugs" cars finished the race.

In 1954, the last year of this great motoring event, Ferrari returned to the top of the podium with a monster car, a 375 Plus, capable of speeds up to 180 MPH, driven by Umberto Maglioli. American hero Phil Hill and his co-driver Richie Ginther finished a close second in a Ferrari 340MM with much less horsepower.

 Ray Crawford, a privateer from Los Angeles who participated in all five original races, won the “big stock” class in a Lincoln when the factory’s entries faltered. Crawford's victory proved once again that good fortune plays a big role in the outcome of an endurance race.

A Dodge Hemi won the new “small stock” class, while Porsche and Alfa Romero won their respective classes. Carole Shelby, another American auto hero, managed to crash his Austin Healey early in the event, and the famous hybrid “special,” the “Iron Horse” of Ackton “Ack” Miller finished fifth overall behind four Ferraris. Miller was also one of the founding fathers of the National Hot Rod Association.

The Mexican government canceled the Pan Am in 1955. There were many reasons for this decision. The government had succeeded in its original goal of showing people around the world that their country would be driven across, safely in a family sedan. Also, there was the enormous expense. Not only did the government offer generous cash prizes to the winners, but the Mexican Army and countless city officials were deployed along the entire route to provide security, including keeping stray animals off the road. The Mexican government was not exactly rolling in the pesos in these years, and there was a change in the leadership of the government in 1953, with different priorities.

As the race developed, the cars got much faster, and there were more accidents and fatalities. In 1950, McGriff averaged 78 MPH; by 1954, the winning Ferrari averaged 108 MPH. A total of twenty-six fatalities, among drivers and (mostly) spectators, were recorded in the five years of the race. Editorialists in leading Mexican newspapers started to question the race’s usefulness.

All of these factors contributed to the cancellation of the event permanently in 1955. There were also serious accidents in other open-road races, especially in Europe, during this period. The deaths of seventy-nine spectators in the 1955 Le Mans was a huge blow to auto sports. Most open-road races would soon be closed or reconfigured to protect spectators.

Regardless of the reasons for its demise, La Carrera Panamericana had a significant impact on Mexico. It helped the country move into the 20th century in a variety of ways, and it created a strong auto and auto-racing culture that continues into the 21st century. The tradition it established was the foundation for its revival twenty-four years later.


 In 1988 a group of Mexican and American auto enthusiasts came up with the idea of reviving La Carrera Panamericana, reportedly over beers in Ensenada. According to folklore, the Mexican contingent, led by Eduardo Leon, succeeded in selling the concept to the Mexican Ministry of Tourism as a “caravan” of vintage cars to honor and celebrate the original event and promote tourism in Mexico. His friend and American partner, Loyal “Tio” Truesdale, one of the most colorful figures in the history of the event, promoted the new “Mexican Road Race” in the United States from its founding to 2002.

By 1988 it was impossible to race all day through the center of cities along the original route, so the new Pan Am was organized as a “stage rally.” In a stage rally, the cars do not race full speed for the entire “leg” or day, as they did in the original Pan Am. Each of the seven days was divided into two types of driving stages: (1) transit stages, driving in regular traffic from city to city, and from special stage to special stage, and (2) special or speed stages, which meant racing at full speed against the clock over closed highways seven or eight times a day.

In the speed stages, which are run on paved, secondary highways, mostly through the mountains, the cars are lined up and started in 30 second intervals. The cars are timed as they run the stages – normally from 5 to 12 miles in length. At the end of the day, the top finishers, those with the lowest elapsed times, are given medals or trophies in the nine or ten classes. At the end of the event, larger trophies are handed out by class and to the top-ten overall finishers. There are no cash prizes, only bragging rights, as “Tio” Loyal liked to say.

 Each car must have a driver and a navigator at all times, and it must follow a route set forth in a massive Route Book. Almost every turn and intersection is noted for the entire seven days of the event. All turns, especially in the speed stages, are rated on a scale of difficulty from 0-5. The latter designation usually means the corner faces a 500 foot drop into a ravine -- with or without a guard rail.

 The “Pana” remains enormously popular in Mexico. At least two million spectators see the race each year, while another thirty million are estimated to see television coverage. In cities along the route, thousands of spectators line the streets and fill the plazas to touch a Pan Am car, get a driver’s autograph, or take a photo with their cell-phone’s camera.

The modern Pan Am remains, like its precursor, a long, dangerous race. Initially, it started in Tuxtla Gutierrez, down in the jungles of Chiapas, like the original event. However, the end of the race was moved to Nuevo Laredo, across the river from Laredo, Texas. This was done to avoid the long straight (boring and dangerous) highways from Zacatecas to Chihuahua and on to Ciudad Juarez. In the past few years, the event has ended in Zacatecas because of problems along the border. The starting city has occasionally been changed for a variety of reasons to cities like Veracruz, Oaxaca, and the Pacific resort of Huatulco.

This year – 2012 – the modern Carrera will celebrate its 25th anniversary. It is doubtful that few, if any, of the original organizers back in 1988 thought it would endure so long. After a few lean years following 9/11, the event has filled the grid (100+ cars) for the past four years, and now is being more selective about entries. It has also seen more professional drivers and teams participating.

The trade mark "La Carrera Panamericana" is owned by Eduardo Leon, who holds the title of President Emeritus, and his family, which comprises the Organizing Committee, which has offices in Mexico City. Call 1-310-860-6959 or visit http:/// for more information. The event also has representatives in several European countries; check the web site for their contact information.

The Pan Am’s "coordinator” in North America (Canada and the U.S.) since 2002 is Gerie Bledsoe. He has competed in the event since 1999, winning his class Historic “C” (American V8, 1955-1968) in 2002, and each year organizes the “Coyote Convoy” of racecars and tow vehicles from Laredo, Texas –via San Miguel de Allende – to the start of the race. He also publishes CARRERA NEWS and CARRERA DRIVER, email newsletters sent to more than 1600 subscribers around the world. For more information go to http:/// , call 1-650-525-9190, or email

Gerie Bledsoe
San Miguel de Allende Mexico
April, 2012

Durango Deuce Dos #395