Sunday, May 24, 2009

South Of The Border

To any reasonable person the unpredictable roads of 1950's Mexico may not seem to be the ideal arena to stage a long distance motor race. However this is exactly what happened when it was announced that on the 5th of May 1950 the first Carrera Panamericana Mexico would take place. The event was a collaboration between the Associacion Mexicana Automovilistica, the Associacion Nacional Automovilistica, the American Automobile Association and the Mexican Government.

Lasting for just five years from 1950 - 1954 the Carrera was a torturous 2,178 mile test of endurance widely held by contemporaries to be the most dangerous race of any type in the world. In its short lifetime 26 people were killed, 9 in 1953 alone, giving it the dubious distinction of having the highest mortality rate per race in the history of motor sport. Not surprisingly the Mexican Government did not view this wholesale automotive devastation as a particularly positive representation of Mexico to the rest of the world and cancelled the race for 1955.

Contestants were attracted from virtually every form of motor sport and pitted drivers from Formula One, the Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR against private citizens from both the U.S and Mexico including some local taxi drivers!! Manufacturers from both America and Europe vied for honours with brands such as Oldsmobile, Mercury, Lincoln, Hudson and Cadillac well represented. The Europeans countered with entries from some of their finest. Ferrari, Maserati, Lancia, Mercedes Benz and Porsche all fielded entries in the hope of an outright victory. Porsche even named their Carrera models in honour of their race wins.

However it was Californian hot rodder Ak Miller who captured the hearts and imagination of America with his homebuilt Model T Ford Special named "Caballo de Hierro" - the Horse Of Iron. A homebrewed concoction combining the body from a Model T Ford , a 1950 Ford chassis and an Oldsmobile motor, it gave Miller an outright 5th place in the 1954 event. The Mexicans jokingly dubbed the car "enselada" because they saw it as a salad of parts.

Changes in conditions along the race route were as dramatic as they were diverse. Sections climbed up 10,000 feet of fogbound mountain passes, through remote tropical jungle and back down to sea level where the fastest cars could reach 180 mph along the arrow straight roads.

The Carrera has left us with some wonderful images which juxtapoz the ancient customs of rural Mexico against the relentless technological advances of the post war western world. It is unlikely that we will again witness an event as unorthodox and exciting as that orchestrated by the Mexicans, south of the border.

Adios Amigos.

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