The four-time Grand Prix winner Dan Gurney, was once almost persuaded by semi-serious fans to run for President of the United States. A campaign was even drawn up, including “Gurney for President” merchandise. He never did run for Presidency, but it would have been a remarkable story; dashing racing driver turned President makes for quite a headline.
Whereas Carlos Reutemann has used his reputation and publicity gained through an impressive racing career to form a successful political career in his native Argentina. Both examples show how motor sport can have a positive effect in the political world.
But in 1958 a group of rebels with a political agenda planned to use the biggest name in motor racing to aid their cause…whether he wanted to help or not.
In 1958, Juan Manuel Fangio was weaning himself off of Formula One by competing in a partial campaign as he neared his retirement. The five-time world champion’s career may have been coming to an end but he was still the biggest draw the sport had to offer – something that would be exploited during his time in Cuba.
1958 Cuba was in a fragile state politically; a revolt against those in power was looming and President Fulgencio Batista was trying to retain an air of normality to Cuba by hosting, as it did the year before, a Grand Prix.
Fidel Castro’s guerrilla forces were threatening to disrupt Batista’s plans however; they were camping in the mountains, plotting, while rioters were becoming more aggressive in the streets. Undeterred, Batista was keen for business to continue as usual in the country’s capital of Havana – hoping a thrilling race between the world’s greatest drivers would once again attract a crowd.
Batista’s vision was for the capital to become a Latino Las Vegas, where rich tourists would come and spend their hard earned money in Cuba’s bars, shops and seaside restaurants. What better way to attract the wealthy and frivolous than a motor race?
Fangio, who had won in Cuba the year before, was once again the headline act, but the Argentinean would feature in all the headlines for reasons he, and Batista, hadn’t planned on.
On the eve of the non-championship Grand Prix, Fangio made his way back to his hotel – the luxurious Hotel Lincoln. As he made his way across the grand, marble lobby floor he was confronted by a ‘slightly nervous’ young man. This young man wasn’t clutching a piece of paper, waiting to be signed by a racing hero but was instead holding a pistol, pointing directly at Juan Manuel.
Despite a member of Fangio’s entourage attempting to intervene the situation with a paperweight, the assailant firmly stated; “Fangio, you must come with me, I am a member of the 26th of July revolutionary movement”. Left with no obvious alternative, Fangio accompanied the young man to a waiting car with the same calmness and measure he had displayed when winning each of his many Grand Prix.
With the short and dramatic exchange over, Fangio disappeared into the night; his fate in the hands of a nervous rebel and his recovery left to the Police, who began the hunt for Fangio immediately.
Fangio meanwhile, was having the motive of his taking explained to him. It was simple; by capturing the biggest name in motor sport, the rebels were showing up the government and attracting worldwide publicity to their cause. It was also explained that they had plans to kidnap Stirling Moss, thus capturing the world’s top two names in the sport. But Fangio expressed concern over this part of their plan; Fangio lied and insisted that they mustn’t kidnap Stirling as he was in Cuba on his honeymoon. Fangio reasoned that it would be most ungentlemanly to upset his new wife. “Very decent of him”, Moss recalled.
Fangio was supplied with a meal of steak and potatoes before sleeping “like a blessed one”, trusting that no harm would come to him once the rebels gained their publicity.
There was still the small matter of a motor race to consider however. Despite Fangio’s kidnapping, President Batista insisted that the show must go on.
On the morning of the race, under the instruction of Batista, a vast field of Grand Prix machinery fired up in front of a 150,000-strong crowd with Maurice Trintignant filling the vacant seat at Maserati for the missing Fangio. By this time the missing champion had been given a personal apology by Faustino Perez, Castro’s second in command, and had even been supplied with a radio so that he could listen to the action as it happened in Havana. But Fangio was not in the mood; “I became a little sentimental,” he said. “I did not want to listen because I felt nostalgic.” It was perhaps a blessing that Fangio did not listen; his sentimental state of mind may not have coped with happened during the race.
In what was widely predicted to be a close fight, Moss and fellow Ferrari driver Masten Gregory took an early lead. But by the time the leaders started their fifth lap almost every corner of the 3.5-mile circuit was slick with oil…the cars started to run perilously close to the barriers. At first the organisers suspected a second rebel sabotage, but it was later discovered that Roberto Mieres’ Porsche had a broken oil line.
On the next lap the inevitable happened; local driver Armando Garcia Cifuentes lost control of his yellow and black Ferrari and went head-on into a huddle of spectators. Over 40 people were injured and seven killed as the wreckage took out a make-shift bridge before somersaulting over the crash barriers. Porsche driver Ulf Noriden stopped on track and attempted to help: “I couldn’t even see the Ferrari. The bodies were piled all over. I was wading in arms and legs.”
Moss, unaware of the extent of the tragedy, continued racing against Gregory at the front of the field and went on to win the farcical race. Controversy would follow however; the red flag was issued by track marshals to stop the race but Moss overtook Gregory before the finish line, prompting outrage from the American. Moss, ever vigilant when it came to the rules of the game, was declared the winner; “I knew that the only person who could issue the red flag was the clerk of the course and he could never have waved it from the bridge, so that one had to be an unauthorised one – he could never have got their so fast from his usual position on the start-finish line”.
“So I said to Masten, ‘Look, keep quiet, we’ll pool our money together and then split it’. And that’s exactly what we did, because otherwise it would have gone to the organisers or whoever to decide and it would be years before we got the money.
“So officially I was the winner. The truth was either of us could have won it, but what the hell, it didn’t matter. Why have an argument about it? Especially with everything else that had happened that weekend.”
Bautista’s grand vision had quite literally come crashing down; the whole event had been a disaster, and when Fangio was handed over to the Argentine embassy soon after the race with worldwide headlines assured for Castro’s revolutionaries, blame started to be apportioned. While still fighting for his life in hospital, Cifuentes was rather unfairly charged with manslaughter and criminal charges were also filed against “person or persons unknown” for kidnapping Fangio.
Over the New Year, Castro’s revolution was successful, but it was not until 1960, at the Camp Columbia military airfield, that motor racing resumed in Cuba. Once again Moss won and once again the event was marred by tragedy, this time by the death of Ettore Chimeri who crashed his Ferrari through a barrier and plunged 150 feet into a ravine. He later died in hospital.
Motor racing soon ceased on the island of Cuba, never to return. Despite its popularity, the sport was considered too commonplace by the communist regime. Motor racing no longer matched the politics and with the death and drama surrounding its races there, the world of motor racing is perhaps better off.