1950 Mexican Road Race: La Carerra Panamerica, I

The Mexican Road Race 1950-1954

The Evolution of La Carrera


The Mexican Road Race, held from 1950 to 1954, began as a celebration and promotion of the newly finished Pan American Highway. Sponsored by both the Mexican government and a variety of local interests, competitors from the U.S., Mexico, and South America competed in a timed race from north to south. The initial event consisted mainly of individuals not affiliated with any vehicle manufacturer, and financial support was limited. Yet with each succeeding season, officials modified the race to encourage higher speeds and faster times. These alterations led to the coming of team sponsored and prepared vehicles, professionals and experienced amateur drivers, and a variety of support systems. Also, a greater European presence emerged over time, concluding with the domination of the race by high-priced sports cars. Despite the investments made, safety issues related to both the popularity and speed of the event, led to its demise only after five years.

La Carrera Panamericana was a series of races that tested the limits of cars and drivers. Initially viewed as only a race to promote the newly completed Pan-American Highway, by the end of the 1954, it had become a legendary event, grueling and dangerous. It evolved into a race with increasing amounts of prize money, and for manufacturers a chance for greater publicity and higher sales. Yet it was its very success that led to its demise, as increasing speeds led to more deaths, and the cancellation of the event by the Mexican government.

La Carrera I, “Carrera Panamericana de Mexico de Frontera a Frontera”

The Pan American Highway was hardly completed when racing interests conceived of a new raod racing event. El Asociacion Mexicana Automovilistica, and El Asociacion Nacional Automovilistica, joined with the Mexican Highway Association and the magazine Panorama to convince the Mexican government to promote a race from border to border. Initial planning began in March of 1949; conceived as a rally starting at Ciudad Juarez and ending at El Ocotal, a Race Committee headed by Mexican Pontiac dealer Antonio Cornejo guided these early plans. Estimates of a million peso ($130,000) capitalization resulted in a fund rasing campain that looked to the centeral government, states I nwhich the race was o pass theough, as well as money form highway contractors and manufacturers of auto parts and accessories.

But the committee got ahead of itself, for the road remained to be completed. The Pan American Highway was originally conceived as a thoroughfare from which American troops could be moved quickly to the Panama Canal Zone. And despite some hasty paving, there was at least one section near El Ocotal that consisted of poor graded loose stones.

Safety was a consideration, and each state was given the responsibility to protect derivers, onlookers, and animals. To this end cavalry, motorcycle patrols, and scout planes equipped with radios reported on potential hazards.

California Lincoln dealer Bob Estes and driver Johnny Mantz toured the race course and reported to the American Automobile Association that the event was feasible. Consequently the AAA sent a mailing to eligible drivers, and some 132 entries followed, including those of Mantz, famous Italian drivers Pierro Taruffi, Flice Bonetto and Frenchman Jean Trevoux. Prizes in dollars were: for a first in each of the nine segments of the rally, $232; second, $116; third, $58. The overall winner received $17,442, with the runner up $11,630, and third $5,815.

The cars entered were “stock cars” as defined by the AAA – vehicles of which fifty had been produced, and at least another five hundred were on order…available to all authorized dealers….” Therefore, very few English, Italian, German, or French cars were entered. These cars were to be prepared under strict rules: engines could only be overbored .030”, or .060” for models over two years old. Stiffer shocks and added fuel capacity were allowed. Rear sets, hub caps and fender skirts, could be removed, but air cleaners and the stock exhaust system had to remain on the cars. Fuel and oil was supplied by the race organizers.

Despite the number of experienced drivers entered, there were also a number of drivers who had little if any experience on an open road course. A Few were simply tourists, and others were native Mexicans with money who were looking for excitement. Notable independents included Mrs. Lammons from Jacksonville, Texas, who appropriately drove a Buick advertising “Hi-A Brassieres,” and Ismael Alvarez of Mexico City, who entered a dilapidated 1937 Hudson. Alvarez lasted until the third segment when a transmission failure ended his abortive attempt to gain fame. Other “outliers” included an engaged couple in their sixties and another couple who were retired.

Entries left the starting line at one minute intervals, and challenges were soon encountered. Leg one was smooth and straight, but the high temperatures of the afternoon caused many cars to overheat. The second leg was nearly twice as long as the first, and featured more turns and was thus slower. During the third leg rising altitudes were encountered and sharp turns. Heavy rain and hail had to be dealt with on the seventh leg. And finally the last leg, number 9, featured a road that had fist sized rocks that caused a number of cars to lose all four tires.

Herschel McGriff and Ray Elliot won the race in a 1950 Oldsmobile. Oldsmobile and Cadillac were the most successful marques in this inaugural event, with a total of seven cars in the top ten. Overall there were 21 Cadillacs entered, along with sixteen Buicks and thirteen Oldsmobiles. Only five foreign brands were entered.


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