La Carerra Panamericana III -- 1953 Mexico Road Race: Mercedes, Ferarri and Lincoln

1954 Lincoln with several innovations as used in the 1954 Mexico race. Shown here in Palm Springs.

The late Bill Stroppe

La Carerra III
A major develop in La Panamericana came in 1952 when it was announced that the event was placed on the World Championship calendar. It was like no other race in the world, and that may be been decisive in including it in ton the schedule. It was a wilderness adventure, quite different from either Lemans or the Mille Miglia, two set courses that had been unchanged for years. The course for La Carerra was changed again, however, as the same route was employed as was the case in 1950, with the exception that the El Ocatal leg was omitted. Also there was now a class for sports cars only, that is, vehicles with only two seats.
Consequently, teams from all over Europe came to this event. Several of these factory teams brought with them extensive factory support, and financial resources. The teams included
1. Mercedes. In part backed by the West German government, team Mercedes arrived with a new model that had recently been dominating the European circuit – the 300 SL. Along with two gullwing coupes and one roadster came a practice car and several heavy trucks to carry spare parts and supplies. There were also several expert mechanics, and a team manager who borrowed a number of local Mercedes sedans that enabled team members to drive the course. Between legs support teams were flown to the next stopping point in a chartered DC -3 aircraft.
2. Ferrari. Team Ferrari was unlike the German Mercedes team in that Enzo Ferrari had little to do with cars once they were built and sold. It was a collection of drivers. There were, however, three custom-built 340 Mexicos, constructed with the 4.51 liter V-12 and an additional 60 horsepower. The bodies were custom Vignale, prepared by a Milan dealer and then sponsored by a prominent Mexican businessman. Private parties also came back with their winning 212s from 1952, and American Phil Hill also drove an older 212.
3. Jaguar. Jaguar was represented by two Jaguar XK-120s, entered by private parties.
4. Gordini. The Gordinis were powered by a 154 horsepower six cylinder engine, and weighed only 1,300 pounds. Two of these were entered, but unsupported by mechanics or spares.
5. 5. Porsche. One coupe and one cabriolet were sponsored by the Mexican VW importer, and driven by Germans.
6. Lancia. Two 2.3 liter Lancia Aurelia coupes were brought by private drivers. One was supercharged.
Oeverall, Mercedes stole the show on four of the eight legs of the race. “German drivers and mechanics worded harder and spent more time practicing than their rivals. Their managers excelled in the intricate selection of types of tire best suited for various sections of road…Strategy was a major factor in the battle of the Pan American Highway, and Mercedes Benz briefed its men to keep their powder dry until others had overexerted their cars and nerves.” (Lessner, 306). To get to higher speeds, mechanics arranged for thin-walled race tires to be put on the cars just as they entered straights, thus enabling them to make time against cars that were forced to retain their heavier multi-terrain ties. The resulting speeds pushed the Ferraris to their limits; the stresses placed on one car led to a clutch failure. Other European teams were also simply outclassed. M-B swept the top two spots, with Ferraris finishing in the next five places.

In the stock class, dominance came from the Lincoln-Mercury cars. Ruttman had left the team, but Smith and Bill Stroppe had a Lincoln with a new 1953 V-8 that was rated with much higher horsepower than in previous years. Ford had no experience in organizing such a race venture, but after considering the risks, Ford became the first American manufacturer to enter a competitive speed event since the 1930s.
The task of making the Lincolns into successful stock competitors almost demanded that they take “stock” out of the vocabulary. Most modifications could not be done because of race rules. So these modifications became options, and Ford engineers began a process of designing, producing, and testing a series of new “standard” options. Different camshafts and lifters, a shot-peened steering arm and spindles, hardened rear axles, rear air-lifts all became catalog additions. The Lincoln was now a custom sports sedan, but what had taken place was within the rules.
Smith and Stroppe knew that cars alone would not win the race, so they planned a series of support strategies. A caravan of trucks, containing a chuck wagon, doctors, mechanics and factory engineers arrived along with several of the cars, and would follow the entrants throughout the eight legs. At several key points, Stroppe buried a cylinder of compressed air along with hidden spare tools, tires and a pneumatic lift. Mechanics were not allowed to touch the cars until the end of a leg, but there were short cuts in maintenance that were performed. Three factory Lincolns as well as a privately owned car, finished with an average speed of only 12 miles an hour slower than the Mercedes 300SLs. It might have been a monetary loss for Ford, but the gain in publicity was immeasurable. The finances and support precluded a place for local drivers and amateurs in this race—it was now largely a professional venture.


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