The great races

The Carrera Panamericana created by the Mexican government to celebrate the opening of the Pan American Highway in 1950 was more than an epic series of races. They marked the end of an era that hearkened to the very infancy of the automobile.

The course stretched 2,135 miles from Ciudad Juarez across the border from El Paso, Texas, through Mexico City and to El Ocotal on the border with Guatemala, a distance of 2,135 miles. As with the legendary races of the past, this series was a no-holds-barred, grueling match that would push man as well as machine to the very limits of endurance.

In a direct link to historic races of the past, all entries were required to be stock with the exception of minor modification: cylinders could be bored to 30 thousandths; shock absorbers could be replaced with stronger ones; and louder horns were allowed. Hubcaps and fender skirts as well as the rear seats could be removed, larger fuel tanks were allowed, but exhaust had to be of stock configuration.

The first race held in 1950 drew 132 entries, of which 59 teams were from the United States. Interestingly enough, all vehicles with the exception of six were built by American manufacturers, and even included one Cord. In this first race, there were no classes so nine Hudsons competed against a Talbot Lago, a Jaguar, a couple of Alfa Romeos as well as Desotos, Fords, Studebakers, Nashes, Chevrolets Lincolns, Cadillacs, Buicks, Oldsmobiles, Chryslers, a Delahaye and a Hotchkiss.

Just 19 miles from the starting line, the first tragedy, something this series of races would become famous for, occurred when car No. 112 missed a curve at speeds in excess of 100 mph and rolled six times, killing the driver.

On May 10, 1950, five days after leaving Juarez, car No. 52, a 1950 Oldsmobile driven by Herschel McGriff, crossed the finish line with an average speed of 78.421 mph. The rankings of the numerous Lincolns entered - 9th, 13th, 19th, 20th, 25th, 34th and 39th - gave no hint at the dominance they would have in upcoming races.

The second race held in 1951 reversed the course and ran from Tuxtla Gutierrez to Juarez. Another change was in regards to allowance for engine modification; all vehicles were to use original engine type and camshaft, but high compression heads and dual carburetors were acceptable. Additionally, safety equipment such as a helmet was also required.

The number of entries dropped to 105, but American manufacturers were still the most prominently represented. Lincolns and Hudsons placed well, but the race was won by Piero Tariffi at the wheel of a Ferrari with an average speed of 87.6 miles per hour.

The race again ran from south to north for 1952, but that year the racers were divided into two classes: stock cars and sports or touring cars. Under the new rules, the manufacturer had to offer any modifications to vehicles running in the stock class as options.

The 1952 Lincoln was a fully redesigned and formidable vehicle in its own right, with a Ford sponsored race team, the first time since 1935, and subsequent modifications that included the use of a truck cam with solid lifters that pushed the new overhead valve V8 to three hundred horsepower.

The modifications to an already impressive machine were nothing less than astounding. In stock class, Lincolns placed first, second, third and fourth!

For 1953, Ford again sponsored a team and offered all modifications as options, something private entries were quick to utilize. Again, Lincolns claimed first through fourth place in the stock class.

The following year, the last "Mexican Road Race" again proved golden for Lincoln publicity. Thirteen Lincolns entered the race and again took the top honors.

There were numerous reasons for the ending of the races. Leading the list were the number of spectator casualties; 26 lives were lost in the five years of the race. As astounding and exciting as these amazing races were, they pale in comparison to the magnitude of some of the races held during the first decades of the 20th century.

In July of 1908, a Thomas Flyer rolled to victory in Paris after completing a brutal race that had begun in New York City in February. In between were snowstorms, dust storms, bandits in Mongolia, fuel delivered by camel caravan, dodging trains on the drive over rail beds in Siberia and mud strewn ruts.

Then there was the forgotten Desert Classic "Cactus Derby" series of races held between 1908 and 1914. The public's attention was riveted to these races as they pitted machine against the elements of the American Southwest.

With each passing year and change of route, the races became more popular, attracted ever-larger numbers of entrants, and culminated with the stunning race of 1914. The route for this race roughly followed a series of trails across the Mojave Desert and northwestern Arizona that became Route 66 a dozen years later.

At Ashfork, the course turned south, rolled through the heart of the old territorial capital of Prescott, down the terrifying grades of Yarnell Hill and across the deserts into Phoenix. Though many of the entrants were world-class racers, two, Louis Chevrolet and Barney Oldfield, were superstars of the day.

Epic races such as these propelled the automobile into the limelight and spurred the push for all weather roads. It is a great irony that it was good roads which ended the era of such races.