1954 Carrera Panamericana: Courage to Go On
August 6, 2013 by Jeremy McMullen
Suddenly the Ferrari 340 Mexico would break loose on Hill. Careening down over the ledge, the car would be battered and bruised, coming to a rest finally with its occupants none the worse for wear. It would be a scary moment and the mangled bodywork would suggest it would be wise never to take part in the event ever again.
Richie Ginther's own racing career had only just got underway when he was approached by a well known friend. Richie had met Phil Hill a couple of years before and would develop a friendship with the fellow Californian. Ginther would work for Hill preparing his race cars for him. Ginther would then begin his own racing career but he would not take part in as many races as Hill at the beginning of his career.
Ginther's own career would be delayed when he would be drafted for national service. For a period of two years Ginther would serve as a mechanic working on helicopters and other aircraft as part of the Korean War.
Returning from Korea, Hill would seek out Ginther and would re-employ him preparing his race cars. But then, another opportunity would present itself.
South of the United States and Mexico border, in the town of Tuxtla Gutierrez, would be the starting point of one of the most difficult, and arguably most dangerous, motor races in the world.
The Carrera Panamericana had first been held in 1950. Covering a treacherous 2,135 miles of the Panamerican Highway, the race would earn a fearsome reputation where more than a couple of deaths each and every year were to be expected. Not only was the route itself beyond belief when taken at speed, but more than a few hundred miles would consist of spectators lining the circuit and even standing in the middle of the road to glimpse the on-coming cars. Driving miles after miles with the crowd parting at the last moment to reveal the flow and direction of the road ahead, drivers needed nerves of steel and a bit of a disconnect from what they were seeing to either side of the road.
By 1953, major automotive manufacturers were becoming involved in the dangerous road race. In '53, the race counted as part of the World Sportscar Championship, and so, manufacturers like Lancia, Porsche and Ferrari would mingle amongst the numerous American-made sedans.
Ferrari would produce just a few of their 340 Mexico. These cars would be produced especially for the Carrera Panamericana and were to be made available to customers for purchase. Allen Guiberson would be one of those that would purchase one of the specially-made Ferrari 340s.
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The entire distance would be broken into stages. Hill and Ginther would make it through the first stage without a problem. They would also make it through the second without incident.
The third lap, held toward the end of the second day, would be from Puebla and would go to Mexico City. Unfortunately, Hill and Ginther would never make it. The Ferrari would be lost over a ledge and would suffer severe damage. The two men would extract themselves from the car without much more than some bruising. Walking away from the accident, Hill and Ginther would be out of the running, but they would be fortunate considering Felice Bonetto would crash and lose his life while leading the race. On top of the death of Bonetto, there would be a number of spectators that would also lose their lives as a result of the cars barreling down the road at utterly insane speeds. Given the fact Hill and Ginther had escaped death, but that there had been more than a handful of deaths over the course of the race, re-entering the race certainly had to require some serious thought.
Instead of being scared and deterred, Hill and Ginther would see their narrow escape as an opportunity to come back and stare the terrible race right in the face and see who would blink first.
Therefore, the two Californians would be back the following year ready to not merely finish the race, but to defeat it. Facing 149 competitors, the task wouldn't just mean needing to overcome the course.
Allen Guiberson would put his faith in the two gentlemen again. However, instead of entering a 340 Mexico for them, he would enter a 375 MM. Actually, the car originally was a 340 MM Spyder and would be raced by Alberto Ascari and Giuseppe Farina in the 1953 Nurburgring 1000 Kilometers. Later that year, Luigi Chinetti would race the car in the Carrera Panamericana but would fail to finish as a result of engine problems.
The car would be later updated to a 375, which was an improvement upon the 340 and took lessons learned from the factory's victory in the Mille Miglia to build a stronger, more-adept, car for long-distance road races like the Carrera Panamericana. The engine in the 375 would be of larger displacement than what had been in the 340 Mexico the year before. Additionally, the nature of the engine made it much better in acceleration, which was important for races such as the Carrera Panamericana. Because of the power and acceleration of the car, Hill would be able to take it a little easier at dangerous points of the course. He would be able to rely on the engine to make up the difference.
Guiberson would purchase the car and would continue to make slight changes to it. The most noticeable change, or addition, to the car would be the headrest and the fin attached to the back of the car.
Heading into the event, pressure would be mounting on the Mexican government. The annual death count would cause Mexico to be put in a negative light and this wasn't the kind of attention the country's inhabitants wanted just because of a road race. Therefore, it was abundantly clear the Carrera Panamericana's days were numbered.
The death count was certainly negative publicity for the country. However, the economic impact of the race would also be hard on the country as it had come to rely upon the Panamerican Highway. To effectively shut the entire route down for about a week would damage the country's economy. The deaths just made the economic impact worse. The 'world's most dangerous race' had lived too long.
Lining up for what would be the final Carrera Panamericana, Hill and Ginther would be determined to defeat the beast and at least enjoy this last trip the length of Mexico. Adorned with the number 20 and with 'V Carrera Panamericana Mexico' painted on the nose, the two Californians would be ready for their trip of redemption.
The race distance would cover a total of 1,910 miles and would start, once again, in Tuxtla Gutierrez. Hill and Ginther would set off on the start of the epic journey. With Ginther providing the navigation, Hill would be cruising during the early part of the race. They would make it through the first stage without a problem. A good many others wouldn't even achieve that distinction.
A number of the American sedans would fail to make it through the first stage of the race. Lance Macklin would struggle from ignition troubles in an Austin-Healey 100S and would also be out before completing the first stage. Then there would be the John Edgar-entered Ferrari 375 Plus driven by Jack McAfee and Ford Robinson. They would suffer an accident that would end up providing the event its first fatal accident.
Hill and Ginther continued to look impressive making it through the second stage without incident and remaining up near the front of the overall standings. Carroll Shelby, however, would suffer an accident while driving by himself. Frustrated with his slower British co-driver, Shelby would supposedly remove his seat and take off on his own.
Hill and Ginther would be approaching their moment for redemption. Approaching the end of the third stage, the pair was within reach of a level neither had achieved the year before. Then they would be through. Some of the weight would be removed from their shoulders. They could focus on the race and taking full advantage of the situation presented to them.
As the stages rolled by, the list of cars still running would grow shorter and shorter. Many of the strong competitors would either be out of the race, or behind Hill and Ginther. Still, there would be a long way for the pair to go before they could celebrate. What's more, Umberto Maglioli was driving by himself and was still ahead of them in the standings.
The two Americans would continue to push hard to reign in Maglioli. It was a 375 MM Spyder chasing after a 375 Plus. After over 1,900 miles there was very little time separating the two cars. Heading into the final couple of miles, the difference was such that Maglioli could not make any mistakes. If he slid off the course and became bogged down while trying to get going again it potentially could cost him the lead and the win.
Feeling the pressure, Maglioli would strengthen his constitution and would not make a mistake in the final miles of the race. Crossing the line in a total of 17 hours, 40 minutes and 26 seconds Maglioli would take the victory having finished with nearly 25 minutes in hand over Hill and Ginther in the 375 MM. The 3rd place finisher would be Hans Herrmann in a Porsche 550.
Hill and Ginther would not win the final edition of the Carrera Panamericana. However, the two young men would face the challenge and the memory of their past and would come through in fine fashion. Considering the events of the following year, and the fact the pair could have lost their lives in their accident, the 2nd place result the following year would be a splendid and most welcome result. They had proven to have the courage to go on and they would be rewarded with very successful careers that would see them enjoy many moments of jubilation and victory.
Guiberson then needed at least one driver. He would give the drive to Phil Hill. Hill then knew who he wanted to go with him on the arduous journey. He would approach Ginther, who had just returned from Korea, about entering a war-zone of a slightly different nature. Ginther would agree and the two men would make their way all the way to the south of Mexico for the start of the '53 edition of the race.
'Pan Am Overview', (http://www.panamrace.com/overview.html). La Carrera Panamericana. http://www.panamrace.com/overview.html. Retrieved 31 July 2013.
Briggs, Gemma. 'The Road to Thrills and Spill Down Mexico Way', (http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/public/summerofspeed/article3774171.ece). The Times: Summer of Speed. http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/public/summerofspeed/article3774171.ece. Retrieved 31 July 2013.
'1954 Carrera Panamericana', (http://www.teamdan.com/archive/wsc/1954/54carrer.html). 1954 Carrera Panamericana. http://www.teamdan.com/archive/wsc/1954/54carrer.html. Retrieved 31 July 2013.
'Carrera Panamericana 1954', (http://www.racingsportscars.com/results/Carrera_Panamericana-1954-11-23.html). Racing Sports Cars. http://www.racingsportscars.com/results/Carrera_Panamericana-1954-11-23.html. Retrieved 31 July 2013.
Wikipedia contributors, '1954 Carrera Panamericana', Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 29 May 2013, 10:10 UTC, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=1954_Carrera_Panamericana&oldid=557322027 accessed 31 July 2013