La Carrera Panamericana still going strong

La Carrera Panamericana still going strong
  • La Carrera Panamericana is a historic race through Mexico that is open to all kinds of sports and GT cars. This year it runs from October 14-20.
  • There are timed stages that are run at full speed on great roads, connected by transit stages.
  • It really is one of the great motorsport events you can host.

    Seventy years ago, when the rest of the world was still crawling out of the rubble of World War II and urbanization was just beginning to replace the agricultural lifestyle of much of the world’s population, Mexico completed the Pan American Highway. The engineering structure ran the length of the country, 2135 miles from Tuxtla Gutierrez on the Guatemalan border in the south to the Rio Grande in Nuevo Laredo in the north, where Mexico becomes Texas. It is hard to underestimate the great satisfaction the Mexicans had in completing this technical feat. The whole country swelled with pride from the achievement, so they held a race. Not just sections of the road, or tribute parades in different towns the road ran through, but a true pedal-to-the-metal race that ran the entire 2135 miles, across the country from south to north. The race was called La Carrera Panamericana and ran from 1950 to 1954.

    The world’s biggest automakers rushed to join the competition, throwing everything in the hopes of winning. Ferrari and Mercedes sent their best F1 drivers and their fastest cars. Porsche still calls its best cars “Carreras” in honor of the Panamericana. The biggest drivers of the day took part: Americans Dan Gurney, Phil Hill, Carroll Shelby and Bobby Unser; European pilots Alberto Ascari, Louis Chiron and Hans Hermann all raced. Even Juan Manuel Fangio drove it.

    It’s a big country with great roads.

    La Carrera Panamericana

    Imagine doing something like this today. It would be impossible, wouldn’t it? But then they did it, with the help of the army for crowd control and with the support of seemingly the entire country – there were no web commentators or NIMBY shouters then, it was seen as one’s patriotic duty to show this great party the world that Mexico had joined the rest of the developed countries with a transportation infrastructure that would allow trade, tourism and just road trips for everyone.

    Like all great things, that original race eventually came to an end, not least because it was so dangerous. Spectators and drivers had died in this and other big open-road races around the world in Argentina, Cuba and even the great Mille Miglia in Italy. In addition, a change of management in Mexico found a new president whose enthusiasm for racing just wasn’t the same as the previous leader.

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    The event lay dormant for 34 years until a racer named Eduardo “Lalo” Leon, who had raced off-road in the Baja 1000 and other desert tribes, decided to revive it. Leon’s father had taken him to the original race as a boy, and an uncle had even competed in La Carrera. It had a profound effect on young Leon. So, along with a few racing buddies, they revived it.

    “Everyone said, ‘You’re crazy. There’s no point. You can’t do it,’ said Eduardo’s daughter Karen Leon, who runs the race today.

    But they did it. The new race was not run in exactly the same format as in the 1950s; it didn’t run wide open from Guatemala to Texas on open roads. Instead, they did it in sections over the course of a week, with transit stages connecting the special timed closed-course stages that ran on the best sections of the sidewalk, in the mountains and hills of Mexico. (I’ve ridden on these special stages and I can tell you that any day they will suit one of your favorite mountain roads here in the USA from A. The sidewalk I rode on was in perfect condition.) You can learn more about the race here.

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    With that format and with the collaboration of the Policia Federales to close the roads for the timed stages, the race’s revival has been a success for 35 years. It is being brought about through the valiant efforts of all of the National Sports and Physical Culture Commission, the Mexican Organization of International Motorsports, Motorsports Federation, the National Rally Commission, the Rally Commission and the Rally Automobile Club, along with many other supporters. Eduardo is still an enthusiastic champion of La Carrera, but his daughter Karen now runs the event with a staff of 10 to 12 and with many volunteers and, again, with the enthusiastic support of the Mexican people.

    “People love the race and we respect them,” said Karen Leon. “People respect the race and love to be a part of it. You see the hospitality of Mexico, that Mexico that we love, and that Mexico that we want to get to know and enjoy.”

    La Carrera accepts all types.

    La Carrera Panamericana

    This year’s race will take place from 14 to 2 October. It starts in the sunny coastal town of Vera Cruz, runs north to the old colonial splendor of Oaxaca, to and around the madness of Mexico City, then to Quartero, Morelia, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosi and ends in Durango. Organizers are limited by the government to 100 participants, 80 of them racers and 20 of them in a new class called Sports and Classics.

    For the racers, there are several categories for entries, from the original Panamerican Cars Group to vehicles that raced in the original Panam from 1950 to 1954; Historic cars from 1955 to 1973; and exhibition cars covering a wide spectrum of automobilia, even hot rods.

    For those who don’t want to participate but still want to be part of the Panamericana, there are the Classic Tour and Sport Tour categories. Classic Tour is for cars from 1950 to 1979 and Sport Tour is for cars from 2015 to 2020. So bring your GT3 or even your Mustang.

    The organizers recommend services that can help get your car to the race and there is a convoy for participants transporting their car from Texas to Vera Cruz.

    I can say I’ve been to races in Mexico and races in Mexico and loved every minute of it. It’s a great way to see what a new country can be for you, meet new people who are fellow racers and car enthusiasts, and have a lifetime of great memories. As Mark Twain said more than a century ago, “Travel (and he might as well have added racing in Mexico) kills prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people desperately need it for these reasons. Broad, beneficial , charitable ideas about people and things cannot be acquired by growing all life in a small corner of the earth.”

    Share your thoughts and memories of the great La Carrera Panamericana race in the comments below.

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