Running the Carrera Panamericana

By Andrew Court

Time stands still on the outskirts of Oaxaca as patrons sip mezcals and munch chapulines inside the dark decrepit cantina.

Old timers, with beer guts from too much Modelo and scars from too many fights, swap stories vaguely connected to reality. Just as they toast their former glory a rumble emerges on the soundscape. Soon the rumble takes shape, as Porsche 911s, Mustangs, and beaten-up Oldsmobiles fly down the long open road.

Time restarts and the drunks realize that some are still out there making new stories; they’re taking on the challenge of the Carrera Panamericana.

“The Mexican Road Race” began in 1950 as a test of speed and a competitor’s ability to handle the unpredictable. Anything really could happen racing along an almost two thousand mile stretch of the Pan American highway. Winding through Mexico with fast open motorways, mountain passes, and dirt roads, this is definitely not a modern F1 track. In fact, the road itself was almost a participant.

At the fifth international conference of American States in 1923, the plan was hatched to create a vast network of roads that would connect North and South America. Work began in fits and starts but by the 1950s the edges in Alaska and Patagonia were being completed.

“Completed” is a subjective description and this is by no stretch of the imagination the autobahn. Some parts, like Colombia’s infamous Darien Gap, remain unfinished to this day.

The competition was inspired by Italy’s Mille Miglia, an aristocratic road race that sweeps up the Italian peninsula. The European race had been around since 1927 and Mexican organizers wanted to bring the glamor of that kind of branding to the new world.

Americans, attracted by geographic proximity and the adventurous ethos of the Carrera, were serious competitors from day one. Infamously, our countrymen are best known for the 1950 Sucker Car incident. American driver Johnny Mantz and his co-driver John Fitch modified their Nash Ambassador to have a hidden compartment in the trunk to hide a spare tire. Mantz and Fitch would start each stage with a visible flat tire, causing competitors to underestimate them. 

Other, more scrupulously, Americans also competed. Red, white, and blue drivers took the top four places in the first year.

Besides upstart Americans, it also attracted the who’s who of global racing and social celebrities. Carrol Shelby, Stirling Moss, and Juan Manuel Fangio all competed. David Gilmour and Nick Mason of Pink Floyd also raced and an international documentary crew followed. For the film the band created probably the best soundtrack in racing documentary history.

The first version didn’t last long. At the fourth running an accident occurred that claimed the lives of several spectators and participants. The Mexican government, concerned about safety issues, decided to cancel the event indefinitely. Perhaps the Mexican government had a point since twenty seven drivers died in five years and only a third of entrants completed the race.

The cancellation marked the end of an era for the Carrera Panamericana, and the race lay dormant for decades. It became a part of motorsport history, remembered for its glory and the tragic events that led to its suspension.

By the 80s however, it was time for a comeback.

In 1988, a group of car nuts partnered with Mexican officials to revive the Carrera Panamericana. The event was established as a classic car rally with an emphasis on safety. Unlike the original, the modern Carrera is broken up into stages. Participants showcase their rides, some of which date back to the 1950s, and compete in a more controlled environment. The race still covers a significant portion of the original Pan-American highway route, giving drivers a taste of the challenges faced by their predecessors.

One of the coolest aspects of the modern Carrera Panamericana is the variety of vehicles that participate. You can find classic European sports cars alongside American sedans sharing the same road. This freewheeling approach captures the spirit of a bygone less-stuffy era of motorsport.

The 2023 race is shaping up to be a good one. The course runs from Veracruz in the south up to Nuevo León in the north with a pit stop in Mexico City along the way. Like always, there’s a wide range of participants, from cars that were in the original race to a special category for the Porsche GT4. If you wanna get involved, but have to suffer through owning a late model Ferrari or Aston Martin, fear not. For the fourth year they’re running a parallel Sports Tour Rally for stock supercars that aren’t up for the challenge of the real race (i.e., their drivers don’t want to replace $10k carbon wheels).

For the first time, a Field Ethos-affiliated team is entering the pack. The FE brand is getting behind a very fast and very yellow Porsche out of Texas owned by Rey Guerrero and driven by both Guerrero and Gabriel Uribe. This is the sort of thing that gets us excited, finding challenges that connect with history and take on an awe-inspiring, if somewhat hostile, natural environment.

The race runs from October 13th to the 19th. Grab yourself a bottle of mezcal (grasshoppers are optional) and help us cheer on our dudes. 

From the FE Films Archive

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