Gran Premio de Cuba - 1957
"Gran Premio de Cuba" - Grand Prix of Cuba; run 50 years ago, in a sunny February day, 1957. The Quirogas had the next-best-thing to a grandstand view of the ongoing action at the Malecon circuit, witnessing the driving finesse and performance of great, classy drivers such as Juan Manuel Fangio and Alfonso "Fon" de Portago - or as my uncle Prego always respectfully referred to him, "el Marques de Portago," "the Marquis of Portago."
Royalty of the Road Circuit, if you will.
The official race poster image, as well as many of the photographs you see here, comes from www.jmfangio.org, a fantastic web site for Fangio fans.
And where was our grandstand view of the fast machines with their accompanying, doppler-effect roar? From Focsa apartment 26L, into which we had moved the previous September, having no idea at the time it would provide a perfect venue for viewing this exciting race.
This image, from a promotional postcard originally published by Casa Morris, Havana, depicts the Focsa building and surrounding neighborhoods in early 1956, just before construction of the building was completed. Apartment 26L was a corner unit; if you look to Focsa's left side, and count down from the top floor, the 29th - ignore the center tower - you'll find us...or rather, you WOULD have found us that Sunday 24th of February, five decades ago. Who were "us" that day? For certain, mom and dad, who provided the viewing venue; sister and I, aunt Josephine, her husband and her son, Fernando Prego Sr. and Jr.; dad recalled his cousin Julio Parames was also present. Julio, a Spaniard, lived in Cuba at the time and worked with father at Quiroga Brothers. He was a proud Spaniard - dad tells me "Julio was totally convinced his countryman, De Portago, would win the race no matter what. However, although the Marques de Portago did lead during most of the race, his engine blew I think about two laps away from making the finish line; he was really pushing his car. Fangio took the trophy."
And Julio Parames was dejected. He need not have been. It was a well-fought duel of road titans, but only one could emerge the victor.
Why, here's two lil' critters who watched the action that day - of course, lil' sis was kinda young to get too wrapped up in the excitement. The photo dates from May 12, 1957 and gives you a good look at the Focsa's balconies, perfect perches from which to watch the race - more so given the field-of-vision advantage from the 26th floor.
If you had watched from ground level, at the start point, this would have been your view. The photograph would have been published by one of Havana's dailies, perhaps "Prensa Libre," "El Pais," or "El Mundo." It is not attributed, but came from the www.jmfangio.org web site.
The graphic-also from the Fangio web site-depicts the Malecon race circuit on which the duel of men and machines played out; they were to race 90 times around the circuit, a total of just slightly over 500 kilometers, or a shade over 300 miles, for us non-metric types.
Perhaps a current aerial view helps visualize the circuit, and the various vantage points from which lucky spectators would have seen the action that day.
Click on the GoogleEarth satellite image and check out the place markers so you can orient yourself - and enjoy the aerial view of the Malecon circuit. One thing to point out: Notice the grounds of the Focsa building appear stark and gray; back in 1957 they would have been green, the pool filled and clean. Not the case now; the grass is dead, most if not all the palm trees gone, the pool empty. Another example of "socialist" urban improvement. The Hotel Nacional grounds, however, are nice and green, the pool water clear and inviting - of course, that is where a lot of foreign tourists stay, so...no island Cubans need apply.
Come to think of it, if it's 1957 and you've been standing too long waiting for the race to start, or watching its progress, and your feet are tired, giving out...just race to Drs. Rosabal and Lopez's practice at Focsa. They are within walking distance if you're standing near the Battleship Maine Monument section of the circuit. They'll take care of your footsies well and get you back in shape for race time.
This is the back side of the Focsa postcard you looked at earlier. I wonder if Drs. Rosabal and Lopez saw increased business that day, or if they simply closed up shop and went to the race?
And now time-tunnel back to 1957 and you see Fangio's Maserati roaring by the Maine Battleship Monument - perhaps you can pinpoint his exact location at that moment in time. He appears to have put some distance between himself and the opposition. Given my non-expertise in these matters, but at least knowing which way the four points of the compass pointed in Havana, and guided by the shadows seen in the photograph, would guess the time to have been between 1:30-2:00 PM.
May as well show you how our grandstand box appeared from the inside, the place where the Quirogas and the cheerful invitees, family members, neighbors, and friends gathered to enjoy the action.
Who's that spaced-out kid apparently discoursing on "spiritual" literature? Looks familiar...perhaps he is my clone; in which case I'd be beside myself! The photo actually was taken by dad a year or more after the Grand Prix; by then, the balcony had been enclosed, because of Focsa's notoriously strong air currents, and to provide additional living space. The small bar was not there in '57 - not to say the guests didn't imbibe refreshing drinks such as Cristal beer, or perhaps Cerveza Hatuey - possibly daiquiris or rum-and-coke, maybe even highballs. Do you know what a highball is? But all in moderation, and no one had to worry about drinking-and-driving - the driving was left to the experts that day.
Oh, and before I forget...a little anecdote...dad had a nice, powerful Bausch & Lomb telescope, which we used to watch the ongoing action. The heavy metal body of the telescope was green, and I well remember this device. Well, speaking of ongoing action to watch, at one point during the race, someone viewing through the 'scope - I recall it was one of the menfolk, but not who it was - and perhaps this is a good thing - shouted: "Miren, miren - veo una mujer en cueras en el Hotel Nacional!" "Hey, look here - I see a naked woman at the Hotel Nacional!" There was a scramble of grown men towards the telescope, with cries of "A ver! A ver!" - "Let's see! Let's see!"
And what was the 6-year old's reaction to all this excitement? "Let me see! Let me see!" The horrified reaction of his mother is to this day fresh in the mind of the grown kid - "No! Esas no son cosas que ven los ninos!" "Those are not things for children to see!" And then came her admonishments to the menfolk who were creating the ruckus, reminding them to cease and desist their ocular explorations of the improper kind.
Which window was the notorious window? This illustrates the view we had towards the Hotel Nacional and the Malecon. Imagine the view with the aid of a powerful Bausch & Lomb telescope. Now, now - I am speaking STRICTLY about the racing action in the Malecon.
Do not know in what window of the Hotel Nacional the particular exhibition took place, but if any lady reading remembers taking in the fresh air in her birthday suit at the Hotel Nacional February 24, 1957, we send this nostalgic greeting: "Peek-a-boo, we saw you!!"
OK - it is time to get a look at the Knights of the Malecon Circuit, the men who will joust, with skill, chivalry, finesse, and courage in sleek, beautiful-beauty is in the eye of the beholder and for most guys these machines are beautiful-fast, and powerful cars.
First, Juan Manuel Fangio, nicknamed "El Chueco," which according to research done for this post, means "bowlegged" in Argentina. If that is not true, hopefully an Argentine reader will kindly correct us. Bowlegged or not, Fangio knew how to work his Maserati 300S's accelerator, brake, and clutch pedals skillfully. He was racing for a Brazilian team, Scuderia Madunina. This is a pre-race photograph; Fangio seems quite relaxed, sporting a confident look - that of a man convinced he will be the victor.
Leading, in the Maserati 300S...if only we had the sounds of the race to go with the photo!
And the inevitable pit stop, with the pit crew working fast and furiously ensuring their driver and his mount stay in the race - and better yet, win it.
For the younger generation, Esso, one of Fangio's sponsors, was the old Standard Oil Company - today's Chevron. However, just because you put Chevron in your tank does not mean you'll be "flying like Fangio." Obey posted speed limits, please.
This is an official press photo of Fangio in action which went with the race write up by Jess Losada - if you look carefully, you will see Losada's name superimposed on the upper right corner; Jess Losada was a popular sports commentator and writer of the time, who did both radio and TV sportscasting and wrote an article about the Gran Premio. Father is pretty sure he did most of his writing for the daily "El Mundo," likely where this photograph and accompanying story were published. He went on to continue his career in exile - you could say he beat the bearded bozo in the race for freedom - and his son, Jesse Jr. continues in his father's footsteps in the United States.
Another great - Alfonso de Portago - Gran Premio de Cuba 1957 - photo by Tom Burnside - www.motorsportphotos.de
Let me assure you De Portago did NOT drive his Scuderia Ferrari 860S with the Shell Gasoline sign over his head! This is a promotional photograph - Shell was a big sponsor of the Gran Premio de Cuba.
Fantastic action image of "The Marquis" powering by in his Ferrari 860S - one can almost hear the warbling roar of the powerful engine, producing close to 300 HP - that's some knightly steed!
Below is a happy Eugenio Castelloti, posing in a Ferrari 290MM - not the auto he drove in the race, however...
His machine was this Ferrari red - but of course, what other color is synonymous with Ferrari? - 121S.
By now, you are realizing this is a very cosmopolitan race, as indeed it was - as was Havana in those days.
The Englishman Stirling Moss, for example, teamed up with Harry Schell of the USA, driving a Ferrari 300S - Harry Schell at the wheel in this press photograph.
There were non-racing personalities in attendance too, such as actor Gary Cooper, here chatting with Stirling Moss - or perhaps with the unidentified lady? Was Mr. Cooper whispering "do not forsake me, oh my darling" to her? Or perhaps he was reminding her and Stirling Moss that "it is approaching High Noon, the race is about to begin." And if you catch the clues in this invented dialogue, then you win the prize for being a Cooper Trivia Expert.
Well, let's continue with the race program and the parade of personalities, the players in the drama.
Phil Hill of the USA drove a Ferrari 857S - found out while researching the subject, he was born in Miami, Florida. Why, we coulda been neighbors at one time! I sure hope he enjoyed his visit to Havana in 1957.
Mr. Hill is still doing well, thank you - at age 77, in 2004 - from www.veloce.com
Yet another American, Carroll Shelby, competed in a Ferrari 410 - this race was a promenade of Ferraris, wasn't it?
You know, if things had turned out a bit - or shall we say a lot - different, and the Gran Premio race had continued through the years, Mr. Shelby might have come back driving a Ford Cobra...or would it have properly been an AC Cobra??
Regardless, Mr. Shelby is also doing very well these days, still involved in things automotive - photo from www.speedsportlife.com
Continuing with the gallery of drivers and their machines, we see here the Belgian Oliver Gendebien with his Ferrari 500TR, and the Frenchman Jean Lucas, on the right, driving another Ferrari, a 121LM.
Last, but by no means least, a native driver, Cuba's own Alfonso Gomez Mena - known by many as "Alfonsito," the diminutive version of Alfonso. He raced a Jaguar D-type, which later became the basis for the famed - and beautiful - XKE Series.
And there goes Alfonso, nimbly taking a curve in the Jag - his countrymen pridefully looking on.
More Alfonso Gomez Mena action, seen in this press photograph, likely published in "El Mundo."
Speaking of the press, dad recalls the excited voice of an Argentine sportscaster, whose name unfortunately he does not remember, who kept tabs on Alfonso, shouting through the airwaves "Ahi va, ahi va Gomez Mena, Gomez Mena, Alfonsito, ahi viene, Gomez Mena, Gomez Mena!" "There he goes, there goes Gomez Mena, Alfonsito, here he comes, Gomez Mena, Gomez Mena!" Apparently a true fan of our native competitor.
Update from cousin Fernando: "The Argentine sportscaster's surname was Sojit." Thank you, racin' cousin. That was fast.
And compete he did. He wound up in 6th place, overall, at the Gran Premio. Considering the quality and toughness of the opposition he faced, that was a very creditable performance. You go, Alfonso!
Father and I were fortunate to meet Alfonso Gomez Mena at the Sebring, Florida 12-Hour race held March 26, 1966. Cousin Fernando, who has been an automotive enthusiast for as long as I can remember, and who has done a bit - or more than a bit - of racing himself, invited us to that event, in the course of which we met a mustachioed Alfonso.
He had come to watch the race, not to compete - his racing days ended by the realities and tribulations of exile. He struck me as a down to earth, self-effacing type - "buena gente," as Fernando referred to him. Among Cubans, that is a nice compliment, meaning literally "good people." Yes he was. Was, because unfortunately, he died young although, unlike so many who practiced his beloved sport, not behind the wheel. Regretfully, there are no photos to mark that pleasant meeting.
Gomez-Mena was not the only native driver that February day. The tobacco firm of Trinidad Y Hermano - "Trinidad and Brother" sponsored a Mercedes 300SL "Gullwing," driven by Modesto Bolanos, a model by "Bang" being available if you wish for an affordable race memento, as it will "only" set you back US $45; the image comes from the eBay site where it was found during the blogger's search for Gran Premio lore. This is also the only Mercedes 300SL "Gullwing" most of us will ever be able to afford.
Offered by RacingModels Co., UK - that's the United Kingdom, not the Ukraine...
No idea how this car and the driver fared, but based on the race results detailed in the www.jmfangio.org site, the Trinidad Y Hermanos entry did not place in the first 10 positions. The car may have dropped out with mechanical troubles. Perhaps one of our readers will choose to share some information about this particular race entry.
As the running and roaring got underway, the Gran Premio eventually became a duel or joust between Fangio and de Portago. De Portago led for much of the race.
But not always. In this press photo, taken right at the start, Carroll Shelby is leading, followed by De Portago and Stirling Moss.
The Marquis pressed on. Here he powers by Jean Lucas. One can't help notice how close the spectators were to the action; this is great for immersing oneself in the sights and sounds of the race. But there is danger, and this would become obvious the following year.
Fangio, however, would eventually "crowd" De Portago, and challenge the Marquis until the climax, on the 68th lap, the battle well depicted in this press photograph. Looks almost as if their two cars have become one.
De Portago had to pull into the pits on the 68th lap with a blown engine, at which point Fangio was decisively in the lead, and continued leading until he took the checkered flag. Race over! "El Chueco" and Maserati had done it!
Not everything was fun and games, as illustrated by this anecdote, shared by my racing cousin, who was 14 at the time, and like father has prodigious powers of recollection...
"For the first Grand Prix they had gotten me a "pit pass" through the National Sports Commission, and, of course, from the time practice began, if memory serves right, on a Thursday, I was in the "pits," and continued hanging around them Friday and Saturday, managing to get, on an official race program, the autographs of all the drivers, except for Stirling Moss who refused me one. Since we came to your home that Sunday to watch the race, I left the autographed race program there."
(Pre-race practice, at the pits - it appears cousin Fernando needed an umbrella during his pit visits)
"On Monday morning I went to get my program, and found out it had been thrown out during cleanup! (Bet he was mad! I woulda been ballistic!! AQ)
When the race was over, President Batista, his entourage, and his escort, traveled on 19th street in order to turn left on "O" and 23rd streets, get on the Malecon road, and return to the Presidential Palace. However, they got held up in the heavy post-race traffic on 19th and "O" streets. At that point, a mob of blacks rushed towards the presidential motorcade, seeking merely to speak to the President and request favors of him. The escort detachment, including the Presidential Palace Secret Service, all in suits, fell on the supplicants, battering them with brutal blows in the most indiscriminate and abusive attack I have ever witnessed in my life."
That was the dark side of the Gran Premio. And, unfortunately, that abusive overreaction on the part of Batista's escort would doubtless help fuel the flames of the resistance already building relentlessly against his regime. Acts like these not only increased social and political strife, but also helped unleash forces which would come back to haunt the Gran Premio in 1958...collateral damage of a political kind, if you want to look at it that way.
A small technical time issue arose as I was writing this, which Fernando helped me resolve. According to the official race poster, the race was held February 25th, which was a Monday. Not so, according to Fernando. "The race was held Sunday the 24th, which happened to be a Cuban national holiday. I cannot account for the date on the race poster, because the race was definitely held on Sunday. It would have made no sense to hold it on a work day." We'll have to chalk it up to printer's error, perhaps. Possibly someone else can contribute a more detailed explanation for the discrepancy.
We looked forward to the 1958 Gran Premio de Cuba - the race and viewing venue, well, our viewing venue, would be the same. But the 1958 Gran Premio was, frankly - at least to us - a complete letdown. This was in no way the fault of those who came to compete in what should have been a great reprise of the 1957 event.
The political climate, the social tensions and overall unrest played a large part in the unraveling of the 1958 race. For starters, the great Fangio was kidnapped by "rebels" seeking to sabotage the race and embarrass the Batista government. I remember being deeply disappointed at hearing the news, because I wanted "El Chueco" to snag another Gran Premio victory. We greatly admired him. But it was not to be. He was held until after the race was over, then released unharmed.
I knew there were reasons why those "rebeldes" - "rebels" - never appealed to me...
Recently, your blogger managed to "pick up" a copy of the March 15, 1958 edition of the weekly "Zig Zag" satirical newspapers, which a little blogger enjoyed reading in those days, even managing to understand some of the nuanced political satire and criticism within its pages.
The pain of a wounded wallet was eased considerably, however, when this article about Fangio's kidnapping was found inside - a bonus find indeed!
It is a shame there is no spare time to translate the 2-page writeup of the incident for you. However, at least can offer you this article on the same subject - which also reports on the terrible accident marring the 1958 Gran Premio - originally published in the Time Magazine edition of Monday March 10th, 1958. You can find this at www.time.com, if you wish to read it on the Time, Inc. website.
One thing to be pointed out, which illustrates well the sense of humor permeating the atmosphere at the Zig Zag publishing office. Notice on the second, or lower page, an advertisement for GE light bulbs. No doubt inspired by the story about Fangio's abduction, some ad copywriter decided to have fun. The caption for the ad reads: "Stop Light Bulb Kidnappers!"
Death on The Malecon – Monday March 10, 1958 – www.time.com
As the world's No. 1 road-racing driver, Juan Manuel Fangio is an old friend to danger. The 46-year-old Argentine has seen its blurred face in the swirling landscape of a hundred tracks, known its angry snarl whenever his sports car skidded through a tight turn. But one evening last week he stared at danger in a new form: the muzzle of a pistol. Poking the weapon at him in the lobby of Havana's Hotel Lincoln was a tall young man in a leather jacket. "Fangio, you must come with me," he ordered. "I am a member of the 26th of July revolutionary movement." One of Fangio's friends picked up a paperweight and cocked his arm. The pistol moved alertly. "Stay still!" its owner said. "If you move, I'll shoot." Fangio went obediently to a waiting car and was whisked off.
In town to race in the Gran Premio de Cuba, Fangio was himself the prize of no ordinary kidnapers. His captors rushed to tell the world who they were, as they launched a week of revolutionary sabotage right in President Fulgencio Batista's front yard (see HEMISPHERE). No sooner had they hidden the racing ace than they were bragging to the newspapers: If President Batista wanted to hustle up the tourist trade with a big sports-car race next day, he would do it without Argentina's defending champion.
Steak & Fear. Fidel Castro's rebels embarrassed the authorities, but the race went on. Next afternoon the cars were ready, the Malecon that curves along Havana's lovely coastline had been cleared. A crowd of 150,000 lined the broad boulevard. The Cuban National Sports Commission delayed the race for more than an hour while local cops ran down false rumors of Fangio's release. Then France's Maurice Trintignant slid into Fangio's empty seat in a blue Maserati, and the big buckets of power were sent careening around the 3½-mile course.
Fangio, meanwhile, was under guard in a comfortably furnished apartment. He had eaten well (steak and potatoes, chicken and rice), and he had slept "like a blessed one." Faustino Perez, Castro's second in command, had come personally to apologize for the inconvenience. The rebels even supplied a radio so that Fangio might listen to the race. But he preferred not to. "I became a little sentimental," he said. "I did not want to listen because I felt nostalgic." Yet Fangio was also fearful that his life was endangered, not by his abductors but by a clash that might come at any moment between them and the police.
Turn to Trouble. On the Malecón, the danger more familiar to Fangio began to haunt his fellow racers as they whirled into the long (315 miles) grind. Britain's Stirling Moss took the lead in a Ferrari, Missourian Masten Gregory, driving another Ferrari, was second. Fangio's Maserati, in Trintignant's hands, fell far back to 13th place. By the end of five laps, all the drivers saw that almost every turn was slick with spilled oil; they knew that they were in for trouble.
Next time around, Cuba's Armando Garcia Cifuentes, 27, met trouble headon. His bright yellow-and-black Ferrari skidded out of a shallow turn and tore into the crowd. It spewed up at least 40 casualties, including seven dead. In its wake lay empty shoes; spectators had been knocked right out of them. Said Porsche Driver Ulf Noriden, who stopped his car and ran back to help: "I couldn't even see the Ferrari. The bodies were piled all over. I was wading in arms and legs." Panicky survivors swarmed across the Malecón, careless of the still racing cars, and police swung their billies to keep the mob in check. Just 15 minutes after it started, the race was called off. Stirling Moss, who held the lead, was declared winner.
After that, Fangio had no trouble talking his captors into turning him over to the Argentine embassy. "Well," he philosophized, "this is one more adventure. If what the rebels did was in a good cause, then I, as an Argentine, accept it."
Person or Persons. Satisfied that the oil slick was not rebel sabotage, the authorities placed all the blame for the accident on Driver Cifuentes, who was barely alive in a hospital. He was charged with manslaughter. Criminal charges were also filed against the "person or persons unknown" who kidnaped Fangio. No one found it worthwhile to criticize the "person or persons who" permitted the crowd to line the trackside, i.e., the National Sports Commission, headed by Brigadier General Roberto Fernandez Miranda, who is President Batista's brother-in-law.
Fangio after his release, February 24, 1958 - from www.puntoclasico.com
The 1958 Gran Premio ended after just six laps, so it can hardly be called a race. Ironically, it was held again in 1959 under more peaceful, stable conditions. But it was only for show purposes, as the new self-appointed "revolutionary" government was trying to create an impression of normalcy and pretending it would be "business as usual," while working behind the scenes to consolidate power. Eventually such "bourgeois" sport would no longer be necessary...
In fact, under the new "management," blood sports became "de rigueur."
www.latinamericanstudies.org-prof de la cova - via Babalu Blog
Kind of puts you off racing, doesn't it? Instead of the good Fangio, Cubans were exposed to another Argentine visitor, who not only overstayed his "welcome" - if one can call it that - but also purposely and gleefully engineered many more deaths than poor Mr. Cifuentes, unintentionally after all, caused through his unfortunate accident a year earlier.
I have little recollection of the 1959 Gran Premio. Perhaps this was a natural reaction after the letdown in 1958 and the unsettled, disturbing times that followed. It was just not the same. Not only did 1959 mark the end of my interest in this otherwise exciting event, it essentially marked the end of organized road racing in Cuba. By 1960 the Gran Premio de Cuba was no more.
Before this blogging race against the clock crosses the finish line, thought it appropriate to mention that without the good work done by the creators of the www.jmfangio.org website, and the valuable contributions others have made to it for the benefit of its readers, it would have been very, very difficult to make justice to the subject of this post. Even if you are not a great fan of automobile racing, visit the site and leave a compliment or two for the editors or webmasters.
And, of course, this post would be much poorer but for the valuable recollections and reminiscences provided by my patient papa, pestered by many questions during the preparation of this story, yet cheerfully answering each and every query in detail - his mind is still as well-tuned as were those Maserati and Ferrari engines in 1957! The same is true regarding the treasured memories shared by my cousin Fernando L. Prego, who can probably to this day drive through the streets of Havana blindfolded and tell you exactly where he is; wish you would have had a shot at a Gran Premio de Cuba trophy, Fernan!
In the end, the Quirogas, the Pregos, most of our family and friends, together with over two million compatriots won the race which really counted. The Race for Life and Freedom. It may have meant exile. It may have meant hardship and sacrifice. But the goal was only one, to be attained at all costs: To outrun the dark powers seeking to shackle us from January 1, 1959 onwards, to stay ahead of them, and finally place ourselves out of their reach, forever. Perhaps someday a new generation of free Cubans will once again be able to enjoy another Gran Premio through the streets of the Malecon circuit, in peace, prosperity, and freedom...under new track management.