Carrera Panamericana, between myth and reality

  • 14 October 2023
  • 3 min read
  • 6 images
Carrera Panamericana, between myth and reality image

Photo credit: Carrera Panamericana, Ferrari, Lancia, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche

The Carrera Panamericana, a gruelling 3,500-kilometre stage race, was conceived by the Mexican Government to celebrate the completion of the Pan-American Highway. Aimed at boosting trade between the United States and Latin America, it quickly captured the public imagination as one of the most thrilling and perilous races ever conceived.

Carrera Panamericana, between myth and reality - 1The route of the Carrera Panamericana, a race divided in stages covering over 3500km on the newly built Pan-American Highway.

Held over just five editions from 1950 to 1954, the race attracted numerous American entrants with specially prepared production cars. However, it was the major European manufacturers who saw the event’s advertising potential on the American market. Mercedes, Ferrari, Jaguar, Lancia, and Porsche all fielded their competition road cars, either directly or through affiliated teams.

Carrera Panamericana, between myth and reality - 2The first edition of the Carrera Panamericana in 1950 included wide stretches of dirt road and was won by the Oldsmobile 88 driven by Hershel McGriff.

The inaugural race was held on 5th May 1950, and the winner completed the six-day course in over 27 hours, maintaining an average speed of 142 km/h. Subsequent editions were faster due to increasing stretches of tarmacked road. By 1952, the race duration had dropped to just under 22 hours. In 1953, with the course reversed, the race concluded in less than 19 hours, further reduced to just over 18 hours in 1954, with a record average speed of 173 km/h, highlighting the race’s inherent risks.

Carrera Panamericana, between myth and reality - 3European manufacturers left the breadcrumbs to their American rivals. Here the Ferrari 212 Inter Vignale of Taruffi and Chinetti, winner in 1951.

In a bid to protect American manufacturers, the organisers initially stipulated that only cars with a minimum production run of 500 units could participate, aiming to prevent European sports cars from dominating. This rule was quickly abandoned. Only the first edition in 1950 was won by an American brand, Oldsmobile, while Ferrari, Mercedes, and Lancia dominated later races.

The phrase “Motorsport is dangerous” is still printed on passes at races today, but the high number of casualties among drivers and spectators led to the cancellation of the 1955 edition, just as the Carrera Panamericana was set to be included in the official FIA calendar.

Carrera Panamericana, between myth and reality - 4Kling and Klenk's winning Mercedes 300 SL in 1952. Note the windshield broken by the collision with a vulture at over 200 km/h.

Today, the race is fondly remembered for iconic victories like the Ferrari 212 Inter in 1951 with Taruffi and Chinetti, the Mercedes 300 SL in 1952 with Kling and Klenk, and the Lancia D24 in 1953 with Juan Manuel Fangio. The 1954 race was again won by Ferrari, this time with the 375 Plus driven by Umberto Maglioli.

Notably, the small Porsche 550, with just a 1,500cc engine, clinched third place overall in 1954 with Hans Herrmann, dominating its class.

Carrera Panamericana, between myth and reality - 5Lancia dominated in 1953 by placing three cars in the top three places. In the foreground, winner Juan Manuel Fangio.

Despite its brief existence, the race has achieved legendary status, even inspiring Porsche to name its sporty variants “Carrera” in homage to the Panamericana. Since 1988, vintage car rallies have been held on the same route, but that’s a story for another time.

Carrera Panamericana, between myth and reality - 6Third place overall and class hat trick for the Porsche 550 in 1954. Hence the name Carrera for the sports versions of the Stuttgart cars.