The Pan-American Highway and the crazy race it once used to host5 min read . Updated: 29 Mar 2013, 12:55 AM IST
Revisiting the history of one of the oldest and most famous auto racing events in the world
Once upon a time, before budget airlines and global warming, when driving long distances at high speeds in dangerous cars was still something of a noble pursuit, the people of the Americas, the North and the South, built a bewildering network of roads that spanned not one, but two complete continents. Across mountains and plains and valleys and jungles, and through cities and villages and farmland, this network of tarmac still connects Alaska with Argentina. It stretches nearly 48,000km and is completely motorable by any reasonable car, except for a small, around160km stretch of formidable rainforest.
This uncommon product of human labour and inter-governmental cooperation is the Pan-American Highway, one of the world’s greatest road networks. When the idea for such a network was first suggested at a meeting of the American nations in 1889, it was meant to be a railroad, a ribbon of steel that would connect all the nations of the hemisphere and allow free movement of people and goods and services and, ultimately, good will.
The plan was never acted upon. Around four decades later, the nations met again in Santiago and the plan was floated again, but with a modification. It would be a highway and not a railroad. Subsequent to the conference, the 19 countries that were part of the plan started work at their own individual pace and in their own individual ways.
Today, nearly a century later, the Pan-American Highway exists in something of a quantum state. Its exact route and extremities vary depending on who you ask. This is because while the original official route stretched from Buenos Aires in Argentina to Laredo in the US, unofficial stretches of tar have sprouted off it over the last few decades.
Unofficially speaking, the Pan-American Highway stretches from Prudhoe Bay up north in Alaska, winds its way through Canada and America, and then right through Central America. It then hugs the western seaboard of the South American land mass before cutting in sharply, nearly at right angles eastwards, at Valparaiso and onwards to Buenos Aires. Here it plunges south again, this time along the Atlantic seaboard, before ending at Ushuaia, one of the southernmost cities in the world.
Embark upon the journey in a tearing hurry and you could travel from end to end in about a month and a half. Traverse along the many branches and you could spend lifetimes.
Once all the nations agreed on the network, the first one to complete its portion of the highway was Mexico. By 1950, Mexico had polished off a gleaming stretch of 3,373km of tarmac. Realizing that this was a commendable showcase of national capability, the Mexican government decided to organize a race along the entire stretch of the road.
The first Carrera Panamericana—Panamerican Race—was held in May 1950. The north-south race started at Ciudad Juarez, near the American border with Mexico, and finished at Ciudad Cuauhtémoc near the Guatemalan border. It was held in nine stages over six days and entry was open to stock five-seater sedans. The inaugural edition drew 132 competitors, many of them amateur Americans. But the main contenders were experienced racing car drivers. One of them, a 23-year-old American named Hershel McGriff, won the first Carrera Panamericana at an average speed of 142km per hour.
The race was conducted four more times. Each time the stakes got higher, the cars got faster, and the death toll kept rising. In the 1951 race, two Mexican drivers died in horrific crashes on consecutive days. Almost immediately, the race developed a reputation for being challenging, but also for driver and spectator casualties.
However, it wasn’t the dangers of this race that finally forced organizers to call off the Carrera Panamericana. On 11 June 1955, the worst accident in the history of motorsport killed 83 spectators and one driver during the 24 Hours of Le Mans race. Governments all over the world put a stop on races till venues could be made safer for participants and audiences.
Organizers of the Carrera Panamericana realized that their much more freely regulated race, conducted with an almost casual eye on safety, was no longer feasible in this environment. The race was called off. This came at a time when the Carrera Panamericana was just beginning to draw the best racers and car makers in the world. It was a blow to motor racing, but it also marked the end of an era. Safety and technology became the non-negotiable cornerstones of modern racing, and there simply wasn’t place for a fast-and-loose event such as the Carrera Panamericana, which had taken a staggering 27 lives in five years.
But the event was sorely missed. Soon the race was revived, but in the form of brand names. In the 1960s, Porsche launched a version of the Porsche 356 called the Carrera, to commemorate the manufacturers’ success in the race. Since then, the maker has always had at least one model in its stable with the Carrera badge. In 2010, Porsche launched the Panamera, another commemorative badge.
For some three decades, Mexico’s highways lay dormant. Until 1988, when the race was revived. It was no longer an all-out race for state-of-the-art stock cars, but a competition for classic cars. Today, the Carrera Panamericana is held in Mexico each October. The race takes place over a week, over a 3,000km course that starts in the South and winds its way to the North. The 100-odd cars, divided into around 10 classes, that are expected to participate in 2013 will all be at least 50 years old. (Though the “classic" quality of many cars is only skin deep, under the vintage body many cars may have up-to-date powertrains.)
While the cars are classics, the safety rules, technology and regulations are much more contemporary. Nonetheless, the Carrera Panamericana continues to be a perilous competition. There were two fatalities in 2012. In 2003, a car crashed into an ambulance. A nurse lost both legs at the hip.
This is perhaps why the Carrera Panamericana, even in its resurrected form, lives on the edge. One of the official websites frankly admits that the race may be called off again by the Mexican government at any time.
So if you yearn for a taste of some old-fashioned, open-top, no-hold-barred racing, pop over to Mexico with a vintage race car. And plenty of insurance. This year, the Carrera Panamericana takes place from 25 to 31 October. For rules, regulations and contact details go to: www.panamrace.com