SI Vault
John Bentley
December 06, 1954
Umberto Maglioli, a handsome 26-year-old Italian, sweeps his big red Ferrari from one end of Mexico to the other?averaging 107 mph?to win the world's toughest road race
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December 06, 1954

New King Of The Mountains

Umberto Maglioli, a handsome 26-year-old Italian, sweeps his big red Ferrari from one end of Mexico to the other?averaging 107 mph?to win the world's toughest road race

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Of the seven-car Lincoln team, that leaves only Vukovich, Faulkner and Crawford. Faulkner leads the remaining three Lincolns into the pit stop. The rules forbid assistance with a tire change during a lap. Faulkner and Co-driver Frank Hainley change the four tires in three and a half minutes. Four minutes later Vukovich pulls up. His language explodes in a fury as a lug wrench fouls, but he changes his four tires in two and a half minutes and is away. As Crawford, the last of the Lincolns, pulls up, Mickey Thompson in a Ford sweeps by, leading the small stock cars?he is safely through the grim curve in the plains of Tehuantepec where last year he plowed through straying spectators, killing six and nearly himself. In fierce rivalry, the small stocks roar by, screeching, skidding, in twos and threes, almost bumper to bumper, and among them the Italian, Sanesi, in an Alfa Romeo, leading the small European stock cars. And for an hour more come stragglers who have lost their courage or luck.

At the first overnight stop at Oaxaca, 127 of the 149 cars are still running. After a record-breaking run, Hill leads Maglioli by four minutes, nine seconds. "Don't clobber the hay bales at Atlixco and ruin your chance," a friend warns. Hill gets through Atlixco, but on sidewalk and balcony around the town square, where the route takes a 90-degree right turn and immediately a 90-degree left, the people of Atlixco have a gay day as car after car skids and broadsides into the hay bales. "Carro a la vista, se?ores!" (A car in sight, gentlemen) the public-address system bleats out. With a thunderous growl, Maglioli's Ferrari streaks down the narrow streets. There is the "Errshoommm" sound of a deft downshift, and?a minute and nine seconds behind Hill in elapsed time?Maglioli slips easily through the tricky turns.


The crowd shrieks delightedly at Maglioli's finesse, but the hot race of the smaller sports cars gives them a greater thrill. It is close between Germans Karl Bechem and Franz Hammenich in Borgwards, the Argentine Roberto Mieres in an Osca, the Guatemalan Jaroslav Juhan in a Porsche and his teammate Hans Hermann in a Porsche. Racing eagerly to catch a Porsche a scant second ahead, the Argentine in the Osca misses the turn in Atlixco, slides wildly into the curve, scattering the bales like shredded wheat. He is wrecked and out of it. Soldiers drag sandbags to reinforce the hay bales, and for an afternoon the small stock cars keep the show going, slamming and spinning into the hay. Faulkner's Lincoln and Crawford's have gone through successfully, but Vukovich is overdue.

Vukovich is out, and lucky to be out with his life. Seven miles south of Petlalcingo, he breasted a hill 100 miles an hour, coming suddenly into a blind right turn. Helpless as the Lincoln skidded across the road on two wheels, he plunged over the side of a 150-foot ravine, turning over five times.

Before the first cars reach Mexico City, down roads lined with hundreds of thousands, the small sports car class has been cut to a three-way race. Outside Puebla, Borgward driver Hammenich hits a dog and crashes off the road.

Into Mexico City, Hill still shows the way to Maglioli, and it is a close squeak for Maglioli as he tries to close on the front-running Hill, averaging 94 miles an hour. A tire blows; Maglioli's Ferrari swerves, starts to slide, then holds the road. One hundred and eleven cars make it under power to Mexico City. The 112th, a Buick driven by Fernando Maciel, breaks down two miles from the finish in the noisy defile of spectators. Since they are running ahead of the time limit, to the cheers of the crowd Maciel and Codriver Sergio Campo push their car the last two miles, then faint from exhaustion.

Toward the end of the next day's run, a total of 590 miles north from Mexico City, the race will be coming out of the mountains. Maglioli might well wait for the last two-days' run on the plateaus, but he does not. He overtakes Hill in the mountains. Realizing he has lost on the winding roads where he had his only real chance, Hill lets Maglioli go and settles for a safe second. This last mountain stretch, up and down and along the sides of the western Sierra Madre range, takes a heavy toll on the rest of the field.

The three-way rivalry in the small sports class suddenly becomes an intra-team race between the Porsches. German Karl Bechem, leading both Porsches in his Borgward and third in the over-all race, spins out on a curve at Rio Hondito. While soldiers are recovering injured Bechem, Joaquin Palacios of the Dominican Republic, driving the $29,000 special Pegaso for Dominican President Trujillo, misses the same turn. On the first flip, Palacios is thrown clear, but his car crashes on, felling one of the soldiers. Within an hour U.S. driver Frank Davis misses the same turn, plows into the same field as Bechem and Palacios, but walks away.

Chilean Patricio Achurras loses control just south of Aguascalientes, kills two spectators, injures another and fractures his own skull. And on the next day, north of Durango, the Mexican co-driver Leopoldo Olvera crashes in his Dodge and is killed.

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