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This year again, on the eve of the fifth Pan American Road Race, the jungle town of Tuxtla Gutierrez in southern Mexico was alive with alien noise. Drivers and mechanics babbling in six tongues swarmed the streets, readying their cars. Engines coughed and snarled through the night, and at dawn on the paved highway through town 149 cars stood ready. At 6 a.m. the starting flag swung down, sending the first car in line, a squat, red Ferrari, on its way. Then once each minute the flag dipped, and another and another of the cars sped away, north to the mountains in the toughest, most dangerous race in the world.
From Tuxtla Gutierrez the course ran along the jagged mountain spine of Mexico?a tortuous route of blind curves, S-curves, hairpin turns and sudden roller-coaster dips, up and down mountains, on to flat straightaways almost at sea level, then up again 10,000 feet in the mountains, and finally across the rolling north Mexican plateaus to Juarez on the U.S. border. In the treacherous first half of this 1,908-mile race there are more than 3,000 curves where a driver can miscalculate, corner with too much drift or lose the feel of the road, and go to his death down the mountain. As the cars sweep by, the people of the mountain towns line the road. The cautious ones stand on the straightaways and see little. The bold ones want to see it all, so they crowd the dangerous curves and pray to the Virgin of Guadalupe.
After three drivers and six spectators were killed last year, the great Italian road racer Giovanni Bracco concluded bitterly, "This race will kill us all. The Italians will not race in Mexico again." But fear kept no one away. This year the gloomy Bracco himself was racing again among the 20 drivers from six countries in the fast, large sports car class. For the past two years the honors in the Pan American had been won by expensive team efforts, a Mercedes team taking first and second in 1952, and a Lancia team first, second, and third in 1953. With the 1953 champion, Fangio, not defending, outwardly the race seemed wide open this year, but actually it was the field against one man, 26-year-old Umberto Maglioli of Biella, Italy, who not only is surprisingly young to be a prerace favorite in such a smart field but also surprisingly solemn for a good-looking Italian. "Maglioli is something different," an Italian friend shrugs. "He is not wild. He does not eat much; he drinks less than he eats. He is not crazy over women. The head rules him. For a young Italian that is odd. For an Italian race driver it is nearly impossible." Though away from the cars he dresses and behaves more like the doctor his doctor father wanted him to be, after two years racing the big sports cars, Maglioli (pronounced Moll-yo-lee) ranked eighth in the world. In 1952 he placed fourth in the Pan-American and last year sixth, setting new records for the straight laps through the north country. As they swept out of Tuxtla Gutierrez this year, every rival knew that to win he must beat Maglioli in the mountains. Mounting a large, new 4.9-liter Ferrari, once out of the mountains, Maglioli could eat through the stretches at 170 miles an hour. For the first two days an American, Phil Hill, in a lighter, more nimble Ferrari, stayed 39 seconds ahead of Maglioli. But as the flag waved him off on the third day, Maglioli's jaw was set. Though still in the mountains he swept by Hill. He had only to hold his luck through the rolling foothills and he would be the new king of the Mexican mountains.
Among the other 129 cars in this year's grueling five-day race to Juarez?the Lincolns, Buicks, Cadillacs, Packards and Oldsmobiles in the large stock car class; the Fords, Dodges, Chevrolets and others in the small stock class; the Porsches, Oscas and Borgwards in the small sport class; the Alfa Romeos and Volkswagens in the special European stock class?there were a few two-car teams, but most were running, like the large sports cars, car against car for a share of the total $117,000 prize money. Only the Lincolns, out to repeat triumphs in 1952 and 1953, were organized on a grand scale. Following the Lincolns was a trailer retinue to service their seven-car team. For drivers, Lincoln had the best: Chuck Stevenson, who had won the Pan-American for them in 1952 and 1953; Indianapolis winner Bill Vukovich; Indianapolis drivers Jack McGrath, Johnny Mantz and Walt Faulkner; Mexican driver Fernando Murphy, and the Pasadena millionaire, Ray Crawford. But this year in the rough and dangerous mountains, even the safety of numbers was barely enough to clinch it for the Lincolns.
The Lincoln crew set up its first advance base 217 winding miles north of the start. Exactly two hours after the first red Ferrari has been waved off in Tuxtla Gutierrez, the Lincoln short wave radio from an outpost down the road comes alive: "LM Five to LM One...here comes the first car...a red job...." This would be the first car off, the 4.9-liter Ferrari driven by Jack McAfee and Ford Robinson, one of the three cars with a good chance to beat Maglioli in the mountains. Within 15 minutes McAfee should be coming by the Lincoln advance base.
McAfee never comes. Going 120 miles an hour into a deceptive right curve, McAfee's Ferrari broadsides across the road, rolls over twice down a 30-foot bank, mowing down the brush for 300 yards. McAfee is shaken up. Ford Robinson is dead. "No blood," a spectator observes. "A clean break of the neck."
IN A HAIR-RAISING DRIFT
"Two more sports cars," the radio crackles. Through the curve sweeps a blue and white Ferrari, howling past in a hair-raising drift, 90 miles an hour. It is U.S. driver Phil Hill, incredibly in first place so soon, though he started almost last among the large sports cars. And hard behind him?barely three seconds?comes Maglioli. Bracco, the wild mountain driver and the only one other than Hill and McAfee who has a sound chance to beat Maglioli in the mountains, should be close behind, since he started before both Hill and Maglioli. But Bracco's Ferrari is one of nine cars already either completely out or limping badly from the grind of the first morning. The Lincolns of Mantz, Murphy and Stevenson are, like Bracco, already out of contention.
Lincoln driver McGrath also goes out on this leg. On a curve, he skids from the road, down an incline, but is able to walk away from it, leaving his car almost completely buried in the jungle brush.