Eduardo Leon Carmargo was maybe 3 years old in 1955 when his father took him to watch a segment of what was to be the final La Carrera Panamericana, the famed Mexican Road Race.
What he saw made an impression on the toddler, who grew up racing motorcycles (with 11 broken bones to show for it) and in automobile rallies. In 1987, he sought permission to revive the sports car race that had run from Mexico’s border with Guatemala to its border with the United States.
Carmargo already had convinced the government of Baja, the Mexican peninsula west of the Sea of Cortez, to let him stage an on-road rally from Ensenada to San Felipe. But to bring back the race up the heart of the mainland…
“They said it is impossible,” Carmargo remembered. “You’re crazy,” he was told.
Nonetheless, he also was informed, “We’ll let you.”
The original La Carrera Panamericana had been promoted in 1950 by the then president of Mexico, Miguel Aleman Valdes, who was able to enlist the military for crowd control.
“I didn’t have the influence of the president,” Carmargo said, “but I had a lot of friends.”
Together with his racing friends, Carmargo revived La Carrera Panamericana in 1988. In 1990, Nick Mason and David Gilmore of Pink Floyd took part in the event, and they were back in 1992 with a documentary film crew.
Two years, later former Formula 1 racer Clay Regazzoni was part of an Alfa Romeo entry that included Prisca Taruffi, daughter of the 1951 winner Piero Taruffi.
A year later, the race was featured in an episode of the American television show Highlander, a fantasy tale involving battles between immortals living among us.
In 1996, former F1 racer Phillip Alliot took part, driving a vintage Porsche 356. By 2003, the race was attracting entries from 14 countries. In 2009, the winner was 1984 world rally champion Stig Blomqvist. By 2011, a movie about the event was screened at Cannes.
The 2020 event celebrated the 70th anniversary, though the pandemic limited the entry list to 34 vehicles. Plans for the 2021 event, scheduled for October 15-21, call for around 80 entries to take part in a 3,610-kilometer course starting in Oaxaca and winding its way back and forth and northward to Saltillo. The route includes 625 kilometers of high-speed stages.
Cars entered in the competitive rally include vintage Porsche 911s, 1960s Detroit pony cars, even Volkswagen Beetles and the popular (and very successful in the event) 1950s Studebaker coupes. There also is a touring class for more-modern sports cars.
The first Pan American race ran north to south, and was won by a young and unheralded American driver, Hershel McGriff, in an Oldsmobile 88. He went on to win the NASCAR West championship in the 1980s. Now in his early 90s, McGriff remains a motorsports icon in Mexico, Carmargo said.
The race changed direction, running south to north, in 1951, Carmargo said, so that the Detroit automakers could have the finish line just across the border, thus enhancing press coverage in the era of “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.”
Ferraris finished 1-2 the following year. For 1952, separate sports and stock car categories were contested and Mercedes entered its 300 SL. Detroit also got formally involved, especially Lincoln, with a multi-car team and big-name drivers.
The race, which had become the biggest sports event in Mexico, was canceled after 1955, Carmargo said, not because of the dangers of driving at high speeds on remote roads, but because of changes in Mexican governmental leadership. He acknowledges, however, that the race had become “really, really dangerous.”
In resurrecting the event, Carmargo has worked to have an event known for a spirit of friendship and competition. He sees himself as a racer rather than a promoter, and laments how so many motorsports event have become dominated by rules-making sanctioning bodies and by corporate sponsors.
On a personal level, he said, he likes the old Cannonball Run cross-country event staged by Brock Yates of Car and Driver magazine, and the current 24 Hours of LeMons events, races in which Carmargo has participated.
Carmargo offered an example of what he sees as the true spirit of his event, both in competition and in friendship: Several years ago, a prominent European sports car racer was entered and was leading the event.
Carmargo had made arrangements for the driver to stay in the best hotel in the town where the rally was overnighting. As the leader, the driver was scheduled to be the first starter the following morning.
But came morning and the driver wasn’t in his hotel room. A search began and was unsuccessful, until the driver rode up on a child’s bicycle.
As it turned out, the driver had a native crew member who had never stayed in such a hotel, so the driver offered to swap accommodations, which meant the driver, who spoke French and English, would spend the night sleeping on the floor of a modest house owned by Mexican family that spoke only Spanish.
When morning came, the driver awakened to find his racing suit freshly washed and pressed, his helmet shined, and was offered not only breakfast but the use of the bicycle so he could return to his car to start the race.
Carmargo said the family and the driver each had displayed the spirit he likes to see, the spirit he hopes will continue to be the heartbeat of La Carrera Panamericana.