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The 1957 Cuban Grand Prix Part 1

by pete on February 28, 2013

Robert Pauley, no stranger to these pages, attended this race in Cuba in 1957. Years later, David Seielstad, who is also a contributor to VeloceToday and well-known Ferrari historian, recalled the event for Forza and wrote a comprehensive article which appeared in August, 1998, issue number 12, with photos by Tom Burnside.

Recently Robert Pauley sent us dozens of color slides he took at the Grand Prix. Below, we use portions of Seielstad’s Forza article with permission of David Seielstad and Forza magazine. Seielstad provides the history, Pauley the images he and recalls his experiences in italics. This is Part 1 of 3.

By David Seielstad and Robert Pauley
Color photography by Robert Pauley

After World War II a new form of motor sport quickly caught on in the United States. Road racing had died out in the US after the Elgin Road Race of 1920, while becoming ever more popular in Europe, but after the War, the availability of MG TCs, then TDs and Jaguar XK 120s led to the rapid development of sports car racing. Circuits and events mushroomed across the country in the 1950s.

Bridgehampton, May 1953. Robert Pauley can be seen taking photos in the foreground.

–Before being hired by Chrysler Corporation’s Research Department as an engine designer, I had attended numerous car races including Indy, Langhorne, Watkins Glen, Bridgehampton and others. But when I arrived at Chrysler I found very few individuals with a true passion for auto racing. Back in the 1950s the emphasis was strictly on passenger cars and production. By good chance I met an employee – whose name, as I recall, was Dan Frank – from another department. He was reading Road & Track at the time and of course turned out to be another race fan. -–Robert Pauley

The sport grew and spread to island resorts such as the Bahamas. During the mid-fifties in Cuba, then a sugar growing dictatorship with great disparities in wealth, a small group of the affluent local racing fans decided they too could stage a race that would attract the world’s leading drivers and cars to their small island. This event was intended to rival the nearby Nassau and far away Monaco Grand Prix. With Juan Fangio as a symbol of Spanish-American achievement, Alfonso de Portago to represent Spain, and a hoard of Ferraris and Maseratis, it was hoped that The Cuban Grand Prix would soon become a World Sports Car Championship race. The month of February was selected since it fell after the races in Argentina and Venezuela (during the South American summer) and before the Sebring 12 hour race.

Cuba already had a nascent automobile racing tradition. Wealthy amateurs had been racing MGs, Jaguars, Mercedes-Benz 300SL and even a handful of Ferraris along with modified American sedans over the roads of their small island. In this milieu the National Sports Commission of Cuba headed by Colonel Roberto Miranda formed the Technical Committee of the Grand Prix of Cuba, made up of influential businessmen. The president was Fernando Ovies supported by 18 other prominent Cubans. One goal was to make Cuba world famous for top level racing, another was to develop and showcase Cuban driving talent. A 3.5 mile course was laid out over the streets of Havana, much like Monaco, following the seaside Malecon Boulevard and skirting leafy parks in the toni part of town. The start/finish line was near the shiny new American Embassy. The President of the Milan Auto Club and Director of Monza, Aleardo Covacivich, was brought in to help the organizers in running their first international race. He also coordinated the shipment of at least 12 cars from Europe aboard the American Export Lines USS Independence.

Fangio was reportedly to earn $7000 starting fee. Would it be worth it?

With government support the organizers were able to offer healthy starting money and meaningful prizes. It is reported that Fangio received $7000 starting money. Another $3000 was set aside for winning the race, with second place money of $1500.

On January 22, 1957, the first Cuban GP was announced. It would be a 500 km race held on Monday February 25. Local papers began a campaign to whip up interest. The USS Independence departed Genoa on February 3 with the entire Gordini team, three new Ferrari 500TRCs and seven Maseratis bound for New York and Cuba. However, the East Coast longshoremen’s strike intervened and threatened to sink the Cuban GP. When the ship docked in New York the stevedores refused to unload the cargo. After 10 days the captain sailed back to Genoa, with the cars that had been destined for Cuba, still in the hold. With drivers already arriving in Havana the race appeared doomed.

–At work, Dan and I talked about the Cuban Grand Prix that was scheduled for the following year. We both agreed that that race would probably be our only opportunity to see a “real” car race with heroes like Fangio and Stirling Moss, so we began making plans.—Robert Pauley

A harried Chinetti with Portago, left, and Moss.


At this point, only three days prior to the race, Luigi Chinetti, the American Ferrari importer stepped in and started organizing a replacement flotilla of Ferraris. Chinetti sent all the racing Ferraris in his shop to Key West and called on his customers across the United States to borrow cars. Some were even air freighted. In the end thirteen Ferraris of all varieties finally reached Cuba.

–We decided to drive from Detroit to Miami and then fly to Cuba but had made no firm reservations. My friend owned a 1954 6-cylinder Corvette and we planned to drive non-stop, night and day, directly to the Miami airport. This was before the Interstate highway system had been built, making driving more challenging, and before fast-food restaurants were on every corner. Furthermore, it should be obvious that it is impossible to sleep in a Corvette regardless of how tired one may be! Nevertheless we arrived safely and parked the car at the airport. We then began wandering around the terminal looking for two open seats to Havana. Most of the major airlines were fully booked but we found seats on a Cubana Vickers Viscount that had a rather “ratty” interior, but we arrived safely in Havana.– Robert Pauley

Vickers Viscounts were popular on the Miami-Cuba routes. Nice shot from Pauley's 'ratty' seat.

The star and focus of most prerace publicity was Fangio. Besides Fangio and de Portago, Stirling Moss, Peter Collins, Phil Hill, Carroll Shelby, Masten Gregory, Harry Schell, Eugenio Castellotti, Jean Lucas, Oliver Gendebien, Piero Drogo, Piero Carini, Alejandro De Tomaso, Howard Hively, John Kilborn, Paul O’Shea, Pinheiro Pires and Octavio Guarducci were on hand. Two Cubans, Alfonso Gomez-Mena and Manolo Perez de la Mesa were also set to drive. The glum Gordini drivers, Andre Simon and Andre Pilette, were left without rides as were Wolfgang von Trips, Hans Herrmann and Joakim Bonnier. There was constant car swapping among the participants as cars continued to arrive after practice had started.

–Despite no hotel reservations, finding a room was not a problem. For many years Havana had been a Mecca for American tourists with its nightclubs and gambling casinos so rooms were plentiful. We were now all set and headed for the race course which was only a block from our hotel. –Robert Pauley

Robert and Dan arrived in Havana to find their hero drivers all over!

Moods before the start:

Moss is concerned before the start, and for good reason.

Castellotti looks happy, but this would be his last race.

No doubt Moss is standing at attention for God Save the Queen.

The Hill/O'Shea Ferrari on the grid right before the start.

Next: The Race

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Miguel Caballero Covián February 28, 2013 at 9:39 am

Fantástico reportaje. Soy amigo de D.Armando garcía Cifuentes que corrió con Mercedes 300 SL Ferrari 500 trc y Masserati. Nieto de los fundadores de Partagás.

Bill Greenslade February 28, 2013 at 1:41 pm

Great article and pics. The Golden Age of sports car racing – great drivers, venues and fan access!

Ed McDonough February 28, 2013 at 7:03 pm

Great to see those photos. It’s a shame that we have never had a good volume on the Cuban races.
Ed

TIDE ferrari racing,palm beach. February 28, 2013 at 7:15 pm

Terrific pic’s and memories. Cuba needed Red Crise the Nassau Sportscar Race and Miami / Nassau power boat race promoter, or the Sebring group to get on board. Was it the next year drivers were kidnapped by Castro, held, released unharmed to louse up the race and Cuban Govt ? Hope HSR & SVRA team up and set up a race in 2015 when it will be legal to visit the eleven World Hertiage Sites of 200-300 year old houses. TIDE ferrari racing,palm beach.

Vincent Metais February 28, 2013 at 7:39 pm

I completely second Ed’s message and would love, if possible, to get in contact with Mr. Pauley as he appears to have many great shot where the Suixtil clothing brand, that we revived 5 years ago, is well visible. Could you please pass him my contact details and ask him to kindly get in touch with me? Thanking you very much in advance and looking eagerly forward to Part 2,
Vincent Metais.

Willem Oosthoek March 1, 2013 at 6:30 pm

I disagree with Ed’s comments, as there is a book on the subject already. In spite of a number of bizarre misidentifications of participants [how can you mistake Phil Hill for Ottavio Guarducci, Lorenzo Bandini for Renato Pirocchi, and Johnny Cuevas for Lucky Casner, and change every appearance of Antonio von Dory of Argentina to Fritz d'Orey of Brazil?], Joel Finn’s Caribbean Capers is comprehensive, mostly well-researched and full of many interesting images of the Cuban races. I doubt another book on the subject of the Cuban Grand Prix will ever be written, since there just isn’t anything more to report than is in this book [apart from adding a sizeable ID errata sheet of course].

Willem Oosthoek

Ron Southan March 1, 2013 at 9:03 pm

Is Moss’s bum really that big or did they pad the backside instead of the seat?
Great photos!

Jan Holmskov March 2, 2013 at 10:23 am

There is a fine book available on the Cuban Grand Prix Races 1957, 1958 & 1960 : Joel E. Finn’s Caribbean Capers.

Jan

pete March 2, 2013 at 7:04 pm

We’ll have a review of Finn’s Cuban Capers coming up in VT very soon.
[Editor.]

pete March 2, 2013 at 7:07 pm

Since Moss had..and probably still does.., the physique of a middle weight boxer, we can assume that the track was a bit rough in places and the Maser a bit hard sprung.
[Editor.]

Carl Goodwin March 2, 2013 at 11:18 pm

Very nicely presented, both the pictures and the words of both writers. Nice going David! Congratulations Robert, I worked for Chrysler shortly after you did.
– Carl Goodwin

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