The Cuban Grand Prix, 1957, Part 2 of 3

by pete on March 7, 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 during 1957 Cuban 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 2 of 3.

By David Seielstad and Robery Pauley
Photos by Robert Pauley

The three and a half mile race course was laid out over the streets of Havana along the bay. The start/finish line and pits were located at the Hotel Nacional (where most of the drivers were staying) and the Maine Monument (“Remember the Maine”).

From the start the course went straight to a sweeping right on Marina Avenue, then a short right, left chicane followed by a hairpin around Macéo Park leading onto the broad, sinuous Malecon. A sharp left past the U.S. Embassy put the racers on Avenida de los Presidentes, followed by another left onto 7th Street, a narrow street lined with apartments, followed by a sweeping right brought them back to Marina and the start, completing the circuit.

A mechanic changes plugs in Fangio's 300S Maserati.

Practice was chaotic due to the lack of cars and inexperienced organization. Rain and sea spray made the quayside road slippery. For the race the drivers requested that the oil flag should be displayed if waves splashed onto the road. The Malecon was quite broad, but the surface was also wavy with one bump that lifted some cars into the air. A poorly constructed spectator bridge collapsed, injuring many fans. Fangio set the fastest lap in his Maserati 300 S, closely followed by de Portago, much to the crowd’s delight. While drivers were scratching around for rides and organizers were hoping for the best, American engineer from Chrysler and part time photographer Robert Pauley was quietly recording the color, personalities and especially the racing cars with both Kodachrome slides (seen here) and 8 mm film.

Skies darken as the soldiers attempt to control the crowds. For Pauley, the magic word seemed to be 'Fangio'.

–Getting into the pit area was our goal but the entrance was guarded by an armed and imposing-looking Cuban soldier. We approached him with an avalanche of English words, occasionally mentioning Fangio. He just smiled and waved us into the pit area and that worked well for qualifying and on race day as well.—Robert Pauley

Carroll Shelby pushes the big John Edgar 4.9 Ferrari during practice.

Ferraris were dominant in the entry. From California John Edgar had sent his 410 Sport and 4.9 , while Howard Hively brought his 375+. There was an 121 LM 4.4 liter inline six cylinder Ferrari, de Portago brought two 3.5 liter Monzas , George Tilp had a 3.5 Monza for Phil Hill and there were several 2.0 liter Ferraris present for Gendebien, Collins, Gregory, Drogo and Guarducci.

Moss's Maserati next to the Edgar 4.9 Ferrari driven by Carini.

–The pit area was not like anything I had ever seen before–certainly not as formal or well-organized as Indy. And there is no way that one could compare this Grand Prix with Monaco, which I was to attend many years later. –Robert Pauley

Race day was overcast and damp. Besides the race cars and drivers, Gary Cooper and his wife were present. De Portago had Linda Christian decorating his Ferrari and the Cuban President Fulgencio Batista was also on hand in the presidential box.

The Grand Prix of Cuba was preceded by several automobile and motorcycle races for local drivers in the morning. Among the Studebakers and Plymouths was Elias Regalado in a Ferrari 212 Vignale coupé (0146 E) who finished 4th in a 15 lap race for sports cars over 2 liters. Huge crowds lined every inch of the race course, balconies and rooftops were also swarming with spectators. Crowd estimates varied between 100,000 and 200,000.

— I would label the Cuban Grand Prix as a “casual” racing event. The pits seemed to be a mixed bag of people, many of whom did not appear to belong there, including me!—Robert Pauley

On the grid, Hill in number 14 looks back as something distracts him. On his right is de Portago and in the yellow Maserati is Harry Schell.

After the midday siesta, 17 cars lined up for the first 500 km (90 laps) Grand Prix of Cuba. At the drop of the flag Shelby shot into the lead from the second row, closely followed by de Portago and Moss. Fangio moved slowly and veered to the right, almost as if he were in 3rd gear, not 1st. Phil Hill stalled his engine. His crew quickly push-started the frustrated Hill and he was just as quickly disqualified.

Hill stalls, gets a push and returns to the pits, disqualified.

On lap two, entering the Malecon Shelby bobbled and de Portago and Moss slipped by. De Portago then began extending his lead. Moss dropped out when his Maserati 200 S lost its oil. Fangio steadily closed the gap. At about lap 30 Castellotti, in the blue 860 Monza, turned his fastest lap of 2 minutes 3.5 seconds and squeezed past Shelby into third.

Castelloti gets by Shelby for third place.

— The spectators appeared to be just standing on the sidewalk with sawhorse barriers lining the curb in front of them. This was not much of a safety barrier if a car had problems and swerved towards the spectators. –Robert Pauley

At the same time Fangio got up to his normal speed, setting a time of 2 minutes 2.6 seconds. He caught up to de Portago which resulted in de Portago setting a lap record of 2 minutes 1.1 seconds. The Ferrari and Maserati ran nose to tail for many laps. At about half distance Fangio began to fade, eventually dropping behind by over one lap, while de Portago sped on to almost certain victory. At half distance De Portago and Fangio had lapped all other cars. Shelby had passed Castellotti to retake 3rd. In the two liter category Moss had dropped out while Collins and Gendebien battled it out many laps behind.

Fangio hunts down de Portago as the Ferrari's fuel pressure gives problems.

Most of the competitors stopped to refuel and some to change drivers with half the race run. Pit stops took about one minute. De Portago’s fuel stop was 47 seconds and Fangio was in and out in only 15 seconds, but still in second position.

Cuba '57 would be one of Portago's finest races, and one of his last.

With just 30 minutes remaining, on lap 67, de Portago’s Ferrari began to stutter then cough. He pulled into his pit. While mechanics worked feverishly to repair a fuel line, Fangio unlapped himself, then captured the lead. Shelby moved into 2nd. After over five minutes de Portago rejoined the race in 3rd, now almost two laps behind. To the joy of the crowd de Portago tried to regain his lead as the race wound down to the finish. It was an impossible task with only 70 miles remaining. Gendebien, now secure as 2nd in class, pulled in near the end and turned the car over to its owner, Bill Helburn.

Gendebien also drove an excellent race in the Helburn 500TR.

–Memory of the event is fading, but what I do recall is that the race was very confusing for the spectators. Some drivers had qualified in one car yet were driving a different car in the race. The PA announcer spoke only in Spanish so that was of no help.—Robert Pauley

In the late stages of the race crowd control had broken down completely. Fans spilled out into the street then parted to let the cars pass through. At the finish, after 3 hours 11 minutes 59.2 seconds, Fangio took the checkered flag almost half a lap in front of Shelby and two minutes ahead of de Portago. Five laps behind, in 4th was Collins, first of the two liter class. Helburn was 5th a further three laps behind, then the first and only Cuban driver, Gomez-Mena took 6th. Only Drogo, 3rd in the two liter class and Gregory/von Trips, who finished last, were still running. Eight other starters had retired and Hill had been disqualified.

Peter Collins finished fourth overall and first in the 2 liter class.

The first Cuban Grand Prix had been a success. Despite the setback of some race cars not arriving, there had still been exciting racing between two of the crowd’s favorites. Fangio had demonstrated his complete mastery of the racing art and de Portago had won the hearts of the Cuban people by his valiant effort. The race committee immediately began planning for the 1958 race.

Finishing order

Fangio, #2 Maserati 300 S
Shelby, #18 Ferrari 410 S (0598CM)
de Portago, #12 Ferrari 857 Monza (0578/0584 M)
Collins, #38 Ferrari 500 TR, 1st under 2 liters (0654 MD/TR)
Gendebien/Helburn, #36 Ferrari 500 TR (0614 MD/TR)
Gomez Mena/Erickson, #24 Jaguar D Type, 1st Cuban (XKD 503 renumbered as XKD 521)
Drogo, #46 Ferrari 500 TR (0632 MD/TR)
Gregory/von Trips, #42 Ferrari 500 TR (0652 MD/TR)

Did not finish

Moss, Maserati #28 200 S loss of oil (2401?)
Carini, #78 Ferrari 4.9 (0396 AM)
Hively, #16 Ferrari 4.9 (0384AM) drive shaft
Lucas/Kilborn, #10 Ferrari 121 LM (0558) over heating
Schell/Moss, #6 Maserati 300 S (3062) spark plugs
Castellotti, #8 Ferrari 860 Monza (0602M) broken valve spring
de Tomaso, #34 Maserati 150S (1663)
Guarducci, #48 Ferrari 500 Mondial (0534 MD)
Hill/O’Shea, #14 Ferrari 857 Monza (0570M) disqualified, push start
Pires, Maserati 200 S DNS
Modesto Bolaños/Manolo Perez de la Mesa #?? Maserati 200S DNS

Next: Part 3 will have more photos, references, notes.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

TIDE ferrari racing, palm beach, tom davis March 7, 2013 at 9:30 am

Terrific story. Good possible future articles about the numerous ferraris and race cars smuggled out of Cuba by the some Brits 1962-1987. TIDE ferrari racing, palm beach, tom davis.

JIM FONTANA March 7, 2013 at 10:43 am

Hi Peter

The Cuba article was fantastic because of the unrehearsed photography and the memories of the ’50’s. The contrast: All those wonderful Ferraris and Masers, etc racing hard, campaigning for their owners, all banged up, oil streaked and dirty, parked here and there like plain-jane Chevs. Sixty years later, all of them restored to do-not-touch perfection and sitting in museums and private collections now as priceless works of art and a tribute to their creators. Who knew?

Incidentally, the photo of Castelotti and Shelby taking the corner is something else.
The cars head straight for the brave photographer and note the spectators crowding the circuit on the outside of the corner no less. Those were the days.

WALTER March 7, 2013 at 10:49 am


Eric Davison March 7, 2013 at 11:07 am

What a delightful series. “Them were the days!”

Tom Arnone March 7, 2013 at 8:22 pm

I was in the Ft. Worth/ Dallas sports car scene in those days. When Shelby got back in the area all he could talk about was that crazy “sombitch” de Portago. They were pals but anywhere they would go together in Cuba de Portago would start talking politics. It was nearing the end of the Batista era and politics was a volatile subject but de Portago , the Spanish nobleman would not back down. Shelby thought that they were going to wind up maimed in an alley.
They were both great drivers and that was a race for the ages.

Javier de Gregorio March 8, 2013 at 1:45 pm

Yes, those were the days and THOSE WERE THE MEN, real drivers. Terrific comments and pictures.
Saludos from Madrid.

David Stubley March 13, 2013 at 7:32 am

Dear Peter, Many thanks for these wonderful pictures. It was truly a different age. There is no doubt that these were incredibly brave drivers but it also underlines that motor racing would have been legislated out of existence if there had not been massive improvements in safety in our legislative, health and safety culture. Cheers from Scotland

Carlos J. Fernandez March 14, 2013 at 1:15 pm

Excellent article. I was a car racing fan in Cuba and enjoyed the two Grand Prix races immensely, as well as some other local races in Fords, Studebakers, Buicks, etc. Excellent quality of the pictures as well as the narrative. Unfortunately just prior to the 1958 Grand prix, Juan Manuel Fangio was kidnapped by some anti-government groups, and he could not run the race. He was released, unharmed, shortly thereafter. The Marquis de Portago was a fan favorite but died before he could come back for the 2nd race.
Congratulations on an excellent article that brought back some good ole memories.

Joe Barnet June 1, 2014 at 8:24 am

Reading this article brought back great memories, this were the men that gave it all… Thanks for a great article and awesome pictures…….

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