It may be that one day, in the not-too-distant future, motor racing will return to Cuba, now that Fidel Castro has finally died. The sport visited Havana in the 1950s, but it did not end well. At the time Havana was a magnificent den of vice, where Hollywood stars, socialites, debutantes and American mobsters would go to have a good time. The rich jet-setters required luxury hotels, restaurants, night clubs, golf clubs and casinos and the rich Cubans join in the fun. The problem was that there were not many of them. Most of the population was poor. It didn’t help that the government of Fulgencio Batista was woefully corrupt and authoritarian, but motor racing has often turned a blind eye to such things and so a decent field was found for a sports car race which the Cubans hoped would draw attention to their country and attract more visitors.
A street circuit was laid out along the Malecon, the broad boulevard that ran along the seafront, with a pit area located in the shadow of the Hotel Nacional. Although the cars were not Formula 1 machines, they did attract some of the top drivers of the day, notably Juan Manuel Fangio, and he won won the first event at the wheel of a Maserati 300, leading home Carroll Shelby and Alfonso de Portago. The racers were joined by Hollywood star Gary Cooper, while de Portago brought along his new girlfriend, actress Linda Christian, who had only recently split up with Tyrone Power. There was huge local interest in the event, not least because of a lottery offering the first prize of a Cadillac and a ticket to visit Monza for the Italian Grand Prix.
The following year there were bigger and better plans with the race scheduled for Monday, February 24, with the usual practice and qualifying during the weekend. On the Sunday night Fangio emerged from the lift in the foyer of the Hotel Lincoln, in Havana’s old town, planning to have dinner with Alejandro de Tomaso and Maserati team director Nello Ugolini. A man in a leather jacket approached, showed Fangio an automatic pistol and told him not to say or do anything. At first the World Champion thought it was a joke, but he then agreed to follow the kidnapper Oscar Lucero to a car waiting outside. The team of nine kidnappers vanished into the night with the World Champion.
The aim was to raise the profile of the Cuban Revolution without doing anyone any serious harm. Batista’s security forces spent the night scouring the city, looking for Fangio, hoping to find him before the race. The next morning, Faustino Perez, the man in charge of Castro’s clandestine operations, arrived in Havana and met Fangio, apologising for the kidnapping and explaining that he would be released after the race.
The race was delayed 90 minutes, in the hope that Fangio would reappear, but eventually it had to go ahead. There was a huge crowd and this proved to be a problem because on the seventh lap the Cuban driver Armando Garcia Cifuentes lost control of his Ferrari exiting a corner by the American Embassy and ploughed into the crowd, killing seven people and injuring 40. The race was stopped and Stirling Moss was declared the winner. Fangio was duly released and told the media that he had been treated well. The kidnap was such big news that CBS paid Fangio to fly to New York to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show. The irony was not missed by Fangio, who remarked that five World Championship had not been enough to get him on the show…
There was, however, a darker side to the story. Two months later Lucero was arrested by Batista’s secret police. He was interrogated for several weeks for information about his operations and then he was shot. Today he is one of the heroes of the Cuban Revolution and a university is named in his
Fangio did not return to Cuba until 1981 when he went as an envoy of Mercedes-Benz to conclude a deal with the Castro government for a supply of trucks. Two of the kidnappers, notably Perez, were by then government ministers… Castro interrupted a meeting to greet the old racing driver, who had unwittingly helped the revolution.